By Ingrid Shearer, Ged O’Brien and Dr Fiona Skillen
ROWING ON THE CLYDE
Once upon a time, the waters of the Clyde were alive with boats. A close inspection of Sulman’s 1864 aerial view of the river at Glasgow Green shows a wide array of craft bustling up and down and crisscrossing the river. Amongst the small sailing boats, ferries, skiffs, barges and steam dredgers, you can pick out the narrow, slender hulls of racing’ shells’. These competitive rowing boats were direct descendants of naval boats, the gigs and jollyboats (a misnomer according to anyone who rowed them), once used to ferry personnel to and from ships. Carbon fibre and plastic have replaced wood as the dominant construction materials today, but the basic form of the racing shell has changed little from the mid-1800s.
THE WEST BOATHOUSE
Today, if you wander along the river from Glasgow Green eastward along the Clyde, you can still see boats out on the water. There are currently six competitive rowing clubs based upstream of the tidal weir. The two oldest surviving clubs, Clyde Amateur Rowing Club (founded 1865) and Clydesdale Amateur Rowing Club (founded 1856), have shared the West Boathouse since its construction in 1905. It is currently undergoing extensive restoration and upgrading works by Glasgow Building Preservation Trust and will reopen later this year.
THE FIRST ROWING REGATTA
The first known advertised rowing regatta on the upper reaches of the Clyde dates to August 1830. A handbill held in Glasgow University Library’s Special Collections details a two-day event with five clubs competing. The sport was slow to develop in the early years and inhibited by the unsuitability of the river. The Clyde was busy with other craft, tidal, and increasingly polluted with waste from industries upstream. In 1852, a new lock and weir were constructed at a site just east of the current tidal weir, replacing the old weir downstream at Stockwell Street. This new structure artificially raised and maintained the water levels upstream and created a 6 km stretch of level, non-tidal water – perfect for rowing. The sport took off, and Glasgow Green and the Gorbals became the city’s home of competitive rowing clubs.
TAKING A PUNT
Betting on races was a big draw for spectators – the Glasgow Herald regularly reported crowds in excess of 30,000 lining the riverbanks to watch the action. Rowing was the spectator sport in the city up until the 1870s, when it was eclipsed in popularity by football. As well as ‘amateur’ clubs there were also ‘professional’ clubs. Amateur and professional status was a distinction that featured in many sports at the time. It was designed to enforce class structures and excluded ‘working men’ (i.e. tradesmen and manual labourers) from joining amateur clubs and leagues. The printers were especially prevalent amongst the trades and held their own regattas. The Printers Regatta of 1881 had crews representing most of the major printing houses in the city, including MacLehose, McCorquodale’s, Glasgow University Press, Blackie & Sons, Collins and Wm Hodge & Co. Eventually, these individual clubs merged to form the Glasgow Printing Trade Club, a forerunner of Glasgow Rowing Club.
By the mid-1800s, interest in all sports was growing exponentially, and Glasgow Green was the epicentre of games and recreation in the city. Many clubs shared members across several sports and would switch from rowing in the summer months to football, athletics or boxing over the winter to keep themselves fit, try out new sports and develop new skills. Glasgow Green was particularly fertile ground for sporting crossover.
There is still some dispute about whether Clyde or Clydesdale ARC were most instrumental in forming Rangers FC in 1873, though the truth likely lies in a mix of the two. An early team photograph of Rangers FC in 1877 shows players in their original team strip, which featured a light blue, six-pointed star on the jersey – the traditional colours and badge of Clyde ARC, still in use today. This suggests a potential connection between the clubs in the early days. There are also tantalising hints that Clydesdale ARC had some hand in the clubs formation. Club minute books from this period document complaints that some members were spending too little time on the water and too much time of the Green playing football!
Ladies rowing races, usually held as part of regattas, were not uncommon in the late 1800s and are reported in newspaper coverage of the time. They were seen as an ‘amusing spectacle’ and a novelty for the onlookers. Rowing was an exclusively male sport at this time, and, with a few exceptions, women were mostly relegated to a supporting role – organising the social aspects of club life and launching new boats.
For a brief period in the early 1890s, ‘Mrs Geddes’ ran a ‘Ladies Rowing Club’ from the steps of the Glasgow Humane Society. This is presumably a reference to Mary Geddes, the wife of George Geddes, officer at Glasgow Humane Society. Mary’s new club appears to have met with some resistance from the younger members of the rowing, but Ben Bow, aquatics correspondent of The Scottish Referee, was having none of it:
Sadly, it seems Mary’s club was short-lived. On 17 June 1895, Ben Bow (Junior), reporting on the Glasgow and Daily Press Printers Regatta, noted: ‘A pleasing feature was the number of young ladies in rowing boats. From all appearance rowing has ‘caught on’ with the ‘weaker sex’. What a pity Mrs Geddes gave up her young ladies rowing club!’
Clydesdale Amateur Rowing Club had a ladies section for a few years in the late 1930s, but this fell into abeyance after WWII. It was not until the early 1980s that clubs along the river began to admit women as full members. Over the intervening 40 years, the women rowers of the river have gone from strength to strength. Clyde-based club alumni include Olympians and World Champions such as Gillian Lindsay, Karen Bennett, Ali Watt, Imogen Walsh and Polly Swann. As Ben Bow would say…‘ Ladies, your health; go on and prosper’.
C Dodd, The Story of World Rowing, (Hutchinson, 1992).
W F Gow, Swirl of the Pipes: History of Water and Sewerage in Strathclyde, (Strathclyde Regional Council, 1996).
G O’Brien, Played in Glasgow, (Malavan Media, 2010).
Ingrid Shearer is Heritage Engagement Officer for Glasgow Building Preservation Trust, a charity that rescues, repairs and repurposes historic buildings for the benefit of their communities. A former archaeologist, she has worked in the heritage sector for over 25 years. Her practice is embedded in the principle that heritage matters and has the potential to change people’s lives in a positive way.
Ged O’Brien is the founder of the Scottish Football Museum at Hampden Park. He is the discoverer of Andrew Watson: the world’s most influential player of colour. He is the author of ‘Played in Glasgow’ and is currently writing ‘The Scottish Game: How Scotland invented Modern World Football’.
Dr Fiona Skillen is a senior lecturer in History in the Department of Social Sciences, in the School for Business and Society at Glasgow Caledonian University. Her research interests concern modern history, in particular aspects of sport, gender and popular culture. She is particularly interested in women’s sport during the late 19th and 20th centuries and has published extensively in this area including her monograph Sport, Women and Modernity in Interwar Britain (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2013). She is a former Chair of British Society of Sport History, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and an editor of the International Journal of the History of Sport.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
- Find out more about sport on the Green in the other two blogs in the series: Part One and Part Two
- Join us for our online talk, ‘Glasgow: The Home of Modern World Football’ by Ged O’Brien on Wednesday 16th March
- Check out our Gallus Glasgow map and explore more stories of the Victorian city. Once there, why not add a few stories of your own?
- Prints of the map are available to buy in our online shop