History of The Pirate Club
It is doubtful if the Viscount St Davids knew what he was taking on when he said 'yes' to a group of lads who asked, 'Can we row your boat, Mister?'. This act of kindness resulted in yet more young people appearing the next day and every day thereafter.
It soon became necessary to find more rowing boats for them to use. Lord St David's became adept at finding old and damaged boats that were no longer wanted by their owners. He would repair them and they then joined the growing fleet.
It was not long before it became obvious that his garden, which backs onto the canal, was not big enough to house all the boats or all the children that regularly would turn up to use them. What was needed was a permanent home for what was turning into a boat club.
The Pirate Club was born on the 6th of March 1966. For a clubhouse, an old Grand Union barge was chosen from those available in Brentford. Her name was 'Rosedale'. Terms were agreed subject to some very necessary work being carried out on the hull.
When she was ready, the pirates went to collect her. Lord St David's divided the party into two groups. One was to 'bow- haul' the barge from the towpath. Bow- hauling is where people play the part of horses in towing the boat along from the canal bank. The other group was set to work inside Rosedale. They were to chip off any rust they found, sweep up and then repaint.
By the end of the day they had reached Norwood Top Lock, which is ten locks from Brentford, and it is here that they moored up for the night.
The next day, Beauchamp Lodge's narrowboat 'William' arrived, and took Rosedale under tow the remainder of the way to Camden Town. The skipper of William was Dennis Jewiss - more usually known simply as 'Bosun'. He deserves to have his work better known but suffice it to say he was one of the great canal characters.
With Rosedale in her new home at Gilbey's Wharf near Camden Lock, work continued to make her habitable. It was a group of Dustmen, with the help of a Petty Officer, who roofed over the hold in timber and plastic sheets. It was becoming obvious to the local community that the Pirate Club was good for their children, and so they helped willingly to give them a clubhouse.
The moorings for the barge were two substantial wooden piles that came from the Port of London Authority. The British Waterways Board drove them well into the canal bed, and they are still to be seen outside the castle to this day.
Rosedale was fitted out with changing rooms for the boys and girls. It had a toilet right up in the bows, which was in the fashion of the day emptied into the canal when it was full! There was an office for Lord St David's as well, but most of the space was given over to the clubroom. Here, pride of place wentto an old Tortoise stove, on which the pirates burnt driftwood out of the canal.
I am assured that this stove was the most popular member of the club. I am sure that wet and cold pirates were very grateful for a warm and dry place to retire to after being out boating in all weathers. Lord St David's tells me that wood was very plentiful in the canal in those days, and it could be collected for free. Wood is also known as the 'twice-warming fuel'. It warms you first when you cut it up, and warms you again when you burn it!
The canals in cities can make excellent adventure playgrounds. Children have always known this, and even in the days when the canal was fenced and locked, they would still find a way in. When the pirates first appeared, the canal and its surroundings were becoming derelict and regarded by many as redundant and dangerous eyesores. Much has changed since then and now the area is bursting with new life.
Lord St David's was well aware of the public attitude towards the risks children faced near water, but he knew that with proper supervision and instruction, no one would come to much harm. He therefore introduced a tough set of rules, and a hierarchy for the members.
The new members were restricted to rowing boats and they had to remain in sight of the club barge. They remained there until they had passed the Pirate Test. This was a demanding test of boating skills, but many passed within a few days of joining. They then went onto the trusted list, and had a letter 'T' added to their membership badge. As a trusted member, they had access to canoes, and were allowed to use the whole mile and a half of water between Camden Lock and the Maida Hill Tunnel.
Lord St David's ran the club singlehanded most of the time, and rather than have to confine the pirates within sight of the barge, he created a rank of 'Skipper' for those competent to lead a party on their own. Initially the skippers came from the senior members, but soon there were enough juniors (11 years old and under) to create a rank of 'Junior Skippers' as well. Those members that hoped eventually to become a Skipper were given the rank of 'Mate'.
Membership was open mainly to the 8 to 14 year olds, but sometimes very young brothers and sisters would turn up. They became known as 'Barge Mice' There were also members over the age of 14, but sooner or later the pirates would grow up and move on.
By this time there was a committee to help run the club, and Lord St David's was keen to get members involved. He therefore created the post of 'Club Captain'. There were two of these at any one time, and their term of office was for six months.
It was vital to have the trust of the parents, or there would be no members for the club. It was also necessary for the local council and the British Waterways Board to have faith in the work being done. Public relations are always very important, even for pirates! It seems that Lord St David's succeeded in this as it was not long before the Inner London Education Authority were paying him £15 a week to run the club. This was May 1966, and the club had been running for two months.
By this time the club had snowballed to just under a hundred members. However, they still had too few boats for them all to use. It was time for some serious scrounging. The shortage of boats was to bug the club for many years, for as fast as new boats came in, more children joined the club.
Members paid sixpence to join the club, and sixpence a week to use the boats. They soon came from all over London. The club was open after school and at weekends. During the summer holidays it was open every day from 10am until 8pm. It must have been absolutely punishing for Lord St David's to work a seven day week with no let up and very little help. He told me that he would often stagger home and be speechless with tiredness at the end of the day. The things we do for love!
Lord St David's was given the nickname 'Pegleg' when he came to the club in a plaster cast after breaking his leg. The name was to stick, but only the members were privileged to use it.
Tragedy Struck the club in April 1968, when vandals set light to the floating clubhouse. It was completely gutted, even though Lord St David, his daughter Eiddwen and a dozen firemen and policemen had tried to save it. It was thought that some big hooligans were annoyed because some of their friends preferred to go to the Pirate Club rather than spend their evenings in a gang.
The clubhouse was rebuilt with some improvements such as a corrugated iron and plastic roof. The insurance money and plenty of help ensured the club's survival. In time the job was done, and the canoes that were destroyed, were replaced.
Lord St David came up with a plan to ease the boat shortage. He designed a pirate galley that would keep a big crew busy. It was built on to a camping punt, but the complete craft was some 30 foot long. She had two masts that set lateen sails for when the wind was favourable. Usually she was rowed with one pirate to each oar. There were eight oars altogether, and a steerer and look-out as part of the crew. This was the minimum needed, but there were times when up to 30 could be packed in. She was altogether a very pretty sight - she even had cannons mounted on her deck.