Postcards from Victoria Park:
At the Model Boating Lake
by Travis Elborough
Size matters in city parks. Artfully contrived naturalesque spaces, most are tailored to fit in set urban situations, with their specific limits often clearly demarcated by railings, fences and gates. Such barriers are seemingly there to protect the park from the city. Or vice versa, with the metropolis quite possibly fearing contamination by too much exposure to plants and grass, much like a small child forever nudging uneaten vegetables to the edge of their dinner plate. As small pockets of green amid forests of concrete and glass, the little they do is worth a lot. And doing little things in them can take on an enhanced significance. Amplified by constraints, the bigger picture can be ignored in favour of the miniature, the frame of a sports pitch making a game, its limits, along with mutually agreed rules, liberating rather than inhibiting play. But to go small in a big world, let alone to go even smaller still, in a biggish sort of park as the Victoria Park Model Steam Boat Club does to this day, involves no little imagination.
Victoria Park’s model boating club can trace its roots back to the turn of the last century, a point when nearly half the world’s maritime vessels were registered in London, shipbuilding remained (just about) active on the Thames, and over 20,000 men were employed by the capital’s docks. It began life as the Alexandra Yacht Club – its name a tribute to the soon-to-be queen consort, Princess Alexandra. But with a group of model boat enthusiasts meeting regularly at the lake, yachts seemingly, graciously gave way to more bantam craft and the Victoria Park Model Steam Boat Club was officially formed in 1904. Not long after that, its coffers were bolstered by a pound donation by Horatio Bottomley, the Liberal MP for Hackney South. And within six years of the club’s founding, Victoria Park also received the gift of a miniature garden from the Mayor of Tokyo. Created by the Yokohama Nursery Company and first displayed at Japanese-British exhibition at Shepherd’s Bush, it measured nine by four feet and was mounted on a trolley that could be wheeled outside for people to admire on fine days. Both the garden, which contained some tiny trees that were over a hundred years old, and the model boat club, two of Victoria Park’s smallest Edwardian additions, proved among its most sizeable attractions.
Home in the park for the Model Steam Boat Club was (and remains) a lake previously used for public bathing. This was laid out despite initial objections by the park’s designer James Pennethorne, who believed bathing would lower the tone and ‘quite destroy the value of the Park as a place of residence’. But plenty of poorer local residents, especially men from the nearby dye and tanning works, who had recourse to little other than the working canal to spruce themselves up on the way to and from the factory, certainly appreciated it nonetheless. And in 1898, and when recalling his years as the park supervisor for Municipal Board of Works, LT Colonel J.J. Sexby claimed that he’d once seen as many as 25,000 men and young boys taking a pre-work dip there on one early summer morning alone. Little wonder then, perhaps, that William Morris, after visiting Victoria Park to speak at a political rally on 8 August 1886, reported that while the park was ‘rather a pretty place with water’, the water itself was ‘dirty.’
With Victoria Park, labour and boating have long gone hand in hand, though, with the first vessel ever sailing on its lakes belonging to the original park superintendent, Samuel Curtis, who requested a rowing boat so he could trim the foliage around the island for the pagoda. Meanwhile, the model boaters’ first club house was an old gardening hut. Lacking the means to buy ready-made engines by firms like Basset-Lowke from West End department stores such as Gamages, most model steam boats raced at Victoria Park were custom-built from scratch. Their creators, more often than not, were engineers by profession. Local East Enders for whom tinkering about on a lathe in leisure hours was second nature, as manufacturing itself then was to the area. Men, and it was mostly men, who prided themselves on their mechanical ingenuity, preferring a hobby that combined getting their fingers oily and wading about in water, and for whom the phrase busman’s holiday could have perhaps been coined. Early club photos in bleached-out sepia depict Lowry-esque figures all in hats (flat caps, trilbies, and bowlers), and, regardless of the weather, heavy woollen three-piece suits and shirts and ties, standing beside Lilliputian steamers perched on hefty, hand-carved-looking wooden frames.
Arthur Evans. Bill Morse. Stan Clifford. Ted and Daisy Vanner. The names of long-dead club members, sturdy-sounding names that can be imagined appearing painted above ironmongers shops or on musical hall bills, live on. Uttered reverentially by older boaters who recall them as fondly as hazy childhood summers. But also kept alive by the presence within the club of some of their boats: passed down through the generations, many are still running, with the oldest working steamer, All Alone, dating from 1924. A less arcane model, Potential Threat, meanwhile owes its name to a lyric from an Abba song, and its compellingly sinister, sort of Dark Knight-ish, all-black livery to the colour-blindness of its owner, the modern club’s secretary Keith Reynolds.
Still, whereas Victoria Park was once one of a network of model boat clubs across London, most have gone. East End rivals at Forest Gate and Hollow Ponds, Walthamstow are no more and competitions are as likely to take them to St Albans, Welling Garden City, Birmingham or Norwich, or even Paris, as Blackheath – one of the other remaining clubs in the capital. Beyond these shores, the hobby especially thrives in Bulgaria, thanks to an array of first-rate model boating facilities bequeathed to it under the Soviet Union’s command economy, which established specialist centres of excellence for any, each and every kind of competitive game or sport. But where historically members at Victoria Park were drawn from the surrounding locality, often inducted into the club by their parents or joining as teenagers, having caught the bug after admiring the action on the lake—a significant proportion, having moved away, are now based outside of London entirely. These days, many of the park’s most dedicated weekend boaters travel in from places as diverse and far-flung as Dagenham in Essex and Littlehampton on the Sussex coast, their loyalty to the club evidently undiminished by distance.
Although it is also fair to say that while it does have younger members, some of them women too, not everyone in the club is quite in the first flush of youth. A particular concern expressed by a couple of lake-goers with grey hair is the dearth of provision for engineering in schools. Youngsters, they argue, rarely come face to face with a drill bit, and probably know more about bandwidths than bandsaws. Model boats might be dinky, but they are functional machines, ones whose engines must be cared for to be kept going. To do that, at least a basic grasp of mechanics is required. That grasp, or so they maintain, is not so often gifted to those educated in an era where apps possibly feature more prominently in the national curriculum than arc welding, say.
Here already for a hundred and eleven years, the Victoria Park Model Steam Boat Club is not going anywhere any time soon though, and could easily last for another hundred and eleven years. Its clubhouse by the lake, if heavily shuttered to prevent break-ins, is a listed building. Its members (and the park itself) are committed to its continuing success, and Norman Lara, its present chairman (a post once held by his late father), is one of the biggest names in the sport. He currently holds the world speed record for hydroplane racing. This especially whizzy form of motor model boating involves marine craft that look like a cross between a pond-skater and a Scalextric slot car. Hydroplanes are tethered to a line fixed at the centre of the pond. Once set going on the water, they spin rapidly round, and round. Frothing up the lake, they emit a hight-pitched waspy buzz until finally, out of fuel, they fizzle out like spent rockets. In the hands of Lara, such boats have now exceeded speeds of 140 mph.
Ruddy-faced and usually dressed in tracksuit and Adidas wind cheater, the universal mufti of the touchline, Lara has the style and demeanour of a Conference League football manager whose team are on the cusp of promotion. On regatta Sundays, he is often to be found directing events from the edge of the lake. Exuding paternalistic bonhomie, he smiles at boaters and spectators alike, gently ribs members in waders waist-deep in the water, and dishes out sage advice to fellow hydroplaners when their boats stubbornly fail to jerk into life, despite concerted yanks on starting cords.
The other thing quickly noticed about Lara is that his mobile goes off often. And when it does, it plays the opening bars to Stairway to Heaven. The Led Zeppelin rock epic is inevitably rendered as rinky-dink as an ice cream van chime by the phone. But in terms of scale, a pocket-sized Jimmy Page could hardly be less apt as a ringtone for a record-breaking model boater going about their hobby at a pond in Victoria Park.
 A novelist friend once made the mistake of telling an interviewer that she enjoyed playing air hockey as a teenager – it was the 1980s, and in a small, rain-lashed coastal town with a surfeit of amusement arcades, what else was she to do?, she had quipped. When the piece eventually appeared, the word ‘air’ had been omitted. Airbrushed out, as it were, perhaps by an overzealous sub with concerns about the word count. The result, however, was to turn a pastime she had mostly undertaken to catch the eye (and cadge fags) off boys called Steve and Wayne, indoors, on sticky carpet and the under the unforgiving glare of strip-lighting, into quite another game entirely. One whose sticks are even frequently described as ‘jolly.’ Similarly, the move at Victoria Park from yachting, a sport described as ‘tolerably select’ by Trollope and adopted by the Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath with the express aim of providing him with some kind of hinterland a potential Tory voter might understand, to model boating, is slightly curious, if all the more delicious for its embrace of the smaller, less ostentatious thing.
 A local boy made good, largely by continually doing bad things, Bottomley was born in Bethnal Green and spent most of his childhood in an orphanage. After serving an apprenticeship as an office boy in a legal shorthand firm, he ventured into finance and publishing. A founder of the Financial Times, he was also the owner for a time of The Sun, then an evening newspaper. A lover of the high life, he miraculously evaded a conviction for falsely promoting inflated Australian gold mining company shares in his papers, but was bankrupted by debt and forced to stand down as an MP. Blessed with an unwavering faith in his own abilities, he bounced back at the outbreak of the First World War by launching John Bull, a virulently anti-German but hugely popular patriotic newspaper. Speaking at dozens of recruiting rallies, for which he pocketed huge fees while encouraging hundreds, possibly thousands, to step toward their deaths in the trenches, he was described by the Daily Mirror ‘as London’s answer to the Zeps’ – a phrase that was unfortunately possibly truer than anyone could perhaps have realised when it came to the final body count. Re-elected to Hackney South as an independent after the war, he was eventually sentenced to seven years’ hard labour for fraud, having, among several other misdemeanours, promoted a bogus Victory Bonds banking scheme. He emerged from Wormwood Scrubs to tread the boards, telling his colourful life story in whatever tawdry flea pit or gin palace would pay him, before dying in penury in 1933.
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