Tuesday, July 31, 2012

My own little bit of Olympic history

 I thought I'd start this post by sharing with you my American cousin's e-mail that she sent to me shortly after the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 games. Patty had been at the 1948 opening ceremony as her dad, my grandfather's cousin, was head boatsman for the US Olympic team. Patty had been on a cycling holiday in the UK and ended up at the Games by accident, when a friend who had tickets fell ill.  She still has a movie her mother made of the Ceremony. What a wonderful slice of history.

"... I spent 4 hours with you last night in London via TV.  What a performance!!  However, I couldn't help contrast it with the 1948 opening ceremony when it was ALL the athletes, real doves released, and only one torch bearer bringing in the flame -- Roger Bannister, I think.  There might have been some speeches, then the athletes came in country by country led by boys (scouts I think) carrying the country flag.  (These little boys stood in front of each country throughout the ceremony, fainting regularly in the terrific heat -- 95 I think.)  I am going to watch Mother's movie (I had it transferred to DVD) of their 1948 trip and I hope it has some of the opening ceremony on it.  The best part for me was outside Wembley Stadium mingling with all the athletes prior to the ceremonies as we tried to find Daddy.  We never did find him.  One of the gorgeous Irish athletes in his green jacket was quite taken with cousin Grace as she was a beautiful 6 foot girl.  We were so lucky to get to the opening ceremonies.  The old buddy of Daddy's in whose home we stayed in Windsor -- along with Mother and an Aunt Violet -- had precious tickets to the opening ceremony and then he came down with a terrible attack of gout and couldn't attend so we all got to go -- Mother, cousin Grace, friend Sally and me  (we three had just finished our 8 week bicycle trip throughout the British Isles).  Wonderful memories."

Our family has had a long association with rivers and boatbuilding, my dad's side of the family being one of the foremost builders of Thames Lighters. 

Photo of Thames Lighters with the family business
in the right hand corner. This is at the National Maritime
Museum although we have a better copy at home
There is a photo of their boatyard in the National Maritime Museum and  a road named after them in Southwark, where much of their business was based. 

Patty's dad, George, was the son of an itinerant boat builder from Teddington in Middlesex, who went on to become the head boatsman for Eton College, hand building racing sculls for the  college rowing team, later helped by George and his brother Richard (Dick). In 1910, Dick won the coveted Doggett Coat and Badge race, believed to be the oldest continuous sporting event in the world.  It is open to six competitors each year who are watermen, making their living on the Thames. Winners received a red coat and matching breeches as well as a large silver badge, almost the size of a dinner plate.  In the early 1900s, a victim of internal politics and rivalries at Eton, he lost his job and although his position was offered to his sons, in a show of loyalty to their father, they turned the offer down. With little work around they decided to emigrate to one of the countries of the Empire and although Australia was a favourite due to the popularity of rowing, they opted instead for Canada which had a ready supply of cedar for building the boats. 

After a hard couple of years working at logging sites around British Columbia, they accepted a commission to build a racing shell for the University of Vancouver. Soon word spread that professionally built racing sculls were available in British Columbia and before long they were contacted by the University of Washington rowing coach, Hiram Conybear, and asked to build 12 eight seater shells for the Varsity Rowing Team (known as the Huskies).  They called for their father to help and he arrived from England only to find that Coach Conybear could now only afford to build one shell. Stuck for work again, George went to work for Boeing, while Dick was asked to build racing shells for Yale University, a position he kept for the rest of his working life. Meanwhile, in 1922, George was able to return to his true passion, building the best and fastest racing sculls in the world for the University of Washington in Seattle, where the family still lives.  He is responsible for many of the innovations of modern rowing such as sliding seats, lightweight oars and a unique steering system that replaced the old tiller.

The US team edge out the Germans to win Gold
in the 8 man event at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
After an unbeaten season, the University of Washington 8 man crew won the national qualifiers for the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. The Germans were hotly tipped to win, but in a boat that George had designed especially for the Games, and in front of a crowd of 100,000 spectators, the US team came from behind to beat the German and Italians and win the Gold medal. Adolf Hitler was apparently not very happy. The boat, named the Husky Clipper, still hangs from the ceiling in the University boat house dining room.

The next Games were held 12 years later in 1948 in London and George was not only head boatsman for the US team but was also appointed coach of the four man (quad) crew. So that's how Patty ended up at the Games. George's crew won Gold in their event and, although the eights was won by the University of California, they were at least in one of his boats.

More gold medals followed at the Olympics in 1952, 1956, 1960 and 1964 before George retired from professional boat building in 1970. His son, Stan, coached several successful US Olympic rowing teams himself and in 1984 co-founded a Rowing Foundation in his father's name, to promote the sport in the Northwest of the US. It is now home to 8 rowing clubs and over 400 rowing enthusiasts and champions young rowers.

Today, although they have largely moved away from the handbuilt cedar boats to more modern fibreglass ones, George's boats are still considered some of the finest in the world. In 1999, George was voted one of Seattle's 25 most influential sports figures of the 20th Century.

The Boy has just taken up rowing and has taken to it like a duck to water. Must be the family genes. Maybe one day we'll see a member of George's family rowing one of his boats in a competition.

So there you have it. My own little bit of Olympic history. Not only that, it is this history that has reunited our two sides of the family after nearly 90 years. Growing up I had always heard the story of George and his racing shells but in 1910, when George and Dick emigrated, communication was so much more difficult and his side and my side of the family lost touch. It was while researching my family's Thames Barges that I came across the website for George's Racing Foundation. I got in touch and shortly heard back from Stan and Patty. Despite their advancing years (and I'm sure they won't mind me mentioning it) we have exchanged e-mails for the past few years and between us filled in a lot of our shared family history. Stan very kindly sent me a wonderful book he had written, his memoirs of a life in rowing, which sits proudly on my coffee table.  I'm often amazed at the strong family resemblance between us.

We found some amazing coincidences.  I've walked past their grandfather's old house in Teddington many times, not knowing of the link to our family history. Not only that but I moved to a little village on the Thames, not believing there to be any family connections at all. In fact, we'd been living in London and I had never even heard of  this particular village before.  I later discovered that George had grown up just down the road and had gone to a little village school where my own children went to nursery some 90 years later. And George's wife was called Frances Huckle, which was the same name as my best friend from primary school. A relation? That would be a coincidence too far!

I'm very proud of our family links to the Thames, to rowing and to the Olympics and it has been lovely to share Patty's memories of our little bit of Olympic history. We'll both be glued to the action at Eton Dorney, where, for our family, it really all began.

George Yeomans Pocock, master boat builder, who
changed the face of modern rowing. Taken in 1959
in his workshop


dinahmow said...

What a great post!And a nice Olympic segue.Thank you.

the fly in the web said...

That's a wonderful story!

Perpetua said...

A really great post - informative, fascinating and a wonderful little slice of history. :-)

Modern Military Mother said...

Get that boy of yours to paddle, paddle, paddle - we need to see him in Rio! #nopressure

Carol said...

That was really interesting! Amazing to be part of that history :-)

C x

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