‘Where the People Boat’ – A Look at the History of the Boating Lake – The British Newspaper Archive Blog

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‘Where the People Boat’ – A Look at the History of the Boating Lake

In May 1905, The Sphere reports howA remarkable scene may be witnessed any Sunday on the big lake at Battersea Park where the people boat.’

And in the early twentieth century, this scene could be found at boating lakes in cities and towns across the country, providing in particular the working classes with leisure opportunities previously unknown to them.

In this special blog, using articles and illustrations all to be found within the British Newspaper Archive, we are going to take a look at the history of the boating lake, its ties with the working classes, and how it became a leisure phenomenon of the twentieth century.

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The Cockney’s Henley

Battersea Park in 1905 was described by The Sphere as the ‘Cockney’s Henley in the Heart of London,’ being the place ‘where the people boat.’  The accompanying drawing, by Victor Prout, shows couples together in rowing boats, with a ‘steam launch’ in the background.

‘The Cockney’s Henley’ | The Sphere | 20 May 1905

Battersea Park was not the only place in early twentieth century London to have these boating facilities; such could also be found in Victoria Park and Finsbury Park. Such amenities, coupled with London’s green spaces, totaled then ‘close on 4,000 acres…a great asset towards the health of Londoners.’ Compared with 100 parks then, there are around 3,000 to be found in the London area today, covering 18% of the city’s area and illustrating the legacy of Victorian city planning.

And these boating lakes were not just enjoyed by those stepping on to the rowing boats and steam launches. Also popular were model yachts and model boats, although an article from The Tatler in 1901 tells us how ‘Battersea Park takes itself rather too seriously for such a trivial amusement.’

The Joy of Model Yachts

Model yachting is pastime that is growing in favour. Every Briton has an infusion of sea salt in his blood, and if he cannot afford to indulge in the expensive luxury of owning a real racing craft the model yacht offers a very good alternative.

So begins a 1901 The Tatler article, entitled ‘The Joy of Model Yachts and Yachting.’ This particular piece, ironically enough in a publication known for its high society ties, reveals just how boating lakes were the preserve of the people, of the working classes, who may not be able to afford the leisure pursuits of those from the more monied classes.

‘Setting Sail’ | The Tatler | 18 September 1901

Indeed, many city dwellers, from London in particular, may never have even seen the sea before, and so the boating lakes that appeared in their parks gave them an opportunity to partake in activities they would never had access to before.

This, of course, includes model yachting, as referred to in The Tatler article, which reports how the pursuit ‘gives a man opportunities of becoming a skillful sailor without ever having bean to sea.’ Popular in the seaside town of Southsea and the city of Southampton, the ‘London parks [also] afford excellent opportunities for watching miniature regattas with baby yachts.’

Model yachts on Southampton Canal | The Tatler | 18 September 1901

Chief amongst these was Victoria Park, in London’s East End, which was a ‘most sporting and energetic yacht club.’ The writer recollects how he saw ‘some of the most exciting regattas sailed there a few years ago. What lent particular zest to the regattas of Victoria Park was the rule that the owners of the yachts were also bound to be the builders and the designers of them.’

Victoria Park saw some exciting innovations in the world of model boating. Pictured in the Daily Mirror, August 1905, is the ‘latest description of a miniature vessel.’ This ‘tiny craft’ was in fact a miniature motor-boat, and was exhibited at Victoria Park, where the crafts ‘left quite a wash behind them.’

Daily Mirror | 29 August 1905

High Days and Holidays

Elsewhere in London, and the rest of the country, boating lakes were being built and expanded. The Illustrated London News shows the extension of the lake in Southwark Park, its environs one of the most densely populated in the city.

Provided for the people of Southwark was this two and half acre lake, with ‘twenty boats, ten double and ten single scullers,’ which could be rented for a sixpence an hour (just under £2 today).

‘Boating for Southwark’ | Illustrated London News | 5 September 1908

And these boating lakes proved most popular for the working classes on their rare holidays, as a piece in the Daily Mirror reveals. The year was 1917, and it was ‘Whitsun as Usual.’ A year before, the government had postponed the Whitsun holiday in the name of the war effort for munitions workers, but this year, the munitions workers were to have their day off.

One such worker revealed how he would spend his Whitsun holiday ‘Boating on the lake of Battersea Park,’ whilst an office boy said he would be ‘Rowing on the Serpentine.’

And even bad weather would not stop the draw of the boating lakes! In April 1920, ‘in spite of the cold and the damp a big crowd [was] waiting for the boats at Battersea Park,’ as reported again by the Daily Mirror.

Bank holiday crowds at Battersea Park | Daily Mirror | 6 April 1920

Elsewhere in the country boating lakes were being extended – take the East Hull Boating Lake, which ‘opened to the public on Whit Monday’ in 1924. The Hull Daily Mail affords several pictures of this event, and the new concrete bridge that had been built as part of the lake’s extension.

East Hull Boating Lake Hull Daily Mail | 12 June 1924

Meanwhile in Derby, 1934, there was a new boating lake built at Markeaton Park, with motor-boat facilities available for punters.

Derby’s new boating lake Derby Daily Telegraph | 2 July 1934

Boating for Children

Whilst adults might have enjoyed their holidays at the various boating lakes across the country, children too were able to enjoy the delights of the boating lake.

In 1904, the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News showcases the ‘First Annual Children’s Regatta at Ryde.’ What makes this event quite remarkable is the variety of crafts on display – there were ‘tub races,’ a canoe championship, and even a ‘paddle-boat race,’ which was won by an H Linnington.

Children’s regatta at Ryde | Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News | 17 September 1904

By 1929, new technology was being seen on the boating lakes. Take the ‘Glida‘ electric motor boat, which was on display at Battersea Park in 1929. Specially designed for children, it had a speed of 4mph and was ‘specially designed for safety.’

The ‘Glida’ | Illustrated London News | 5 October 1929

For adults was a new craft – the pedalo.

A Big Drop in Boating Lake Receipts

But as the Second World War loomed, was the boating lake going out of fashion? At a meeting of the Hastings Assessment Committee, as reported in the Hastings and St Leonard’s Observer, it was revealed that there was ‘a decline of £400 in the receipts of the Hastings boating lake.’

Clerk of the Committee, one Mr S Bumstead, ‘said he thought the novelty of the lake had now probably worn off.’ Meanwhile Mr W.J. Ransom, the Vice Chairman, offered an alternative opinion, that ‘bad weather was probably responsible for the falling off in receipts.’

Mr Ransom was most likely right, as even wartime could not dim the appetite for boating lakes.

The Liverpool Evening Express in 1943 reports how ‘a ban had been placed upon children sailing their little boars on afternoons on the small lakes set apart for the amusement of children in certain of Liverpool’s parks.’

But this was not a wartime precaution, no indeed. The Parks Committee had decided that children could only sail their boats ‘between the hours of 9am and 2pm, so that such sailings would not interfere with boating by adults in the afternoons and evenings.’

So popular were the boating lakes amongst the adults, that the children had to make way for them.

Sunday in London

And in postwar Britain, the appeal of the boating lake had not subsided. With the enormous fair at Battersea Park in 1951, it was possible still to cruise ‘along the sun-dappled waters of the boating lake,’ according to The Sphere, although this was admittedly ‘one of the more sedate types of entertainment’ on offer.

Battersea Boating Lake | The Sphere | 2 June 1951

The next year, Blackpool saw the ‘International Radio-Controlled Model Boats Contest.’ Held at Stanley Park’s boating lake, the model boats participating included ‘fast power-boats to beautifully built sailing ships,’ as reported in the Illustrated London News. Although there were all radio-controlled, this shows how the appetite for such a pursuit had not dimmed in the fifty years since the ‘Joy of Model Yachts’ article was published in The Tatler.

A remote-controlled sailing ship | Illustrated London News | 6 September 1952

And in 1973, the Illustrated London News featured a spread entitled ‘Sunday in London.’ And just what was happening in one of London’s parks? ‘Sailing small boats on Kensington’s Round Pond,’ demonstrating that not much again had changed in the past seventy years.

Boating at Kensington Round pond | Illustrated London News | 1 August 1973

Today, the importance of boating lakes and the green spaces around them has been flung into stark relief. The impact of Covid-19 has meant that many city dwellers have taken advantage of these spaces, many of which were designed in the Victorian era, in a way that they have not done in the modern era. This legacy of leisure, of the green spaces designed in urban sprawl, is enjoyed to this day, and still provides many with a sense of respite.

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