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Open Features: Sid Of The River

...My friends and I were a bunch of amphibians; we liked to be in, on or along the river whenever possible....

In this marvelously evocative article Jacqueline Finesilver tells how Sid and seven other river lads hired a boat to compete in the Thames Head of the River race.

When I was a boy in Hammersmith we lived in what remained of Little Wapping, a maze of riverside alleys and yards. We were so close to the river that, when there was a specially high spring tide, it came right in through the door.

My friends and I were a bunch of amphibians; we liked to be in, on or along the river whenever possible. Of course, our parents told us not to swim in the river. So when we did swim in the river we tried to be careful. We kept out of the way of barges and boats and big lumps of wood, and we pushed aside any dead dogs. And we tried not to dive head first onto anything made of concrete or metal.

There was a jetty near an old riverside pub called The Dove which was our diving place. Other groups of boys clambered onto the nearest buttress of Hammersmith Bridge or splashed from an old pier. When we were old enough and strong enough we swam across from the Middlesex to the Surrey side. The strength of the current would sweep us along and make the crossing quite strenuous. It was good.

We had our own creek too, not far from Hammersmith Bridge. A couple of wharves had long ago been built along the banks of this little creek and at high tide, when the water was about sixteen feet deep, barges from Gravesend and Greenwich would sail up it. They didn't carry exotic cargoes – sand and cement and gravel mainly, or bars of lead for the local lead mill. There was a flushing station and a sluice gate at the top end because, as is usually the case in London, the stream which entered The Creek had long ago become a sewer.

So it slid rather muckily into the Thames. And local householders did their bit too, by chucking in any refuse they had handy. It wasn't a pretty sight at low tide. As I said, it was mucky and a bit hazardous. So our fathers threatened us with a good hiding if we swam there. We thought it was worth the risk, though. You can't see our creek now, of course; it was tidily culverted in1936.

We swam, we messed about on the shore, we hopped on and off barges and got shouted at by watermen, we collected driftwood for the home fires. Then, as we got a little older, some of us went rowing whenever we could. We'd scrape together ten shillings to hire a boat and pay our way through the locks and, with blankets, primus and potatoes, we would spend the weekend rowing upriver to pretty places like Chertsey or Windsor, sleeping in the boat and on the bank.

This was all well and good, but one of us, Bill, had ideas and ambitions and a taste for organising things. He decided that we would enter for the Thames Head Of the River Race. We thought he was joking when he came out with this idea. The year was1932 and the HORR had been going for six years - club and university crews came from all over the country and abroad to compete. We weren't in a club and we didn't get to do that much rowing. But Bill said we should give ourselves a club name, stump up the entry fee, hire a boat and see what happened.

He was persuasive, was Bill, so the day of the race found his crew of eight assembled. On ordinary days we were young working lads - an apprentice boxmaker, a trainee mechanic, a hod-carrier, a lad who was learning the ways of the local sewers.... But on this particular day we were the Thameside Boys Rowing Club. We were out to row the four-and-a-quarter miles from Mortlake to Putney on the falling tide and to cut a dash doing it.

Speaking of cutting a dash, I was particularly proud of my shorts. Up until now I'd always made do with an old pair of my sister’s navy bloomers with the leg-elastic removed. But for this great occasion I had acquired the real thing, though truly they were on the large side. And I was wearing my best vest - not a hole in sight. We were all wearing our best vests, some with sleeves that hung down to the elbows. Bill cast his eye over us and said, ‘So, what we’re here for is to enjoy a good hard row and do as well as we can.' No arguing with that.

We collected our boat from the yard. It was not exactly impressive but it was the one we could afford to hire (seven shillings) - a leaky clinker-built trojan, with heavy old oars and cracked benches. Other crews had elegant ‘best boats’ built from pristine lengths of cedar and spruce. We didn’t care. And we didn't care that our cox was a thirteen year old shrimp; he knew the river and he was only charging us a shilling. We crossed over to the Surrey side of the river and began our row up to the start at Mortlake.

Unfortunately, as we approached Barnes railway bridge, disaster struck. One of our oars snapped. We didn’t have anyone we could call on for a spare and there wasn’t much time before we would have to present ourselves to the race marshals. After getting ourselves this far would we have to withdraw? Bill directed us to pull alongside a boathouse where he sprang out and loped up the foreshore. Within minutes he’d employed his powers of persuasion. Someone with a kind heart lent us an oar. So we were on our way again to Mortlake where we waited our turn, stationed between two crews from Cambridge University. Then we were off.

To be honest, I don’t remember much about the race itself. Our strategy was simple: to pull long hard strokes in the fastest water for the whole distance. Pulling long and hard – we were good at that. When we really got going I felt we could have swept our way down to the sea. But we finished as required, at Putney, mighty pleased with ourselves. It was as I rose in triumph from my bench that I became aware of my shorts. They were not flapping round my knees, as before, but were anchored to my buttocks by two enormous blisters.

Bill limped off to find out our finishing time from the operators of the Synchronised Chronograph. He returned with good news; we’d rowed the course in just over twenty-four minutes. This was certainly a lot slower than the winners of the Clinker Class, Magdalen College, Oxford. Still, nothing to be ashamed of, we thought. Then Bill told us the bad news - we’d been disqualified. What?

WHAT? WHY? Well, it seems we'd been incorrectly dressed. Some of us had been wearing the wrong sort of vests. Sleeveless. We should all have had our shoulders covered up. I reckon Bill must have realised this as soon as we'd arrived but he'd decided we should just go ahead. So he'd reminded us what we were mainly there for - to enjoy a good bit of rowing.

And we had. We entered the race again in following years. Properly dressed and faster.

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