On the occasion of Cygnet Rowing Club’s Centenary in 1990, Peter Sly, our Club President, wrote ‘as a small club, we cannot look back upon glorious victories over the giants of the sport at Henley, but we are surely able to hold our heads high for the sportsmanship and endeavour that our members have shown over the years. The club flourishes, is still very much here and who knows….’ A quarter of a century later, as the Club approaches its 125th anniversary, it is still ‘very much here’, while the ‘desire to cultivate the art and practice of rowing’ first expressed in 1890 remains as strong as ever.
Founded on the morning of 12th February 1890 at the old Duke’s Head in Putney, Cygnet gate–crashed the world of ‘gentlemen’s’ rowing, offering employees of the General Post Office an opportunity to experience ‘messing about in boats’ on the Tidal Thames. Cygnet was a relative latecomer to the scene: Curlew had been formed in 1866, Ibis in 1871 and Mortlake and Anglian in 1877 and 1888 respectively. Still, Cygnet wasted no time in making its presence felt and by the early months of 1891 membership had increased to almost 100 making it one of the strongest clubs of its kind on the Tideway.
During the C19th and early C20th, it was not unusual for boat clubs to exist in name alone, hiring boats and changing rooms from one of a number of commercial boathouses located between Putney and Chiswick. Cygnet spent the first decade or so flitting between various boathouses at Putney including Messrs Thompson and Bowers, Alexanders and Aylings, before up–rooting itself and relocating to Biffen & Sons at Hammersmith in 1904. Cygnet would remain at Hammersmith until October 1930 when it again moved upriver to its first and only purpose_built premises, the Civil Service Boathouse at Chiswick.
Today, we take it for granted that aspiring new members will automatically register with British Rowing (successor to the Amateur Rowing Association, ARA) if they intend to race at regattas. However, in 1890 the larger Tideway clubs effectively ran the ARA as a ‘closed shop’, defining amateur status so tightly as to exclude manual labourers including general post office workers from amateur competition. Not content to accept the status quo, in October 1890 Cygnet joined forces with a number of other rowing clubs to form the National Amateur Rowing Association (NARA) whose mission statement was to redefine the concept of amateur rowing. NARA would give Cygnet its first taste of open competition.
During the early years, swimming was also a popular club pastime and swimming galas (in the Thames) featured regularly at club regattas. However, rowing remained the dominant activity and by the 1920s Cygnet was increasingly synonymous with Civil Service rowing as whole. The Civil Service Rowing Association was formed in 1922 and later that year the first Civil Service Regatta was held with the Prince of Wales in attendance. Membership of the ARA followed in 1923 and Cygnet participated in the first Hammersmith Regatta in 1924 and the first Head of the River Race in 1926.
The early 1930s were the precursor of modern day squad rowing as we know it at Cygnet. As so often happens in a small club, a fresh intake of talented young individuals transformed the club’s prospects and from 1932 they were making their mark on the local regatta circuit. By 1938 they were closing in on Thames Cup class – the premier Vllls event of its day at most regattas – and, later the same year, would attain their goal of competing at Henley Royal Regatta for the first time in the club’s history. Cygnet’s success would continue into 1939, ending on a Thames Cup class win at Molesey, before WWII brought half a century of sporting and institutional milestones to a temporary impasse.
It would be another thirty five years before Cygnet would appear at Henley again – rowing as Cygnet rather than the Civil Service Rowing Association as in 1938 – and another decade after that before Henley Royal would become a recurrent fixture for club crews. Regatta successes for Cygnet continue to ebb and flow; the quality of the equipment, the level of dedication and training commitment is on a level that would be hard for our forebears to grasp; but the aspiration to compete with the ‘best-in-class’ remains unchanging. Along the way, Cygnet members have built longstanding relationships, not least with our good friends Rudergeselschaft Benrath in Düsseldorf, now approaching half a century.
Cygnet has come a long way from its Post Office roots. Nonetheless, it remains first and foremost a Thames Tideway club with a proud history that has spanned the Victorian, the Edwardian and the Elizabethan eras. Throughout that time Father Thames has evolved from a working river to a recreational resource, health and safety have taken centre stage and swimming galas in the Thames would almost certainly be frowned upon. Still, it seems fair to say that Wally Wheldal, the most prominent of the ‘original ten’ founding members, would applaud Cygnet’s continued determination to promote the ‘art and practice of rowing’; grasping the concept of the club website might be more of a challenge!