There’s a series of programmes on BBC TV called River Walks, and one of these followed the River Lea (or Lee) through Hackney and as far as the River Thames – an area with a fascinating history, especially as regards engineering and industry. I’ve a life-long fascination with the inland waterways of the British Isles, and in 1974 – the year before I left home for university – my family’s summer holiday was spent on our ‘narrow boat‘ High Sparrows exploring the lower Thames and the rivers Lea and Stort. I recall that, one evening, we moored up for the night at a certain place that, my Dad told us, was where his grandparents had owned a boat-building yard.
This evening, armed only with a surname – Meggs, and a vague recollection where that might have been (of the I’ll know it when I see it sort), I set about a rather amateurish work of research. I don’t have access to reference libraries of any sort, so my method was limited to playing around with search terms and adapting those to what Google came back with. Here’s some of what I found, after one evening of ‘research’.
The Meggs, it seems, is a family that has been long-established in the lower Lea Valley, with branches at all levels of society and has outposts across the globe – but especially North America. In the 16thC a William Meggs from West Ham built up a substantial fortune as draper with premises on Whitechapel Road in London, and on his death bequeathed a substantial sum for the building and upkeep of almshouses in West Ham : they were rebuilt in the late 19thC, and are still in use today. At this time, however, my interest is confined to the Charles Meggs who owned a boatyard and boat-building business at Lea Dock, just north of Lea Bridge, Upper Clapton.
Charles Meggs was my father’s grandfather. Charles’ daughter Eva(line) Violet Meggs was my Dad’s mother, and so my grandmother. I remember her very well. One of the photos above shows members of the Tiger Rowing and Athletic Club posing for a club photograph. Some of the members are showing off their Safety Bicycle, which in 1890 was a very recent invention – and would have been expensive. In the late 19thC, rowing was an immensely popular pastime, with boatyards building and selling or hiring boats of different types for every occasion and purpose : from large skiffs weekend leisure boating for families, to racing boats (with outriggers) for club regattas. Boat builders competed with their own designs, each offering a different level of sophistication and luxury to suit the pockets of men of every station in life, from workmen to tradesmen, and gentlemen to aristocrats. Many of the boating clubs were based at the premises of boatyards, and one source I found reported that Meggs hosted as many as eight clubs, of which one was the Tiger, and another the Pembroke Rowing Club.
It seems likely that Meggs built the very distinctive boathouse at Lea Dock in the early 1880s – at the very height of the boating boom. How successful the enterprise was, I’ve no idea. In 1910, the boathouse was sold to the Radley family, who then had three boatyards, all within a mile-and-a-half stretch of the River Lea. By that time, though, the boating boom was beginning to fade, and of course the First World War resulted in most boatyards closing down for good. However, I seem to recall my Dad once telling me that the boatyard had to be sold to pay off the gambling debts of a wayward relative … I wonder who that was? It’s too late now, to ask him.
When my Dad started rowing on the River Thames, in his teen years, it was a means of regaining strength after a near-fatal bout of Rheumatic Fever. I wonder whether that was suggested by his mother – recalling her childhood days at the family’s boatyard?
The boatyard burned down in 1932. Lea Dock was infilled after the Second World War – quite likely with rubble from bomb-sites.