Early Rowing in Birmingham

The earliest reference to a rowing club in Birmingham is that in 1859, when the Birmingham Soho Club was active on the Reservoir. Unfortunately, no records exist… Mention has been made of the Edgbaston and Warwickshire Boat Club, but again, nothing is known of this organisation. However, it has been suggested that a split in the club led to the formation of two separate clubs. This seems possible, for there is evidence of the Birmingham and Edgbaston Rowing Club and the North Warwickshire Rowing Club, both based in Birmingham. The former was at the Reservoir and occupied the site of BRC.’s old boathouse, where the Training Ship Vernon is now situated. The last minute book of the club is in the possession of’ BRC and shows the club to have been in existence in 1871. It was wound up in 1879, having apparently had a fairly large membership which did little in the way of rowing. “The Rowing Almanack” for the 1870s records only two regatta entries by the B. and E. club, a four in 1874 and a sculler in 1876. The club’s colours were black and white.

The whereabouts of the North Warwickshire RC are not known, but “The Rowing Almanack’s” details of regattas show that throughout the 1880s, it was a very thriving club, frequently represented at the local regattas, and recording numerous wins. In contrast, BRC.’s name is rarely mentioned.

B.R.C. and North Warwickshire both appear in the Almanack’s list of Provincial Clubs in the years 1882 to 1893 inclusive. That they did not appear earlier is due only to the list being out of date. Evidently something was done about this for the 1882 Almanack, for in that year a number of clubs not previously listed, but which had for years figured in the details of regattas, were included. In 1894 the nature of the list is changed and shows those clubs which were affiliated to the Amateur Rowing Association. BRC is included, but there is no mention of North Warwickshire. That one or more of these clubs was based on the canals is strongly suggested by ‘The Edgbastonia Directory’ for 1895 and 1896, which refers to the Viking’s Rowing Club, which had a boathouse at Wheeleys Road Wharf.

First References to B.R.C.

It seems possible that BRC. was originally founded as the Birmingham YMCA. Rowing Club. The first reference to this club is in the Almanack, recording that a YMCA. four and pair competed at Bridgnorth Regatta on 5th August, 1878. The four rowed in two events, and lost both first round races ‘easily’, as did the pair. The following year, the club again rowed at Bridgnorth, again losing ‘easily’, whilst a sculler won one round. The names of the crew are significant: R. S. Buckland, F. Banks, J. W. Milligan, T. H. Fiddy (stroke), F. Gulliver (Cox).There is no further reference to the Birmingham YMCA Rowing Club, but the Almanack reports that at Stratford Regatta on 2nd August, 1880, the ‘gig fours” event included a Birmingham Rowing Club crew composed of R. T. Boddy, W. Burrows, J.W. Milligan, R. S. Buckland (stroke), A. Ashfield (cox). Either there had been a YMCA. club as well as BRC., and the former folded in 1879/80, some members, including Buckland and Milligan, joining BRC., or, as seems more likely, the YMCA. club “opened its doors” and changed its name to BRC. Whatever the answer, the fact that the first regatta entry in the name of Birmingham Rowing Club was a failure is beyond dispute. The four lost its first round to Ironbridge by 2 lengths, whilst a pair lost by 4 lengths to Stratford in the first round.

Birmingham Regatta

It is surprising to learn that the first open regatta was as long ago as 7th August, 1880 (which supports the theory that in 1880 the YMCA club became an open club). The four events – sculls, pairs, junior fours and senior fours, were well supported, the respective winners being Pengwern, Thames, Bewdley and Worcester. Racing was in three lanes. BRC. fielded a pair, three junior fours and a senior four. Probably all were scratch crews aimed at supporting the regatta, and all lost in their first round races, although none of the junior fours lost by more than 1 length. The 1881 Regatta was held on 23rd and 25th July. The events were sculls, junior pairs, senior pairs, fours (unspecified status) and junior fours. The respective winners were Pengwern, North Warwickshire, Bridgnorth, North Warwickshire and Hereford. The strength of North Warwickshire is shown, and the club also had a losing finalist. BRC.’s entries were a senior pair, which won one round, and a junior four which lost to Trent in its first race. At bow in this four was F. R. Davenport, this being the first reference to the long connection between BRC and the famous brewing family. F. R. Davenport later became Captain. No regatta was held in the following year, nor again until 1896.

The First Victory

The remainder of the 1880s decade reveals a lean time for BRC. Whilst North Warwickshire was achieving an impressive record, BRC did not even enter another regatta until 1890, when crews competed unsuccessfully in Maiden Fours at Bewdley and Evesham Regattas. In 1891 a maiden four went to Worcester Regatta on 23rd July. The crew beat Ariel R.C., Bristol, by 2 lengths, Redcliffe R.C., Bristol, by ½ length and in the final, Bewdley R.C. by 1 foot, and so recorded BRC’s first .ever open regatta win. The crew was F. B. Stiff, F. W. Hands, C. L. Stiff, F. Hewett (stroke) and H. Harris (cox). The same crew then won a second Maiden Fours’ event at Evesham, beating Warwick BC by I length, Hereford “easily” and in the final, Overbury Court R.C. by 1 length.

More Success

The list of regatta successes reveals that from 1891 until 1905, there was only one year – 1899 – when the club did not record at least one win. The Junior ‘Fours win at Tewkesbury Regatta in 1895 was for the Mythe Challenge vase, value 30 guineas, and presentation prizes, value 20 guineas. The History of Hereford Rowing Club records that in this final, BRC. beat Hereford “by 9 or 10 inches”,

Hereford’s ‘History’ gives an interesting insight into the presentation prizes given in those days. Its winning Junior Four at Cardiff Regatta received: stroke – a silver coffee jug, 3 – an oak and silver cigar cabinet, 2 – a pair of bronze figures, bow – a silver and glass epergne, cox – a silver cup.

Extracts from the Secretary’s Report 1895:

“The Member Roll at the commencement of the year was 35, but during the first few weeks, by the introduction of 15 new members, our strength was increased to 50.” “Owing to the vagaries of our climate, the Autumn Races, that had been fixed for the second week in August, had to be abandoned, in consequence of scarcity of water, an unfortunate circumstance to which the Club has always been more or less liable.”

“A Senior Crew, made up of Messrs. Davenport, Buxton, Stiff, and Duncan (stroke) was also entered, and competed at Bridgnorth Regatta, but was defeated by the Bridgnorth Crew, and at Burton lost in the first heat. to Stourport.. After careful consideration, the same crew came to the conclusion that it. would be useless representing the Club at further Regattas,. as they were so heavily handicapped, owing to the old-fashioned build of the boat supplied to the Club by Messrs. Salter Brothers.”

“…our Captain offered to present the Club with a new boat, and I am able to inform the members that the same is at present being built by Messrs. Rough, Oxford, and will be delivered at the Club Boat-house on May 14th.”

From Minutes of Committee Meeting, 30th April, 1896:

“Resolved that the Secretary should have a Club Badge designed with the City Arms, oars and BRC., and obtain prices for plain and coloured. The Secretary read a letter from the Town Clerk saying he did not think there would be any objection to our using the City Arms as a Badge.”

From Minutes of Special General Meeting, 1st May, 1896:

“Resolved that the Club hold a regatta, to be held on Saturday, July 4th. Mr. B. J. Davenport was elected Regatta Hon. Secretary. It was estimated that the cost of the Regatta would be £85 but it was hoped that the prizes would be given by the President and others. “The Regatta Programme reveals that there were 22 races from 1.00 p.m. to 6.15 p.m., including “Pole walking in fancy costume” and an “Upset Canoe Race” by members of BRC, competitors to have 2 upsets and finish in canoe”. The Course was 3 mile, involving a turn round a buoy.

The 3 entries for The Ladies Plate (1 mile course) for Ladies’ Double Sculling included the Misses Blanche and Beatrice Davenport of Birmingham who won the final against another Birmingham double.

BRC crews won the Edgbaston Plate for Open IVs and the Maiden Plate for Maiden IVs.

From The Birmingham Daily Mail, July 1896:

“Regatta at Edgbaston Reservoir, Racing Skiffs in a Gale”

“…so rough was it, indeed, that in the second heat of the sculling race – the boats being without the rough weather sheets, that of the Birmingham man, C. Gummery, filled with water when he was leading, and he was compelled to swim for it, being picked up by another boat. The other man, Ha S. McFie of Oxford, finished the race, but directly after passing the post met with a similar catastrophe. .after this the sheets were brought into requisition, but even then several other boats were swamped, and slowly subsided, leaving the occupants struggling in the water, much to the amusement of a portion of the spectators.”

“The arrangements would undoubtedly have stood improvement, for almost every event was about 1 hour behind the specified time.”

Extracts from the Secretary’s Reports 1896-7:

“The committee in submitting the accounts for the past year desire to call your attention to the improved financial condition of the Club. In fact, at no period of the Club’s existence has it stood in so sound a position as it does today, and with the increased facilities the Club will be able to offer in the forthcoming season, the accession of new members should make the improvement more pronounced.”

The accounts include under Assets “new first class boat, presented to the club this year cost: £30.0.0.”

The Regatta account showed a profit of £31.16.10. (after donations of £39.18.0) . One interesting item of expenditure is under the heading: advertising: “Sandwich Men: £2.14.0” The cost of prizes totalled £43.3.5 but this appears to include Challenge Cups (2000 equivalent for presentation prizes alone: ~£1,100). Printing came to £7.5.0 (1973: £88.50) and hire of tents was £1.5.0 (1973: £78.65). Regatta Fees totalled £6.5.0. (1973: £354.00) but the main receipts came from cash taken at gates: £19.4.6. (1973: £25.22) and “tickets sold and guaranteed:” £46.0.0 (no modern equivalent).

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