Liverpool Victoria Rowing Club was founded in 1884. How the founders came to choose the name is a matter for speculation. ‘Victoria’ may have been chosen out of respect for the Queen or it may have been linked to the proximity of the Victoria Tower to their headquarters at the time. However, the Club was not and never has been in Liverpool and that part of the name is a mystery.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century Wallasey Pool was a natural inlet, running from the Mersey estuary some two miles into Wirral, initially between the coastal townships of Wallasey and Birkenhead and then essentially rural in character. In 1844 an Act of Parliament authorised the building of docks on the Pool. The first dock was opened in 1847 and over the following half century most of the Pool was converted into docks. The open central waterway became the Great Float and only the upper end retained its original rural character and the name Wallasey Pool. In the late 1800s however, the water still supported a flourishing trade in the hiring out of pleasure boats, in which parties would pull up to the Pool to picnic and play games in the fields. For some years prior to the official foundation date a nucleus of the Club existed in the form of a group of young men who enjoyed boating on the Great Float, using a local public house as their headquarters. In 1884 they formed themselves into a club and in 1892 they built their own boathouse on Wallasey Pool, buying two second-hand fours and a skiff from a Chester club.
At that time there were several other clubs on the Float and the Liverpool Echo, August 23rd, 1890, reported that. “On Wednesday the race of the season was rowed between the two premier clubs, the Liverpool Victoria and the West Cheshire. On Wednesday evening all the boats obtainable were afloat and large crowds gathered on the bridges and banks to witness the race. A good start was effected at about half past seven and for a third of the way the boats were neck and neck. From this point the Victoria crew commenced to draw clear and at Duke Street Bridge was leading by three lengths, finally winning a splendidly rowed race by six lengths among scenes of much excitement. The course covered was about one and a half miles.” They probably rowed this race in in-rigged boats with fixed seats, even heavier than our present tubs.
By 1894 the Club was well found in boats and equipment, the fact that all the boats had sliding seats being a source of pride to the members. The building of the boathouse on Wallasey Pool undoubtedly saved the Club from later extinction because the development of the docks gradually forced the other clubs out of existence and in 1898, looking for competition, the Secretary was instructed to write to Chester Regatta Committee and enquire in what races the Club was eligible to compete. In the following year, 1899, the Club registered its first open regatta success, winning Maiden Fours at Chester Regatta.
Between this date and the outbreak of war in 1914 membership rose considerably, the boathouse was enlarged and the Club won fifteen open regatta events. The overwhelming majority of the members served with the forces during the war and the Club did no rowing. In 1919 the Club was restarted with some difficulty but much enthusiasm. The boathouse had got into a state of considerable disrepair, the funds and the membership were both depleted and in 1920 Chambers, the boatman, left the district and the Club was unable to replace him. In the next eleven years all the work on the boats and the boathouse was done by the members. In the winter of 1921-22 the old part of the boathouse was pulled down and rebuilt and one member, Frank M Grant (“Pop”), spent five years (1924-29) building a beautiful wooden coaching launch.
Henley RR 1929
The Club had very little regatta success in the years immediately after the war, the first being one Junior Sculls event in 1922 (Junior was not then an age classification but roughly the equivalent nowadays of Senior 4). In September 1922 however, the Club invited Wallasey Grammar School to become an affiliated club. The school took up the new sport with enthusiasm and Liverpool Victoria RC benefited greatly because the school provided the Club with a steady flow of young men already able to row. In 1923 the Club won one Maiden (now Novice) Fours and one Maiden Sculls event and in 1924 one Junior (Senior 4) Sculls. In 1925 the number of regatta successes rose to four and each year after that saw more and more success until in the Jubilee year, 1934, the Club won twenty-three events at open regattas including ten at Senior (now Senior 1) standard. At the time this was a record for any provincial club in any one season. The underlying strength of the Club that made this success possible is indicated by an old members’ regatta programme, which records nearly sixty Club members racing on the day.
J. A. Edwards 1930
In 1930 the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board commenced excavations for the conversion of the last part of Wallasey Pool into Bidston Dock and the Club was required to leave its site. However, the Dock Board showed every consideration to the Club and identified and prepared a new site on the Birkenhead side of the Float where a new two-story boathouse was built, the members funding it themselves. A new boatman was found, one W.A.Timms, and the Club continued very happily, regularly winning at provincial regattas and competing with some success every year in the Wyfold Cup at Henley Royal Regatta, although never actually winning a final, until in 1939 war again brought rowing on the Float to a stop.
During the second war the boathouse was occupied by the National Fire Service and this had the great advantage of keeping the building in reasonable condition; otherwise a wooden building would undoubtedly have fallen into hopeless disrepair if it had stood empty during the six years during which there was no rowing on the Float. One of the members (V Arthur Cain) also arranged for the boats to be put into storage so that most of the fleet also survived the war years without deteriorating beyond repair.
By 1946 members were returning from the forces and rowing restarted both in the Club and at the school. There was now no possibility that the Club could support a boatman and all the work of renovating the boats and boathouse had to be done by the members. The following year some of the Wallasey Grammar School sixth-formers left school and joined the Club. They and the younger of the ex-service men together gave the Club just eight non-veteran oarsmen and they began to train as a squad. A four from this eight immediately won Maiden (Novice) Fours, for which they had to race five times in the day – four programmed races and one re-row of a dead heat semi-final. In 1948 the eight did remarkably well, winning Senior (ie.Senior I) Eights at provincial regattas and performing very creditably at Henley Royal.
The most discouraging feature of post-war rowing on the Float was the indescribably filthy condition of the water. The requirement for ships to conform to dock regulations seemed to have lapsed during the war and the many ships now using the Float all too frequently discharged their waste oil and bilges into the dock. After every outing the boats and oars returned coated with thick black oil. At one point the Committee, when considering a proposal to organize a regatta on the Float, decided against it on the ground that the water was too dirty. Happily, this state of affairs gradually improved, partly by enforcement of the regulations by the Dock Company but more as a result of the decline in the amount of shipping using the dock, so that nowadays we have a small but steady population of cormorants who live on the fish that have returned to the Float.
No wins were recorded in the first three years of the 1950s but in 1954 things began to improve and the Club began to be again regularly successful in Senior events. The Newsletter of March 1958 records that in 1957 the first Senior Four was successful in nine events, including winning the Head of the Severn, and a finalist in several more. Combined with a couple of wins in Pairs, this gave the Club its most successful post-war season to that date. The only disappointing feature of the season was the absence of any Junior (still Senior 4) or Novice wins. In 1958 however, there was an influx of new members and in 1959, the 75th year, the Club recorded wins at all levels.
Around this period the Club’s association with Wallasey Grammar School paid dividends in another way in that the Club was able to negotiate grant aid from the Ministry of Education and used the money to expand the Club fleet. One of the purchases, extraordinarily to our present thinking, was a new sectional clinker eight for use in Novice events.
In 1960 membership was still rising and for the first time the Club entered three (male) eights in the North of England H.o.R. Progress continued and in 1962 sixteen wins at open regattas, spread over nearly all the classes offered, gave the Club its most successful season since before the war and attracted favourable comment in the Rowing Almanack. The Newsletter records that 44 oarsmen and coxes raced for the Club in 63 crews at 18 regattas, winning 57 tankards in 16 events. In this year the first permanent bar was installed and the Club was registered for the (legal) sale of alcohol.
In the 1960s the records begin to mention the problem that was to trouble the Club for two decades, the burglaries, encouraged by the presence of the bar, that became steadily more frequent. Nevertheless, the growing confidence of the Club was evident in the general tone of the Newsletters and the members continued to improve their, facilities, strengthening security, refurbishing the social rooms and, with the help of Birkenhead Brewery, installing a larger bar and comfortable furniture. The boathouse was re-racked to cope with the growing fleet of boats. A new floating stage was commissioned from Cubbins, the local boat yard and the Club continued rowing strongly throughout the 1960s and 1970s, usually entering four eights in the North of England H.o.R. and three or four in the London Head. In 1965 five eights were entered in the North of England and in 1966 no less than six. In 1967 the sixth eight was a joint crew with Wallasey Grammar School, who were themselves racing very successfully while maintaining close links with the Club. In 1968 the Club produced its best Head results so far, the first crew finishing 4th in the North of England H.o.R. and 36th in the London H.o.R. In 1967 the first eight again competed at Henley Royal in the Thames Cup, beginning a new period of regular Henley entries. In 1969 entries were made in the Thames Cup, the Wyfold Cup and the Britannia Cup.
In 1962 the Club organized its own head race for the first time, The Head of the Float, rowed in December each year. As the distance between bridges is only about 1300 metres which, with space for marshalling, means about 1200 metres available for racing. Crews race twice over the course, once in each direction and this means that the race is entirely fair, any variation in conditions cancelling out. Entries were initially low, the newsletters recording that the fifteen eights in 1967 constituted a record, but the event has become steadily more popular and entry numbers in the region of eighty have become the norm, even though the exposed nature of the water has meant that it has occasionally been unrowable and the event has been cancelled on the day.
Satisfactory numbers of regatta events were won during this period, with peaks in 1968 (18 wins), 1974 (17 wins) and 1978 (19 wins).
In September 1970 the Club took a significant step forward, albeit somewhat hesitantly. A womens’ four raced at five regattas and it is recorded that “Ladies’ rowing at the Club, if only on a trial basis, has been another feature, not universally popular but a sign of the times. The ladies have enjoyed their sport and few members can claim to have been embarrassed or inconvenienced.” In 1973, after what seems to have been a strongly argued debate, the rules were amended so that ladies could be admitted to Associate membership. Full membership was not allowed, it being argued that the boathouse could not provide the separate changing facilities felt to be necessary. At the AGM in 1975 however, a proposal that women be admitted to full membership was carried; it appears that lady Associate members, perhaps having taken matters into their own hands, were already training and racing in the Club boats and their entitlement to do so needed to be regularised. During 1977 steps were taken to positively encourage women’s rowing and a female changing room was constructed. The same year the Club ladies won Women’s Novice Fours and the nineteen wins of he following year, 1978, included three Women’s Senior Fours wins and the newsletter reported that “Women’s rowing is now well established on he West Float”.
In the early 1970s vandalism and theft was becoming a serious problem and in one year it was recorded that the losses wiped out the entire bar profit. The Club made considerable efforts to improve security but genuine security in a wooden building was obviously not achievable. Thieves had only to remove a section of wall boarding to gain entrance. Fortunately the vandals did not seem to want to damage the boats.
In the centenary year, 1984, membership was down a little on the peak years and the Club was able to enter only three eights in the North of England H.o.R. Nevertheless, the members made a big effort to have a special year, rowing as much as possible, inviting all the old members they could contact to a centenary dinner and generally enjoying themselves. The rowing was reasonably successful although a majority of the sixteen regatta events won were sculling events. The Club newsletter records that “The Centenary year was a great success with many old members returning to the Club, renewing friendships and making new ones.”
However, it is in this year that the records first begin to mention the running down of the dock estate consequent on the general reduction in shipping. This was very much a mixed blessing. The smaller numbers of ships made rowing less likely to be interrupted and the cleaner water made it pleasanter. On the other hand however, the dock estate was gradually falling into disuse, the flour mills were being taken down, the Dock Company were not inclined to spend money protecting empty docks and the Club suffered from the reduction in the presence of security at the gates and the cessation of the former regular patrols. The Dock Company’s long term plans at that time involved filling in two of the graving docks adjoining the boathouse and establishing a container base over the entire site, including the land occupied by the Club. They were sympathetic to the Club’s need to find another site and, although initially proposing to charge a commercial rental that the Club could not possibly have afforded, soon reverted to their traditional attitude of great generosity to the Club and offered the new site for a purely nominal rental. In the meantime however, the increasing dereliction of the area encouraged vandalism, which began to be more frequent. Of 1989 it was recorded that “We lost all our mains supplies, gas, water and electricity through either accidental damage or vandalism. We had innumerable break-ins, resulting in the loss of all the copper wiring, the wall heaters and, would you believe, the chinaware from the toilets. During the summer all the bar supplies were stolen, even big barrels were taken.”
In1986/87, despite having obtained a grant towards the purchase of two new fours and oars, the committee was worrying about the low number of active members and the deteriorating situation in which the Club found itself. Initial designs for a new boathouse were prepared but without any real idea as to how it could be financed. It was obviously going to cost at least £150,000. On 16th August 1990 the local vandals brought matters to a head when they set fire to the Boathouse and burned it to the ground. The sole consolation to be derived from this catastrophe was that only the previous week the members had responded to the increasing severity of the problem by moving nearly all the boats out of the Boathouse to members’ gardens and other unlikely storage places.
To enable some rowing to continue the Club bought a metal freight container large enough for boat storage but a new boathouse was now an imperative. Fortunately the Club had been expecting to have to move and a lot of preparatory work had already been done. With a tremendous effort and the generous help of the Dock Company, a new boathouse, albeit only a shell of four walls and a roof, was erected early in 1991 and the quay wall was altered so as to give the Club water access at that point. With the aid of a grant and a loan from the Sports Council, floors and stairways and toilet were added, racking was installed and the place became usable, although only by those of spartan disposition, during 1992/93.
The following years were difficult ones, the Club finding itself in something of a Catch 22 situation. Although urgently needing to expand the active membership by taking in new members, the facilities to cope with a significant influx of novice oarspeople, especially Juniors, were simply not there. Changing and toilet facilities are very limited and the fleet much reduced. Although a small but steady flow of new members continued to join and the Club continued to row with the occasional regatta success, the only real solution to the problem, completion of the boathouse and restoration of the fleet, required a lot of money. An application for major Lottery funding was prepared. This in itself was found to be a major exercise, not helped by the fact that the authorities moved the goal posts at least twice, making additional demands that enforced considerable recasting of the application. Members made donations on a sufficient scale to cover the proportion of the total cost that the Club was required to fund and the application was submitted.
Happily, approval was received in 2001 and the funds, in excess of half a million pounds, were spent during the next two years. The boathouse, now a high standard rowing facility, undoubtedly one of the finest in the north-west, was completed and was formally opened by Sir Steve Redgrave in April 2004. The upper floor provides male and female changing and shower facilities, a training room (also usable for social and conference purposes), a bar lounge, a kitchen and a committee room. There is central heating throughout the upper floor (very comforting in the winter) and there is a lift for disabled access.
Since then we have installed a new thirty-metre pontoon that completely eliminates the problems we used to have with varying levels of water in the Float and we have enlarged our fleet so that we are approaching the number of boats we would like to have.
We have an active Junior section and we also operate Project Oarsome with two local schools. Adult membership is increasing steadily, as quickly as we are able to cope with it. We have not made any organized attempt to recruit new members but have simply accepted those who have come to us, whether as friends of existing members or just walking in and saying they would like to try rowing; a faster rate of intake would give us problems.
All in all, the feeling in the Club is that the optimism of 2001 is now being justified and we look forward eagerly to the future.