The Oldest Rowing Club in Bristol

Founded in 1870, Bristol Ariel Rowing Club is the oldest rowing club in Bristol. The club was named “Ariel” after the barge it first resided on; the boats have always borne the names of characters from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, where Ariel was an imprisoned spirit released by Prospero to stir up the storm at the beginning of the tale.

The club was originally based on a barge near Bristol Bridge, in the city centre: surrounded by aromas from the St. George’s brewery and the less than pleasant odours of the docks. The rowing equipment was somewhat more primitive in those days: until the sliding seat was widely introduced after 1871 the rowers wore tight linen shorts to slide on a greased surface with each stroke.

The barge was a French frigate captured in the Napoleonic wars. It housed all the club’s boats and documents and a cockroach infested changing room for the rowers. Much was lost when, just as she was due for repairs, the barge sprang a leak and sank: but she was raised, drained and served as clubhouse for another eight years until 1900, when Bristol Ariel Rowing Club moved to St. Anne’s and the current clubhouse was built.

Our current rules evolved from those in the ornate rule books published since the club was established. They once specified “no Candidate be eligible who is Mechanic, Artisan or Labourer, or disqualified in any other way from Rowing as a gentleman amateur under the rules of the Amateur Rowing Association”, as the amateur rowers of the day did not want to compete against the far more active manual labourers.

Ladies could not join until 1926, and then only as tennis members. Before 1926 they were restricted to making the tea and participating in the egg and spoon races at the yearly ladies’ days. A lot has changed since then and the club now welcomes everyone.