Sharpe was truly a Lancaster man and fought for the pre-eminence of the town, spending most of his life there as an architect and owner of the Phoenix Foundry, a Port Commissioner, a town councillor and Mayor with special concern for sanitary reform in the town and participating in most activities available at the time. He was the ‘first projector’ of the North Western Railway and its first secretary.
Of vital importance to us was his rowing background acquired at Cambridge and, imbued with the sporting spirit, he first joined the Lancaster Cricket Club and, a year later, in 1842, established the Lancaster Rowing Club.
Before embarking upon the early history of this institution, we might look for a while at Lancaster during the period to gain some perspective on the sporting scene in existence then. As Baines noted in his ‘History of Lancashire’ published in 1825, the town was populated to a great extent by the ‘gentry of the old school’ and these congregated in the town for a variety of reasons, not the least being its tranquil riverside setting. Other factors worth quoting were the ‘clean air, pure water, good schools, four circulating libraries, efficient police force and the quarterly assizes’.
The municipal reforms of 1835 brought a Liberal Town Council but this victory proved short lived and there was a rapid re-establishment of the Tory/Anglican rule in 1840- 41. There was a strong identification of most of the Lancaster elite with this rule. The sporting and social scene reflected this in the resurgence of the Lancaster Hunt in 1842 and the establishment of the Cricket and Rowing Clubs which augmented the long established John 0′ Gaunt Bowmen. Edmund Sharpe lived in one of the largest riverside houses at Halton Hall and was already the proud owner of two 4-oared cutters, the ‘Ariadne’ and the ‘Lotus’, and he made these over to the new rowing club at the modest price of £40 on September 20th, 1842.
The first secretary of the new club was Arthur Hansbrow, the Governor of Lancaster Castle, and the original membership consisted of twenty-one of the leading citizens who were all members of other notable town clubs such as the Lancaster Literary and Philosophical Society.
Typical of the aquatic sports of the times were the locally run regattas incorporating a variety of river borne and riverside entertainments. The best known of these was ‘Snatchems Sports’, held at the Golden Ball public house on the north bank of the Lune estuary – so-named after the press gangs who snatched unwary seamen there. A typical day’s events at the sports would be: a sailing match for open boats, a 4-oared match, a punt race, a flat boat race, a wrestling match, a foot race, a wheelbarrow race, a quoiting match and a ‘swarming up the maypole for a new hat’.
A few years later in 1845, a. member of the rowing club was to remark on attending the event that ‘there were the usual number of attendants and the races were, as usual, mismanaged’. It is interesting to note that all events at the sports were for cash prizes.
At another such regatta at Morecambe Bay, there was a ‘four oared gig match for amateurs’ and surprisingly the ‘Grace Darling Prize to be rowed for by women’. These local regattas in which fishermen competed date back to very early in the century and notice is made of one on August 1st 1804. The problem with all these events as far as the gentlemen amateurs were concerned was the lack of proper organisation and rules and a contemporary comment upon the Manchester and Salford Regatta of 1846 might serve to condemn all such sports, it being ‘as usual, a blackguard, disreputable affair got up by a set of publicans and garden owners for their own particular benefit’.
This state of affairs was not acceptable to the gentlemen of the new Lancaster Rowing Club and in 1843 they began to think about giving new life to the existing Lancaster Regatta at which for several years local aquatic man had raced boats but always on ‘on so paltry a scale that instead of a day of amusement and recreation the time was spent principally in riot and drunkenness’. In pursuance of this intention the club issued the following advertisement on 24th August 1843.
The success of the regatta stirred the club with enthusiasm and a week later a resolution was passed that the Lancaster Canal Company should be approached for permission to use land near the aqueduct for the construction of a boat- house ‘commodious with dock for boats and a room over it for meetings and for the convenience of members in changing; also that a man be employed to take charge of the boats and that he shall live and be on the spot to attend members who come to practice’. Until such time as a new site could be found the rowing club maintained a room at the Anchor Tavern on the quayside where the boats were kept sometimes in local warehouses and sometimes tied up and open to the elements. Unfortunately, the proposed site near the aqueduct failed to materialise and the second regatta, like the first, took place on the tidal stretch of the river starting from the quay below the Castle Hill.
‘The second Lancaster Regatta was in every respect more important than the regatta of last year’ so club minutes report, ‘the club had made their first step and it would never be creditable to retrograde while it was possible to progress’. The number of peopIe attending was immense with the road on the Skerten side of the river being entirely occupied by carriages. The first ‘foreign’ crew from Mersey R.C. was entered but to no avail since it lost in the first round. In those days the course lay downstream from the Custom House to the infamous Snatchems, around a buoy in the middle of the stream and back to the start, a good two miles and accomplished in immensely heavy 4-oared cutters in twelve minutes, comparing very favourably with a probable ten minutes in today’s advanced craft.
In the meantime, further enquiries were made to obtain ‘leave from the Lords of Skerton, for use of waste land above Skerton Mill to build a boathouse upon’ and a share system was floated to pay for it, guaranteeing to pay the shareholders £8 per annum for five years. Even while the search for a permanent site continued, the club competed at various regattas and was successful at Fleetwood, Poulton (Morecambe) and Chester.
Travelling, of course, was facilitated by Edmund Sharpe the club Chairman, in his capacity as Secretary of the North Western Railway Company. Finally, the club managed to secure the land at Skerton and the club minutes of August 1845 record that the ‘committee regret being compelled to abandon the pleasant looks and civil words of the blooming maidens and minstrels of the Royal Blue Anchor’. The new site, immediately above the weir on the stretch of river known as Halton Water, is the present site of the Lancaster, John O’Gaunt Rowing Club to whose story we shall come presently.
It was from this new site that the boats were launched for the third Lancaster Regatta on Tuesday 23rd September 1845. The new course was upstream from the aqueduct, around a buoy opposite Halton Hall and back. The Skerton side of the river above the aqueduct formed a natural amphitheatre for spectators and two large marquees were erected on the site from where champagne and venison pastries were dispensed. The fife and drums of the boys from the National School provided entertainment and ‘the noble aqueduct bore crowds of gazers and every point of view was amply occupied’. The event was clearly the social happening of the season and Mr Alison of Carus Lodge, Mr Swainson of Halton Hall and the Reverend Mackereth of Halton Rectory each entertained parties of friends during the day. Mr Sharpe, the cox of the Lancaster crew, won a £20 bet that they would beat any Liverpool crew and £10 was duly spent on champagne at the first of a long line of Regatta dinners held at the King’s Arms Hotel. This first celebration was presided over by the High Sheriff of Lancashire and the company of some sixty gentlemen finally departed at a very late hour following the host’s contention that he had never sat down with so merry and noisy a party.
Some indication of the activity caused in the town by the regatta can be gleaned from a report in the local paper. The description could come straight from Dickens, citing the unusual influx of strangers to the town, the appearance of wager boats in the streets, last-minute visitors off the Tuesday morning trains, the bustling scene at the Royal Oak where the committee endeavoured in ‘beehive conditions to put the final stroke to the day’s arrangements’ and the correspondent’s rush for transport to the regatta site securing at last a seat on the roof of an omnibus alongside the crew from Chester.
The regatta of 1846 was important for the exception taken by the organising committee to a Manchester crew containing known tradesmen which had won an amateur race. The stewards intended to disqualify them but wrote for clarification to the editor of the well known sporting journal, Bells Life in London, receiving this reply:
There was great controversy over a disqualified Lancaster crew at the 1848 regatta and this heralded a break in the popularity of the event. It was decided not to hold the event in 1849 as the expenses of the previous three regattas had considerably exceeded the subscriptions. A long period of little activity followed and from 1850 to 1858 there were no regattas but the following year there was a revival and the Mayor requested the principal businesses of the town to grant a half day holiday. Two military bands were engaged and a grandstand erected on the aqueduct. Despite these preparations, or perhaps because of them, the event was a financial disaster and there were no more regattas from then until 1866.
The apparent lack of sporting activity mirrored one of the periodic declines in Lancaster’s economic fortunes since the cotton trade suffered a severe setback during the 1850s and 1860s. It was during this slump that Joseph Storey and James Williamson were able to lay the foundations of their empires by buying up stock and plant at depressed market prices. This whole period was one of transition as the traditional Lancaster industries of shipping, shipbuilding, sugar refining, candle making and the production of sailcloth, rope and twine dwindled due to the removal of seagoing trade to Liverpool and new engineering plants began producing table-baize and linoleum. The economic changes brought about a social change which had already occurred earlier elsewhere in Lancashire, namely the growing importance of the labouring class.
In order to understand what happens next in the history of rowing in Lancaster, we have to look beyond the economic and social scenes to the political situation that grew from them. It had been known for many years that ‘with rare exceptions, corrupt practices had for a long time prevailed at contested elections for members to serve in parliament for the Borough of Lancaster’ and in the elections of July 1865 which featured a straight contest between Tory and Liberal candidates, the corruption was so manifest that a Royal Commission was set up to inquire into its sources.
Its findings strain credulity: each party was found to have spent some £7,000 on bribing voters and in all the Commission found that ‘843 persons were guilty of bribery at the said election by receiving money or other valuable considerations for having given or to induce them to give their votes’. A further 139 persons were heavily implicated. The Commission opined that perhaps £ 700 for each party would have been adequate for a fairly run election. Matching rowing club membership lists with those implicated in the Commission’s report, it is obvious that rowing club members had been bribed and that in some instances were responsible for the bribery.
The Commission’s report was published in the early part of 1867 and by August of the same year the original Lancaster R.C. had ceased to exist and two new rowing clubs had been established: a new Lancaster Rowing Club and the John O’Gaunt Rowing Club. The latter took over the boathouse and many of the boats of the old club whilst the former built new premises near the aqueduct on the other side of the river. It is interesting to note that the minute books of both clubs covering this period are missing and so no overt reference to the split is available. Such an omission adds further circumstantial evidence to the conclusion that it was acute political antipathy within the original club which caused a rift and one further endorsed by the inclusion in both new club rule books that ‘no political discussions shall be allowed’. The original constitution of Lancaster Rowing Club was very much that of a gentlemen’s assembly and in the Lancaster of the 1840s this served the members well. However, the Lancaster of the 1860s had changed sufficiently for older traditions to be questioned and the initial Tory membership re-established the new Lancaster R.C. well away from the infant, predominantly Liberal and cosmopolitan John 0′ Gaunt R.C.
The following year of 1868 saw the first mention of the famous ‘Duffer’ crew from John O’Gaunt R.C. This crew was undoubtedly the finest crew that the Lune had ever boated winning at all events open to it in provincial regattas and narrowly losing in the final of the Stewards Challenge Cup at Henley Regatta in 1870. They were the first crew in the country to experiment with the principal of sliding seats by having larger than normal seats fitted in their boat, lightly greasing their shorts and sliding up and down on the seat. Bells Life in London commented on their rowing at Henley in 1870, that they went ‘like a piston and a pair of scissors , but lost out to the longer, smoother stroke of the Oxford Etonians in the final. Inspired by the Duffer crew, the club coined the phrase ‘Gaunt to the fore’ and this was always quoted with particular referance to superiority over Lancaster R.C.
Although the John O’Gaunt Club after the split was very successful in competition, its membership remained shaky as the Lancaster club had claimed the lion’s share of existing members with its total soaring to 136 after the construction of its new boathouse on the south bank near the aqueduct. In 1872, subscriptions totalled £70 and by 1874 the boathouse was paid for and ‘now belonged in equal shares to both proprietary and subscribing members’. John O’Gaunt R.C., having taken over the original boathouse at Skerton, was facing the expense of maintaining a relatively old wooden building with few members to call for support. At the same time, the annual rental had risen from 5 shillings (25p) in 1845 to £10 in 1876 and in this year the club had to remove its boats from the premises to a warehouse since it could not afford to pay. This marks the lowest point in the club’s history and ironically, the highest point in that of Lancaster R.C. It is at this juncture that James Williamson, the future Lord Ashton and current leader of Lancaster’s new found manufacturing prosperity, came to the rescue. In buying the whole of the riverside property on part of which stood the boathouse, he leased the land and building to the club for 2/6d. (12.5p) per annum.
This proved to be the saving of the club in providing security and the possibility of better things to come and was made legally binding in a document of 1904 whose terms ‘provided that as long as the club had 25 subscribing members, the boathouse should belong to it at a nominal rent of 2/6d. payable to the Lancaster Corporation’. Although membership seems not to have increased following this benefaction, a few of the existing and well-to-do members floated some share capital from their own resources and in 1883 the old wooden building was demolished and a stone walled and slate roofed replacement was erected at the cost of £178 15s. 4d.
In ten years the subscribing membership numbered 73 and Councillor Jackson, the club Chairman, could claim with some justification that there ‘was a great future for rowing in the town’ since the situation across the river at Lancaster R.C. was also one of modest prosperity.
For twenty years the regatta had been held only sporadically and had ceased to be the bank holiday attraction of earlier times. It had been replaced by annual club regattas and parochial social gatherings. However, the construction of the new John O’Gaunt boathouse prompted a revival of the main event in 1884 and this continued with something like its old vigour for five years with the prize money in 1886 totalling £200. In 1897 the regatta was again revived in celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and with the exception of 1900 when insufficient entries were received and the war years it has been held every year since.
From this point at the end of the nineteenth century when the two clubs were in roughly comparable situations, it is fascinating to chart their progress step by step through their minute books and annual reports. It is necessary to know that the Lancaster RC. was now situated in an inaccessible location near the aqueduct on land whose owner was not well disposed to the club in contrast the John O’Gaunt RC. whose benefactor, James Williamson, had now become its President.
Mr. John Hatch, one of John O’Gaunt’s founder members, said in 1898 that he had known the club since 1866 when the old Lancaster RC. was divided into two factions and the two present clubs had their beginning and that he might say without fear of contradiction that John O’Gaunt had always been to the fore. The committee of that year, however, made the comment that ‘it would like to see an increase in rowing amongst the younger members’ and across the river the Lancaster club seems to have suffered from the same problem as that year’s report stresses that ‘not a great amount of rowing was done by members’. Immediately we begin to see the malaise that besets all sports clubs at some time or another and that is the disinclination of members to participate competitively in the activity of the club, a disinclination strengthened in rowing by its discomforts and difficulties. In 1907, Gaunt’s secretary, RF.Ewan lamented the lack of competitive activity once more explaining that the majority of members had joined for the social advantages provided by the club and not for the purpose of rowing.
The following year we see that the situation had hardly improved: ‘If our younger members would only come forward and put themselves energetically into the good old sport of rowing we should have no difficulty in regaining the position as one of the leading clubs in the country’ and across at Lancaster RC., the committee regretted that the club’s membership was below average. Just before the Great War, the John O’Gaunt club had 140 members and during the 1913 season won 58 tankards in open competition.
At the same time, Lancaster RC. had 25 members and the committee observed with regret ‘a certain laxity among members and we hope that they will endeavour to make the coming season more noteworthy’. By the following year, John O’Gaunt had to limit membership to 160 and institute a waiting list since the numbers in the club were approaching the accommodation limit of both boats and boathouse.
During the war no Lancaster RC. reports appear at all and the John O’Gaunt reports appear duplicated on poor paper contrasting with their usual pristine presentation. The whole policy of the John O’Gaunt club throughout the war may be summed up in the words ‘Carry On!’ and when the war ended, despite the enlistment of 83 members of whom 10 were killed, the membership stood at the 160 limit. A very emotional occasion occurred at the Skerton boathouse on the evening of 5th July 1921 when the club’s roll of honour was unveiled by the ‘War Captain’ and current Lord Mayor, Alderman Jackson, who had this to say: ‘Everyone whose name was on the list were good lads who took a deep interest in the club which was worth a lot. It created a manly spirit, the very fact that 83 members joined up showed the spirit of the club and the committee had done the right thing in preparing that beautiful and moving memorial to those who died that we might live’.
The membership of 1921 soared to a new club record of 206 and competitive success was enjoyed at York, Northwich and Lancaster Regattas. Meanwhile, across the river, a special club notice went out embodying a special appeal for money to fund repairs and renewals to the boathouse: ‘The Lancaster Rowing Club which was established in 1842 has in the past held a high place in rowing circles; the committee hope that you will assist in placing it once more on a sound basis’. The response to this appeal provided the club with very welcome income and some new members so that the report for 1923 revealed that ‘interest in rowing has been well maintained with 12 new members and two new Fours purchased’. There were then 34 members but this prosperity proved short lived and in 1926 the committee proposed that ‘the club be wound up as an active organisation unless something very unforeseen happens’. The reasons for the club’s precarious position were elicited as the lack of interest in rowing due to other less arduous attractions such as golf and tennis and the inaccessibility of the boathouse owing to the withdrawal of the right of way through neighbouring fields. A public appeal was again launched and new members came forward with the result that the club staggered along until 1931 when the situation was made worse by the imminent necessity of repairing the boathouse with no access to sufficient funds, exactly the problem that John O’Gaunt RC. had faced in 1876. At that time Gaunt had found a friend in James Williamson but Lancaster RC. could find no such support and the committee were ‘unanimously of the opinion that under present conditions it is impossible to carry on’. Magnanimously considering the origins of its misfortunes, the Lancaster club made all its stock available to John O’Gaunt and Gaunt reciprocated by offering its erstwhile rival equal status at the Skerton boathouse, an offer refused since the Lancaster club committee wished to retain the club’s ‘tradition and identity by sinking’.
J. W. Green an old member of John O’Gaunt RC. placed the whole episode in perspective when he remarked that ‘Lancaster Rowing Club might be described as the parent of John O’Gaunt and now the aged parent made a will and bequeathed all to the child’. The remaining active members of the defunct club joined John O’Gaunt and at a special meeting of the club on 19th February 1934, the committee agreed to change its name to the ‘Lancaster, John O’Gaunt RC.’ and so, after 67 years the two clubs were back in name at least under the same roof on the original site.
In retrospect the years immediately preceding the Second World War can be seen as the most successful in the history of the club. The membership never dropped below 200, the income from subscriptions and social events such as the John O’Gaunt Ball held at the Town Hall was always sufficient to cover expenditure and at last there was a senior crew winning all its races. A brand new boat the ‘Lady Ashton’ was bought to encourage the crew to promote further success.
Meanwhile the City of Lancaster Regatta (the town had become a city in 1937) had become one of the outstanding events in the northern rowing calender; indeed the entry of 41 crews in the 1936 regatta was considered by experts to have been ‘the finest day’s entry at Lancaster since inauguration of the event’.
So, the club went to war for the second time better fortified than ever in its history. This time around 60 members enlisted but despite this lack of sporting activity (perhaps because of it!), the membership increased during the war years so that in 1946 there were 232 members and the treasurer thought it wise to increase subscriptions from 15 shillings to 30 shillings (75p to £1.50). In replying to a toast at the annual dinner of 1948, Mr J. Graham, a committee member, probably gave voice to everyone’s thoughts when he maintained that the club ‘had experienced one of the best years in its history, greatly enhancing its reputation. It had a sound committee for managing affairs and was thankful for the staunch support of the older members. The club combines keenness on the river with fellowship on the social side’.
In order to bolster up a virtually non existent junior section at the club, it was decided to admit a rowing section from the Lancaster Royal Grammar School on 29th November 1948. This had been contemplated before but the thought of hordes of boys rampaging through members’ accommodation had not commended itself to some of the older members and the school itself had not been keen on account of the extra expense that would eventually become necessary when boats were purchased. Nevertheless, when the Headship was taken over by Mr R R Timberlake, an old rowing man, and the lack of a junior section became a serious club worry, then the Grammar School section was admitted. It very soon made its mark, putting five crews on the water in the first year and winning in its second season.
The next dozen years were years of consistent competitive success due mainly to scullers, pre-eminent among whom was D.V. Melvin who won everything in all his classes of racing from junior to elite culminating in the English Amateur Championship, the Wingfield Sculls, and international selection. It was, however becoming increasingly apparent that the boathouse was ageing fast and that membership rolls were falling. The crisis that had overcome the Lancaster club was approaching John O’Gaunt; many members were honorary or life members and paid no annual subscription; the old boathouse of1883 was literally crumbling to bits and the process was given every assistance by the idle hands of local children so that it was no wonder that the 1960s opened with talk of a new boathouse.
The City Architect was duly approached and the Town Clerk (himself an ex-secretary of the club) said that the ideal solution would be the construction of a new boathouse on the same site financed by Lancashire County Council and the City Corporation. This new plan gave hope to the members and perhaps lulled them into a false sense of security. The writing was both literally and metaphorically ‘on the wall’ and the ‘plague of vandalism’ mentioned constantly in the minute books, had started. The first mention of serious offences was at a club meeting on 3rd February 1965 when a breaking and entering was discussed. During this period the club played host to another newcomer when the Lancaster University Boat Club requested the use of facilities and from 1964 to 1966 their members used all that were available. In 1966 most of their crews moved up-river to permanent premises in the renovated station buildings at Halton. In the meantime, the club’s other foster child, the Grammar School club, had taken up residence in the old Lancaster RC. boathouse across the river in the shadow of the aqueduct. If John O’Gaunt had been the child of Lancaster RC. then surely, L.U.B.C. and L.R.G.S.B.C. were its grandchildren.
Increasing vandalism followed by declining membership dogged the fortunes of the club throughout the 1960s and 70s and despite the encouragement of various false hopes it became obvious that salvation lay in the hands of its few remaining members. In 1978, with the old boathouse in terminal decline those members buckled down and raised £2,500 in eighteen months, a sum sufficient to justify grant aid from the City Council and regional Sports Council which together with generous help from Mitchells of Lancaster, financed the construction of a new boathouse opened in 1983 exactly a century after its predecessor.
Even during the years of decline, the club continued to enjoy competitive success with the senior crew of 1970 being awarded the prestigious ‘Pop Grant Shield’ as the most successful crew in the North West region and Pauline Jansen gaining selection for the British team at the Moscow Olympics in 1980.
The new boathouse boosted membership and the committee were soon able to buy new boats which created fresh competitive success which in turn again improved membership. In 1985 the L.R.G.S. Boat Club once more became the tenants and in 1987 yet more boats were bought to meet the extra demand, a procedure to be repeated a third time in this the year of the club’s sesqui-centenary. Thus with a new boathouse, a comprehensive stock of new boats and a sound financial base, the club can look forward with confidence to the next 150 years.
The Regatta, which also boasts its 150th birthday this year, has maintained its popularity through the years. Since 1931 it has been staged from the Skerton side of the river, having moved from the inaccessible site of the old Lancaster RC. boathouse. Until 1977 it was hosted by the John O’Gaunt club but due to lack of enclosure space for the increasing number of entries, it was removed in 1978 to the vast expanses of Halton Training Camp, at which precise spot as fate would have it, the first ever regatta above the weir was held in 1845.