The History of the Thames Traditional Boat Rally
From 1978 to the Present Day
The rally owes its origin to Peter Chaplin’s concerns over the demise of many unpowered craft, seen lying rotting and neglected up and down the river Thames. He therefore put up the Chaplin Trophy — awarded for the “best-restored Traditional Thames craft” — to encourage the restoration, maintenance and use of such boats, through the Teddington to Old Windsor Branch of the River Thames Society. It was decided to award the trophy at a gathering of such craft in 1977 at Paxmead in Shepperton where the Branch held their annual rally. Jocelyn Scott agreed to organise the event and Robin Newlands agreed to judge entries. The winner was a 1907 Val Wyatt double skiff owned by Arthur Neal, which was unfortunately lost in a fire at Turks of Cookham a few years later.
John Ormiston of the River Thames Society and Chairman of the Remenham Club in Henley conceived the idea that such a rally, held annually and open to anyone, could be successful, and put his idea to John Coleman the chairman of the River Thames Society. This in turn was forwarded to Sqdn. Ldr. Dennis Osland, the Middle Thames Branch Chairman. The idea was discussed at a committee meeting in October 1977 and further at a special meeting in January 1978, held to examine future branch activities. This was attended by the Branch Chairman, Sqdn. Ldr. Michael Reade and Dr. Roger Browne. The latter agreed to organise the event.
After initial consideration of the Remenham Club as a venue, it was finally decided to hold the rally at Fawley Meadow, Henley-on-Thames, with its deeper water and greater space, and where RTS rallies had been held since 1971. Dennis Osland met John Ormiston over lunch at the Leander Club in January 1978 and indicated the Branch’s willingness to take on the idea. Roger Browne remembers so clearly his first ‘on-site meeting’ with Sqdn. Ldr. Osland a few days later:
“On that spring day we walked the full length of the meadow, deep in conversation and thought, weighing up the possibilities of laying out such a Rally. There was little money and even less experience—just an empty field, and, most important, the courage and determination of the full committee to go ahead.”
The organising team was increased to about 20 and met in Roger’s home at Marlow Mills. It included Peter Chaplin, an experienced river man and traditional boat enthusiast; Dennis Drower, owner of ‘Victoria’ (at that time a steam launch) and a member of the Steam Boat Association; Ian Wellcott from Bates Boats, founder of an historical motor boat society; Robin Newlands of Thames Conservancy Division of Thames Water Authority and owner of John Coleman’s first boat ‘Wise Folly’; Cheeky Browne as barbeque organiser; and Carrie Davis in charge of entries, etc.
Without boats there would be no rally so the search was on in the limited time available. Robin already had a list of likely craft downstream of Marlow and everyone was expected to approach all likely craft and promote the event. A large tent also had to be found, at low cost, as a rally centre, and after a long search one was tracked down at Witney in Oxfordshire.
1978 So, on 23rd July 1978, after a dull start to the day, the sun came out as helpers began to arrive and, as Mrs. Audrey Osland remembers:
“…All eyes were directed to the long dusty track leading from the Marlow road to the river. Some two hours late, the lorry carrying the tent was glimpsed through a cloud of dust heading for the site – we had our headquarters! The tent was soon erected, and helpers buzzed about setting up chairs and tables. Boats arrived fitfully throughout the morning, and things gradually began to take shape. Brakspeare arrived with the beer so we had a bar, tea was prepared, and the First Traditional Boat Rally had started at 3.00pm on July 23, 1978.
“Prior to the event 30 boats had indicated their wish to attend, and of these 27 actually arrived.14 of these were skiffs, punts and gigs, the remainder assorted powered craft. Every entered boat was given an inscribed brass plate attached to a mahogany board to commemorate the occasion. 241 people paid to attend with 25 or so guests. It was however observed that many members of the general public had attended and it was obvious that there was more of a general interest than had been envisaged.
“The boat handling competition took place in the afternoon, and this was won by Tony and Gloria Mayes in their slipper-stern launch "Larchwood". This was followed by the prize-giving. In the evening the well-attended barbeque was followed by an illuminated cruise to Marsh Lock and back to the moorings. This aroused a great deal of interest from the “Angel on the Bridge” pub and the occupants of the public moorings and the properties on the islands.” (It was to become a regular feature for them every year, until sadly at some point it was decided that the illuminated cruise should go no further upstream than Henley Road Bridge.)
Nine years on Roger Browne and Audrey Osland recalled the feelings of many of those who experienced the excitement of that first rally:
“…A splendid day in every way, but little did we think it would develop into the winner it has since become. We all dispersed late that night with the beer, tea-urns and other valuables, tired out and remembering those special moments of the day;
– our water organiser, Mike Reade, held up in all the locks from Marlow in his slipper launch “Duchess of Marlow” towing Carrie Davis’s punt;
– the judges, Peter Chaplin, Wilf Hurrell and Robin Newlands examining each boat minutely for the criteria of the three trophies: The Chaplin Trophy, the Penton hook and the Bates trophy;
– Mrs Jackie Hobbs, dressed in a ravishing Victorian gown, steering the company’s 1906 skiff through the manoeuvring events;
– Mrs Audrey Osland presenting the prizes in style;
– Wing. Cdr. Jock McElwaine, in his element, organising the feeding of the multitudes at the barbeque,
– and the Fontannez family with blankets over their knees, sailing their skiff into the distance, home to Marlow….”
Above all, the organisers realised that, although thoroughly exhausted, they and their excellent team of workers had pulled off an event which had somehow ‘worked’. Attention had been focussed on the beautiful traditional craft of the river, not as in a stagnant museum, but in action, set against the magnificent backcloth of the Royal Regatta course at Henley-on-Thames.
1979 By the following year the rally developed into a much larger event with 84 craft attending and over 800 crew and RTS members. The participants were encouraged to relax and enjoy the peaceful setting, with none of the social pressures of the Royal Regatta. There were distinct advantages from holding the rally immediately after the Royal Regatta, as boats were able to attend both functions and the rally negotiated the usage of remaining facilities on the meadow. A large number of members of the public flocked to the rally as word got around.
Roger Browne had indicated from the start that he would not be the permanent organiser but would continue to be involved. A meeting was therefore organised in Henley Town Hall in October 1979 to organise the future of the event. Alan Hubbold, an active camping skiff man, agreed to take over from Roger as organiser, backed by a strong group of boating enthusiasts consisting of Chris Edgerley and his father George, Edward and Celia Lines, Nick Fontannez, Laurie Weaver of ‘Thames Esperanza’, Geoffrey Skinner of ‘Knight Errant’, Martin Bailey as hon. Sec. and Gwen Hubbold as entry co-ordinator.
1980-1982 Already the Rally was proving its worth by bringing together people of like interests. In March 1980, through the energy of Arthur Neal, Mike Dulieu, Peter Chaplin and Denys Hutchings, the Thames Traditional Boat Society was formed under the presidency of Viscount St. Davids. The aims of this society were to encourage the restoration, craftmanship, and facilities for, traditional non-motorised Thames craft, mainly skiffs, punts, dinghies and canoes, centred round traditional hand built timber craft.
Up to this point the Rally had not been a public event, but as the public had in fact attended the second rally in vast numbers it was suggested by Robin that a charge of £1 on those attending would easily cover the cost of running the event. This was eventually put into effect. Unfortunately it was also decided to charge for the traditional boats attending which resulted in a serious drop in attendance by about a third. This took 2 years to recuperate.
1983 After three years of running the Rally, Alan Hubbold and many of his team were keen to compete once again in water events, so Middle Thames Branch of the RTS organised the 1983 Rally, with Martin Bailey as organiser. The public attendance was good, with a total attendance of some 1,500 people, eighty traditional craft on show — including seven Dunkirk ‘Little Ships’ — and many modern launches as spectator craft. Even the B.B.C. Breakfast Television crew appeared, and the editor of ‘Motor Boat & Yachting’ was give the job of hammering in traffic signs on river posts because of his obvious aquatic experience!
This was the first year of the four-day Henley Festival, and the illuminated evening boat procession of the Rally, to Marsh Lock and back, was set against the Festival’s elegant candlelit Grand Ball on the Saturday night.
The Thames Vintage Boat Club was formed during the winter of 1983, not as a direct influence of the Rally but certainly encouraged by it. Paul Skerritt and Mike Ayling were considering forming a branch of the Vintage Motor Boat Club on the Thames and approached Robin Newlands with their proposal. Having over 12 years collected photographs and details of a great number of suitable vessels on the Thames he declined, but agreed to form a Thames-oriented club. Thus the TVBC came into being.
1984 The seventh (1984) Rally nearly didn’t happen as Martin had resigned and no-one was prepared to run it. Peter and Robin approached John Ormiston to be chairman with the promise that he would not have too much to do. He agreed to stand. David Jamison continued to organise the site, Gwen Hubbold nobly carried on with the entries, and Audrey Osland still supervised the outside caterers to feed the masses. Bill Gardam and Dick Petit were back-up men, Justin Pearce was on the bar, and T.V.B.C. representative Paul Skerritt made up the team.
This year the Illuminated Procession was timed to complete in time for the Henley Festival performance of Handel’s Royal Firework Music on a floating bandstand, and accompanied by a huge firework extravaganza. Altogether a spectacular evening! The rally was a great success with over a hundred boats attending.
1985 For the 1985 rally Mike Morris was put forward by the TVBC after John Ormiston indicated that he wished to retire. This year the event was organised by the RTS in conjunction with the newly-formed Thames Vintage Boat Club, and a very productive alliance was thus formed.
This was the first year that the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships featured prominently, and on Saturday evening did a re-enactment of the “Retreat from Dunkirk”. Vintage cars and a hot air balloon (giving rides) also appeared at this rally.
It was envisaged that for the next rally the event organisation should be comprised of all the participating clubs; TVBC (Thames Vintage Boat Club), TTBS (Thames Traditional Boat Society), RTS (River Thames Society), ADLS (Association of Dunkirk Little Ships), and the SBA (Steam Boat Association). This collective participation holds true right up to the present day, ever since the 1986 rally.
1986 At the 1986 Rally professionals ran the food, bar and ‘gate’ and, as Roger Browne recalls: “hot air balloons, in which we all enjoyed rides, seeing for the first time the whole site from the air... .the river packed with the traditional boats marshalled by ‘walkie talkie’ from the commentary box.”
New to this rally was the Edwardian Boating Costume Contest, and Rally Raffle. There was also a tie-up with the Henley Festival, and a special “Pageant of the River Thames” held on Saturday night after the illuminated parade, followed by the huge firework display.
1987-1989 Still run by Mike Morris and his excellent team, the rally went from strength to strength. For the first two years of this period, the famous Thames wartime fire-fighting vessel, “Massey Shaw”, provided a spectacular finale to the rally, cruising past with her incredibly powerful main pump shooting a huge water jet high into the air, as it did during the Blitz, extinguishing incendiary-bomb blazes in burning warehouses.
1990-1991 Mike Morris retired from his chairmanship of the Rally, and his place was taken by David Coulson, who was already well known to rally attendees, as the “voice” over the PA system doing the commentary in past years. Merle Jarret and the rest of the “crew” were pretty much the same, still doing a stellar job each year. Of interest is the fact that Rodney Bewes, famous from playing one of the two lead parts in the hit TV series “The Likely Lads”, gave out the trophies and prizes in 1990.
In 1991 the National Maritime Museum joined the participating organisations, and as the rally was continuing to grow ever larger and more popular (with much media attention) the committee changed the name of the event from “Traditional Boat Rally” to “Traditional Boat Festival”. Over 500 boats are now listed in the “rally register” in the programme, although obviously only a limited number of those actually came each year.
1992 Most of the existing key Rally Committee members resigned, having found that running such a large and demanding event each year was taking too severe a toll of their private lives. So a new rally organisation was formed, mainly from members of the Thames Vintage Boat Club, under the chairmanship of Fred Bourne, who, it was said later, “re-energised” the Rally. Ian Clarke was Deputy Chairman, the heavy burden of administration was taken on by Liz Cox, Sarah Bourne was Secretary, and catering was organised by Roy Mason. Neil Garside was Chief Judge, and Waterside Management was held by Grant Kinnaird. The commentary was done by Charles Payton and Martin Bailey, who have continued to be the “voice of the Rally” up to the present day. This year the date of the Rally changed from July to August. This was partly due to Fred Bourne’s prior commitment to the Brest Maritime Festival and partly due to the availability of the Henley Reach. The Boat Jumble was a new feature, and a professional video was made of the Rally by the famous “Tele-Pilot” team. This was in fact the first year when the rally was officially called “The Thames Traditional Boat Rally”.
1993 A new Special Interest Class was introduced to the Rally, including a sailing section. This category mostly applied to ‘one-off’ crafts built all over the world and of various materials and designs. At this Rally, these interesting boats were distinguished by red and white number boards.
As part of the weekend entertainment, this particular Rally introduced Hail-a-Rickshaw rides by James Welch and Model Boat Demonstrations by Michael Cox.
1994 This Rally saw the introduction of Club Sail Pasts on the Sunday, including the Bates Starcraft Sail Past, the Steam Boat Association Sail Past, the Thames Vintage Boat Club Sail Past, the Special Interest Craft Sail Past, the Sail and Unpowered Sail Past and the Ex-working Boat Sail Past.
A cruise in Victorian Steamer ‘S.L. Alaska’ or a paddle in the Dragon Boat were also offered for the first time at this Rally. Once again Mr Rodney Bewes presented the trophies and prizes. A Classic Boat Barbeque was also held this particular year.
1995 A live band and a dance floor were provided, following the illuminated boat parade on Saturday night.
1996 Stuart Wilkinson took over as Rally Chairman and Fred Bourne became the first President of the Rally. The Rally was moved back to being held towards the end of July.
The Rally commissioned the building of a 36 ft Shallop (or Royal Barge) from a Thames boatbuilder, Michael Dennett. A ceremony was held to commemorate the laying of the Shallop’s keel at this Rally. This one is a replica of the one built for Queen Mary and King William III in 1689 (similar to that seen in the film “A Man For All Seasons” where it carried King Henry VIII upriver to Hampton Court Palace).
The Old Windsor Life Saving Club gave a demonstration of life saving for the first and only time at the Rally.
1997 To mark the 20th Anniversary of the Rally, the Shallop ‘Royal Thamesis’, built over the previous year, was launched. The Michael Shanly Group became the official Rally sponsors
1998 This Rally focused on the numerous vessels that notched up their hundredth that year. A special event was held to commemorate the ‘centenarians’.
This Rally also coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the rowing Olympics held in Henley and there were scheduled events to watch the 1948 Olympic Oarsmen. This year also saw the introduction on the Boat Jumble on the Saturday, as well as the Sunday. A miniature railway was also displayed on the Upper Meadow this year.An Internet Web Site was created for the Rally by Mike Phillips and Grant Kinnaird. This is still maintained and regularly expanded by Mike, with the addition of many new photos each year, and can be found at www.tradboatrally.com
1999 Several stalwarts stepped down after distinguished service; notably Guy Cook as Rally Secretary for many years, Nick Lidiard who had built up the Boat Jumble and looked after site services, and John Fontannaz as Chief Judge.
As well as around 200 entrant boats in the Rally to see, visitors could also enjoy the various vehicles of the Rolls Royce Enthusiasts Club, the Aston Martin and Lagonda Club, the Bean Car Club and the Solent Veteran Cycle Club.
2000 Fresh from revisiting Dunkirk for the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of Operation Dynamo, a very good selection of boats from the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships (ADLS) attended the Rally. The owners of ‘Sabrina’ were presented with an award from the Transport Trust for her restoration on the steamer’s 130th birthday. Many of the sail pasts that were previously just held on Sunday were also held on Saturday. The landside vehicular exhibitions were from now on restricted to pre-war vehicles.
2001 There was concern that this Rally might have to be cancelled due to the foot-and-mouth disease. Official approval was obtained, although it was made more complicated by the fact that the Upper Meadow was in Oxfordshire and the Lower Meadow was in Buckinghamshire!
This was the first Rally where the swing-ticket was changed to a wristband. This was introduced to try to ensure that the “costs of putting on the event (around £25,000) are shared by everyone who attends” as the Chairman so tactfully put it. In other words, anyone not sporting a wristband was sent to pay their entrance fee!
The 1898 steam-driven umpiring launch “Consuta” was presented on the Sunday with the Transport Trust Restoration Award (“Consuta” still attends every Rally). There was also a special event at this Rally involving the display of Warships.
2002 The 25th Silver Rally saw quite a few changes, including the upgrade of the programme to a glossy, colourful affair, created by Peter Meech who took over PR and Advertising from Lyndon Yorke, who took over the organisation of the vintage car display.
On water there was a Camping Skiff competition/cover race, a boat handling demonstration and the TTBS skiff relay race. On land, there was the Traditional Rope Making and Knots demonstration, the Roving Jazz Band, the Traditional Herring Smoker and the Starbolins 18th Century Mess Deck experience. The famous Illuminated Parade on Saturday night was brought back to much acclaim.
Those people and boats that attended the First Rally in 1978 were given special insignia and acknowledged.
2003 Tony Goodhead became the new Chairman and Stuart Wilkinson was made the Rally’s first Vice President with Fred Bourne still as President. The Rally becomes a Limited Company.
The changes made the previous year were well received so the format was kept largely the same. The Tug of War was reintroduced by popular request and was organised by the River Thames Society. A Bouncy Assault Course and Children’s Roundabout was also provided to be enjoyed by children over the weekend.
2004 The programme of events was similar to the previous couple of years with slight changes to the running order of the various boat class sail pasts. Ticket prices are raised, the first time for five years, due to increased running costs, insurance, etc. Moorings, security, and camping facilities (including the introduction of shower blocks) are all improved and upgraded.
2005 Additional activities were added to the Rally, ranging from boat handling skills on large motor cruisers to a Victorian Sculling Race. A waterborne dramatisation of an excerpt from the book “Three Men in a Boat” was put on by Rodney Bewes (of “Likely Lads” fame) with the assistance of a skiff and a steam boat as cast.
The 1901 Steamer “Windsor Belle” made her first visit to the Rally and provided cruises up and down the Rally course for all visitors, taking over from the steamer “Alaska”.
2006 Fred Bourne, Rally President, and mainstay of the Rally since 1992, sadly passed away following a long illness. Stuart Wilkinson became the new President. A first at this Rally was the Vintage Skiff Rowing Races for the River Thames Society Trophy and a rowing demonstration by some very fit Cornish lady visitors with their gig “Waterwitch”.
2007 Our 30th anniversary, for which this history was researched and created as a display. A memorable year indeed, as this was the year the Rally coincided exactly with countrywide floods, following a massive freak rainfall on the preceding Thursday! During Friday, the flooded Rally field was pumped out by our heroic crew, and on Saturday it was “business as usual” (with the exception of no sail-pasts due to the vicious current) until 2pm on the Sunday, when we had to evacuate everyone, and watch as the river Thames rose rapidly, until the Rally field (with the marquees still in place) was under 3ft of water. Seventy seven of the larger Rally boats were in fact stranded at the Rally site for almost three weeks, making it the longest-running water-borne exhibition of traditional craft in the history of the Thames!
2008 A magnificent Rally, and very welcome after the previous year! All the usual ingredients plus lots of sunshine and lots of folk attending. Unfortunately the fly-past by the Battle of Britain squadron was cancelled due to high winds elsewhere, but a fantastic display of aerobatics by a world champion on the Sunday made up for it. One popular feature was the "petting zoo" introduced for the children.
2009 Another sunny and successful Rally, with a very good turn-out of both traditional craft and visitors. An unfortunate incident occurred when a sudden violent wind squall lifted the very large "children's bouncy slide" clean up in the air and up the field, bashing it's machinery across a number of very expensive classic cars. Star attractions were (1) the 47 ft "Watson" Class retired RNLI lifeboat "The Robert", built in 1960 by William Osborne (2) "President", a steam narrow boat built in 1909, now owned by the Black Country Living Museum and on a tour of the waterways to celebrate her centenary. She won "Best Boat at the Rally". (3) A unique "Packboat" designed by Sir Frank Whittle (of jet engine fame) that dismantles into three nested sections that fit on a car rack but assemble into a very useable dingy. Plus of course almost 200 unique traditional craft of all shapes and sizes..
2010 Sunny spells, dry weather, and a big crowd marked the 2010 Rally. This was the first year we held the Friday night "Welcome to the Rally" Dinner which has proved so successful. On the water, the "Watson" Class ex-RNLI lifeboat "The Robert" joined us again, plus a new visitor in "Garth", a sleek grey WW2 Fast Patrol Boat beautifully restored by the Coastal Motorboat Heritage. On Sunday we were thrilled to at last see the WW2 Lancaster four-engine bomber perform a low fly-past over the assembled row of Dunkirk Little Ships. As usual we had almost two hundred unique traditional boats attending, lined up in all their varnished splendour along the river bank, and showing themselves off in the many sail-pasts. The Saturday night Illuminated Parade was one of the best ever, supplemented by an "illuminated pedal-past" of the vintage cycle club.
2011 It Rained! When we tumbled from our bunks on Saturday morning to start the Rally, it was indeed a very wet scene.
However, this is England, and it is part of being English to accept the weather stoically, and proceed as usual! So we did, and people flooded in the gate,
the skippers fired up their boat engines, and under a plethora of umbrellas, yet another Trad Rally was under way!
This year the Bates Star Craft had their own stretch of bank and were there in large numbers, and nearby was an impressive cluster of Rampart motor cruisers (a new addition). A special feature of this year was the Austin Healey car display, which was quite stunning, together with the beautiful vintage Healey speedboats. Our two restored 1890's steam launches, "Pierette" and "Consuta", looked magnificent as they steamed up and down the Rally course, and "Pierette" won "Best Boat at the Rally". Another new addition this year were the talks, or illustrated lectures, held each day in the picnic tent by distinguished guest speakers - ideal for those sheltering from the showers! Very welcome guests were our friends from the "Het Zeiland Scheehout" skiff club in Holland, bringing along many of their sailing skiffs.
The feedback from boaters and visitors was that this was a most enjoyable Rally, in spite of the English weather!
The Shanly Group is the sponsor of the Rally, as it has been since 1997.
Looking back to the beginning…
Asked about his “special moments” of the very early rallies, Roger Browne remembers:
“…the magnificent sight, during the first Rally, when all the boats ‘froze’ prior ot the start of the up-river procession, in front of the hundreds of picnickers and visitors on the bank; the steam launches, elegant Edwardian motor launches,1920’s motorised canoes, sleek slipper launches and all the punts, skiffs, gigs and dinghies — many dating from the previous century — all stationary, and creating a panorama not witnessed for many years on the river…”
“…I recall the despair of my wife, Cheeky, at the ‘79 Rally, when by 4pm none of her helpers had turned up to prepare the barbecue for 650 people; and how Robin Newlands’ family, from ‘Wise Folly’, and others, came to her rescue, helping the Rally to earn a handsome profit.”
Roger recalls Audrey Osland and her helpers, boiling in a tent while serving non-stop teas and snacks during a heatwave; putting up l000ft of chestnut fencing himself, wearing shorts and vest, in the early hours of Saturday morning at the start of the ‘83 Rally, because the fencing had not been delivered on Friday as arranged — and enlisting the help of anyone walking by.
And he remembers the wonderful support of so many organisations over the years; the Thames Water Authority and the crews of their patrol boats; the St. Johns Ambulance and Thames Rescue Service teams; the local scouts groups, the Royal Life Saving association, and the fifty or more individuals who always made the Rally a success, a special event of the year, so that people went away feeling they had enjoyed themselves and that river craft were safe for another year.
Perhaps his most memorable occasion was during the 1986 Rally when:
“...The armada of boats was ‘held’ for an hour above Henley Bridge, to await the signal to proceed in procession in front of the Henley Festival audience. There were boats in clusters, with crews and friends swapping experiences and drinks — with human ‘refuelling’ at the nearby ‘Angel on the Bridge’ pub — steam drifting slowly in the summer night, navigation and decorative lights reflected in the calm water…
That was a sight to be remembered....”
The Purpose of the Thames Traditional Boat Rally:
(Sources: “25 Thames Years” by Angela Perkins, published by the River Thames Society; Robin Newlands; every Rally Programme I could get my hands on, kindly loaned by Sandra Sanders and others, and several other folk who have been coming to Rallies much longer than me. Any mistakes are my responsibility alone! Mike Phillips (webmaster, photographer, etc. to the TTBR))
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