The Official Opening - April 2nd 1955
by Nicholas Jones,
son of founder member J. Clement Jones
As was only to be expected we three boys were under strict instructions to behave on that most important day, the club's official opening on Saturday April 2 1955, when Uffa Fox broke the Union Jack at the club's flag pole, cut the scarlet ribbon that stretched across the newly-constructed slipway and unveiled a commemorative plaque behind which was buried a small box containing a signed copy of the souvenir programme for the official opening.
Among the guests welcomed by the commodore Victor Gough, were the Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire, H. Wallace-Copland, and Enoch Powell, the MP for Wolverhampton South West, who had been made an honorary member of the club.
We boys did as instructed and kept out of the way (no bonfires were allowed that day!). However, I do remember having a swig from an unopened bottle of Babycham which I had found on the ground beneath the drinks table. Those were the days! We had good reason to be seen and not heard that day because persuading Uffa Fox to travel to Wolverhampton to perform the official opening was a considerable coup for a new club.
A reporter for the Birmingham Gazette described the scene as members gathered round for the opening ceremony: "It looked as if royalty was expected. The yachts moored along the jetty were all made ship-shape, with gleaming decks and new white nylon lines, and someone had even ‘dressed ship.' But ‘royalty' WAS expected .......... Uffa Fox is always ‘Royalty' where sailing men are gathered. It was the first time anyone had persuaded the bluff, unceremonious sailing master to the Duke of Edinburgh to perform such a duty.
"He arrived looking - even in the heart of the Midlands - decidedly nautical, in reefer jacket and navy slacks, the famous mop of silver hair blowing in a wind that promised some good racing later in the day. Then it was down to the slipway. There drawn up for inspection were the club's racing fleet of GP 14s and 12ft. Fireflies, an Uffa Fox design which has sold 1,500 in the last few years."
The commodore looked on with real pride as racing got underway: first off were the Fireflies, followed five minutes later by the start of the GP 14s.
Victor Gough had arrived particularly early that morning in his chauffeur driven Rolls. He was kitted out as one would have expected for the principal flag officer of the day, complete with his peaked yachting cap.
In order to make sure the flag officers were correctly dressed, Victor had taken the precaution of seeking the advice of the Royal Yachting Association. Francis Usborne, the secretary, had written back to say that peaked yachting caps were appropriate for the official opening of the South Staffs S.C. in April; white cap covers could be worn during the summer season (May 1 to September 30).
In its letter to the club setting out the dress code, the RYA had stressed that it was not only the flag officers who could wear peaked yachting caps, with white covers in summer: it is "the normal practice on the coast" for all members to do so.
One summer morning, Josie Etchells, who had her 80th birthday in November 2003, rushed into the clubhouse to say how surprised she was to see that such a small sailing club like South Staffs had "such a smart car parking attendant." It turned out to have been either John Bill (who donated the paint) or Cyril Richards, two of the club's most immaculately turned out members who always wore smart blue suits and yachting caps with white covers.
The speed with which South Staffs had established itself - and the club's ability to draw support from such a wide cross section of the yachting fraternity - reflected the pent up demand for inland sailing water. In just two years, after thirty nine people attended the inaugural meeting in 1953, membership had grown so quickly that the club had to close its boat owning membership lists.
In the official souvenir programme (price 6d) Clem proudly described the club's extensive facilities: when launching a boat it was no longer necessary to force one's way through the bushes, because "it can be ‘walked' gently into the water down a slipway which is a masterpiece of co-operative design and effort. Those who have worked on it, have in this slipway, a monument to their endeavours which should last the club the rest of its life."
Having persuaded Uffa Fox to make the long trip north from his home at Cowes, the flag officers entertained him in style at the club's inaugural dinner at the Star and Garter Hotel in Wolverhampton. The main toast was proposed by Enoch Powell MP, whose help and support had been so invaluable when it proved so difficult to find a suitable stretch of water.
In his reply, Victor Gough said the club would always remain indebted to Enoch for his contacts with the British Waterways Board which had resulted in the negotiations which finally secured the lease for Calf Health. "In the early days, I thought we might have three or four dozen enthusiasts, who would welcome the opportunity to put a boat on the water for a few weekends during the summer. Today we have on our register exactly forty boats, two hundred members and a waiting list. We are starting off on a great adventure...This is a new club and I want us to create a tradition for fair play and good sportsmanship, so that wherever we may go people will say that South Staffordshire Sailing Club are ‘good types' and that we shall be welcome wherever we go."
Another of the guests singled out for thanks by the commodore was Malcolm Graham, proprietor of the Express and Star, who had worked "behind the scenes" to ensure the club's successful launch. Malcolm donated the Express and Star Trophy (1955) which was specially designed and made by students of Wolverhampton College of Art.
Among the treasured items in my father's scrapbook is the speech he made at the inaugural dinner. It was his task to pay a special tribute to Uffa Fox who had become the club's patron (a post he held until his death in 1972). Uffa rarely left Cowes during the winter months and by holding the official opening on April 2 1955, the club had just managed to meet the terms of his self-imposed exile in the Isle of Wight.
In one letter to my father (whom Uffa often addressed as ‘J.C.J.'), the Duke of Edinburgh's sailing companion explained his thinking: "Broadly speaking, I plan never to leave the Isle of Wight during January, February or March until after the 21st, when the sun has crossed the line, as these are the worst months of the year, full of ice, snow and fog. But on the day the sun crosses the line, about the 21st, we have the spring equinox, when it is equal day and equal night all over the world."
In his speech, Clem said he doubted whether there could have been anyone more appropriate to perform the club's opening ceremony: "Sailing and Uffa Fox are synonymous. No one has done more to popularise small boat racing than he has. Though we may think of Uffa in terms of sailing for pleasure - the Firefly and the Jolly boat - he has when necessary put his great talent to sterner uses. During the war, for instance, he designed an airborne motor lifeboat which could be parachuted by the RAF and which saved many lives at sea."
Once the formalities of the inaugural dinner were over, some of the officers and guests went to Bert Clarkson's house on Compton Holloway, Wolverhampton. When assembling information for this history, my father recalled that occasion and said a great time was had by all: "Uffa performed and sang some of the songs which had already upset HM The Queen and were not exactly appreciated by some of the wives of the committee! How things have changed, they could well be sung on television these days without a blush."
My father's great good fortune in being able to persuade Uffa to make the trip to Wolverhampton owed much to his annual summer visit to the Isle of Wight when he reported Cowes Week for the Manchester Guardian. This was always quite a ritual: he loved to spend one week of his annual leave from the Express and Star reporting events at the country's premier yachting festival.
His status as the Guardian's first-ever correspondent on ‘boats and boating' gave him access to events at the Royal Yacht Squadron (and his freelance earnings paid for a room for himself and his wife Marjorie in the Globe Hotel on Cowes Parade).
In those early days my father acted as the honorary press officer for the GP 14 Association and supplied newspapers with the results of the annual championships, the first of which was held at Ellesmere, followed by other events at Derwent Water and Plymouth.
Three months after the official opening, Clem's ‘boats and boating' column was given over to the rapid strides being made at Calf Heath. He said that membership had to be restricted because there were already as many Fireflies, GP 14s and Cadets as the water could accommodate and he calculated that the waiting list was already long enough to provide the nucleus for yet another sailing club!
South Staffs' Firefly team had already been sailing against two more senior clubs, the Midland S.C. at Edgbaston and Barnt Green S.C., and they had started taking away the trophies. There was no hiding Clem's pride as he reported for the Manchester Guardian on the outcome of Barnt Green's open Firefly meeting in June 1955: "South Staffs' two best sailors, Peter and Pam Waine (Firefly Swift, Sail No 1446), carried off the principal award - the Barnt Green Challenge Trophy. And, before the end of the summer, we expect to have been the hosts for several return visits."
The contributions made by Peter Waine and another early member, Peter Bowen, had been singled out by Victor Gough at the inaugural dinner. He said the work done by the sailing committee - and especially the "most instructive lectures" given by the two Peters - had been of great encouragement to those new members who had acquired GP 14s and Fireflies.
Clem's account in the official programme of the origins of the club ends with a confident prediction. He was sure that those early members of SSSC who helped "unselfishly and with whatever seemed most necessary" would, when the club "ceases to pioneer and achieves a state of ordered efficiency, look back with pride to those happy, early days."