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Down your way: Winning ways from Puddle gang; Birmingham Rowing Club is one of the city's oldest sporting clubs. Ross Reyburn pays it a visit.

Its home at the Edgbaston Reservoir has been dismissively termed "the Puddle". During the war, the Germans bombed their boathouse destroying all their boats. Then in 1955, vandals attacked their boats with axes.

But despite all its setbacks and problems, the Birmingham Rowing Club has survived since 1873 with an impressive list of honours and achievements.

The Birmingham crew winning the Wyfold Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta in 1904 remains the highpoint in its history. But the club boasts an impressive roll-call of internationals, considering it comes from a city without a river worth the name.

It also lays claim to being the world's first rowing club to display advertising on its boat. Olympic oarsman Sir Adrian Cadbury, the club president, donated pounds 1,000 towards the pounds 4,000 cost of a Janousek coxed four for women in 1984. The logo for the Wispa chocolate bar from Cadburys was ingeniously placed on the boat hull to by-pass Amateur Rowing Association advertising regulations.

Today's membership includes a remarkable double for club members Gary Harris and Chris Llewellyn; both serve as directors of the sports' governing body, the Amateur Rowing Association.

Constructed in the years 1825-27 as part of Thomas Telford's canal works, the Edgbaston Reservoir was hailed as "a noble expanse of water" covering some 70 acres in the Victorian era. The earliest city reference to a rowing club was the Birmingham Soho C lub that was there in 1859.

While the reservoir offers the advantage of six boats being able to race side by side, its handicap is the course which is no longer than half-a-mile long and more exposed to winds than a riverside setting.

Welsh international Rhian Prichard provides a telling example of how a city without a river can produce an international rower on a water setting where you are often turning. A Welsh hockey trialist, she moved to the city in 1980 taking up a post as bio- chemistry research associate at the University of Birmingham.

"I was actually taught how to row here - we have to be very clever with our training programme," says Prichard, who came fourth in the double sculls with Rose Davey (Hereford Rowing Club) representing Wales in the 1994 Commonwealth Games in 1994.

"A couple of lads I shared a house with rowed and dragged me here. Once you start rowing, you just seem to get hooked.

"You need a combination of strength and endurance. But you have to have the skill basis, timing, rhythm, balance, as well. One bad stroke can cost you the race."

It did at the Nottingham International Regatta in the 1980s when she fell in the water after "catching a crab".

"I was leading with about 150 metres to go," recalls 40-year-old Prichard, who has won two National Championship gold medals. "I caught a bad stroke and hit a buoy and just fell in."

The decision to admit women in its centenary year in 1973 also meant an upsurge in victories (in 1990 the club had 75 open wins)and international honours through members such as Rhian Prichard (Wales) and Maggie Jameson (England) as well as some half-doz en marriages.

Club internationals include sculler Kenneth Tinegate, who was unbeatable for years at Midland regattas and reached two Henley finals as well as winning a bronze medal in the 1950 Empire Games in the double sculls.

Later, George Justicz in another double sculling combination won four Henley medals between 1960-64 and a gold medal in the 1962 Commonwealth Games while finishing unplaced in the Rome Olympic Games in 1960.

Looking over the windswept reservoir on a winter's day, the stark sight of the long white single-storey boathouse beyond a perimeter fence and the dreary changing rooms building, you sense this is a sport for enthusiasts.

But inside the boathouse is an impressive Aladdin's Cave of some 30 boats racked up and a variety of oars showing how much design has changed over the years.

The Germans managed to destroy the club boathouse and the sea cadets are now on that site. The club was relegated to a shambolic-looking abandoned wooden building used as public toilets for the Billy Butlin fairground in the pre-war days.

Vandalism is nothing new and on October 5, 1955, The Birmingham Evening Despatch reported: "Two ten-year-old boys were stated at Birmingham Juvenile Court today to have entered the premises of Birmingham Rowing Club and smashed the hulls of ten boats wit h choppers. Damage was estimated at pounds 130." In 1968, the existing clubhouse was opened after a pounds 10,000 appeal. Now the club has plans for a more ambitious premises

"What we want is to update the boathouse with more modern changing facilities," says former club captain Peter Veitch, the former Moseley rugby club chairman who with rugby colleagues did much to ensure the rowing club's survival in the lean mid-60s. "We would like a clubroom where we can meet and have training lectures."

The Birmingham Rowing Club will start the New Year by converting from a members' club to a company limited by guarantee. The three new companies are Birmingham Rowing Club Ltd, Birmingham Regatta Ltd to cover the club's annual regatta and Birmingham Boat house Ltd for the management of the boathouse.

"We believe this will make us better equipped for the modern era," says chartered surveyor Peter Veitch, who be one directors of the new company.

"Being a company enables us to be more financially efficient. The demands of rowing can be high.

"If you want to be competitive at a beginner's standard on the local circuit, you have to train four or five times a week," says club coach Gary Harris, who is chairman of the National Coaching Committee that is masterminding a major project introduing r owing to 11-year-olds in state schools.

"We are not in the first rank. But on average over the last 20 years, we have probably been getting about 30 to 40 wins a season, sometimes it has been over 60."

Nationwide, he estimates there are probably about 500 rowing clubs and 30,000 oarsmen.

"Numbers are pretty small bearing in mind we have been the most successful Olympic sport in this country over the last 14 years.

"Rowing has the challenge of being on the water. It is highly skilful and it is complicated by the fact, except for single scullers, they have to be in absolute unison with other members of the crew.

"The feeling of speed really hooks people. It is only 12 miles an hour but it feels very fast. The phrase people use is they can hear the boat sing."

Fellow ARA director Chris Llewellyn also has a national task co-ordinating the events programme.

"On some weekends at the height of the season in May and June, there are about six or seven regattas," he says.

Club members seem to accept defeat in the true spirit of sport with good humour.

The club history recalls the tactic of Dave McClement, club captain from 1973-77, bidding for glory.

"Dave McClement cut down the saxboards on Second City to make the boat go faster, with great alacrity," notes the history.

"It sank at Nottingham."

In the club's centenary year in 1973, Birmingham RC sent its first crew to compete in the Henley fours since 1904. "Three mornings a week we would be down here at seven o'clock," recalls Mr Veitch, who was bow in that crew.

"Then we came three lunchtimes and every night of the week."

How did they do?

"Lost," said Mr Veitch. "We were overtrained."

How do the more exotically-placed river-based rowing clubs of the Midlands view the oarsmen from Birmingham?

"They tend to sneer a bit at the Brummies but we tend to sneer at the country bumpkins in return," said another club member with a smile.

"We revel in the fact we can produce national champions and beat them on their own water from time to time."

The Birmingham Rowing Club has enjoyed a somewhat chaotic history of high points and low points.

But it has a sense of cameraderie and enjoyment that leaves you feeling they'll survive any problems thrown their way.

Finest moment for the boys from Brum

Historic victories: Birmingham Rowing Club's triumphant 1904 Henley victors. From left to right, FC Glover (stroke), RC Lehmann (coach), SH Johnson (3), JW Frame (2) and SE Alldridge (bow & steers).

"Birmingham, the race is yours. I disqualify London for fouling."

This megaphone cry from the umpire at the Henley Regatta in July 1904 signalled Birmingham Rowing Club's greatest triumph for the city without a river had produced four oarsmen who won the Wyfold Challenge Cup.

The great victory was somewhat spoilt by the fact the win came through a disqualification.

But as The Birmingham Daily Mail reported: "To the credit of our representatives, they were absolutely sinless. The history of the titanic struggle is soon told.

"Gradually Birmingham's powerful stroke took the provincial boat forward, whilst Alldridge steered a perfect course, the London bow began to hug his opponent. A series of desperate spurts ensured, neither having any advantage . . . The Birmingham boat wa s going much the faster when a series of bumps occurred, London being right out of its water. Never being allowed to go out to the front, the Birmingham craft passed the post locked with London."

Bow S E Alldridge (10st 13lb), 2 J W Frame (12st 7lb), 3 S H Johnson (12st 9lb) and Stroke F C Glover (12st 3lb) were the four who won the Cup. Mr Johnson was a well-known member of the Handsworth rugby side while Mr Frame played for Moseley showing the strong connections between rowing and rugby and three of the crew belonged to the Birmingham Athletic Club.

Victory was not totally unepexpected at Henley for the club's four-oared crew had enjoyed several years of triumphs dominating the main Midland regattas.

The Birmingham Daily Mail was impressed with the coaching of Mr A B Blakemore as they trained in the Midlands for Henley.

"To see this gentleman coaching from a cycle on our reservoir banks is a remarkable acrobatic feat," said the newspaper. "Now an order 'Finish your stroke N2' then a sudden sprint round a clump of trees to get alongside the crew, all the time keenly watc hing defects whilst dodging a multitude of scorching cyclists."

The crew then spent a fortnight on the Thames coached by R C Lehmann, one of England's top experts.

The trip was trumpeted thus in the Birmingham Daily Mail on June 23, 1904: "This season local athletes have thrown down the gauntlet to the cream of Great Britain.

"They will be pitted against the best amateur oarsmen to be found. For a city without a river to win a classic race at Henley would indeed cause a sensation: but this is what the four young men are giving up their summer holidays to attempt."
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Author:Reyburn, Ross
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jan 16, 1999
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