The Isle of Wight is England in miniature. Tennyson is its poet, Victoria its queen. Tradition is preserved by Cowes and the Royal Yacht Squadron, names that symbolize for the yachtsmen what Lord's means to the cricketer, St. Andrews to the golfer, and the Jockey Club to the Turf.
The countryside is green and gentle, studded with charming old manor houses and converted farms. Lilliputian downs rise high above the Channel. Sunsets and the Needles attract the romantic. Enchantment is added by the sub-tropical Undercliff. Tradition is preserved by Cowes and the Royal Yacht Squadron, names that symbolize for the yachtsmen what Lord's means to the cricketer, St. Andrews to the golfer, and the Jockey Club to the Turf.
The R.Y.S. is the most distinguished of yachting clubs, the traditional rallying point for Cowes week, which resembles a second Season by the sea, yet few know the history of its beginnings. We are taken back to the year 1815, a period when Brook's and White's had a monopoly of the traditional club life in London.
Beau Brummell and his Dandies had created such a situation by malicious blackballing at these two St. James's Street clubs that admittance for the ordinary member of society was virtually out of the question. A natural result was the founding of new societies, and the early years of the last century saw the inauguration of such clubs as the Guards', the Travellers', the United Service, and the Athenaeum. Conversations on similar lines took place on the Island after the procession of the pilot boats. The Vine and Medina at East Cowes formed the scene of these convivial gatherings. As a consequence a body of gentlemen met at the Thatched Home Tavern in St. James's Street under the presidency of Lord Grantham on 1st June, 1815, and decided to form themselves into a club with membership limited to men interested in sailing yachts in salt water. The original members numbered forty-two. The constitution was extremely simple and modest. There was no question of a clubhouse, eating, drinking, or sleeping facilities. Subscription, a nominal two guineas. Two meetings a year, one in the spring at the Thatched House, the other over dinner at an East Cowes hotel. Intending members had to own a yacht of specified tonnage, pay an entrance fee of three guineas, and have the necessary social standing.
From such a simple beginning evolved this famous club, as natural as the rhythmic splashing of an oar and the soft lapping of the water. To appreciate the events of the intervening years it is necessary to view them against a general background of the Squadron's achievements. The ones instanced are fragmentary, but each contributed to the growth and development of the club. At the outset the members hardly took themselves seriously. It was felt in 1817 that the two guineas subscription was unnecessary, and that the three guineas subscription from new members would provide adequate income. Shortly afterwards a letter was read at a special meeting at East Cowes. Dated from the RojaJ George, the Regent's yacht, lying off Brighton, it stated that the Prince Regent desired to be a member of the Yacht Club. Thus began the long tradition of royal patronage which the club has since enjoyed.
Membership increased. In 1823 the total was seventy-one with a further addition of 132 honorary members. In 1824 we learn that the members owned 5,000 tons of shipping, and employed 500 local seamen in their navigation. Comments on the recognized uniform are pertinent: "a common blue jacket with white trousers, and to such as are not too square in the stern it is far from being an unbecoming dress. There were, however, some strange figures of gentlemen sailors at the Cowes Regatta, and they ought to have their pictures taken." The members were progressive. They approached the Duke of Wellington, and after lengthy negotiations obtained the right of entry into French ports for members' vessels, a privilege later granted by many other countries such as the Netherlands in 1827, Spain and Russia in 1829.
The transition from ordinary summer yachting at Cowes to the beginning of modern yacht-racing dates from 1826, the year when the Royal Yacht Club initiated the first of the Cup races at Cowes by donating a Gold Cup of a hundred guineas for vessels belonging to members. It is not without interest to note the cost of yachting in those days. A contributor to the Sporting Magazine remarks that the Miranda and the Menai in 1826 "left little change out of 8,000 each". These yachts probably averaged 150 tons each. The same journal in 1832 states that "a vessel of 100 tons seldom stands the owner in less than 5,000 to 6,000, varying, of course, from that to 1,000, according to the ornamental parts, internal fittings, and other contingencies". The full-rigged Falcon 9 of 350 tons, cost 25,000. The cost of upkeep and maintenance fluctuated. The annual expense of the Miranda, a typical racing cutter of large tonnage, was 1,200. Against that the Sporting Magazine of September 1826 assures us that "the expense of a vessel of 30 tons does not exceed a guinea a day", a remark referring to the cutter Altisidora.
An important feature of the Cowes Regatta centres on the series of Kings' and Queens' Cups which provide the chief contests. These date from 1827 when George represented a cup to be sailed for by members of the Royal Yacht Club, the trophy being "a model of a good old-fashioned tankard, having the royal arms in front, surrounded by an oak wreath, and inside the cover a bust of the King". By 1830 the Royal Yacht Club had become an established institution. From its modest birth at the Medina Hotel in East Cowes it had become a flourishing club with a house of its own and a staff of officials. The Admiralty had issued a warrant empowering members to wear the White Ensign of the Royal Navy. July 1833 saw the King acknowledge the national utility of the Royal Yacht Club by expressing the wish that henceforth it should be known and styled The Royal Yacht Squadron "of which His Majesty is graciously pleased to consider himself the head".
It is about this time that signs appear of the blackballings and other signs of exclusiveness which at times have been charged against the Squadron as a club. A contemporary critic wrote: "If the present system of blackballing the most unexceptional candidates for mere party purposes is continued, it will not be difficult to foresee that the club must ere long be dissolved and remodelled. There were only two cases of blackballing in the old days: one of a Duke Buckingham who did not renew his subscription, and was rejected on seeking re-election; the other the owner of a yacht like a river barge with a flat bottom, and he was excluded more in joke than otherwise, it being reported that she was two months in her voyage from the Thames to Cowes, and that moreover the bulkhead and chimney in the cabin were of brick. But this was not done for party purposes." The prophecies were unduly pessimistic, for the records show nothing but steady progress. The social side of the Cowes festivals became more marked. There were numerous balls, dinners and entertainments, many attended by the Duchess of Kent and the Princess Victoria. An auxiliary room had to be used, where "the Cowes people stared open-mouthed at the quality dancing in the lamplight until they pushed each other off the parade into the sea".
By 1857 the little fishing village of Cowes had grown into an important watering-place of 6,000 inhabitants, where municipal improvements, lines of packets and electric telegraphs to the mainland were topics of the day. The local newspaper kept its eye on the hotel proprietors, pointing out that 301. a week for a small and ill-furnished room, "with what is vauntingly termed a sea view", was an excessive charge which tended to keep visitors away.
In 1858, the Squadron was removed to the Castle. The interest taken by the Prince of Wales in the affairs of the Squadron added considerably to the influence of the club as a social institution and as a society of yachtsmen. From 1870 onwards people of leisure flocked into the little town as soon as Goodwood was over. For a fortnight the narrow streets became congested. True, an improved steamboat service made Cowes more accessible, but it still retained its former character. Bathing machines were rarities, ni**er [altered by webmaster] minstrels unknown, the Parade had yet to be. The High Street was so narrow that, when two carriages met, the wheels of one mounted the pavement and shop doorways offered the only escape. It was in such surroundings that social England, taking the lead from the Prince of Wales, transformed Regatta Week into a fashionable gathering, a breath of fresh air after the full programme of the London Season. Cowes was even more a social focal point when the Prince became Commodore of the Squadron in 1882.
It is difficult today to visualize this past. Looking across a lustreless expanse of white-topped waters, reflecting the play of light and shadow, turning to a glittering plain of emerald and opal, there they lie, as sleek and chic, as femininely capricious as only yachts can look, shiny, elegant, a forest of immensely tall masts. Men change. Ships change. It is fascinating to recall how the types of the Squadron vessels have changed in fifty-odd years. The middle 'nineties saw half of the vessels officially included in the R.Y.S. fleet as wooden sailing-vessels. They were stoutly constructed, ex-racers, built to Lloyd's highest class. There was one drawback, lack of personal comforts. The bath was frequently under the floor of the cabin, where all had to bathe in turn. Ladies were forbidden to use even sea-water soap in these cold sea-water dips, a ruling that every lady ignored. As a result the soap lined the bilges with a greasy slime, and the smells of old yachts became notoriously strong.
It was all part of the scene. There are moods of nostalgia even for that which one has known only by hearsay. Elegance hangs about these old days and the leaves in which they are recorded. The gold of the 'nineties' was perhaps never more than gilt, but its brief life was full of glitter. Today the Royal Yacht Squadron dominates Cowes with mature dignity, nothing can shake such an aristocratic institution, a fitting companion for the Season.