City Barge was founded on 27 September 1992, at a meeting in the Cottage at the back of the Rose and Crown pub in North Parade, Oxford. To this day, the rose and crown form the badge of the club.
The aim of City Barge was to promote the use and enjoyment of hand-powered boats on the Isis and elsewhere.
A fine oarsman, Richard Norton (1937-2015) was one of the founding members of City Barge. His grandfather was Principal of Hertford College, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University and Master of the Drapers’ Company, one of the oldest City of London livery companies. Richard retained strong links with Oxford after graduation, coaching the Hertford College First VIII.
Roger Blackburn (1941-2015) was the other founding member of the club. Roger was an energetic Oxfordshire businessman, with wide experience in management, advertising and marketing. He was a successful oarsman with Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge and recruited a group of friends to City Barge, who all rowed for the college First VIII and were known as “Billy Goats.” In the early days of the club, members owned and rowed traditional English wooden boats, such as gigs, skiffs and punts, on the rivers round Oxford. This changed after 1993.
One of the early aims of the club was to build a barge for the Lord Mayor of London to use in the Lord Mayor’s Show in November each year. Richard Norton hoped he might build a small fleet of shallops which the City Livery Companies could hire and use for Thames Ceremonial events. There was also interest in restoring Oxford College barges. The club’s aims have evolved, however, so the club now a name that now hides what it really does!
Richard and Claire Norton visited Venice in 1993, ostensibly to visit the ballet at La Fenice. A chance meeting with a crew from London Rowing Club resulted in Richard rowing with the crew in the Vogalonga (the international 32km non competitive row around the Venetian lagoon) the next day. Richard became fascinated by Venetian rowing and some happy accidents developed his and the club’s interest.
First, City Barge members decided to attend a Venetian Fte Champetre on the lake at Stourhead in Wiltshire later in July 1993. Two gigs were rowed by members, dressed in Bucintoro and Querini colours. Exeter Maritime Museum had brought a gondola for the event, but had no rowers to row her. Ennio and Tess Penzo stepped out of the crowds asking if the organisers needed any help rowing her. They rowed her on the lake to universal admiration of both the crowd and City Barge members. Unsurprisingly, visits to Venice followed rapidly that year. Thanks to the meeting with Ennio and Tess, a link was established with Reale Società Canottieri Querini.
Richard was introduced to Lady Clarke OBE, wife of the retired diplomat, Sir Ashley Clarke. To our lasting delight, Frances Clarke agreed to be the Club’s Vice-President though sadly, Sir Ashley died only a few months later. Frances introduced Richard Norton to Francis Phillimore, who rowed Venetian boats as a boy. Shortly after Lord Phillimore agreed to be the club’s Patron.
Then, in Venice on 21 May, 1994, the Querini presented a small sandolo to City Barge which was to be named Ashley Clarke. She was launched at Donnington Bridge on 5 June that year. The club had no premises at that time and the sandolo was kept on the canal near Tim Williams’ house near Hungerford.
Thirdly, City Barge member Nick Birch bought a gondola called Rosanna in 1995. She was restored and refurbished at Nick’s boatyard in Stratford-on-Avon.
At a gathering in Stratford organised for City Barge, a Venetian, Mario Pianta, stepped out of the crowd and volunteered to row the gondola. He demonstrated his prowess as a Venetian rower immediately and admitted later that he’d never actually rowed a gondola before! Gondolas were reserved for gondoliers only. Mario’s great personality, good humour and rowing skills were to become a feature of the club until he died in 2018. He helped many of the early club members to learn to row Venetian style, the voga alla veneta.
TOWARDS A VENETIAN OXFORD
Between 1995 and 1997 there was a growing interest in Venetian rowing. Members would meet regularly to try to row the sandolo and the gondola in Henley, Oxford and Stratford. Anthony de Winton had bought a sandolo too. Richard Norton and Nick Birch adapted a punt for Venetian rowing. Links with Querini were strengthened in 1995 when City Barge presented a new Janousek single sculling boat to the club for the use of an outstanding Junior sculler, Davide Donaggio, to represent Querini in the national championships.
The Vogalonga became the main focus each year for the club, with members rowing in caorline, organised by Ennio and Tess Penzo. John Galley and Gavin Dunbar (schoolfriends of Richard Norton) rowed in a restored Thames double that they took to Venice in 1995.
With the help of John Marsh, an architect and Hertford College alumnus, Richard Norton persuaded Hertford College to buy and remodel the run-down Tims’ Boathouse at Longbridges into the five-bay boathouse with clubrooms and an ergo room in the roof that we know today. The new boathouse was formally opened by St Catz graduate and double Olympic Gold Medallist Matthew Pinsent in April 1997.
Richard led five colleges and a town club (City Barge) into forming a consortium to use and run the boathouse. Nearly five years after its foundation the club finally had a home!
CITY BARGE: ANNUS MIRABILIS—1997
All Richard Norton’s hard work was rewarded with a large entry in the 1997 Vogalonga.
Venetian rowers included:
Caorlina: Richard Norton, Mario Pianta, Robert Plowright, John Rew, John Sykes and Tim Williams.
Sandolo: Richard Bailey, Nick Birch, Alex Martin and George Stein.
Puparino: Ennio and Tess Penzo.
Disdotona: Francis Phillimore with Nathalie Phillimore in the polachetta seat.
Sitting down rowers included:
Coastal Four: Ted Bates, Dick Kruger, Dave Lusty, Eric Scruby and Rick Spiewak.
Coastal Quad Scull: Tim Claye, Ian Hall, Richard Robinson, Mike and Harriet Wilson.
Three members rowed in a Coastal Four with London RC, they were Robbie van Mesdag, Cedric Sheppard and Anthony de Winton.
Many of these rowers have given tremendous service to the club in succeeding years. On 6 December 1997, the new Standing Captain, Alex Martin, introduced Saturday morning training at the new Longbridges Boathouse.
Richard Norton was a liveryman of The Drapers’ Company, one of the Great Twelve, the oldest livery companies of the City of London. He persuaded the Drapers to buy a six-oared shallop, called The Royal Thamesis in 2003. She had been built for the annual Thames Traditional Boat Rally and was modelled on the coronation barge of King William III and Queen Mary II, who were jointly crowned in 1689.
A similar eight-oared shallop visited Henley Royal Regatta in 1912. The Drapers’ shallop is kept near Oxford and has been rowed by many club members in Oxford and Europe. She needs a coxswain in the stern plus a whiffler in the bows to complete her crew. Candidates for her crew are expected to have previous sitting rowing experience. Training outings to train the crew at working together occur annually. This boat goes to various prestigious events during the year, where she is much admired.
THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
City Barge is the only Venetian rowing club in Britain. The club now has four sandolos, two mascaretas, two s’ciopons and a gondolino. In addition, it is able to use a sandolo and a s’ciopon privately owned by members.
Pauline Dobbs is our captain and she organises a busy rowing programme, trains up rowers to become skilled in rowing and steering its beautiful Venetian boats.
Tim Koch, a rowing historian and now City Barge member, visited us in 2017 and wrote a marvellous description of what we do in his article, Standing Up For Rowing.
Close links have been forged with another Venetian rowing club, the Associazione Settemari. City Barge visits Venice in March each year for training, rows with them in the Vogalonga, and joins in raids round the Venetian Lagoon and further afield.
City Barge also has close links with CIVV, the international community of Venetian rowing, predominantly outside Venice. City Barge has forged friendships in Berlin, Braunschweig, Frankfurt, Marburg, Amsterdam, Paris, Sucé-sur-Erdre (near Nantes,) Pavia, Treviso and Padua.
— Richard Robinson