A History of The Royal Southern Yacht Club Est. 1837
So said Henry Ford, but whether we agree with him or not, it is a fact that the uncertainties and vicissitudes of life demand that we concentrate on peering into the future rather than over our shoulders into the past. Clubs are no exception, but perhaps, after 175 years, our Members can justify the indulgence of nostalgia. That apart, as most yachtsmen have learned, often expensively, there is value in a glance astern.
When our club came into existence in 1837 it was called the Royal Southampton Yacht Club. It was ‘established by a party of gentlemen, at a meeting convened for the purpose of ascertaining if the formation of a yacht club in this beautiful and important town would be desirable and what amount of support it would be likely to receive from the resident gentry, many of whom possessed yachts and might wish to avail themselves of privileges always granted to these clubs.’
After taking its new name and embarking upon its policy of expansion, came the great day when on 8th August, 1846, the Royal Southern Clubhouse was opened.
It was, and is still, a truly splendid building on Town Quay, exactly opposite the entrance to Southampton’s Royal Pier. It has been described as the most beautiful Victorian building in the City.
The opening was clearly a notable occasion and the Club obviously entered into occupation with considerable panache including firing a Royal Salute fired from the battery of the Secretary, whose office adjoined the building.
Appearances were deceptive however. The building did not belong to the Club and indeed, there was no formal tenancy agreement, nor had the rent been settled. It had been built by Robert Wright, a Vice-Commodore of the Club, whose portrait hangs to this day in the Club. The annual rent was subsequently set at £350.
A few years later, during which Lord Cardigan had been giving his attention to his military duties in the Crimea, the Club invited him to dine with the members, in order to evince the gratification of the Members at his safe return from the Crimea and the high sense they entertain of his noble and gallant conduct.
It is clear that all was not well with the management of the Club, for in 1856, what must seem to us a strange arrangement was made under which the Club was “framed” (it was so described) to an individual who undertook to pay all outgoings, including the rent and to receive all income from the bar and billiard tables, as well, it seems, as the Members’ subscriptions.
This apparently did not prove a success and a few years later Lord Cardigan was informed that the Committee was considering moving to cheaper premises or, indeed, winding up. This crisis seems to have been brought about by the resignation of 24 members. We do not know the size of the membership in those days, but for some years the average attendance at General Meetings had been six, so it may well be that the membership, though no doubt individually well to do, was modest in overall number.
These were sad times indeed. Yet another levy of two pounds ten shillings per head and then what must have seemed the cruellest blow of all, the closing of the clubhouse. Poignant must have been the passing at a General Meeting of a formal resolution that, the Royal Southern Yacht Club still exists, notwithstanding the present House being closed. After a few months in which it was homeless, the Club rented part of the Pier Hotel, furnished, for a term of three years. If the Committee heaved a sigh of relief at finding a safe harbour, they were swiftly disabused, for in less than six months the Club was expelled from its quarters, consequent on the seizure of all the furniture belonging to their landlord under a Bill of Sale.
While the achievement of security of tenure after so many years of a somewhat nomadic existence must have relieved the Committee of a major source of anxiety, its minutes do not suggest that it lacked contentious, if minor, problems, to deal with.
One can instance a written complaint by a member that he had received a letter, accusing him of insulting the Club by hoisting the Club Flag at fore.
Already a major force on the burgeoning yacht racing scene with an annual Regatta each August, it was in 1905 that the Flag Officers took the brave and exciting decision to run a race for motor boats as part of this event and catching the zeitgeist, led where many other yacht clubs could only follow later.
By 1909, the Club had run its first Metre Regatta and in 1924, ran its first regatta for XODs and so were established the elements of club activity, sailing and motorboating, that have underpinned the life of its Members throughout the last century. Curiously enough, there are few clues to the size of the membership up to this time, but in 1909 a copy of a letter gives its strength as 240 members and 92 yachts.
In 1927 there appeared an encouraging financial omen in the form of a substantial increase in receipts. The following year saw the resolution of the Great Billiard Room Controversy, it had been divided to make an additional lounge, and Members attending the Annual General Meeting in the subsequent year were told, with perhaps a scarcely concealed air of triumph, that the change had been extraordinarily successful.
The gravity of the situation is reflected in the anxiety which was expressed as to whether the sale of the clubhouse would clear the Club’s debts, but amidst all this gloom and trauma, the ladies were slowly, very slowly, inching their way forward. In 1938 an alteration in the rules allowed them, provided they are accompanied by their husbands, to occupy Club bedrooms.
Early in the following year the merits of the courageous decision to leave Southampton began to manifest themselves, with membership steadily increasing and reaching 361 by April. The leasing of the Hamble Annex, in parallel with narrow avoidance of insolvency and the imminent prospect of the sale of the Southampton premises all came together as the nation went to war for the second time in the century. The timing could have been better, as the river and village were prohibited from public access and locked down by the War Office for the duration of the war and used by the Admiralty for their small boat fleet and in 1944, the military units that had been based in Hamble marched through the village to embark on barges drawn up on the hard, on their way to the Normandy beaches and D-day.
The Splash Club and Junior Cadets are run and managed by volunteer parents and incorporating regular training sessions by qualified and experienced coaches, the Club’s Optimist sailors have benefitting from courses on boat preparation and calibration, set up, rig tuning, sail trimming and boat handling. The abilities and enthusiasm of its Members qualified the Club as a Royal Yachting Association Volvo Champion Club in 2009 and the Splash Club has celebrated two decades of youth sailing, with the Junior Cadets not far behind and now regularly sailing in Laser SB3s. Some young Royal Southern sailors who began their training with the Splash group have gone on to represent their country in international competition, benefitting from this practical and informed grounding.
Many vessels carried armament and in 1845, the Editor of Bell’s Life noted: ‘that the Ganymede Yacht, R.S.Y.C., a 70 ton carvel cutter, owned by J.H.W.P. Smyth Pigott Esq., fired a royal salute in honour of the Princess Alice’s birthday, with four guns, at six seconds time, or ten guns a minute; thus discipline as well as pleasure is observed with the Southerons.’
In its early years, it appears that the Club’s only activity seems to have been organising its annual regatta, its expenditure confined to the expenses of that regatta and the rent of a room for its Secretary. At the time, this somewhat limited activity was common for many clubs and made it possible for the comparatively small number of large racing yachts to move in stately progression around the coast, from one regatta to the next.
Within a year of its formation the Club was honoured by the appointment of H.M. Queen Victoria as Patroness and of course retains to this day a highly prized association with the Royal Family through our current Patron, H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh. In 1840 it was granted the privilege of wearing the White Ensign defaced with the Coat of Arms of Southampton.
There is no doubt that the Club greatly benefitted from the eminence of its exalted Commodore and his exertion of powerful influence on its behalf, but it is also clear that his attitude in the performance of his office could not be described as easygoing.
Significant perhaps, is a special note in the Club’s file to the effect that he had been saluted from the Club House with 11 guns; this record may perhaps have been the result of the Commodore’s forthright assertion that he was not always properly received at the Club.
Who knows the effect of such a salute fired from a building with frontage to what must have been a busy street full of horse traffic!
His Lordship’s influence in high places was, however, undeniable and soon after taking office, he obtained for the Club the privilege for Members which it still retains of wearing the un-defaced Blue Ensign.
The rent of £350 per annum was proving beyond the Club’s means, but thanks to the generosity of Vice Commodore Wright it was reduced in 1849 to £200 per annum, until the state of the Club’s finances improves. It is interesting to note that although the Club’s financial state clearly left much to be desired, it did not deter the Committee from appointing one E.D. Leahy portrait painter to the Club.
Nor indeed did the Members show any lack of spirit at this time when they considered a threat by a competitor to sue the Club for the 50 guinea prize for one of its races. They not only pledged themselves to defend any such proceedings but demanded that the threat be withdrawn. Cardigan would have been proud of them!
It almost goes without saying that not only did the Club have no lady members at this time, but that no less than 50 years later a proposal to provide ladies toilets accommodation was withdrawn from a General Meeting.
It is clear that by this time, the Club was giving some thought to what would now be termed its image and declared that the livery of the Steward and two manservants should be, tail coats with red cord on trousers. The need to keep servants in their place brought about a letter from the Secretary to a Lieutenant Colonel X it has been brought to the notice of the Committee that X allowed his servant to enter the club and to have luncheon with him. The Committee consider that such conduct is highly offensive to Members of the Club and request that it may not be repeated otherwise Rule 47 must be enforced.
His yacht Britannia was, of course, a prominent feature of the Solent racing scene, and when her Captain wrote, with what was no doubt regarded as proper deference, to enquire whether it would be in order for His Majesty to fly the Royal Southern Yacht Club burgee on the yacht, the Committee displayed the firmness of purpose already mentioned when it replied, Yes, His Majesty the King will be in order in flying the burgee of the Royal Southern Yacht Club if he or a member of his family is on board. Otherwise the burgee of the Royal Southern Yacht Club should not be used on Britannia.
A Special General Meeting was called to consider admitting Lady Members and Junior Sailing Members and this momentous step was approved, as was another sign of the changing times, a proposal to establish a 14’ dinghy class, based on a design by Charles Nicholson and Uffa Fox. The following year, yet another operating loss was revealed, membership had increased, but times were indeed changing.
In 1934 another Special General Meeting was called to authorise the sale of the Southampton clubhouse and the purchase of alternative facilities at Hamble, a revolutionary proposal on which, in the event, a decision was postponed until the following year. When that meeting arrived, the Flag Officers’ recommendation was made, although it is not difficult to feel great sympathy for those who had to advise the membership on such a step. However, no decision on the issue is recorded in the Minutes. There followed a period in which entrance fees were suspended, and despite an increase in membership, operating losses continued, accompanied by understandable exhortations to recruit new members.
It was financed in the first instance by a bank overdraft repayable within six months, guaranteed by an anonymous Member, the advance to be repaid by an issue of debentures. A slow response to the debenture issue clearly proved an embarrassing one which was resolved by a Member coming forward with an advance on a mortgage of the clubhouse. A measure of the seemingly endless struggle to regularise the Club’s financial problems is to be seen in the fact that it was not until 1970 that this mortgage was repaid from subscriptions for the debentures.
This, coupled with rising membership figures, which had to be firmly constrained, marked a turning point at which the Club was able to embark on a period of sustained improvement and consolidation. Notably, it saw the building of the River Room and the balcony above it, together with a major refurbishing of its kitchens and a bold step forward by the purchase of the land adjoining the premises.
It is hardly necessary to emphasise that these pages do not pretend to do more than give some glimpses of the Club’s long, sometimes stormy and hazardous passage since its birth in 1837. Much has been omitted. Perhaps the most serious omission is the absence of any attempt to record the debt which the Club owes to all those who, from that day to this, have given their time, skill and imagination to all the planning, working and worrying which has succeeded in building and growing the Club which we are able to enjoy today.
To them, perhaps, we might just apply Christopher Wren’s famous epitaph: “If you require a monument, look around you”.