History of the Club
Here are some Youtube videos relating the the history of Upper Thames:
The Early Years
Upper Thames Rowing Club was the brainchild of Peter and Diane Sutherland.
Peter had rowed at Shrewsbury and after the war he went up to Cambridge University where he was captain of boats at St. Catharine’s College and subsequently also at Maidenhead Rowing Club. Later he coached the Oxford Boat Race crew in the Jumbo Edwards era and took the Oxford/Leander crew to the Rome Olympics in 1960. He also coached the Molesey-based coxed four for the same Olympics and in following years Leander Club and London Rowing Club eights for the Grand Challenge Cup. He brought together England’s leading rowing clubs to try to reorganise the A.R.A. , advocating a professional administration and coaches, but in the early 1960s this professional approach was not always considered popular.
His primary concern however, was with the lack of success at the top level by clubs in the Upper Thames area; Leander was virtually the only exception. With this in mind he invited the captains of Henley, Reading, Eton Excelsior, Maidenhead and Marlow rowing clubs to a series of meetings from which evolved the idea of having a centre where the best oarsmen from the Upper Thames area could combine in crews which could take on the best from the Tideway and other regions.
The original concept was that just as in the University Boat Race people row for Oxford or Cambridge with the names of their colleges acknowledged, so could oarsmen and women row for a new Upper Thames club with the names of their original clubs similarly acknowledged.
The first meetings were held at the Sutherland’s first married home at Oakfern Cottage, 46 New Street, Henley-on-Thames, and in April 1963 it was agreed that Upper Thames Rowing Club should be formed with its primary objective to be a centre of excellence for experienced oarsmen in the Upper Thames area who had national and international aspirations.
Outside of this group of local rowing club captains, it was considered virtually impossible in those days to start a new rowing club but a local artist, Ann Gordon, heard about the idea and introduced to the Sutherlands a local business man, George Robinson, the brother of the founder of Robinson College, Cambridge, who agreed to back the project.
There were few funds available but an old Salters coxed four was purchased for £15 and then an old Oxford VIII – and UTRC was off the ground and on the water with a total of two boats, eight oarsmen and a cox. There was no boathouse and so the coxed four had to be kept on the ground floor of Saragossa House, New Street, the Sutherland’s new and much larger home. The french windows at one end of the living room had to be opened to accommodate the length of the boat while at the other end it was fed through the windows of this Queen Anne house on to New Street and the traffic stopped so that the boat could be carried down to the river.
While this was acceptable for a four, (just), the VIII had to be kept on trestles against Leander’s wall in the Regatta fields because its length could not be accommodated in Saragossa House.
The sponsor, George Robinson, then rented on the Club’s behalf the old Regatta boom shed next to Remenham Club as the first boathouse. There was no electricity, water, toilets or changing rooms but the spirit was there including that of the first Honorary Treasurer Leslie Tozer, the manager of the local branch of the National Westminster Bank who gave invaluable financial support with very little collateral. Difficult though it is to believe today within a few weeks boat racks were installed and a hard river frontage established from which the crews could boat.
Club colours had to be chosen. It was decided to use dark blue and white. These colours were selected for a number of reasons not least because they were easily obtainable and wearable and although they were also used by Henley Rowing Club, their oars, like Oxford University’s, had plain dark blue spoons. So it was decided to have blades with white spoons. These were not used by any other English club, and they were easy to paint and to touch up when scratched.
The difficulty was to think of a crest for the club. Then one day Mrs Diane Sutherland noticed as she was going under Henley Bridge in a dinghy the carved stone faces of Thamesis and Isis on the keystones to the bridge. They seemed immediately to be the most suitable, meaningful and obvious choice. The original designs by Lady Ann Damer were found above Marsh Lock in the boathouse of the sponsor George Robinson and used as the basis for the design on the Club’s tie and rowing vest.
A coxless pair was obtained when a film called “Tamahine” starring Dennis Price was being made on the Henley Reach. Peter Sutherland coached Dennis Price while Diane steered. After filming, the Club was allowed to buy the pair which brought the Club’s fleet of boats to a total of three.
The first HRR crew competed in 1964
In the following year (1964) the club entered its first crew for Henley Royal Regatta in the Thames Cup. The crew was composed of:
• Kevin O’ Sullivan at bow (Eton Excelsior)
• Alan Smiter (also Eton Excelsior and UTRC’s first captain)
• Bill Rawson (Reading R.C.)
• Charles Hawtrey (First and Third Trinity, Cambridge)
• John Wingfield (Jesus College, Cambridge)
• David Neal (Henley R.C.)
• Hugh Cochrane (Reading R.C.)
• David Mayers stroke (Clare College, Cambridge)
• J Hooper (Marlow R.C.) as cox
Subsequently UTRC crews included visits to Esso House in their training schedule, to work with psychologists and management consultants to study what was then known as “systematic thinking and mental strength” – a system almost identical to that used by most of Britain’s top sportsmen today.
Since then Upper Thames Rowing Club has never failed to enter at least one crew for Henley Royal Regatta each year and in one year in the late sixties had six crews entered – for the Thames Cup, the Wyfold Cup (semi-final), the Diamonds (semi-final) and the Silver Goblets.
The Gibraltar Week of the Sea
Amongst many other bizarre events in the history of the club was the time in 1965 when we sent a crew to The Gibraltar Week of the Sea. The regatta was a small affair dominated by the British forces, with the RAF and the British Garrison represented, as well as the WRNS and the WRAF in the ladies events. UTRC competed for the Piccadilly Challenge cup against RAF Gibraltar Rowing Club and Societe Nautique de Casablanca (Where are they now – ed). Memory seems to recollect that the UTRC crew won, but more importantly had a great time and enjoyed some splendid hospitality.
During the 1970s Upper Thames provided rowing for a limited membership base in equipment that was by no means “cutting edge”. The club had a couple of racing craft but manly catered for a group of dedicated scullers and pair oared crews, including stalwart members Glynne Davies, Derek Thurgood and Sid Rand.
In 1982 Peter Sutherland negotiated the purchase of the land on which the old HRR boom shed, by now Upper Thames’s main boathouse, stood. Stretching from the bridge just upstream of Remenham Club to Old Blades, this gave UTRC almost 400 metres of the most sought-after frontage on to the most famous regatta course in the world – in fact, a longer frontage than the Stewards Enclosure.
By the end of the 1980s, top class ex-international oarsmen had moved to the area and Upper Thames began to rise up the rankings in Veteran and Elite rowing. Members included Charlie Wiggin, who won a bronze medal in the Moscow Olympics, Chris Drury and Paul Stuart Bennett, both ex-world champions in lightweight rowing and Beverly Jones, who stroked the Women’s eight in Moscow and learned to row at the club.
By 1990 Alison Gill, the pre-eminent female athlete in the GB team, became a member and this drew in other women, including Juliet Machan and Naomi Ashcroft, who later won World titles in the lightweight pair. The club men reached the semi final of the Thames Cup in 1993 and again in the Britannia in 1995, beginning an era of higher performance at UTRC. In 2008 and 2013 UTRC crews reached the final at HRR, and in 2014 the club finally won it’s first Henley trophy, the Britannia Challenge Cup. Another crew then won the Wyfolds an hour later to cap an extraordinary day in the club’s history.
The club’s footprint has been established in two main building phases, first in 1985 when the original clubhouse was built to the side of the boom shed, then in 2009 when the boom shed was replaced with a two tiered extension.
In October 2005 Boris Johnson, then Member of Parliament for Henley-on-Thames, relived his days as a ‘wet bob’ at Eton when he joined the President, Peter Sutherland, in a skiff on opening the new enlarged Boathouse.
Crews from UTRC compete regularly overseas in places as diverse as Australia, America, Russia and continental Europe and the membership is now truly international.
Members enjoy Henley regatta at the club, which becomes an oasis of rowing calm for a few days in early July each year and generates much needed income for the club.
Upper Thames also runs the Henley Masters Regatta the week after HRR and an Autumn Head in October.
The following is a personal recollection of the early years by Robert Harneis:
UTRC – Ghosts of 50 years ago
I am not generally in favour of looking back, still less in going back but a chance contact on the internet reminded me that it would be 50 years this year since I joined Upper Thames and rowed in the Thames Cup. An e-mail to Justin Sutherland for a photo of the ’65 Thames Cup crew was met with his YouTube video ‘Upper Thames Historical’, – my ’65 crew and his ’97 crew, complete with an evocative Louis Armstrong backing. It was film I never knew existed. I was mesmerised and it all came tumbling back to me as I sat and watched my ghostlike friends of 50 years ago, in Peter’s slightly fuzzy 8 millimetre film. It has encouraged me to put down what I remember of those early days at UTRC. I hope that not too many of my fellow crew members chip in to say that it is all self-indulgent fiction.
Robert Morcom-Harneis a.k.a.Robert Harneis Strasbourg Alsace.
I had been out of rowing for a year and I think it was David Mayer, Peter’s nephew and stroke of the first UTRC eight, who in 1964 persuaded me to join him in a scratch coxless four under UTRC colours in the end of season regattas at Maidenhead and Henley Town, over the August Bank Holiday weekend. They were great courses for the not very fit… very short. Maidenhead was and perhaps still is only three minutes or so. We were notably unsuccessful, with some spectacular steering problems. But it was enough to get me back in harness and join the UTRC winter training squad that morphed into the Thames Cup eight for 1965.
For some reason it was thought that I would be a good choice for the not very onerous duties of secretary. This boiled down to getting entries in for regattas and boats transported to match. Fortunately as we went to few regattas this was not too hard. At UTRC it also meant going down to Leander Club and very inexpertly helping Peter to sand down and re-varnish the club’s newly acquired second hand pair oar, of Dennis Price fame.
In 1965, right up until the boat tents went up for Henley Royal, we rowed from Leander. As I lived locally this was very satisfactory, and I was able to tell my friends I was rowing ‘from Leander Club’, which was generally understood to mean ‘for Leander Club’. My street cred was thus considerably enhanced. Although the record talks of boat trestles outside the club, my recollection was that we actually used their boat shed. Either way we were by then a considerable cuckoo in their prestigious nest. As non-members we were definitely not welcome in the club bar. For our self-imposed limit of half a pint of bitter we used the nearby Little Angel. Acquisition of the boom shed came none too soon, as I think the Leander stalwarts thought we rather lowered the tone of things and our second season amongst them was at least one too many. Leander was at that time a curious institution, a sort of rowing sleeping beauty living on past glory that only came to life once a year for the Regatta. It had perfect facilities, beautiful boats and seemingly total inactivity. At that time crews actually rowing were few and far between.
Our winter training took place at Saragossa House, in New Street in a large room at the back of the house where we did weights and circuits. This in itself was a bit of a revolution as training seriously through the winter was hardly the norm for a modest club crew. It was no doubt nothing to training today but it was a new beginning for me at any rate. A unique feature of life there was Peter’s handyman a small very tough Welshman who was known predictably as Taffy. He had been a prisoner of war in Germany and was very entertaining on the subject.
Britain’s Victorian rowing structure
British rowing in the 50s and early 60s, like much else, was badly in need of a good shake up. From effortless world domination before the war, it had largely slumped to self satisfied mediocrity. What there was that was internationally competitive was almost entirely provided by Oxbridge crews but they had their gaze firmly fixed on the Boat Race at the beginning of the season and the tribal college bumping races later on. The clubs, mostly on the tideway, lived with a structure set up in the mid 19th century. The season started with the 20 minute Head of the River race at Putney and went on through, reaching a crescendo, for those that considered themselves good enough, at Henley.
Every weekend during the summer there was a local regatta over all sorts of courses that twisted and turned from three to five minutes long. It mattered little who won or lost, the thing was the beer tent. I have vivid memories of turning out for a London Rowing Club crew in 1963 that hit a rock at Kingston Regatta and sank. We never got to the start and had to swim for it. Of course the aim of it all was not to win Olympic medals but to have a good time and for that it worked very well.The two top clubs, London Rowing Club and Thames RC by tradition still entered a crew for the Grand to receive their annual thrashing from some foreign club. If the aim was to produce internationally competitive crews, it was all weirdly inappropriate.
UTRC and the rowing revolution
Peter and Diane’s vision of a successful Upper Thames club operating on the regatta course was born out of growing dissatisfaction with this state of affairs. It was shared by others. Already at Oxford University the pre-war multiple Olympic gold medallist and war hero Group Captain ‘Jumbo’ Edwards had launched a revolution in training methods. Notably he introduced interval training and spade shaped oars. In the clubs the appearance and success of collections of talented individual oarsmen began to show what could be achieved outside the existing club system in the form of Barn Cottage RC and Tideway Scullers RC inspired by Colin Porter, Chris Davidge and others. The Bristol Birmingham combination of George Justickz and Nick Birkmyre dominated the double sculls in the early sixties despite training on a reservoir that was only 1000 meters long. The real revolution was the realisation that fitness mattered more than anything else – certainly more than the almost religious disputes about rowing style.
Training with Peter was something different for us new comers. Only four of the ’64 eight carried on into ‘65. What has been said of a successful Oxford Coach today applied very much to him– “very focused, very driven – if he wasn’t a bit scary he would be lacking wouldn’t he?” He loved the river and good watermanship. He told me more than once about going on the river with his father and how he would be rebuked if he made any clumsy movement that affected the run on the boat. He was totally focused on international rowing success for Britain. He had no patience with the old buffers who ran the ARA and more important was determined to change things. He gave up huge amounts of time to our crew and rowing generally. There is a video in which he talks of setting up UTRC to rival the tideway clubs. Maybe – but it was Olympic success for Britain that he really aimed for.
Peter went out of his way to introduce us to the élite of British rowing. The great Australian sculler Sam Mackenzie, six times winner of the Diamond sculls, came and coached us one day. Colin Porter came down to see us train one evening in the winter. He was not a barrel of laughs and informed me grimly that eights were a waste of time and pairs, double sculls or at most a four were what a small club like us should concentrate on. The very approachable rowing legend and Olympic record holder Jack Beresford came over and chatted to us one day. He brought his very pretty wife who to my inexperienced eye looked about a third his age. We were firmly warned off even the appearance of flirting with her, as the old boy was said to be very jealous. He impressed me particularly because he had rowed at a little over eleven stone as I did and still won medals in five consecutive Olympics before the war. He told me that his basic daily fitness training, on top of on the water stuff, was running from Henley Bridge to the top of White Hill and back. Peter Coni, future Henley Regatta manager and reformer was a regular visitor. On top of that Peter and Diane always made us welcome at Saragossa House and often fed me, a perpetually starving student, after training.
Esso mind games
We did the famous weekend session with Ollie the shrink from Esso and his lady assistant except that in ’65 they came down to Henley and ran it at Saragossa House. Our motivation was the modern concept of team building. The reason they wanted to work with us was to give them a control group of volunteers and to be able to compare our reactions with their usual groups who were Esso employees and definitely not volunteers.
And then we were seven…
On the river things did not always run smoothly. Giving up a year of free time to the almost unknown, experimental UTRC, with no star oarsmen, no showers, no bar and no club house was something of an act of faith. After the initial enthusiasm of the first year had worn off it was not inevitable that the club would survive and it took all of Peter’s considerable determination for it to do so. It is noteworthy that although the four new faces in the ’65 crew were more or less local, none of us came from local clubs as originally conceived.
Towards the end of an outing in the early Spring we were listening to Peter from the bank, at his most emphatic, explaining what he expected from us, when one of the crew – I can see him now – exploded ‘I’ve had enough of this’ or more graphic words to that effect. He then jumped out of the boat, swam to the bank, clambered out and stomped off, never to return. It must have been very cold. Peter just grinned his wolfish grin and said ‘well after that I think we’ll just paddle back to the boat house.’ It was typical of him that by the next training day he had a competent replacement ready to row with us. At that time the club was the eight and the eight was the club, so it was a sticky moment. Later in the season we had attracted a few more recruits and were able to enter our reserves as a crew for the Wyfold fours.
Fitness training was to a large extent under Al Smiter our Captain. He was very keen on rowing ‘intervals’. He was an excellent captain and calmly kept us all hard at work. Peter did not always relish suggestions from the ranks. Not long before Henley I ventured to suggest that we were not doing enough full course trials. I was put firmly in my place and told that if I felt I was not fit enough there was nothing to stop me training some more on my own…
The boomshed coup
The acquisition of the boom shed where the club now stands, happened during the ’65 season and Peter dealt with it alone. Our contribution one Sunday, when he was at the height of his financial wooing of George Robinson, was to turn up for training in our cleanest kit and row down to the palatial Robinson residence by the river. There we disembarked on the lawn and did our best to behave properly while we were fed tea and sandwiches by Mr and Mrs Robinson. We must have created the right impression because the deal went through shortly afterwards. We never actually used the shed that season but the UTRC sign went up in time for the regatta. The most obvious change in our lives was the arrival of a very smart catamaran with an outboard motor, so that Peter could abandon his bicycle and buzz round us on the water from all angles. This explains the very complete film footage of us that features in Justin Sutherland’s video ‘Upper Thames Historical’ mentioned above. For some reason Peter actually trusted me to drive it occasionally and loaned it, with me as chauffeur, to the coach of the Harvard Lightweights, which was an experience for both of us.
We attended few regattas, as Peter felt that they were not much use as training for Henley. An exception was Hereford where we won the senior eights and the club’s first pot. Very early in the season we had a friendly sprint over a minute or so against the Isis crew and held our own so we knew by then that were doing something right. They actually went on to win the Thames Cup that year. Whatever we might have thought, we did not do enough to convince the Stewards of the regatta to spare us the indignity of a qualifying heat. As everyone knows, qualifiers are cheerless affairs as crews battle it out in front of empty half built stands a week or so before the regatta to see who gets into the draw proper and who disappears without trace. We beat our opponents quite comfortably and went into the first round, where we were successful again. There we came up against the National Provincial Bank crew – the Nat in today’s Nat West – known in those days in rowing circles simply as ‘The Bank’. They were a hard nut to crack and had won the Wyfolds and reached the finals of the Thames Cup in the same year some time before. For most of them this was to be their last Henley and they were determined not to go out to a bunch of upstarts from UTRC. With their greater experience they did the smart thing and got in front of us at the start and never let us get past. We should have beaten them. Evenafter half a century losing that race still annoys me. We raced them three weeks afterwards at Maidenhead in the Senior Eights and, with all the pressure off, took three lengths off them in three minutes.
At the end of it all we had quite a good season. We were capable of competing with the top half dozen UK Thames Cup crews. UTRC had survived its crucial second year and now had a base. No other upper Thames club at that time was capable of entering a crew to compete seriously in the Thames Cup. Even so for Peter with his eyes fixed firmly on Olympic medals, as he constantly reminded us, it must have been frustrating. At a more realistic level it was real progress for the club.
Club history relates that a crew went off to race in the Week of the Sea in September at Gibraltar. But for most of us it was back to the workaday world but not before the whole crew turned out to compete in the prestigious Tug of War competition at Littlewick Green village fete no less. My father was the vicar there and it was a nice touch after a year together that everybody turned up. Fortunately for good relations with the locals we lost the final to the super efficient fire brigade otherwise I would never have been forgiven by my father’s parishioners and the serious beer drinkers of East Berkshire. Turning up with a full Henley crew was apparently considered to be contrary to the spirit of the competition. It was a good ending to a memorable year for me and my last on the river. 50 years later it is good to to have been there at the beginning and to see the club fulfilling Peter’s dream.
UTRC Thames Cup crew – Henley 1965: –
Bow Richard Seabourne Wycliffe College
2 Robert Morcom-Harneis London RC
3 Hugh Cochrane Reading RC
4 Goeff Mason Henley RC
5 Kevin O’Sullivan Eton Excelsior
6 Alan Smiter (Captain) Eton Excelsior
7 Hugh Thomas University of London
Stroke Owen Bryant London RC
Cox Tony Piggott Reading RC
A personal history of Upper Thames, “The First Fifty Years” by Justin Sutherland is linked here: