The origins of Bradford Rowing Club, 1867-2017

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Bradford Amateur Rowing Club at Saltaire, founded in 1867. The club was one of a number of new sporting organisations established in Bradford during an era when there was a particular enthusiasm for ‘athleticism’ and diversification into new activities. Many of those responsible for this development were involved with the Volunteer movement in town. The Bradford Gymnastic and Athletic clubs were similarly influential with members also involved with the Bradford Football Club.

Of the twenty original members to the club in October, 1867 who subscribed £1 apiece, it has been possible to identify four as members of either the Bradford Gymnastic Club or the Bradford Young Mens Athletic Club (B Wright; R Smith; W Anderson; R Ingleby); another two as members of 3rd West Yorkshire Rifle Volunteer Corps (Lt. T H Thwaites; Captain Smith); one as a member of Bradford CC (A Nicholson); and another (J Swithenbank) as a member of Bradford Albion CC. The point is that the individuals concerned had a general interest in ‘athleticism’.

People were already familiar with the University Boat Race which had first been staged in 1829, an annual event since 1856 and it was reported in the press as both a sporting and gambling event. James Burnley’s description of rowing on the River Aire in 1870 alludes to the image of the sport which may have attracted certain people for ostentatious reasons. Writing in the Bradford Observer of 21 April, 1870 (Phases of Bradford Life: Good Friday at Shipley Glen) he mentions a couple of boats on the river at Saltaire belonging to a rowing club and ‘each are rowed by a gentleman got up in true university fashion – blue cap, flannel jacket.’ He also added that his companion had been betting on the recent University boat race.

The formation of the rowing club followed a letter in the Bradford Observer of 26 July, 1866 from ‘Gymnast’: ‘Now that we have several gymnasiums established in this town, I think it is time to imitate Leeds and establish a boating club on the Aire at Saltaire.’ It illustrates how Bradford people were keen to embrace new activities and emulate what was happening elsewhere. Noteworthy is that the letter was written a fortnight after a successful rowing regatta that had been held in Leeds.

The inaugural Leeds regatta had taken place in September, 1864 at Kirkstall Abbey involving boats from Mirfield, Thornhill and Leeds. From the start it had been organised as a holiday fete and a popular attraction was a competition to traverse a horizontal greased pole, the prize being a pig suspended in a box at the end. The third regatta in July, 1866 was on a much bigger scale with prizes of £100 and competitors came from the Tyne, Ouse, Humber and Aire. The event took place over two days attracting 7,000 and 10,000 people respectively with an excursion train advertised by the Midland departing Bradford at 2:10pm and returning at 10:30pm. In addition to the pig pole attraction there was also a swimming race which was won by a Bradford man, Professor Johnson (formerly of the Corporation Baths but recently recruited to manage the Leeds Oriental Baths in Cookridge Street) who won a £5 time piece.

From ROOM AT THE TOP by John Dewhirst 


Other online articles about Bradford sport by the same author

John contributes to the Bradford City match day programme and his features are also published on his blog Wool City Rivals  

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