150 YEARS OF DOVER ROWING CLUB
Dover Rowing Club Early History
1996 was the 150th anniversary of the founding of Dover Rowing Club, making it the oldest coastal rowing club in Britain.
The Dover Amateur Rowing Club (DARC) was founded in 1846, the oldest coastal rowing club in Britain. It was not established to race in regattas initially, being more of a leisure club. Its first boats were a couple of pleasure skiffs with seats in the stern for ladies and its members took picnics on afternoon rows around Dover Bay.
Dover Regatta, established in 1826, stages races for professional boatmen and for amateurs who, under regatta rules, had to use regatta-built racing galleys. So that DARC could take part, Dover Regatta for many years had a pleasure boat race for amateurs.
In 1867 DARC was invited to race in the Paris Exhibition and a crew was sent with a loaned racing galley. Following this, the club was reformed as the Dover Rowing Club, with air of putting out racing crews, but lack of money meant that the club could not replace its few old skiffs.
In 1870 Richard Dickeson joined the club. Dickeson, one of the richest and most influential men in Dover, was the President of the Dover Regatta Committee and was frustrated that all the prize money raised from local businessmen went to rowing clubs from other towns. He was determined that the Dover Club would become a competitive racing team and paid for the club’s first purpose-built regatta racing galley and a new club house at East Cliff.
Under the presidency of Dickeson, from 1872 until his death in 1900, Dover Rowing Club became the best coastal rowing club in the country. He presented a new racing galley to the club every year for 26 years.
The Dover Club became the premier club of the south coast and was instrumental in creating the SCR Challenge Cup for Senior Fours in 1887, the most prestigious championship in the regatta calendar, and in forming CARA, of which Dickeson was the President, from 1894 to 1900.
Dover’s record in the 1890s was remarkable. The Challenge Cup, coastal rowing’s equivalent of the F.A. Cup, was won by Dover in 1892, 1893 and 1894 – a third consecutive win giving them outright ownership of the cup. It was presented by the club to Dickeson, and club members purchased a new Challenge Cup which they gave to CARA and then won again in 1895.
The Glory Years
The 1890s saw Dover’s Senior Fours crew become the outstanding crew in Britain.
The crew, rowing in the ‘Lady Dickeson’ became South Coast Champions in 1892, 1893, 1894 and 1895, a remarkable feat in itself but it was the 1894 season that made them unique – they entered 28 races in 15 regattas and won every single race they entered. They took home the three richest prizes in coastal rowing, the South Coast Challenge Cup, the Newhaven Cup and the Portsmouth 100 Guineas Challenge Cup. Their other prizes included silverware, clocks, lamps, dishes, carvers, fish services, tea and coffee services, cutlery canteens, cigar and cigarette cases and jewellery, amounting to a value of £211 – an enormous sum for 1894.
Following their win at Eastbourne, the last regatta of the season, the crew returned to Dover by train where many thousands waited for them at Harbour Station. Blue and white bunting, the club’s colours, had been hung in the streets and the ‘Lady Dickeson’ mounted on a trolley and covered in fairy lights, gauze and flags. The bands of the Cinque Ports Artillery Volunteers and the Gordon Boys Orphanage played at either end of the platform.
Huge cheers greeted the crew as they stepped off the train and, after presentations of rosettes and flowers, they were put in an open carriage and paraded through packed streets with the ‘Lady Dickeson’ behind followed by the marching bands. Later, a dinner reception was held at the Grand Hotel where champagne was drunk from the new silver cups.
The 1895 season was also dominated and won by the Dover crew but halfway through the season they finally lost a race after an unprecedented nineteen consecutive victories in the Senior Fours. Unfortunately for the estimated crowd of 30,000 it was at Dover Regatta that they lost, coming third!
The famous crew reunited for the 1913 Dover Regatta to row in a special veterans race which, naturally, they still won easily.
Dover’s success continued into the 20th century when a new senior pairs crew won the championship for five consecutive years from 1907 to 1911.
Dover’s Regatta is one of the earliest known on the South Coast, commencing in 1826. Originally intended to provide money for the town’s destitute boatmen, the original races were for ‘professional’ mariners using their own galleys, cutters and skiffs. Prize money could be as much as a month’s wages and was raised by the Regatta Committee from public subscriptions, mostly from local gentry and businessmen. There were races between the men of the local Coastguard Stations, between the crews of the Dover cross-channel packet boats and between soldiers from the local military garrisons. There were also races for the town’s young gentlemen who fancied the fun of competing against each other.
Dover Regatta always drew crowds of 10-20,000 – it was a major event in the town’s calendar. As well as rowing races there were swimming, sailing and fun races, aquatic sports and a water carnival. On the seafront were drinking booths, musical bands, barrel organs, market stalls and funfairs. Spectators could also take part in competitions, the big crowd-pullers being ‘climbing the greasy pole’ and ‘champion arm-twisting’. The seafront buildings were festooned with bunting and fairy lights to compete for the Best Decorated Building prize.
The day ended with fireworks and a Grand Regatta Ball. In the early 1900s a Regatta Carnival procession was also added.
The original racing course in 1820 was a circular one but it quickly changed to parallel lanes. The current course is 1,900 metres long, starting and finishing opposite the current club house. Unlike river rowing courses, Dover and the other coastal regatta venues have a racing turn, a very difficult manoeuvre.
The popularity of Dover Regatta fell considerably after the war and the Regatta Carnival was split from the regatta itself in the 1950s. The boats of Dover’s boatmen and fishermen have disappeared from the beach and the galley and lifeboat races have ended with them, leaving just the racing shells of the Dover Rowing Club to compete in the regatta.
Dover Rowing Club Later History
Following the club’s amazing record during the 1890s, the club continued to dominate coastal rowing and again won the South Coast Championship on three consecutive occasions in 1907, 1908 and 1909. Having won the Challenge Cup outright yet again the club presented it to CARA as a perpetual trophy that could not be won outright and then won it again in 1910 and 1911, five consecutive wins.
The club was inactive during the First World War, its clubhouse commandeered by the Navy and most of its members joining the armed forces. Some were killed in action, including Ford, Gill, Sharp, Chettle, Harris, Golding and Divine. The club organised a Peace Regatta in 1919 but with most of the members still in service the races were for the lifeboats and whalers of the Dover Patrol Destroyers and Minesweepers and a Ladies Pair Oared race between the WAACs and the WRNS. This was one of the first ever ladies prize races and was followed in 1920 by the club admitting ladies as full members though it was to be 50 years before there were ladies competition teams.
Dover Rowing Club never quite regained its dominance in the post war years though they were still quite successful, particularly in 1928 when the club were CARA champions in the Junior Fours, Junior Pairs, Junior Sculls and winners of the Colonel Hankey South Coast Championship.
Following the Second World War the club began racing again in 1946, but the late 1940s and 1950s were the leanest years for the club – in some seasons it could not get any kind of crew together and only competed in the Dover Regatta. Very few wins were recorded during this period.
A revival began in the 1960s with a new input of members, including Roger Cuff. Cuff joined the club in 1959, was captain from 1963 to 1977 and club chairman from 1986 until his tragic death in the sea off Lanzarote in 1990. He was Junior Sculls champion in 1963 and Senior Pairs champion in 1971 with Andy Ratcliff. Other wins and championships followed for the club, culminating in the Senior Fours Championship in 1981, the first time since 1911.
Today Dover Rowing Club is still going strong although it is perhaps not as successful as in the old days. The crews still compete hard in many of the South Coast Regattas and, not surprisingly for the club that held one of the first ladies races, the women’s team were one of the best of the coast and were CARA champions in Senior Fours in 1991 and 1992.
Sir Richard Dickeson 1823 – 1900
Dickeson was very much the father of Dover Rowing Club and was its president from 1872 until his death in 1900.
He was born in Rochester but came to Dover in the 1840s to take over a wholesale grocers in Market Lane. The business grew into a massive commercial empire. He won the contract to supply the British Army and was soon operating over 100 regimental grocery stores as well as being the sole agent to the War Office for pipeclay (blanco). He opened new warehouses in London, Aldershot, Dublin, Plymouth Pretoria and Gibraltar.
Dickeson was Mayor of Dover in 1871, 1880, 1881 and 1883 overseeing the building of Connaught Hall in his last mayoralty, and was knighted in 1884 for his public service. He also held the presidencies of the Chamber of Commerce, the Dover Orphan Home for Girls, Dover Hospital and Dover Cycling Club, and was Chairman of the Dover Promenade Pier and the Dover Regatta Committee, but it was Dover Rowing Club that was his greatest interest.
From 1888 his business demanded that he spent more and more of his time in London and it was at the Grand Hotel, in London that he died on the 13th October, 1900. His body was sent to Dover where he lay on public view in the Council Chamber before being buried at St. James’ Cemetery. All shops and businesses closed for the funeral. Soldiers of the Buffs and the Cinque Port Volunteers lined the funeral route five paces apart and a crowd of thousands watched the funeral cortege of over 50 mourners’ carriages accompany the coffin to the cemetery.
Arthur Harby 1862 – 1900
1900 was a bad year for Dover Rowing Club. As well as losing their President they had also lost the club captain earlier in the year.
Harby came to Dover in about 1880 as an Articled Clerk to solicitor James Stillwell. He was made a partner in 1888, married Stilwell’s daughter in 1897 and became sole partner when Stilwell, died in 1898. The firm of Stilwell and Harby are still Dover solicitors today.
He joined Dover Rowing Club when he came to the town and was a successful Junior Sculler and one of the Senior Fours in the 1880s. He was made a club captain in 1895.
He was also a Major in the Cinque Port Volunteers and it was when he was inspecting the troops at Sandwich on 3rd July 1900 that he was thrown from his horse and killed.
Lukeys the wholesale and retail wine and spirit merchants were another big business. Founded by John Lukey in 1835, the last of the Lukey off-licences only disappeared a few years ago.
John’s son Edward was, with Dickeson, instrumental in transforming the Rowing Club from a pleasure club to the premier racing team it became in the 1890s. He rowed successfully for the club in the 1870s and was a very influential club captain from 1879 until 1895. He was also a local councillor and became Mayor of Dover in 1889.
In 1894 he undertook a major venture, building the County Hotel in Canterbury High Street and the following year moved to the city to devote all his time to the new project, resigning as the club captain. The club presented him with the Newhaven Cup which they had won outright that year. His hotel is still one of the best in Canterbury.
Tragedy of the High Seas
On the early evening of May 21st 1888, two members of Dover Rowing Club took the pair-oared racing skiff, ‘Louisa Norgrove’ from the clubhouse to row around to St. Margaret’s Bay.
The two rowers were Harry Finnis and George Took. They were 19 years old and had been members of the Dover Athletic Club and the Dover Swimming Club for some years. They had joined the rowing club just 18 months earlier but had quickly been selected for the second Junior Fours crew and had won the 1887 Jubilee Pairs race in the ‘Louisa Norgrove’.
The two rowers quickly reached St. Margaret’s, beached the skiff and went into the ‘Green Man’ inn on the beach to warm themselves. About 10 minutes later they climbed back into their boat and set off for home. They never reached Dover, disappearing on the return journey.
The next morning the ‘Louisa Norgrove’ was found floating upside down off Dover but it was not until 3 weeks later that their bodies were found off Langdon Cliff by two different fishing boats within half an hour of each other. The bodies were badly decomposed but both still had their rowing strips on.
At the inquest, the Coroner was perplexed as to why two strong swimmers had drowned in calm seas a few hundred feet from shore. One theory he proposed was that the two boys had rowed across lobster lines, entangling the boat and themselves.
Finnis and Took were buried together at St. Mary’s Copt Hill Cemetery in Dover. The funeral cortege proceeded through streets lined with people to the cemetery where fifty members of the Rowing Club formed an honour guard either side of the gates.
A remarkably similar accident happened on March 19th, 1896 when three men sailing in a punt back from St Margaret’s Bay to Dover capsized 100 feet off Langdon Cliff. The non-swimmer clung to the boat but the other two, Betts and Cox, drowned almost immediately despite both being members of the Dover Swimming Club. Betts was also a long-standing member of the Dover Rowing Club and had been Cox for the racing crews. The survivor had no idea why the boat capsized or why the two men drowned.
Both these tragedies are echoed in the death in 1990 of Roger Cuff, Captain of Dover Rowing Club from 1963 to 1977, and its chairman from 1986. An excellent rower and strong swimmer, Cuff inexplicably drowned while swimming at the beach in Lanzarote while on holiday.
Roger Cuff 1939 – 1990
1959 June Member
1961 February Committee Member
1963 May Joint Club Captain (with Albert Banks)
1964 February Club Captain
1968 April Assistant Treasurer
1971 C.A.R.A. President
1974 Member ARA Executive Council & Institutional Committee ARA Coaching Silver Award
1975 Hon Treasurer & Club Coach
1977 Retired as Club Captain
1986 Retired as Hon Treasurer
Became Club Chairman
1990 Died tragically in Sea off Lanzarotte
Posthumously awarded the ARA Medal of Merit.
Sometime Member of SERC and for many years Hon Treasurer.
Sometime (with Andy Ratcliffe) South Coast Pairs Champions.
The History of Coastal Rowing
The history of river rowing is well recorded. The oldest known organised race is the Doggett’s Coat and Badge sculling race, begun on the Thames in 1715 by Thomas Doggett. The world-famous Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race began in 1829 and the equally famous Henley Royal Regatta began in 1839.
Sea rowing is a very different sport to river rowing and although the first organised races are not recorded until the 1820s, it is probably much older than river racing. There are numerous early accounts of sailors challenging other crews to race in the ships’ boats, the captains putting up such prizes as extra rum rations.
On the south coast in particular, speed was essential to a boatman’s living. In towns like Dover, Deal and Hastings, boatmen made most of their money from salvaging and smuggling. In the days before lifeboats, local boatmen would race each other to shipwrecks as the first boat to arrive could claim salvage rights. Deal and Dover smugglers regularly rowed their galleys over to France to pick up contraband, claiming with pride that their 8-oared service galley could cross in five hours and the 20-oarded ‘centipede’ galley in 3. One customs officer described trying to catch a smugglers’ galley in his customs cutter as “like a cow chasing a hare”.
The defeat of Napoleon in 1815 meant that the Navy and its victualling yards left the Channel Ports and the boatmen’s lucrative trade of carrying supplies out to the ships disappeared. At the same time the ruthless Coast Blockade was established to destroy the smuggling trade on the coast between Whitstable and Newhaven. Boatmen on the Kent and Sussex coast soon lost most of their livelihood.
From the 1820s south coast towns began to organise regattas to provide an income for the destitute boatmen through prize money. The idea of the regatta quickly spread, not only because of the financial incentives but also because they attracted thousands of spectators.
In the 1830s amateur river racing became very popular amongst the leisured upper classes, particularly university and public school scholars. From the 1840s the coast regattas were also staging amateur races for local gentry. Gradually the ‘professional’ races for boatmen and fishermen were superseded by the amateur races as the development of the racing galley and better training made sea rowing a true sport.
South Coast Regattas
With the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, a violent anti-smuggling campaign from 1816 and the advent of steam ships in the 1820s, the boatmen of Kent and Sussex lost much of their traditional income. In many towns in the 1820s concerned local philanthropists began organising regattas to draw crowds to declining towns and provide cash prizes for destitute boatmen. There were also races for ‘amateurs’, usually local middle-class gentlemen who rowed for small prizes such as silver cups or tea services.
By the 1870s the ‘amateur’ clubs had become very serious about the sport, rowing special ultra-fast regatta-built galleys and training all year. The amateur races, particularly the fours, pairs and sculls became the prestige races and clubs began to regularly send teams to other regattas up and down the coast. By the 1880s there were 20 regatta venues between the Isle of Wight and Herne Bay.
To avoid confusion all the South Coast Regatta Committees began to send their club secretaries to annual meetings in Hastings to set regatta dates. In 1887 Mr Bussey, Secretary of the Dover Rowing Club proposed an annual inter-regatta championship and 11 of the regatta committees subscribed £34 13s to purchase the South Coast Regatta Challenge Cup for Senior Fours, won in its first year by Hastings.
The South Coast Championship became a very popular event but, concerned that rules for races could differ at each regatta, the SCR meeting in 1893 decided to form a professional association to set rules and regulations and to oversee the regattas.
The Coast Amateur Rowing Association (CARA) held its first meeting on May 16th, 1894 and elected Sir Richard Dickeson, President of the Dover Rowing Club, as the first president of CARA, a post he held until his death in 1900.
Today all south coast regattas are rowed according to the rules of CARA – regattas may no longer attract the huge crowds of yesteryear but there are now more than ever with nearly 40 venues of which at least 17 provide points for CARA championships, including Dover.
A Guide to Sea Rowing
Sea rowing is very similar to river rowing in terms of technique and equipment although the sea boats are wider, flatter and heavier in order to cope with rough seas. The racing events, too, are slightly different. ‘Eights’ are the premier races on rivers – such as the University Boat Race, but eights do not compete in the coast races, ‘fours’ being the premier event.
There are two types of boats – the rowing boat, or sweep, where each crew member rows one oar with two hands; and the scull, where each crew member rows with an oar in each hand. The boats, originally known as galleys but now called shells, were once clinker-built in wood, then in seamless planking and now in thin plywood over a frame. Fibreglass and plastics are becoming popular building materials today.
Modern boats comprise a very slender shell fitted with riggers, sliding seats and stretchers. Riggers are metal stays protruding from the boat with oar-locks mounted on the end – they need to be some distance from the boat to provide enough leverage for the oar to propel the boat. Sliding seats were introduced into river rowing about 1870 but were not adopted in sea rowing until about 1930 – the mounted seat slides on runners allowing the legs to do most of the hard work. The stretcher is fixed across the boat with the shoes fixed in place so that the feet can push and pull the sliding seat.
Sculls use shorter oars than the sweeps but both have the same design of blade. The skill in rowing is all down to the use of oars and ensuring the angle of the blade is correct as it enters, travels through and exits the water. The oar blades carry the club markings – blue and white chevrons in the case of Dover.
All rowing in Britain is governed by the Amateur Rowing Association (ARA) but the south coast rowing clubs also have an association to govern their regattas, the Coast Amateur Rowing Association (CARA). CARA organises annual championships for pairs and fours in rowing and singles and pairs in sculling. All CARA rowers are graded as novices, juniors, junior-seniors or seniors and the scullers as juniors or seniors. Novices are those who have never won a race and become juniors as soon as they do.
In the other categories any rower winning a race in his/her own category, or higher, moves up the following season.