The History of Lea Rowing Club
Lea Rowing Club was founded in 1980 by the members of five rowing clubs then active on the Springhill site. Crowland, City Orient, Gladstone Warwick, and Britannia rowing clubs merged with the only club for women, Stuart Ladies, pooling their resources to create an open club for all ages, continuing a tradition of rowing on the Lea that can be traced back for almost two hundred years.
Ever since the river was “canalled” in the 1780’s to improve London trade with Hertfordshire and Essex, rowing boats plied its length. When leisure time and public transport combined in the 1820’s to open up East London’s only water park, nothing could stop the growth of rowing as a sport. Where the river was accessible by road, docks were built at Springhill and above and below today’s Lea Bridge. Boatyards were established and by the 1840’s derived most of their trade from pleasure boats, attracting new boat builders and hirers to the area.
Today’s Springhill boathouse site would have been recognisable in the 1850’s when an entrepreneur called John Verdon built his boathouse next door to converted farm cottages that now make up the café and club accommodation. Successive generations built, sold and hired boats from the site and eventually passed over the business in 1903 to Jacob Tyrrell whose name remains associated with the listed building. Then, at the same time as the Lea Valley Regional Park was established, the rowing clubs present, including the five Lea R.C. founders, took over the site on a lease from Hackney Borough Council.
Regatta on the river Lea, 1963. Crowland vs City Orient racing at regatta on the site of current Lea Rowing club, in front of Tyrrell’s Boathouse.
Do you know? The sister of Tony White (former Club president) was ABBA’s UK manager. In 1976, the year their single Money, Money, Money was released, ABBA generously purchased two boats for City Orient, one of Lea R.C.’s predecessor clubs.
Competitive rowing on the Lea started with wager and professional races sponsored usually by local publicans, eager for trade, such as the Anchor and Hope, the Prince (now Princess) of Wales, and the Kings Head and Beehive pubs (both now closed). The Lea became a centre for working men’s sport when many local companies and religious organisations established clubs based at the Springhill and Lea Bridge boatyards. Amateur clubs (whose members did not do manual work) flourished too from the 1860’s but their importance declined when Lea clubs became a major part of the newly formed association of open amateur clubs in 1891, the National Amateur Rowing Association. There followed a 60-year rivalry with the Amateur Rowing Association to eliminate class distinctions in the sport; the Lea clubs made a major contribution to the changes that eventually came.
Women’s rowing also has a long history on the Lea. Stuart Ladies RC was founded in the 1950’s, taking its name from a club set up in the 1920’s by Yvonne Stuart, who in her turn had split from an earlier successful club Cecil Ladies RC, founded in 1914. The earliest women’s rowing on the river was practised and encouraged by the women in the boat builders’ families. By the 1890’s it was commonplace, if not well organised, and regular races were held. The earliest local newspaper credit goes to the Upper Clapton Ladies Rowing club in October 1895. Little is known about them except to say that this was the year before Doctor Furnivall founded the ‘first’ Ladies sculling club in Hammersmith.
The clubs that formed Lea R.C. had been independent for many years, racing locally and on the national stage. Despite accumulating many trophies and representing and contributing to crews from the home nations and Britain it became clear that the future required a larger more integrated club to provide opportunities at all levels of the sport. Also, the challenges of building and maintaining a competitive training centre demanded a totally professional approach. On the river, Lea R.C. soon achieved many of the competitive aims, overcoming generations of interclub rivalry on the way. Creating the genuinely open club that it is today, and establishing financial security for its structure has taken another 30 years. The club has succeeded through the efforts of those whose dream it was in 1980, together with those who have been attracted to the club since, and contribute so much to it.
More than 180 clubs have regarded this part of the river as their home over the years but the challenges for mostly local working-class members were enormous. Without the backing of their employers, trade associations, churches or charities they could not survive. Conditions on the river itself were at times horrendous with sewer and chemical pollution which has still not been completely eliminated. Flood control was gradually implemented but frequent events destroyed buildings and equipment. The first world war tore the clubs apart as so many of their members were called to fight. With industrial East London a major target, the second world war destroyed a large part of the buildings and equipment.
Rowing survived and flourished because it was based on local and family connections. Family names can be traced back through generations from members of the five founding Lea R.C. clubs. Boat builders like Tyrrell and Radley, who had premises on the opposite bank, provided continuity and equipment too. Long before the regional park was established the River Lea provided an escape from urban pressures in nearby boroughs and an unrivalled outlet for energy. Many who look back on their childhood and teens at the club attribute much of their later success to its influence on their lives. Hopefully this legacy will remain and serve others in turn.
Dick Anderson, author of Springhill: Two Centuries of River Lea Rowing
Hall of Fame
Lea R.C. has produced successful male and female athletes from junior through to senior age groups over the years. Many medals have been won at national and international championships. Our Hall of Fame chronicles our proudest achievements, including junior and senior athletes who have competed with GB and England teams nationally and internationally.