Updated: May 22
In 1956 W. J. (Dicky) Bird, a member of Weybridge Rowing Club, proposed a race for scullers from local clubs. He was pleasantly surprised when, as word began to spread, entries came in from the Tideway and further afield. This was the first long distance race for scullers to be established on the upper Thames, and the idea proved so popular that over the next few years similar events were started at Marlow, Reading, Pangbourne, Henley and Wallingford.
What made Dicky Bird unique in his time was the fact that he had suffered from polio, leaving him with no effective muscles in his legs. By contrast his upper body was extremely strong and he was a successful swimmer and cyclist, using a bicycle modified with a crank that could be turned by hand. He joined Weybridge Rowing Club, bought a sculling boat, had the seat fixed and taught himself to scull. He raced in the Scullers' Head on the Tideway and finished last, by some way, but claimed that he had stopped to applaud the winner. From here, the idea of the Weybridge Silver Sculls was born.
Derek Roy ran the event almost single-handedly for nearly thirty years. Alas, he is no longer with us but other Weybridge Rowing Club members took over, notably Caroline Turnbull who was event secretary from 1993-2009.
The Silver Sculls are exactly as they sound; a model of a pair of sculls made from a block of silver by Dicky Bird himself. The Junior men compete for the Demerara Cup, given by Frank Gomes, a Weybridge member from Guyana. The trophies for the women's events are named after Amy Gentry (founder of Weybridge Ladies ARC) for Seniors and Bonnie Bird (the founder's wife) for the Juniors.
The course, of approximately two miles upstream, is the longest practicable distance on the Sunbury to Shepperton reach of the Thames, allowing space for marshalling and turning. There are a number of bends in the river and in the early years the scullers gained advantage by cutting the bends and staying out of the stream, while paying rather limited attention to the rules of navigation. In 1977 the Thames Water Authority (now the Environment Agency) decided this arrangement was unacceptable for the safety of both the scullers and the other river users. Since then, the course has been buoyed to keep the competitors on the Surrey side of the river, apart from the final section in the Desborough Cut which is closed to other river traffic.
For the first race, on Saturday 27th October 1956, there were 27 entries. The rising entry peaked in 2003 with 562 boats and was limited at 460 for some years due to marshalling practicalities. Quads were tried, but due to the difficulty of getting through the old Walton Bridge (itself an 'inconvenience', even in a single) were later restricted only to the coxed variety. Innovations since 2012 have taken advantage of the modern single-span Walton Bridge; the event now runs successfully with four divisions, each for up to 150 boats comprising a mix of singles and doubles. In 2015, a record 572 entries were accepted which was deemed too many for the traditional course. In 2018, a new course was introduced to allow upstream racing on the Middlesex side, then turning north via the 'old river' to finish at the top of the straight before the Red Lion pub in Shepperton. If the format is successful, we might be able to increase the 120-boats-per-division limit.
The first race was won by Doug Melvin of John O'Gaunt Rowing Club. Other winners went on to win the Diamond Challenge Sculls at Henley, including Sir Steve Redgrave, Chris Baillieu, Tim Crooks and Hugh Wardell-Yerburgh. Geoff Baker, George Justicz and Mike Hart were medal-winning internationals. Dan Topolski, Chris Drury and John Melvin won lightweight gold medals. Topolski was also an outstanding OUBC coach. Ex-Hampton schoolboy Greg Searle won the coxed pairs in the Barcelona Olympics and Mike Spracklen, later coach of gold medal-winning GB and Canadian Olympic crews, came second three years in succession.
Sophie Hosking, who was the fastest woman in 2008, won gold in lightweight doubles at the London 2012 Olympics.
Maybe the entry for this year's race will provide the medal winners for future Olympic Games?