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The boathouse is on a beautiful, historic stretch of the river Thames. It has recently been the subject of a major refurbishment.
Many thanks to Mrs Marianne Bradnock, the school archivist, for her extensive research into the history of the boathouse, for preparing the exhibition at the "Push the Boat Out" dinner in January 2012 and for the summary below.
KGS rowing has its origins in the Kingston Borough Regatta of 30th July 1890, the first in which the Grammar School was invited to participate. The race, between two crews from the Classical and Modern sides of the School, was in two four-oared boats and followed a course “from the Island to a point opposite the Sun Hotel”. Both crews wore dark blue caps, with badges of silver braid. The Modern side won, one of the two boats used in the race was afterwards purchased by the School, and the Boat Club was born. When the Headmaster W E Inchbald proclaimed only two years later that “boating is carried on with much zest and perseverance”, he could not have imagined that this would still be the case 120 years later.
It was to be 90 years, however, before the KGSBC would have its own boathouse. In the years before the First World War boats were hired from the long established Turks boatyard, affording only limited opportunities for practice. In 1913 a subscription list for the first School boat was launched, and from 1919 the Boat Club used Turks’ own boathouse. A year later it moved to the Kingston Rowing Club Island at Raven’s Ait, and the start of an association with KRC which was to last until 1980. The School’s rowers agreed that “shower-baths, river-dips, plenty of elbow room and adequate washing accommodation are a few of the benefits that we have obtained by the move, and we may justifiably hope that the improved state of affairs will lead to some better results in our races.” In 1926 the KRC’s President, Old Kingstonian R C Sherriff, presented the prizes at the annual regatta.
1958: The Land is Acquired
With Sherriff’s support the Boat Club flourished. By 1957 there were over 70 members, with their own uniform and an annual dinner. For the first time a crew rowed in the Schools Head of the River. The following year, having already financed a number of boats named after a string of successful plays, Sherriff purchased a piece of land at the end of Aragon Avenue in Thames Ditton for the purpose of building a School boathouse. Planning permission was obtained.
1961 The First Plans
Sketch of proposed boathouse 1961
It is not clear why it took 20 years to build the boathouse. The 1961 appeal to buy playing fields at Ditton Field included a sketch of the proposed rowing facility as it would be seen from the river. “The ground floor holds the boat-racks and all the usual impedimenta: above are changing rooms, showers and club room. The whole effect is dignified, yet cheerful.” (Appeal Brochure, 1961).
Page from 1961 Appeal Brochure
However it did not eventuate, and in March 1963 the Master in Charge of Rowing, R J H Gilmour, recorded in his notebook that
Kingston R.C. and Tiffin School B.C. are building a new Boat-house at back of power station. Where does that leave us – on the towpath? Told H.M. (who told K. Kelly etc) impressing upon him the need for urgency. Either:-
(i) Build our B.H. very quickly
(ii) Ask KRC and TSBC if we can join their effort
(iii) Ask if we can be tenants at the new Boat House
Fortunately for the Boat Club the third option was pursued. At the official opening of Ditton Field in September 1965 the hope was expressed that donations would continue to flow in, so that Stage 2 of the development, including the building of the boathouse, might not be too long delayed.
A New School, and a New Boathouse?
Later in 1965 the Governors announced their intention to build a new School on the land it had acquired at Ditton Field, and the sketch plans, which formed part of the appeal launched in 1973, show the boathouse site in the corner. It would be several more years before the plans were abandoned, and in the meantime the Boat Club moved into the “luxurious” new KRC boathouse in Canbury. In 1973 the annual rent paid to KRC was £400.
Bob Sherriff died in November 1975. Having bought many boats and oars, devoted countless hours to coaching the 1st VIII, and entertained rowers in style to tea and the theatre, his final act of generosity to the Boat Club was to make provision in his will for the building of a boathouse on the land he had bought nearly twenty years earlier.";
The Boathouse is Built
The new plans were approved in 1978 and building began. By the summer term of 1979 the School’s boats had been transferred from the Kingston Rowing Club and the new clubhouse was in use. A pontoon for launching boats was built, and with enthusiastic uptake from the third form and the arrival of girls, numbers in the Boat Club soon doubled.
The Boat Club report in The Kingstonian of Autumn 1979 records “the saga of the new boathouse… Compromises with the local residents have ensured that it is too small and lacks some facilities, but it is still a very good building, and will allow us more scope in the future.“ The first few months saw some teething troubles “and the little defects (such as the main door falling off) were rectified. The main problem was fitting a quart into a pint pot and the racking was adjusted many times in order to squeeze in the increased number of boats.” The fire which delayed the completion of the building was not thought to be arson, but the boathouse was plagued for some time by petty acts of vandalism recorded in The Kingstonian: “such unlikely events as the theft of the Telephone (sic), the lights of the boat trailer (thrice), the casting adrift of the tub pair (four times), and the removal of the trailer coupling and jockey wheel”.
Official Opening, 8 June 1980
None of these initial frustrations could dampen the official opening of the new boathouse. It “was performed in splendid style by Roy Plomley of ‘Desert Island Discs’ fame, but more importantly an associate of Bob Sherriff and a staunch Kingston R.C. member. The day was very fine and many will remember the vast spread of food provided by the parents and the strains from the ‘Sound of Music’ wafting over the water from Mr Crossland’s strolling players, somewhat precariously seated on the pontoon, the occasional wrong note being caused by passing washes from river cruisers.” The remaining funds from the Sherriff bequest were spent on a minibus and trailer for the exclusive use of the Boat Club.
June 8th also saw the launching of the coxed IV ‘No Leading Lady’, named after Sherriff’s autobiography and purchased with money raised from the Boat Club’s first sponsored row. The previous November five boys had rowed 205 miles through 201 locks over 6 days, from Sharpness in the Severn Valley to near Tower Bridge on the Thames, raising nearly £1,400. The crew of the new boat fittingly rowed off to the sound of the Dambusters’ March. Also launched on that auspicious day was a new organisation to be called the Sherriff Club, set up as a focus for parents, Old Kingstonians and other interested parties to support KGS rowing.
Developments since 1979
Something of a compromise when it was first built, the boathouse has since seen a succession of modifications and improvements. These have been funded in part by the royalties received from performances of Sherriff’s most famous play, Journey’s End, and by the tireless fundraising efforts of the Sherriff Club, veterans and others. In the mid 80s the landing stage was enlarged; girls’ changing rooms were added; in 1996 a single storey extension at the rear provided a second boat store; new fencing was added in 2003 and again in 2006; and over a weekend in June 2004 parents carried out a ‘makeover’ of the interior.
The ‘Rowers’ appeal was launched in March 2004 by Olympic gold medallist and Old Kingstonian James Cracknell. The planned development included state of the art pontoons, a new slipway and landscaping around the boathouse. That September the sponsored row, now a four-yearly fixture, raised over £40,000 for the appeal and for charity. Over seven weeks in the 2005 summer holidays the outside area was transformed, making the river frontage more accessible and allowing rowers to get on and off the water more quickly and easily. With Boat Club membership at a record 120 this was a very welcome improvement to the facilities. The Boat Club continues to go from strength to strength, with membership now at over 150.
2012: The Refurbishment
In 2012 the boat house underwent an extensive £250,000 refurbishment, including adding new showers and changing rooms, extending the first floor and adding viewing space.
2012 Sophie Hosking Opens Boathouse
On Saturday 29th September over 150 guests, including alumni, rowers, parents, neighbours and local councillors, gathered at the KGS Boathouse to view the renovations completed over the summer and watch Old Kingstonian and Olympic Gold Medallist Sophie Hosking cut the ribbon on the new extension and declare the Boathouse open.
An archive display featured photos of the Boathouse opening in 1980 and school pictures of Sophie and fellow KGS Olympic rower James Cracknell. Sophie made a point of chatting to as many of the pupils as she could, showing off her (surprisingly heavy) medal and posing for many pictures. The Head thanked the donors, rowers and parents for their support for the project.
Addressing the guests from the new first floor balcony, Sophie spoke fondly of her time at KGS as a sports scholar, recalling how this stretch of river was where she learned to love rowing, and encouraged the rowers to work hard and focus on their goals.
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