Boats, birds and the Spirit of ’45

Green on the TV version of the show
Green and friend on the TV version of the show


 It was Hughie Green, the Bruce Forsyth of his day, who financed my first boat, during the penny pinching 1950s. I was helped on my way by a passion for birdwatching, a campaign to promote sailing run, perhaps surprisingly, by left wing newspapers, and a working men’s institute in Kentish Town, North London, which offered boatbuilding classes.

Aged 12, I won £32 (about £700 now) on Double Your Money, the show that Green presented on Radio Luxembourg in the early 1950s. His question writer, a young man called John Heyman, later a well known film producer, lived near us in North London, and came knocking on the door one day asking if I would like to appear. Green had decided to introduce children for the first time.

Yes and yes, were the answers, from me and my parents. Heyman asked what subject I’d like to take for my questions. Birds, I said, because watching them was my hobby of the moment; he asked whether I had any favourite books, so I offered him my copy of the Observer’s Book of Birds, a pocket-sized field guide which I still have. He took it away to write the questions.

Radio Luxembourg, the only broadcaster running adverts, was the original pirate radio station, offshore but not actually at sea, recorded in England but broadcast from the continent; in London, the sound would fade in and out, and interference would sometimes blot it out completely. It was, however,  Green’s launchpad as a broadcast entertainer.

A few days after the visit from John Heyman, I arrived by bus at a studio by Baker Street station. In front of a well warmed-up audience, I answered my first question, accompanied by a knowing grin from Green: do all birds have feathers, he asked. For an entertainer, this was an each way bet, because my answer of yes had the audience hooting with knowing laughter at childish ignorance of slang; if I had said no, then they would have fallen about laughing at the idea of a 12 year old knowing that the word bird had a double meaning. In those days, the mildest slang about girls was archly naughty to an adult audience.

I knew my bird book so well that I got all the questions right, and left clutching £32 in bank notes and a bottle of Lucozade from the show’s sponsors.

What should I do with the winnings? I had learnt the basics of sailing several years before on a boating lake at Southwold, and had been taken by London neighbours on dinghy sailing weekends on the River Deben.  I wanted to buy a boat. After saving for a while longer, I bought a kit and plans to build an 11 ft dinghy called a Heron, one of the earliest of  a new generation of boat designs built very simply of plywood, which brought prices tumbling down. The Heron was designed by Jack Holt in 1950 as a “cartopper,” a boat that could be carried on a small car’s roof rack.

A modern fibreglass Heron
A modern fibreglass Heron

Jack Holt’s designs were at the centre of a boating revolution. The News Chronicle and later the Daily Mirror,  then two of the country’s  main left of centre newspapers, took enthusiastically to the water: sailing was seen as part of a movement to help ordinary people share in the better things of life, including healthy outdoor sports that few had been able to afford before. (Was it another aspect of the ‘Spirit of ’45’, described by Ken Loach in a 2013 documentary?) The newspapers offered their readers cheap deals to buy or build Jack Holt boats. I chose an earlier Jack Holt design because it was even cheaper than the News Chronicle’s Enterprise.

A neighbour in London was an expert woodworker in his spare time, and another neighbour was a generously-minded retired naval officer. When they heard of my interest they suggested boatbuilding classes at a working men’s institute in Kentish Town, north London.  Many people there were building Jack Holt designs.

Two enthusiasts building a boat at Kentish Town Working Men's Institute, 1950s. Source: Collage.

Building a boat at Kentish Town Working Men’s Institute, 1950s. Source: London Metropolitan Archives

Helped by the course tutors and my neighbours, I spent two nights a week through the autumn, winter and spring of 1958-9 building the hull of my boat, in an atmosphere heavy with the smell of glue, wood dust and marine paint.

The boat was launched in 1959 on the most unprepossessing sailing water it is possible to imagine: a grimy section of the Lee Navigation in North East London. But a mile of water and a breeze were all we needed to enjoy ourselves.

A wooden Heron, just like the one I built
A wooden Heron

                                                      Related stories: Boating revolution

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                                                                                  Brandy to the rescue

                                                                                  Figures of eight in Suffolk

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