Rowing Club Stories 1 - Bridget Hull

 

To many, if not most, of our present members, the name Bridget Hull is no more than the name of an old boat. But Bridget was a real person and I thought it might be of interest if I were to share a few memories of the real Bridget Hull.

When I first came to Leicester Rowing Club, as a member of Gateway School Rowing Club, in 1961, I very soon became aware of a little Irish woman who would appear, as if from nowhere, on an old bicycle and demand (not ask!) that we all took books of raffle tickets to sell. These were produced from the large, seemingly bottomless, basket hanging from the handlebars of her bike. It was made very clear that returned tickets were not acceptable and that she would expect the stubs and the money by a certain date. We schoolboys dared not argue, nor, we noticed, did the most senior members of the club!

Bridget Teresa Hull was, to my knowledge, the greatest fund raiser our club has ever had and I am sure that without her efforts, the club would have folded before the 1960's were out. At the time, the boathouse was in a dreadful condition. Situated slightly forward of the present one and closer to the trees, it was made of wood and, when I knew it, leaned precariously towards the river. It had no windows and the only lighting was through glass skylights in the roof. The doors fitted badly, due to the angle of the structure and I remember that one of them had worn a groove in the gravel. The changing room was the original concrete row of changing cubicles from the swimming pool that used to occupy the site. Further along, towards the drive, was another building comprising two rooms. One was used as a blade store. The other was empty and derelict. Across the drive were more derelict buildings (We occupied the entire site up to the bridge at the time). Along the bank, between the bridge and the drive were dozens of huge concrete sewer pipes, about 1.5metres in diameter. As can be imagined, membership was very poor. After all, we didn't have much to offer. All the boats were old and some of them had fixed pin riggers.

It was against this background that Bridget set about raising enough money to buy a new boathouse, new boats and blades, improve the changing facilities (At least, we got a hot water heater for the shower – and a door!) and build a bar in the derelict building near the drive. How did she do it? I have mentioned the raffles already. It isn't easy to sell raffle tickets, especially for a cause that few people have heard about and even fewer care. There has to be the incentive of good prizes – but who would donate them? Bridget had this covered! Her weapon was fear! She pestered the shopkeepers along Narborough Road and thereabouts until they gave her a prize “for the lovely boys at the Rowing Club” just to get rid of her!

It wasn't just raffles, though. Bridget decided she could make money by holding rummage sales. Not the usual, small sale that was common at the time, but big sales – enough to fill quite a large hall. She chose Holy Apostles Church Hall on Fosse Road South, not far from her home on the same road. She got on her bike and pestered everybody she could find to donate items of every description for her to sell for “the lovely boys”. We were not left out either! We were expected to donate and collect as much as we could and deliver it to the club, where it was stored wherever we could find a space. When we ran out of space she had a contingency plan. She owned a row of lock – up garages on Fosse Road South which she rented out. One by one her tenants were persuaded that it wouldn't be any great hardship to park their cars in the street for a couple of weeks so that she could store rummage in their garages. I believe she continued to collect the rent!

When the big day arrived we all got together to move a mountain of clothes, hats, books, records, furniture, kitchen equipment, etc., etc............(You name it, we had it!) to the hall where Bridget had set out the tables. We then sorted it into different categories and piled it onto the tables ready to sell. I remember, at the first sale, the sense of shock when we looked outside just before the advertised opening time, to see a queue stretching halfway round the block! The door was opened and hundreds of middle aged women charged in, pushing and elbowing each other out of the way – just like the Harrod's January Sale! I don't know why, but I always got the Hat Stall. Dozens of women clawed at the hats and tried them on whilst I held a mirror up for them. It wasn't unusual for “tug – o – war” contests to break out over a hat. I worked out that, in these circumstances, the best policy was to grab the hat and hold a quick auction. During this, the price would go up considerably but, after all, it was obviously a very desirable hat! I can't remember exactly how many of these sales were held, probably three or four over a period of about three years. They came to an end after some customers in the waiting queue spotted a dealer creeping out of the back door carrying some items that Bridget had sold him before the sale had opened. She had reckoned that she would get a better price for them this way. Word went around the queue and the atmosphere became very tense with people shouting and banging on the doors and windows! I think Bridget was smuggled out of the back door as the front door was opened. The rest of us had to stand firm and take the flak!

After a suitable period of recuperation, some of it, I suspect, hiding from some angry former customers, Bridget  came up with another idea. At the time, waste paper merchants were paying an unusually high price for old newspapers. For Bridget, this was an opportunity not to be missed! Once again, the changing room and every other available space at the club was filled, this time with waste paper and her long suffering garage tenants were out on the streets again! This was an on-going scheme. Every now and again a man would arrive with a van, give her some money (it was never enough and he had a rough time!) and take the paper away so that we could start collecting all over again. I don't think I was alone in feeling grateful to the person who broke into the changing room one day and set fire to it! Someone passing by saw the smoke and called the Fire Service and the fire was put out before any serious damage was caused – not that there was much to damage! The good thing was that, after a lick of paint, we had our changing room back.

I never knew how old Bridget was. To me she was always an old lady, but by this time her health was starting to deteriorate and I think the waste paper scheme was her last. In the years that I knew her she raised thousands of pounds for the club, which was spent, as I have already mentioned, on replacing the wooden boathouse with a new one on a steel frame covered with asbestos sheet (Yes, I know!) which had about double the capacity of the old one, and several new boats and blades. We were also able to build a clubroom in one of the derelict buildings and open a bar which resulted in a thriving social membership who, in turn, raised more money for the club and travelled around with the crews to shout support from the banks.

The club showed it's gratitude by naming one of the new boats “Bridget Hull” and I can remember Bridget being embarrassed  and saying that she didn't deserve it! She lived just long enough to launch one more boat, the Frank Noakes, and I have film of this event which shows Bridget pouring a bottle of champagne over the bows. She did this sitting in her wheelchair and needed help to lift the bottle.

Bridget died soon after. The news came, by phone, as we were holding a committee meeting. I can't remember a time when there was so much sadness in our club than on that evening.

I can't remember which church the funeral was held at but it was Catholic, so there was a Requiem Mass the evening before the burial. Some of us had volunteered to be pall bearers and carried Bridget on our shoulders into the church. Peter Julian (the club captain) had a friend who was a florist and he had constructed a coxed four made of flowers. This was carried behind the coffin and when Bridget's husband, Harry saw it he stood up and moved his own wreath to the foot of the coffin. “Put it on there lads” he said, “It would have meant a lot to her”.

Bridget was buried the next day by “the lovely boys of the Rowing Club” at Saffron Hill Cemetery.

 

Malcolm Neal