Even from its earliest days London’s fire brigades have had its firemen rowing boats on the River Thames. In fact, the very first firemen, in James Braidwood’s time, recruited sailors and Thames Lightermen and Watermen into the London Fire Engine Establishment as his firemen. Besides the qualities that these men brought to his fire brigade Braidwood realised that virtually nearly every building on or near the River Thames was associated with ships and the various cargoes these craft brought into, or carried from, London and its many docks. In fact the Pool of London was given the title of ‘the larder of London.
London first fire-floats were powered by oars, so who better to man them than firemen who knew the ways of the river. For many years the fire brigade remained the predominant occupation of former sailors, as it was only these men who were accepted as recruits into Capt. Massey Shaw’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade, although this requirement was later dropped by the London County Council, and after the name of the brigade had been changed to the London Fire Brigade in 1904. However, firemen rowing boats, or skiffs, did not change for many years, although it was not seen in such a sporting sense back then. There function were mainly fire service related, such as firemen rowing hose ashore at a riverside blaze by skiff from the fire-float. This was required either because of the state of the tide or the lack of sufficient draught, which prevented the fire-float(s) getting anywhere near the river’s bank.
It is not certain exactly when the first Thames rowing competition involving firemen took place. However in 1906 the first LFB river race was recorded. It started when the firemen of the Alpha fire-float, moored at Blackfriars, challenged the Royal Naval ratings of HMS President, moored a short distance away on the Victoria Embankment, to a Whaler Race on the Thames. With the exception of the War years the Whaler Race was held every year after that. By 1911 a crew from the Metropolitan Police River Police joined in the annual race. By 1923 a team from the Royal Naval Reserve brought the competing crews to four.
Prior to the start of the First World War in 1914, London’s firemen had held a regatta on the River Thames. Competition between station crews had been popular in the London fire brigade for years. Pathe` Newsreels records various forms of competitions taking place at the turn of the century at the London Fire Brigade’s headquarters in Southwark Bridge Road. These competitions, against the clock, included both Pump competitions, wheeled escape competitions. By 1918 Pathe` had even recorded footage of the London firemen’s Thames regatta.
Tragically 1918 was the same year in which Fireman Edward T Woolf, who was stationed at the Cannon Street fire station, drowned whilst practicing for a regatta off Chelsea Reach, near Pimlico in Westminster. His boat capsized and its crew of four fell into the Thames. Whilst three of the crew struggled to the nearby foreshore Edward Woolf never surfaced. His body was later recovered from the murky waters of the Thames.
From 1904, until the Second World War, the London Fire Brigade was divided into six districts, A to F. Firemen rowed representing for their respective districts. These districts later were reorganised into just four Divisions (A-D) after the War, and when the fire service returned to Local Authority control in 1947. The format of the Whaler races essentially remained unchanged for the next seventy years or so. Divisional competitions, followed by the Brigade inter-divisional competitons and the winners representing the Brigade in the Fishmongers Cup race. Teams of five, together with a coxswain, each rowing the one and half ton clinker-built naval whalers.
With the opening of the new Lambeth, London Fire Brigade headquarters, located on the Albert Embankment, and its new river fire station a regular Thames whaler race course was established in 1937. The starting point was mid-stream and directly opposite Lambeth river station. The crews rowed the one mile six hundred yard course downstream to HMS President, the finish line. In the wake of the whalers a flotilla of spectator craft followed the crews. The sound of cheering and their yells of encouragement echoing across the river.
The London County Council had funded the impressive Royal George Trophy, to commemorate King George VI opening the new headquarters the same year. With the winners name inscribed on the trophy, it was kept on public display in the main entrance lobby and Memorial Hall in glass fronted cabinets. Cabinets which were filled with a striking collection of silverware that had been presented to the Brigade and the Brigade’s competition cups and various shields. The annual Brigade whaler race winners also each received an engraved pint sized tankard whilst the runners up took home a half-pint tankard.
The races traditionally took place on a Saturday afternoon, but training for the event on that stretch of water took place at any time the individuals could get together on the Thames. The winning Divisional crews were frequently granted special leave, when on duty, to get in extra training, especially if their Divisional Officer thought his team had a good chance of winning that year. The Brigade winners were certainly given some leeway to increase their performance. After all the Brigade’s reputation was at stake.
It was not unknown for furtive figures to be seen skulking along the riverside trying to see how the opposition were performing in training, especially the Metropolitan Police river service with whom the Brigade battled for supremacy.
Just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, one of the twelve great livery companies of the City of London, donated a magnificent challenge cup for the annual inter-service whaler race, hence the current name of the race being the Fishmonger’s Cup. The Fishmongers Cup become a popular highlight in friendly inter-service rivalry. After 1947 the London Fire Brigade had established itself in a dominant role, and became the first crew’s to achieve more than three consecutive victories.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the LFB won the Fishmongers Cup more times than it lost it. By the 1970s the Bridge’s winning crew were engaged in wider rowing competitions too. They held a commendable record in the Ports Jubilee Regatta Whaler Races.
Not satisfied with just whaler racing in the early 1970s the Brigade established the marathon skiff race. The skiff were slightly shorter and lighter than the whalers and made of fibre-glass, not timber. This was a thirty-one mile slog from the Lambeth headquarters to Eel Pie Island, Twickenham. And back. A good winning time was in the region of five and a half hours non-stop rowing, a time that eroded as the race progressed over the years. Eight to ten teams entered the annual event, some Divisions being less than enthusiastic about rowing on the Thames than others. However, for those that did they could all guarantee one thing; blisters on their hands and backsides, and very aching limbs by the end of the marathon pull. Competition was keen amongst the teams. It is a testament to the endurance, strength and stamina of the competitors that in a particular race that decade only sixteen minutes separated the winning crew, in a record time, and the tenth crew that brought up the rear.
Firemen in rowing boats did have a far more serious side too, no more so than at the Lambeth’s River fire station where its crew were occasionally required to pull for all that they were worth for a much different reason. When someone’s life depended on their combined skill and the speed in reaching them in time in the fireboat’s skiff. The skiff was normally attached to the fireboat, and was towed behind it whenever proceeding to a fire or special service call on the river. However, the practice with anyone reported to have jumped into the Thames in the vicinity of the river station was that some of the fireboat’s crew jumped immediately into the skiff and rowed to the person in the water, whilst the fireboat started up her engines, cast off and backed up the skiff crew. It was a system that worked and lives were saved because of it.
Firemen rowing on or along the River Thames had occasionally more to do with just racing each other. It actively involved raising money for charity. Very occasionally it involved more than just the River Thames. Three teams of south London firemen, mainly from Brixton fire station undertook such a challenge in August 1981. They rowed a naval whaler from Paris to London in relays and hopefully, in the process, row themselves into the record books in addition to raising thousands of pounds for two national well known charities.
Their efforts had to be independently adjudicated. Two sea-faring men had come forward to take on the task. One was a Master Mariner from the International Marine Organisation and the other was Lieutenant Commander Mike Bedwell of the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR), from HMS President (then still based in the heritage ship, moored alongside the Victoria Embankment. The RNR were the owners of the naval whaler used for the exploit.
Mike Bedwell published a report of his first contact with London Firemen in both his own in-house magazine and the award winning magazine of the London Fire Brigade. This is an abridged version of his original story.
“ ‘Your sleeping space is a bit primitive but it’s all been swept out.’ I had to take Station Officer Dave Pike’s word for the swept bit, for the primitiveness of the penthouse area of Brixton fire station extended to the wiring which makes a gallant, but vain, attempt to bring amps to dark places.
However it was only to be for one short night since at the crack of dawn we had to be on the 6.30 a.m. SEALINK Dover to Calais ferry. All this in preparation for the London Fire Brigade’s self-inflicted challenge of rowing one of the Royal Naval Reserve’s whaler’s back from Paris into the heart of London. I got in on the act as both an interpreter and, more importantly, as an adjudicator for the Guinness Book of Records, whose pages the firemen hoped to grace.
The following day started at 3.00 a.m. An hour only made possible by my first taste of firemen’s coffee and their style of banter, which I was to become all too familiar with in the succeeding days. I meet David Bruce, my fellow adjudicator who owned up to being a Master Mariner and was therefore a natural for taking charge of the Calais-Dover-London legs. I was also introduced to the delightful Henrietta, employed as a second interpreter and luscious leavener of this otherwise all male loaf.
The journey to Paris went like clockwork, thanks largely to the generosity of Sealink, the main sponsor. The co-operation of the French police and firemen. We benefitted from the French firemen’s hospitality when we stayed, as their guests, in the biggest ‘sapeur pompiers’ barracks in Paris. That evening we were treated to a meal that was light years away from my previous evenings foray to a Brixton chippy.
Memories of the rest of the week became increasingly blurred as the marathon row progressed. Raw details were of course recorded in the official log, maintained by David Bruce and myself: times under way, in and out of locks, changes of crew, (a maximum of fifteen rowers formed the three crews, rowing in relays).
The French waterways was usually interesting, never stupendous and sometimes monotonous. Most of the locks were large commercial affairs, only on the Canal de Calais did we encounter a do-it-yourself English style lock. Elsewhere the locks were somewhat inhuman monuments of hydraulic architecture watched over from Heathrovian control towers with whose countless steps we interpreters became all too familiar. Often we were required to sweet-talk the lock keeper into allowing us priority over other commercial craft, a task which was made easier with the French tolerance of ‘crazy English’ and by the thoroughness with which Dave Pike had done his homework on letter-writing and jacking up presentation plagues.
It was the people rather than the place that made the event so special. There can be no occupation that transcends nationality more than that of the fireman and the camaraderie that was so evident between the Londoners and their French opposite numbers was enough to melt the most chauvinistic heart. More than once I was in one of the escorting vans when we found ourselves outside a fire station. In fact by the end of the week I was beginning to believe it was no coincidence. Within minutes we would have our feet under the table with people we had never meet before. Helmets would be exchanged, equipment would be demonstrated, corks would be drawn and perhaps most welcome of all to a reluctant camper like myself, hot showers could be taken.
For those lucky enough to be in the whaler at the time, Messrs Dolezal, Bryant, Pryke, Pike and Rance plus yours truly, the most treasured memory must be our arrival at a small village near Noyon. It was towards evening and we were behind schedule but the local part-time ‘pompiers’ had turned out in their best bib and tucker to line the approach to the next lock. It would have been churlish to have refused the Champagne that, after the obligatory mayoral words, awaited us.
But my final words must be for the rowers themselves and here there is no need to exaggerate. Their unconventional technique and style might raise an eyebrow on the least anchor-like of naval faces, but for sheer guts, stamina and determination no praise is too high. One day they were struggling through the very disturbed waters of the Canal du Nord under an unkind sun, the next toiling through the Canal de Calais, who’s neglected, weed infested water had the consistency of undercooked packet minestrone. Finally, of course, came the biggest challenge of the Channel and the River Thames, which was accomplished under tug escort in something under 34 hours of non-stop relay rowing, a third of them plugging adverse currents which for one frustrating hour allowed less than half a mile to be covered.
All this was done not under the cloistered steak-for-breakfast regime with which Oxford crews prepare for their annual paddle but in expedition conditions where sleep was often short and the food, for all the valiant efforts of the chef, Bob Irwin, was notable more for its carbohydrate than its protein. Minor tension were inevitable but these were released in an unremitting earthy and stoical humour that was designed to sting but never to injure. It was both an honour and a privilege to see at close quarters the type of individuals that make London’s fire brigade.”
By the new millennium the rowing traditions between the emergency services were in serious, and terminal, decline. It was a combination of service cut-backs and the decline of the whaler rowing boats themselves. The London Fire Brigade no longer boasts any ‘heavy’ boat section and the Fishmongers Cup has not been competed for in over a decade or more. The last Fishmongers races were competed for using Thames Cutters as no one could find four matched Whalers. The last of the emergency services to maintain a whaler were the Metropolitan Police’s heavy boat club. Even that finished when their key people retired.
Firefighters rowing on the Thames in whalers is now nothing but a distant memory. It is yet another example of a fine Brigade tradition that has become little more than a hazy reminiscence in the minds of retired river firefighters. Sadly, it also something that probably won’t features very highly in the Brigade’s own recalling of its history.