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  • Writer's picturePaullett Golden

Boathouses & Rowing Clubs in the 18th Century

Publication Date: Jan 1, 2021

Should a gentleman invite me for a row on the lake, I shall reply with an enthusiastic, albeit respectable, affirmative.

Painting of the boathouse at Longborne.

This research blog comes at the request of a reader who just so happens to consider Harold a favorite book boyfriend. This should set the mood for the best loved pastime of one of our beloved heroes. Our focus here is on Harold Hobbs of The Heir and The Enchantress, although we see this passion for rowing featuring in Walter's love story, as well: The Baron and The Enchantress. Now, let's talk about boathouses! On Harold's estate is a boathouse that he shows to Hazel on more than one occasion. *waggles eyebrows*

Since Harold is a rower and spends a great deal of time rowing on the Trelowen estate lake, the boathouse is an important feature. The one we see featured in the book is two stories. The ground floor houses the boats with an entry door on one side and open access from the lake on the other side. The boats are stored either directly in the water or along the sides of the ground level and then launched into the water via a boat ramp. The above stairs area is an open space with a double door leading to a balcony that overlooks the lake. In the story, the above stairs portion is empty, but typically this area could be used for equipment storage, a living quarters for the servant in charge of safekeeping the boats and launching them for the estate family (possibly also rowing them for the family members), a clubhouse for a rowing club, a lookout during boat races, or even a lovers' retreat. The construction is stone and timber, a common construction for boathouses. The ground floor of such boathouses rarely ever had flooring, rather consisted of dirt or sand depending on location.

Historic boathouses have been remodeled to serve as rowing clubhouses, restaurants, and even holiday lets. These two were inspiration for our hero's boathouse: The Boathouse at Knotts End and The Duke of Portland's Ullswater Boathouse

Photograph of The Boathouse at Knotts End
The Boathouse at Knotts End

The majority of the private, historic boathouses were built in the 18th century. The larger and more public ones came about in the middle of the 19th century. It's all to do with rowing. The primary purpose of a boathouse was to enjoy the luxury of rowing--if you want to enjoy the sport, you need the equipment! Rowing as a gentleman's leisure and competition sport became popular in the early to mid-18th century, just in time for our hero, and was exceedingly popular by the Regency era (more popular than boxing). The boathouses on estate lakes would have been much smaller than ones we might find on the Thames, especially compared to those we see in the 19th century when rowing clubs formed at both Oxford University and Cambridge University (for clarification, rowing as a sport existed at both universities in the early to mid-18th century, but the formal rowing club did not form until a century later).

Rowing as a sport (and thus the need for boathouses through the interest in rowing) among gentlemen may have arisen in the early to mid-18th century, but it was the working watermen on the Thames that brought attention to rowing as a competition. The world's oldest rowing race, Doggett's Coat and Badge Race, started in 1715 by the watermen on the Thames. Here's a bit about the race's history.

Painting of The Elopement by Edmund Blair Leighton
The Elopement by Edmund Blair Leighton

The private boathouses would have most likely held only rowboats and punts, although a wealthy gentleman with a large enough lake certainly could have had larger boats such as wherries. While we see rowing rather than punting in the story, punting was (and still is) a popular choice for the boat loving gentleman. If you've never been punting on the Backs of Cambridge, it's a must-do for the to do list. Here's a fun little video on how to punt. When our hero takes the ladies out on the lake, he is most definitely rowing, not punting, but a punt boat would have still been a popular feature of a private estate's boathouse, and we might assume Harold owns one. It was the love for rowing as a sport that stirred the need for estate boathouses, so the boats found therein would reflect the estate owner's interests--possibly even equipped with enough boats to host an annual or biannual race, say for the local fete or a private party (certainly cheaper than hosting a foxhunt and arguably more fun, but that just might depend on the age of the host, as rowing was more popular among the younger gentlemen).

Painting of Éléganterie by Lionel Péraux
Éléganterie by Lionel Péraux

Interestingly, some estates employed their own waterman, that is a person who did the rowing (or punting) while the master and his guests sat back to enjoy the ride. The waterman would most likely have lived in the above stairs portion of the boathouse, and yes, he would have been liveried while rowing/punting (bless).

This is a fun bit of brief history on rowing in the 18th century and a list of terminology associated with rowing. A fantastic page to learn more about the history of rowing as a gentleman's sport can be found here.

An interesting point to share: in the 18th century, it was uncommon for people to learn how to swim. When the gentlemen took their boats to water, they took their lives into their own hands since they likely did not know how to swim should the boat capsize. Surprising, no? I'd like to think our hero sorted out how to swim (let's imagine an Olympic swimmer's physique, shall we? Mmm).


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