Sporting club says bye bye blackballs, hello £400,000

Lottery/ the price of a grant
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The Independent Online
MAIDENHEAD rowing club, bastion of Thames tradition, has paid an unusual price for the £400,000 of National Lottery cash it has just been awarded by the Sports Council to build a new clubhouse: it has been forced to abandon blackballing.

The practice of refusing unsuitable applicants membership of a club, by committee members placing black instead of white balls into a box or bag, may be flourishing still in the venerable London clubs of St James's, but is not known to bepopular in Berkshire. Indeed, it was not known to the Maidenhead rowing club members.

But from the club's foundation in 1840 it is there in the rule book, where it was spotted by the sharp and democratic eye of Rebecca Leavey, a Sports Council caseworker, as she sifted through the bid application which was finally approved last week.

The "anarchic and undemocratic" had to go, the egalitarian council ruled - or there would be no money. "One of our basic criteria has to be open access to all members of the community," the Sports Council said. "If a club allows members to bar anyone they like, then it is unacceptable."

So as Oxford and Cambridge fought for the honours of the river a few miles downstream yesterday, the club was preparing for an extraordinary meeting to rescind Rule 8, by which two black balls, rather than white, from the dozen-strong ruling committee meant exclusion of the wrong sort of chap.

Many club members were unaware that Rule 8 even existed, and the average age of the committee is somewhat less than that of the crusty buffers of London clubland - it is 30. "We would have been happy to have a meeting that afternoon to get rid of it," said John Woffinden, the club captain. "The rule hasn't been used in living memory - we haven't even got a set of balls."

Despite the willingness to change, the rule uncomfortably reminded Maidenhead of a sporting stereotype it has been trying to live down. The move to a new clubhouse - the reason for the lottery bid - is the final stage in a gradual transformation of the club's rowing from being a part-time pursuit of grown-up public schoolboys to a modern sporting activity.

"The image of rowing is that it is a sport for toffs, with the Boat Race, Henley and all that," said Ted Harris, the club president. "That's the tip of the iceberg; the real rowers are the club members who are very much the butchers and bakers. It is open to everyone, and anyone is welcome."

The current clubhouse, tucked under Maidenhead bridge on the Thames, is very much in the old tradition. Built between 1904 and 1924, it is reminiscent of the spartan world of cold showers and draughty rooms.

Male club members have to change in a pit which floods regularly, has a Thames tidemark on the walls, and sports showers dribbling water down corrugated plastic divisions. Women have the comparative luxury of a converted upstairs clubroom; dry but cold.

About half the active membership of 150 are women and Maidenhead was one of the first clubs to admit female memebrs in the late 1970s. Both Mr Harris's daughters have been members, while Simon, his son, rowed for Cambridge in the 1982 Boat Race.

The new clubhouse will be on the opposite bank of the river. It will house double the number of boats and allow three times the membership. Five local schools have expressed an interest in using the facilities, and one state comprehensive is buying a boat in anticipation.

There will also be a gym and indoor rowing machines, while additional funding of more than £200,000 has been secured, in grants and loans from the area's two local authorities, or raised by members. More is planned to come from local businesses.

"It's relatively easy to raise the last £10,000," says Mr Harris. "We were selling them a dream - now we are selling them a reality."

A few trophies are expected to cross the river. Older members such as Bert Bushnell, aged 73 and a 1948 Olympic gold medal winner, are revered by younger rowers, and traditions remain respected.

The existing clubhouse is home to an oar from the 1877 Boat Race, the only one in the event's history to finish in a deadheat. It was presented by Lord Desborough, a club member who was described as "probably the best sportsman in the world".

After leaving Oxford and before becoming club president Lord Desborough rowed across the English Channel, climbed the Matterhorn three times by different routes, represented England in fencing championships and twice swam across Niagara pool as near as possihble to the Falls. He did it the second time to prove to a sceptic that he had done it the first time.

There is no record of him being blackballed.