Thursday, 24 April 2008

Rowing, Sculling and Am-dram

Frederick Vincent Brooks intriguingly entitles chapter 11 of his autobiography 'Theatrical memories'. Sadly we do not have this entry and cannot shed light on whether a humble 'first dramatic venture', on an occasion of the West London Rowing Club, led to further board-treading by our author.

The occasion referred to is documented in a programme we have found and records an address penned and presented by Frederick at St. George’s Hall, Langham Place, Regent Street. This venue originally opened as a concert hall for the New Philharmonic Society on April the 24th 1867 and in 1878 was being leased to amateurs for theatre productions.

F.V Brooks was for many years Captain of the West London Rowing Club and as the column in Vanity Fair attests, helped win the Thames Cup at Henley in 1876.

Dickens Dictionary of the Thames states that "Wandsworth is the head-quarters of the West London, a club which has the credit of having originated many years ago the athletic sports which are now so interesting a feature in London life."

Birley confirms that such rowing clubs popularised out of season activities such as the boxing, high jump and even the tug-of-war to maintain their competitors fitness and raise funds.

Dickens continues that "West London Rowing Club, founded in 1856, and consequently one of the oldest clubs on the river. Election by ballot of members, one black ball in five excludes. Entrance fee, £1 1s. Subscription £2 2s. for active, £1 1s. for non-active members. Members are permitted to take up life membership on certain conditions. Colours, scarlet and white stripes. Boat-house, Putney."

Programme of the Amateur Dramatic Entertainment, given at St. George’s Hall, Langham Place, by the West London Rowing Club, Saturday Evening, March 23rd 1878

An Address written and delivered by F.V. Brooks, (Captain W.L.R.C.) on the occasion of the West London Rowing Club

“ Brief words while actions wait are well,
The prompter’s hand is now upon the bell.”
And yet I must, although I gain your censure,
Just speak of this, our First Dramatic venture.
An old friend said ; who, it matters not,
Let’s show the world how many friends we’ve got.
Agreed ! Agreed ! ! Let us not lose a day,
But you, of course, must show to us the way.
Boxing ! Fencing ! ! Bayonet and Sabre ! ! !
Or “ Tug of War,” to show how we could labour
At pulling guns in front of hostile forces,
If England’s army should be short of horses.
No! there are competitions without end,
And competitions, Ladies can’t attend.
Ah ! That’s your weakness ; Well, you may laugh,
But of all our friends, they form the better half,
Who never fail to cheer us with their faces,
Whene’er a steamboat follows with our races.

This is such a theatre-going age,
For one short night we’ll try to walk the stage.
What shall we play ? Gilbert ? Farnie ? Reece ?
No ; we’ve a Member who has writ a piece.
This we can have, if we’ll but engage
To put it fairly on the stage.
Whose can it be ? Are you bewitched of Nemesis ?
A Comedy Drama is really Dilley-ightful.
Now, there’s the name, and here my mystery ends,
May “ Auld Acquaintance” bring to us new friends.
As to our Company, who shall create the parts ?
We’ve willing heads, I know we’ve willing hearts ;
Now flushed with pleasure, now pale with fright,
Just our Club colours, alternate Red and White.
We’ve Macklin and Hall, Simpson, yes and Strong ;
They’ll ply their sculls, and push the boat along ;
And should they meet with over much resistance,
We’ve other friends who’ll come to their assistance.
West Londoners have never yet been craven,
And should they hap’ly reach the looked of haven ;
Then shall this night, recalled o’er and o’er
“ In memory’s sweet, but brief encore.”
Bring back to us, though endless seasons run,
Your hearty, welcome plaudit, of Well Done !

Sources: St. Georges Hall, Langham Place, Regent Street, London
The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Brooks FV
Dickens Dictionary of the London/the Thames (1871 & 1881)
Birley, D (1993) Sport and the making of Britain

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