A Brief History

The following is a brief history of the Trent Rowing Club, adapted from an article written by the late David Neale in 1994, and periodically updated.

Trent Rowing Club is one the oldest sporting clubs in Burton upon Trent.  We can trace the Club’s amateur history back to 1863, when all Rowing Clubs in the country were brought under the auspices of the Amateur Rowing Association (ARA).  But the Club also had a professional history in the years before with one recorded win at Derby Regatta in 1859 when it won a prize of 20 Gold Sovereigns for a four oared success.

Throughout its history Trent has been an egalitarian organisation which drew its support from all sectors of Burton society, as it still does today.  Unfortunately in 1889 the ARA introduced the infamous ‘Mechanics Rule’ which debarred all manual workers from its events in an attempt to clean out the remaining habits of professionalism within the sport.

Trent refused to eject its manual workers, a consequence of which saw the Club banned from all ARA events.  Led by Percy Evershed of the local maltster family and industrialist Charles P Spooner (later of Burton fairground ride constructors Orton and Spooner and owner of the Swan Hotel and all land abutting the River Trent in Stapenhill Road), the Club was instrumental in creating the National Amateur Rowing Association which enabled clubs with similar principles to continue rowing.

The Burton Rowing Club and Burton Leander Rowing Club had rules which excluded manual workers and were not affected by the Mechanics Rule.  However, the Burton Regatta was a joint venture and had to compromise by allowing special events in its programme to accommodate the Trent oarsmen.  The Mechanics Rule lasted fifty years and was finally abolished at the outbreak of the Second World War.

While Burton Rowing Club was being obliterated by the ravages of the First World War, men returning from the trenches turned to Trent in great numbers in the twenties.  They enjoyed considerable success under the guidance of such men as Walter John Mason who was Secretary from 1901 to 1938 and was a relative of current Vice President and former Club Captain Brian Mason, and his father the late Mike Mason who was Club Treasurer from 1987 until 2011.

Throughout the Second World War the Club’s property was used as an Auxiliary Police Station and its upkeep made by Councillor Harry Jones who was to become Town Mayor immediately after the War.  He was a powerful figure who single-handedly held off the take-over of the Club by Burton Leander in 1946 and encouraged his son Jack, who had been a successful oarsman before the war, to generate a new youthful membership.

This he did by inviting Junior members to join from the local Working Mens Club and amongst that number were the names of men who shaped the Club’s history over the following fifty years.  Bill Brake, undoubtedly the Club’s greatest ever Club man who died in 1992 at the age of 61, was a successful oarsman and sculler and passionate organiser for the youth of this town.

In 1946, Tom Fisher had at one time been the Club’s only member until he was joined by others including Terry Gadsby, Keith Torr, Carl Woodings, Goff Sharpe and of course Ted Field who went on to enjoy success with the Royal Air Force at Henley and gain a bronze medal in the European Championships in 1953.

Ted stayed on the Thames to make Wallingford Rowing Club a powerful rowing force and eventually emigrated to Australia in 1964 where they probably haven’t yet got over the shock of his fanaticism.

The winning of the prestigious Evesham Tower trophy in 1956 was the highlight of this input, following which for many years the Club enjoyed meagre success on the water.  But a considerable club spirit meant that the ancient club was merely sleeping, not dying.

Two young scullers, Peter Spiby and Terry Roe, emerged from the Club’s breadbasket, Burton’s Stapenhill estates, in the late seventies.  In 1980 they became the first Trent members to pull on England vests in the Home International in Strathclyde coached by Bob McDonald and John Oram.

By 1981 the Club had tasted ambition and Bill Brake wanted more.  At this point, David Neale was invited into the Club to coach having left Burton Leander in 1979.

A development plan was put in place, which needed considerable effort by many people.  None more so than Richard Gipson who became Secretary in January 1982 and still holds that position today, albeit with a couple of breaks from the Hon. Sec.  job.

Bill Brake raised funds as treasurer for a complete renewal of the racing fleet including three eights which forced the Club to extend its boathouse.  This was done mainly by the members, with the architectural work by Barry Edwards.

When an intake of 14-year-old youngsters joined in February 1982 Tom Fisher provided transport – his company’s breakdown vehicle, which left the youngsters rather grubby on arrival at some important Regattas.  They affectionately called the van “The Armpit”.

By 1984 those youngsters were racing for England in the Anglo-French match as sixteen year olds, eight members out of total membership of twenty-nine.  En-route they had brought tears to the eyes of Bill Brake at Twickenham as they beat Eton College to finally bury the memory of the Mechanics Rule.

The Club has continued to seek excellence on the water combined with discipline on the bank, where academic achievement or success in Industrial occupations are of equal importance.  The raison-d’être of the Club is, as it always has been, to be egalitarian. One young man added Olympic representation to his England vest – Shaun Greaves (now Shaun Carlton-Greaves), one of the 1982 intake, represented Great Britain as an Electrician in the 1991 Skill Olympics at the NEC in Birmingham - the “mechanics” would have been proud.

The Club’s first National Championships Gold Medal came in 1989 at Strathclyde with a girls quad scull crew coached by Becky Neale.

Becky had raced for England in the Anglo-French match in 1986 but took to coaching at the age of 16 when injury ended her racing career in 1988.  She brought a total of thirteen National championships and National School medals to the Club during a period of her Captaincy, which ended in 1994.

Throughout the eighties the success of Danny Johnson and Gareth Davis, coached by Digger Johnson, brought in two National Championship Golds and the same at the National Schools in addition to representation at the World Junior Championships, the Coupe des Jeunes and the Anglo French match. They also reached the final of the Fawley Cup at Henley in Trent colours in 1992 before joining Burton Leander in September of that year.

Since its introduction in 1989 the Club has had over 50 young members collect East Staffordshire Sports Scholarships in recognition of the standard of racing they have achieved.

David Neale, who retired from the Captaincy in 1992 to became the Club’s Coaching Advisory Officer, tragically died from a heart attack on 16th February 1995.  This immense loss left a great void in the Club’s coaching and organisational capabilities, as well as depriving the town of Burton upon Trent as a whole of one of its greatest and most enthusiastic sports administrators.  It is arguable that David, with his powerful, often fanatical, enthusiasm, made a greater contribution to the history of the Trent Rowing Club during his relatively short membership than any member before or since.

Over the next decade the Club maintained a steady membership with varying degrees of competition success.  The Club continued to be seen at the National Schools Regatta and the National Championships for some years but found success at these levels more and more elusive.  The Club’s competitive forays onto the regatta circuit became fewer and farther between, to the extent that some of our sister club’s from farther afield would have been forgiven for thinking that the Club had disappeared.

The years following David Neale’s death were undoubtedly one of the darkest periods of the Club’s history, and looking back it is an accolade of the Club’s management at the time that the Club survived. 

The Club’s long serving officers, Chairman John Oram, the then Treasurer Mike Mason and Secretary Richard Gipson, along with the then Captain Brian Mason and a very able management committee, strove through these years of mixed fortunes to keep the Club quietly but healthily ‘ticking over’.  Whilst not breaking any records, Trent’s culture of good management continued, maintaining a steady social income, and cultivating the ambition waiting to be brought to fruition.

In December 2002 a new Captain, Pete Gipson, took the reins.

The following six and a half years, under Pete’s Captaincy, saw the Club's competitive squads grow considerably, and the Club’s regatta attendance increased many fold, resulting in a superb list of regatta successes.  The 2003 season saw Trent members competing at seven regattas, winning trophies at five.  After two years with no regatta wins at all, to finish the year with eight wins on the score sheet was definitely a reflection of the new level of enthusiasm and commitment to be found within the Club, and a great accolade to Pete’s work. 

This trend continued with the Club’s activity increasing through 2004, 2005 and 2006, with a further boost to the Club’s coaching team arriving with the return of Digger Johnson, arguably one of the Midland’s top coaching talents.  Digger, assisted by Bob Edge, worked wonders with the Club’s senior squads, facilitating many of the large boat successes and providing inspiration for the whole rowing membership.

As well as being proud of our long history, Trent Rowing Club also looks toward the future, mindful of the need to provide our members with facilities befitting of an ambitious 21st century sports club.

Our boathouse turned 100 years old in 2007.  Whilst the timber boathouse has served the Club well it has become clear that the Club has outgrown the building which offers extremely limited scope for expansion or development.

As we entered the new millennium early development plans were being discussed.  The 2007 Centenary of the building of our boathouse saw the Club reach a great milestone in its history.  Up until this time the Stapenhill Road premises, including the land and the boathouse, had always been rented by the Club.  Originally the Club’s landlord was Charles Spooner who later sold the property and adjacent land to brewers Bass, Ratcliffe and Gretton. 

In 2000, as the Club’s development ambitions became clear, it was recognised that it would be easier to bring the plans to fruition if the Club could secure the ownership of the freehold of the property.  An approach was made to Mitchells and Butlers plc, the Club’s landlord at the time, and negotiations started.  Talks rumbled on until, on 12th July 2007, Trent Rowing Club became the proud owner of its home for the first time in its 144 year history.

As the Club entered 2007 the members had their sights on the Club’s regatta wins record that had been set in the early 1980s.  The record stood at 31 wins in a single season, and by mid-season it looked to be set to be broken.   However, the 2007 regatta programme is  remembered for different reasons as the middle of the season was decimated due to the flooding which saw the cancellation of around 10 regattas including, for the first time since the 1960s, cancellation of our own Burton Regatta.  The season still provided 20 regatta wins and 4 head wins for the Club, and also gave us a good tally of large boat sweep oar wins including the Club’s first eight oared win since the late 1980s.

Success continued through 2008, with members returning 29 regatta wins, 5 head wins, a Bronze medal at the National Championships and the Club’s first Dragon Boat Championships win at the inaugural Ross-on-Wye Dragon Boat Championships.  However, the elusive record remained unbroken, even though the season provided a silver medal at the National Championships and a gold medal at the National Indoor Rowing Championships.

2009 saw Pete Gipson stand down from the Captaincy to care for his wife Rosemary who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  The Club’s Vice Captains, Kenny Holmes and Rob Gipson, Pete and Rosemary’s son, ably took the reigns and, with assistance from many people, the Club continued on an even keel to return the record results.  Sadly, Rosemary passed away on Monday 26th October 2009.

The 2009 AGM saw Kenny Holmes elected Club Captain.  Over the following 9 years Kenny has continued to build upon the success that the members were enjoying, taking the Club to ever greater levels of regatta success.

The 2010 season started with a renewed determination, and everything fell into place through the regatta season with a steady stream of wins recorded weekend after weekend.  Burton Regatta weekend was the most successful home regatta for Trent members ever, with the Club leaving with the Burton Cask Victor Ludorum.  By the end of August the writing was on the wall, and a win for Eloise McMahon in Women’s J13 single sculls at Gloucester Masters and Junior Regatta finally broke the record.  Further wins at Gloucester Senior Regatta and at Ross on Wye took the record up to 35 – a refreshing new target for Captain Kenny and the members of Team Trent.

2010 also brought International success.  Ben Eames, who at the time was a J15, was selected to don an England vest at the J16 England vs France International Rowing Match, held on the Joneliere rowing course in Nantes, France.  Ben was selected to represent England in the single sculls event, racing a year above his age group.  Ben raced a very tight and well contested race, controlling the race from the first stroke. He ended the race around a quarter of a length ahead of the French National Champion to win the event for Great Britain.

2011 saw Team Trent rise again to the challenge, delivering even greater success.  The record was once again smashed, this time setting a new target of 39 wins!  Ben Eames also got to pull on an England vest again after being asked to represent the country at the Munich Junior International Regatta.  A strong performance promised great things later in the season, and this was borne out by a Gold Medal in Championship Doubles at the National Schools Regatta with club-mate Chris Williams.  Ben and Chris were proud to see their names added to the Fox Cup winner’s list alongside the likes of a young Matthew Pinsent.

Later in the year Ben and Chris were invited to the GB trials for the Home Countries International Regatta and the Coups des Jeunes.  Chris was selected for the Home Countries, bringing home a Bronze medal for England.  Ben’s 2011 season was, however, cut short after he contracted Glandular Fever, knocking him out for the remainder of the year.

The 2011 Burton Regatta was even more successful than 2010 with the Club retaining the Burton Cask, and also lifting the Bass Challenge Vase for IM2 Eights.  Trent members were also amongst the medals at the 2011 National Championships.

The members entered the 2012 season in great spirits and early successes promised yet another record year.  There were concerns at the beginning of the year that low river levels across England could cause problems for rowing events after a record breaking dry winter.  Little did we realise quite how wrong we would as the heavens opened a few weeks into the 2012 regatta season, the rain never seeming to stop!

Regatta after regatta was cancelled, the National Schools Regatta was curtailed after one day due to horrendous conditions and rowers across the country struggled to find events to race at.  After St Neot’s Regatta cancelled due to waterlogging, our members managed to place entries at Bewdley, scheduled for the same weekend, only for that event to be called off later that week.

As Burton Regatta weekend approached the Regatta Committee anxiously watched the river Trent and the Burton Washlands, and the week prior to the regatta weekend it looked like the event would go ahead.  However, further heavy rains during the next week left the Regatta Meadows completely waterlogged, and with a rising river level the decision was taken on the Wednesday morning that the event should be cancelled, a galling decision as the event had received a near record breaking entry.  The decision was, however, vindicated when the arrival of what should have been Burton Regatta weekend saw un-rowable river levels on the Trent through the town.

The Club finished the year with fewer regatta wins, but the tally did include a National Championships Gold in J18 doubles, Silver in Women’s J16 quads, and Ben and Chris went to Cardiff to represent England at the 2012 Home Countries Regatta, returning with a Silver Medal.  The year also saw a record number of individuals winning on behalf of the Club, offering great promise for the Club’s 150th Anniversary year in 2013.

August of 2012 saw all eyes within the Club, indeed all eyes within the nation, turning to the spectacular 2012 Olympic Games in London.  The Club always expects an upsurge in interest for the sport in Olympic year, but no-one was prepared for the number of enquiries received during and since London 2012!

At one stage there were four or five enquiries being received each day, from beginners of all ages, fitness levels and experience.  The beginner’s sessions held on Sunday mornings saw up to 10 beginners each week enjoying a free initial session, before being invited to join the Club’s Trial Learn to Row scheme.  The Club is proud not to have turned anyone away, the coaches doing magnificent work to ensure that everyone, whatever their age or aspiration, had a go!  Many of the trial participants went on to become members of the Club, leaving us with a larger and more rounded membership than at any time before in the Club’s history.

As the Club entered its 150th Anniversary year, it soon became apparent that 2013 was going to be a very busy year.  The Club’s entries at head races became so large that the trailer was full and additional boats had to be carried to events on cars, or by borrowing space on other clubs trailers.  Early on in the year it was decided that a second trailer was needed and the purchase allowed even larger Trent regatta entries.  The season ended over the August Bank Holiday weekend, with a total of 25 Head wins, 75 Regatta wins and 5 Victor Ludorum’s to show for the season.  Members also enjoyed representation at the Junior Inter-regional Regatta and brought a Bronze medal away from the Junior National Championships.

The past decade has certainly been an interesting one for the Club.  Success continued with the Club regularly taking two trailers to regattas.  Kenny drove a great deal of modernisation within the Club, introducing new management structures with an emphasis on team management.

By the time that Kenny stepped down from the captaincy the Club was certainly well established on the regatta circuit with regular large hauls of wins.

The then Vice Captain, Mike McQuoney took the Captaincy in 2017 and lead the Club for three years.

And then the World stopped – 2020 saw the Covid pandemic curtail life as we knew it.

The Club continuesd to operate throughout the pandemic with regular Zoom lead training sessions, and the Committee tried to think up ways to support members.  Rob Williams became Captain in 2020 and over the next couple of years, once we were able to recommence proper face to face training Rob drove the Club’s recruitment campaigns through the Club’s successful Learn to Row programme.  This initiative really set the Club back on target and since Covid the membership has gone from strength to strength.

Karl Benton was elected Captain in September 2022.  Karl’s first year as Captain, throughout the 160th Anniversary year has seen a successful head season followed by 67 regatta wins and two victor Ludorum wins, including the Burton Regatta Burton Cask. 

The next stage of our development plans include the erection of a new Boat Barn type boat & equipment store on the land adjacent to the Burton Bridge.  This will enable the ground floor of the existing building to be converted to provide new male and female changing rooms to replace the existing shared facilities, and a vitally needed gymnasium and training room.  This will then allow the whole of the first floor to be redeveloped into a new clubroom and bar.

There are also plans to refurbish the exterior of the existing boathouse – whilst the building is structurally sound there are areas that need to be upgraded. 

Planning permission for the new building was granted by East Staffordshire Borough Council in 2022 and it planned to be in a position to commence construction of the building within the next couple of years.

Trent Rowing Club is a proud institution with a long and varied history.  The current management see themselves as the ‘guardians’ of the Club who’s job it is to protect the Club and to ensure that it will be here for future generations to enjoy as we, and generations before us, have.

As we celebrate the Club’s 160th Anniversary we can see that the Club’s future is in safe hands. 

© Trent Rowing Club

1984 – 2023