In 2020-21, I project managed the Ironbridge Rowing Club 150th History Project. I worked alongside the Ironbridge Rowing Club committee to collect archive material and oral histories, which culminated in a website and exhibition display as part of the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Festival. A summary of my research is provided below.
Ironbridge Rowing Club (IRC) was founded in 1870 to promote the sport of rowing in the Ironbridge Gorge and the surrounding area. IRC’s first clubhouse was on the south side of the River Severn, just upstream from the Iron Bridge in Bowers Yard. We assume that the rowing club developed informally at first, made up of local men whose daily lives were inseparable from the river, and who would later go on to found Ironbridge Rowing Club, which was officially incorporated in 1870.
IRC has been bringing local communities together on the River Severn for over 150 years. Before the club was officially incorporated, an annual fete was organised at Ironbridge, where sportsmen from Bewdley, Bridgnorth, Shrewsbury and Stourport competed in ‘four-oared boat races…[which] ‘a large concourse of persons’ witnessed’ (Shrewsbury Chronicle, 6 August 1868). In 1870, a much larger-scale ‘Grand Fete’ was organised to celebrate the official incorporation of IRC. The fete was visited by an estimated 2,000 people, and featured races of coracles, punts, and four-oared rowing boats, as well as stalls, music, fireworks and a ‘monster balloon’.
However, it wasn’t until 1883 that IRC held its first official regatta, which immediately became a popular local annual holiday, attracting up to 4,000 spectators and competitors. By 1886, IRC had expanded the regatta programme to include a swimming race (won by a member of the Birmingham Leander Swimming Club), scratch fours (won by a mixed crew from Ironbridge and Pengwern), a canoe race, and water polo (won by Bridgnorth, after ‘much splashing, shouting and laughing’), and the goose race (a crowd favourite: ‘Hayward rode his goose with practised ease, but Gaughton did not seem at home in partnership with such a companion, and finding it did not get up speed enough he slipped off at the tail, and finally brought it in by swimming, sometimes dragging and sometimes pushing it.’).
By 1887, IRC had built a new boathouse further upstream, on the site that we now occupy today. The structure was then replaced in 1911 with a new boathouse, made of corrugated iron. By 1968, the clubhouse was in a very poor state of repair and too small to house the growing number of boats. IRC was given a 30 year old wooden structure, which had been a local Post Office building, by the Telford Development Corporation. This was moved to the present site to sit alongside the 1911 structure. These structures were far from ideal, and were eventually replaced by our current boathouse. In 1995- 96, after more than six years of planning and fundraising, IRC managed to secure £373,459 grant funding and the necessary permissions to build a new boathouse, which we still occupy today. The building was designed by Wellington-based architect, Steve Atkinson. As part of the construction works, a new access track from Buildwas road was created, as previously, the club was accessed via Dale End Park.
Over 150 years since IRC was founded, we’ve had 41 Club Captains and 17 Presidents, who, alongside our committees, have built and sustained a thriving rowing club. We’ve taught hundreds of people how to row, many of whom have gone on to sporting success at our own regatta, as well as in national and international competitions. We’re as much a part of the local community as we are the rowing community, and we look forward to another 150 years of being here on the River Severn, and enjoying a row.
This project was delivered by the IRC Committee and its members, and was generously funded by Telford & Wrekin Council as part of the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Festival 2021. Thanks to all those who have contributed their memories, photos and memorabilia to the project. To find out more visit www.ironbridgerowing150.co.uk.