The Wilsonian SC 1959 to 2009

50th Anniversary Year

The Wilsonian Sailing Club is located on the north shore of the Medway in Cockham reach, opposite Chatham dockyard, almost mid way between Hoo Ness Y.C. at Hoo and Medway Y.C. at Upnor. The club house and dinghy park are surrounded by woodland, which has S.S.S.I. (Site of Special Scientific Interest) status, and the two slipways give access to a shingle beach with launching at all states of the tide.

The club was founded by A.W. Bourner O.B.E., FALPA., (universally known as Bert) who was a pupil at Wilsonians Grammar School in Camberwell, South London from 1914-1918. He was a very successful businessman, being a Director of a company of estate and property agents in the West End of London and having a farm in Sussex and a large commercial garage in Edenbridge. In spite of his success he never forgot his school days (as a Camberwell boy made good) and was responsible for the purchase of a large sports ground in Hayes for old boys of the school, whose association was called the 'Old Wilsonians' (OWA).He developed an interest in sailing, having a small flotilla of boats and a number of yachts (the last of which was 'Firecrest') and founded the club in the belief 'that all people (and the pupils of Wilsons in particular) should be able to sail'. The requirement to encourage school members and boys from Camberwell was to challenge the club for some time ' mainly because of the travelling. Bertie was very persuasive and used his business, money and connections to further this aim. For instance, having good relationships with W.St.J Brice, owner of Cockham Woods and getting Harold Auten VC, DSC, Elder of the Trinity Brethren (another OW) to be the first president of 'The Old Wilsonian Sailing Association (OWS)'. The influence of Harold Auten is not documented, apart from a letter stating ' can get the admiralty to do anything', which probably accounts for the assistance from Medway Ports Authority and the Naval Dockyard. Thus in 1959 Bert started the club with 6 boats ' an Osprey, GP14, Enterprise, Day boat, 2.5 ton sloop and a motor boat, all launched from Hoo Ness where a couple of garages, a car park, a path through the woods together with the dinghy park were leased from W.St.J Brice. Bert's private secretary was despatched from London, looking very unhappy in bowler hat, directing contractors to clear the path and dinghy park.

The initial problem was that none of the OWs could sail, but Bert was a member of the 'Little Ships club' and asked one Paddy O'Connell to assist and he persuaded two instructors from the LCC sailing club at Putney to join. Thus from a start of 14 members the club finished 1960 with 45 members and 3 instructors so commencing a continuing tradition of training. It was also clear that members other than Old Wilsonians had to be accepted to build up membership ' though they had a restricted membership. Changing at Hoo Ness and then walking along the beach to the dinghy park was clearly restricting sailing, so Bert arranged for a 90 foot wrought iron barge 'Tuna' to be converted at Greenwich. The barge had accommodation, kitchen, club house, coal fired boiler and race box. This was moored opposite the club by the Medway Ports Authority in September '61' the uniform could easily have been mistaken for the 1920's!

By 1963 another Wilsonian tradition was started, namely 'winter work parties' or DIY in today's parlance, with members being instructed to 'bring your own spade/fork, wheel barrow or garden roller' which had to be dragged along the beach from Hoo to the dinghy park. This was one of a series of expansions of the dinghy park to enable the club to have sufficient extra members to be viable as, whilst Bert still regarded and used the barge as his private club,(not unreasonably as he expended much effort and a recorded expense of '20,000 plus a large sum in the 60's), the committee realised that he would not support the club for ever. The club struggled to become viable, putting in place measures such as a race fee (1 shilling or 5p in modern parlance) while the bar became a significant source of income with club visits from Sheppey, Leigh and Gravesend sailing clubs. By '66 the club committee appreciated the barge had limited expansion and unpredictable maintenance requirements and recognised the need to move to a shore based club house ' achieving this was to take more than a decade. In the interim, the barge, with its little quirks like coal fired water heating, had to be maintained and modernised, giving such luxuries as electric light (from a generator) and gas for cooking.

The club, from its initial need to train members to get boats on the water, gradually formalised training with an early schedule requiring members to be able to ' beat, gybe under control, reach and know the rules of collision' before taking club boats out. By '76 members had worked with the legendary Bob Bond in the Medina, testing training schedules which must have helped the award of Recognised Training Establishment status by the RYA, one of the first non educational clubs to achieve this. In 2000 the club was awarded RYA Volvo Championship status which greatly assisted in training junior members and raising the numbers and standards of instructors.

The club continues to run sailing and powerboat courses every year with other courses supplied as the demand requires. A junior week was well established in the '70's and continues to this day, though now missing the additional fun of overnight accommodation on the barge.

From small beginnings the club membership increased, with the dinghy park being regularly enlarged to assist the expansion and in common with many other clubs membership peaked in the '70's to 370 members ' partly assisted by smaller boats such as Mirror dinghies (limited to 75 in the club!) which enabled 250 dinghies in the park. As larger dinghies became more common the membership reduced but has stabilised around the 200 mark with facilities, to be expected in the 21st century, that would have been the envy of earlier members. As an instance in the early years members were expected to self rescue with often unreliable and slow safety boats with no radio. In fact the only way to contact assistance from barge or dinghy park was to 'send a runner' to Hoo Ness but luckily this was never required. When donations were requested in '63 for a new rescue boat and willingly given, one member added an additional donation for the scow 'which does such sterling work towing the rescue boat!' Over time the boats were upgraded, a telephone installed and a radio system installed. The club now has 3 RIB's, a displacement committee boat and a small outboard rigid for training courses.

The debate over the traditions and character of the barge against a shore based club house continued. However, despite many attempts for designs, combined with fund raising and searches for grants, no affordable scheme was produced. To the surprise of all, outline planning permission for a club house was given in '79. However, in '82 a design, using minimum labour content was produced and grants again sought but declined until the Manpower Services Commission offered free, supervised labour with the condition that the design was labour intensive. The design was rapidly changed and this unlocked the door to grants from the Sports Council and Kent Playing Fields Association, with construction commencing in late '82 in the wettest winter for many years. The clubhouse opened in '84 and the barge 'Wilsonian' was sold to be used as a houseboat on the Thames. The improved facilities enabled the club to host the dinghy fleets starts for the Medway Regatta. The clubhouse has been continually improved over time. A new generator house and external disabled toilet was added in '93 and an extension, giving larger changing area and a veranda was completed in 2000.