Tamesis Club played a significant role in the development of dinghy racing on the River Thames over the past century and was closely associated with great names in small boat design like Linton Hope, Morgan Giles and Uffa Fox. Founded in 1885 as a spin off from Thames SC at Surbiton, its first club room was at Alfred Burgoine’s boat house at Hampton Wick, where many of the members’ boats were moored. Tamesis moved to its present site – then an island – in 1901 after a fire at the original premises. A new clubhouse, described as “a typical late Victorian bungalow”, was built a few years later. It has been enlarged and modified several times but the basic core of the original structure is still recognisable. A boat store and changing rooms were built in 1960 and a new boat shed in 1973.
The extension of the railway network into the Thames valley in 1870 opened up the river to commuters and pleasure boaters and the waterway, previously used mainly by heavy trading barges, rowers and fishermen, soon became used for experiments with sail on gigs, dinghies and canoes.
Tamesis joined four other river clubs to form the Sailing Boat Association in 1888 and was closely involved in the improvement of the handicapping rules introduced in 1881 by the newly formed Yacht Racing Association. A pattern of river sailing was established by 1897 in which the Easter regatta at Tamesis opened the season, with boats being towed up river to Upper Thames SC for Bourne End week in June, and many members then sailing at other clubs or at sea, returning to Teddington for the autumn regatta in September. The season ended with a laying up supper of steak, kidney and oyster pie in the boat shed in October.
Sailing turnouts peaked in 1953, when The Spectator compared Teddington reach to a minature Cowes, with 450 dinghies on the water at the autumn regatta. The Easter regatta of 1957 had more than 200 starters and the reach “was smothered in sail”.
In the early years Tamesis held races for open Surbiton gigs of 12 to 18 ft, followed in the 1890s by A and B Raters. Twelve members bought and raced A Raters between 1895 and 1909 but after 1919 the A Raters moved back to Thames SC, leaving Tamesis as the home of the smaller B Raters.
Based on Uffa Fox’s Avenger design, the International 14 was introduced in 1930 and it soon became the premier class. Early helmsmen included Peter Scott, Harold Morris and his son Stewart, who went on to win the Prince of Wales Cup 12 times and a gold medal at the 1948 Olympics. National 12s came to the club in 1935, and winter sailing was introduced a year later but lapsed during the war, and was not restarted until 1957.
The National 18 was brought to the club just before the Second World War, during which Tamesis members trained RAF fighter pilots how to rig and sail rubber dinghies in case they had to bail out over the sea. The class did not really start to flourish until 1949, however, and eventually ousted the B Raters and gigs. Tamesis is one of three English clubs with a fleet of National 18s. It is responsible for organising the national championship one year in every four, with the others at coastal clubs in Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man.
The 14ft Merlin, designed by Jack Holt in 1943, arrived in 1949 and gradually displaced the more expensive International 14 to become the club’s largest class. Brian Southcott won the Merlin championships with Adrian Legg in 1959, 1961 and 1963. He later became Vice Chairman, Chairman and Hon. Treasurer of the Royal Yachting Association and went on to become Hon. Treasurer of the International Yacht Racing Union and its successor, the International Sailing Federation. Tamesis has one of the widest collections of Merlin Rocket designs racing every week, ranging from very early holt designs to the latest in Merlin tech.
The Firefly was adopted soon after its launch in 1947, with Wally Maddison (Commodore of Tamesis from 1965-67) as the first secretary of its class association, and it eventually replaced the National 12. Fireflies became the main focus of the club’s team racing in the late 1950s and a Tamesis team won the RNVR national team racing championship in 1963, beating Castaways in the final. The following year a team of Tamesis 14s, Merlins, 12s and Fireflies beat teams from other London clubs to win the Royal Thames YC’s Serpentine Cup on Hyde Park lake. The trophy was later re-presented by Tamesis for an annual inter-club team race at Teddington.
International Cadets first appeared at the Easter Regatta of 1953 and by the 1970s Tamesis had the largest Cadet fleet in the UK, producing more than a dozen boats in the top five of the championship over the years. These included helmsmen like Brian Saffery Cooper, who represented Britain in the 1964 Olympics and was later a member of a winning Admiral’s Cup team, and Chris Law, winner of two Finn Gold Cups, who sailed in the 1984 Olympics and went on to win nine international match racing championships and to helm two America’s Cup challengers. Robert Cruikshank won a bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics crewing in a Soling. Sarah Ayton and Sarah Webb won gold medals in the Yngling class at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.
Although there was a singled-handed trophy for Fireflies, Tamesis resisted the adoption of a true single-handed class until Lasers arrived in 1975. Now the club’s second largest class, the Lasers have their own, popular biennial up-river race to Thames Ditton. Other classes like Fireballs, Enterprises, Illusions and Optimists, have come and gone as their suitability for racing on this challenging stretch of the Thames was tested and found wanting.
To cater for members who graduated from racing dinghies to yachts, an offshore race and rally was started in 1973 by Jack Tuson and Bill Pettitt (Commodore from 1977-79), with the inaugural race from Yarmouth to Poole. Tuson donated a trophy and the event soon became known as Jack’s Trip. It is now held annually in the Solent, attracting up to 15 yachts.
Club membership grew slowly in the early days, reaching 84 by 1914 but was boosted by the surge in dinghy sailing after 1945 and rose to 446 in 1959, peaking at 500 in 1985, the club’s centenary year. A few members welcomed ladies as crew in the early years and one, Annie Taylor, built her own sailing punt in 1896, but it was not until 1932 that associate membership for ladies was introduced and full membership was not achieved until 1949.
This brief history is taken from a 90-page illustrated book entitled The History of Tamesis Club written by club member and Merlin sailor Berry Ritchie and published in 2002. Copies are on sale at the club, price £10, and can be ordered by post with an additional fee of £2.50 to cover post and packing.
Pictures of sailing at Tamesis in the early years from 1885 onwards can be viewed by clicking on the following link created by Carolyne Vines from old photographs copied by Camilla Colley: