In 1860, the City of London Rowing Club was founded by a small group, chiefly clerks and salesmen in the city rag trade. They based themselves in Putney at Simmons Boathouse (where Chas Newens Marine is now situated) and a room at the Red Lion Hotel on Putney High Street. Their initial aim was the modest one of ‘organised pleasure or exercise rowing’. It would be 1864 (by which time the club’s name had been changed to Thames Rowing Club) before a growing interest in competition led to the club’s first recorded win, in a race against the Excelsior Boat Club of Greenwich.
But from these small beginnings would grow one of the largest and most successful rowing clubs in Britain.
In 1870 the club won at Henley Royal Regatta for the first time, taking the Wyfold Challenge Cup from the Oscillators Club of Surbiton and the Oxford Etonians in a race that, according to the Rowing Almanack, was ‘a pretty hollow affair, the Thames crew winning as they pleased from first to last’.
This early period was the time of the great Victorian amateur. Many Thames members were keen on all sports and the club itself also had an influence beyond rowing.
From 1866, Thames organised cross-country races around Wimbledon Common and Richmond Park as part of the oarsmen’s winter training. These are generally accepted as the first open cross-country events to have taken place in Britain. One eventual result was the foundation of Thames Hare & Hounds, the first cross-country club, which would itself go on to an illustrious history and an important role in the birth of the Amateur Athletics Association.
Another addition to rowing training was boxing, with a ring frequently set up in the hall at the clubhouse. George Vize, a member of five winning crews at Henley, became amateur heavyweight champion of Britain in 1878 and a founder member of the Amateur Boxing Association.
Over the next 20 years, Thames had its first great flowering. The club recorded 22 wins at Henley by 1890, including four victories in the most prestigious event, the Grand Challenge Cup for eights. With the completion of a spacious clubhouse on Putney Embankment in 1879, Thames was established as a mainstay of amateur rowing.
Fairbairn was an Australian graduate of Cambridge, with boundless charisma and innovative – although highly controversial – views on training and technique. Fairbairn rowed successfully at Thames in the 1880s while studying law, before returning home to Australia to manage the family farm. Settling permanently in London some years later, he became a renowned coach at both Thames and Jesus College, Cambridge. He was a major influence on the sport in general: founding the Head of the River Race; corresponding widely with coaches across Europe and further afield; writing a number of books on rowing and coaching; and becoming generally accepted as the father of modern rowing.
Under his tutelage in the 1920s, Thames reached new heights. Ironically though, still greater achievements were to come for TRC following Fairbairn’s departure to London RC in 1926 after a titanic row with his fellow coach Julius Beresford, ‘the Old Berry’.
Berry took over as head coach and, continuing Steve’s work, for in spite of their arguments they had very similar ideas of rowing, Thames won four events at Henley in two successive years, 1928 and 1929. No club has replicated this feat since.
At the same time, Thames was home to Britain’s greatest ever single sculler, Julius Beresford’s son Jack. Jack Beresford won silver at the 1920 Amsterdam Olympic Games in an epic race with Jack Kelly, before going one better with gold in Paris in 1924. He won the Diamond Challenge Sculls at Henley four times and the Wingfield Sculls for the amateur championship of Great Britain a record seven times.
Then, with Thames crews, he won three further Olympic medals: silver in the eight in Amsterdam, 1928; gold in the coxless four in Los Angeles, 1932; and gold in the double scull in Berlin, 1936. It would be 60 years before Steve Redgrave bettered his record.
In the decades following the Second World War, like many British clubs Thames struggled to cope with the increasing professionalisation of international rowing coupled with waves of social change. Although success never completely disappeared, the club reached a low ebb in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with its role and future very much in doubt. It was to be a long road back to greatness.
Women at Thames
In early 1973, Thames captain John Levy received a request from the United Universities Women’s Boat Club seeking accommodation for two eights and a four at TRC. To Levy and other enlightened members of the club committee this seemed to present a great opportunity at a time when Thames was short of members and money.
Of course, to some other members the idea of women in the clubhouse was appalling. Fortunately for TRC’s future, Levy, Freddie Page and other ‘progressives’ were wily in dealing with this opposition. At a Special General Meeting held on 16 May 1973, the club resolved by a majority to admit women to all classes of membership. Club legend has it that many of the backwoodsmen had not noticed that the meeting had been scheduled for the unusually early time of 6:45pm – and so they missed the crucial votes. UUWBC moved their boats to Thames, joined en masse, and became the first women at Thames.
Although Thames was by no means the first women’s club in London, it soon became the powerhouse – unmatched by any other club in Britain, perhaps in the world. Thames women represented Great Britain at every Olympic Games from Los Angeles to Beijing – and in 2000, 2004 and 2008 they returned with medals.
While lottery funding, early talent identification and the move of the national team to Caversham mean that the role of clubs in international rowing has diminished, Thames remains a key player in women’s rowing.
Since the founding of Henley Women’s Regatta in 1987, the Club has won there over 50 times. At Henley Royal Regatta, alongside many wins in composite crews, Thames won the highly competitive Remenham Challenge Cup for women’s eights outright in 2005. Recent wins include the Head of the River Race in 2012, senior coxed fours at Henley Women’s in 2015 and intermediate club eights at Henley Women’s in 2010 and 2014.
Thames women also represent their country regularly at the annual Home International Regatta.
TRC’s ambitions in women’s rowing remain high, with spending on dedicated professional coaching and a boat fleet every bit as modern as the men’s.
The return of the men
Over the past 25 years, Thames has returned to prominence in men’s rowing. Steady improvement from the late 1990s onwards culminated in an emphatic and highly emotional win in the Wyfold Challenge Cup for club coxless fours at Henley Royal Regatta in 2003 – the first Thames win at Henley in 47 years, and 133 years after Thames first came to prominence by winning the very same trophy.
Finals appearances in the Wyfold and the Britannia Challenge Cup followed in 2005 and the club took another Wyfold win in 2006.
From 2010, the focus moved to the quest to win the Thames Challenge Cup for club eights. It was back in 1934 that Thames last won the event, and both 1988 and 2001 had seen the club lose in the final. The frustration was to continue, with losses in the semi-finals in 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014, and in the final in 2012.
Finally in 2015, coach Ben Lewis (in his second year at the club) took the men through a superb season. At the Head of the River Race, the first eight won the Vernon Trophy, for the fastest Tideway club, for the first time since the 1960s. The club also won the Intermediate 3 and Novice pennants.
At Henley, TRC qualified a record four eights for the Thames Cup – but importantly the first of these won the event, beating Rudern, Tennis und Hockey Club Bayer Leverkusen, Germany in the final.
Significantly, the majority of this crew had been in losing crews in previous years – the difference being Ben Lewis’s ability to get them training and performing at a higher level.
The following year saw four of the 2015 Thames Cup crew enter the Visitors’ Challenge Cup. Early-season results showed they were competitive but they steadily progressed through the rounds to face University of California, Berkeley, in the final. Cal were the favourites and got out to a lead of just over a length, but the Thames crew held on and piled on the pressure in the closing stages. Cal caught a crab, veered towards the booms and hit them, leaving Thames to take the win.
In 2017 Thames qualified three crews for the Thames Challenge Cup, plus one in both the Britannia and Wyfold Challenge Cups. In the open events we had crews in the Silver Goblets & Nickalls and the new women’s pairs and double sculls events.
By Saturday the Thames Cup A and B crews and the Britannia and Wyfold fours were both still racing. The Britannia crew lost to a strong NSR Oslo outfit by 1/2 a length, and the Wyfold four to Sport Imperial – both Oslo and Imperial went on to win the finals.
Thames B beat Agecroft in their semi-final and there was then a tense wait for the Thames A semi against Leander. On Friday the crew had only just hung on to beat NSR Oslo but on Saturday they nailed it, stretching clear by Remenham and setting up a Thames-Thames final in the Thames (at Henley-on-Thames).
The occasion was marked by some unashamedly partisan on-course commentary, a launch full of Thames blazers, and ultimately a straightforward win by Thames A.
In 2018 the pressure was on to repeat the Thames Cup win but also secure a victory in one of the other club events. The Thames Cup A crew was clearly one of the fastest in the competition and comfortably dispatched opponent after opponent, culminating in a 2 3/4 verdict over NSR Oslo in the final.
The Britannia A crew had had a good season but the field was tight and when they reached the final they knew their young opponents from Molesey would be tough competitors. After one of the races of the regatta, Thames triumphed by 1/2 length in a new course record time, securing the club’s first ever Britannia win.