The Pirates’ Club
The Pirates’ Club was started in 1966 by Lord St Davis, with four youngsters and one barge - a Swallows and Amazons beginning. Soon children were paddling about the canal in canoes, coracles and boats, or else holding up people on the towpath for pirate gold, for they needed money and support if the club was to prosper.
A child as young as five could become a ‘barge mouse’ and, if reliable and could swim, be promoted. By fourteen he, or she, could be a skipper. Rosedale, a dilapidated Regents Canal barge, more rust than steel, was transformed into a club-house and smaller boats were begged or borrowed. At one time the numbers were to swell from the original four to 1200. The object of the club was to ‘satisfy the urge for adventure and useful occupation among London boys and girls by providing facilities on the Regent’s Canal to learn boating skills, and to develop their physical capabilities so that they can grow to full maturity as individuals and members of society.’
This was Inner London and not free from trouble. The Rosedale was vandalized twice and it was obvious that the club needed a secure storage for all the boats and equipment. The running of the club and creating a new building demanded a great deal of money. Fund raising went on all the time, with concerts, a bazaar and donations from charitable trusts, the Inner London Educational Association, and the public.
Camden Council gave a generous wedge of land on the south of the canal, on the edge of Gilbey’s old ‘A’ Shed site, and the castle was built.1 Tony Henderson, a senior partner in Seiferts, designed the clubhouse as an impressive castle, the first defensive castle built in Britain since the sixteenth century. This style of building is far from the normal run of tower blocks and huge ferro-concrete hotels built by Seiferts, 'but was fun to build'.2
Built across the Canal at the end of Oval Road, the Pirates’ Pedestrian Bridge is on the site of one of the private bridges which Thomas Cubitt built for Pickfords in 1841, and the castle is on the earlier ‘A’ Shed site. The ‘castle’ is in brick, or rather it is ferro-concrete faced with brick, and on three levels. There is a warden’s flat with a small office at the top, a canteen and Club area on the first floor and a basement boat house which opens on to the canal. With a battlemented top storey, gun slits giving a wide field of fire on the first floor, gun ports in the basement fronting the canal, and a swivel cannon which can fire black footballs at the first sign of an invasion, the ‘castle’ is designed to be impregnable.
The building was opened by the Lord Mayor of London, in 1977 It was open for school use during the day in term time and for members during the holidays, plus two evenings a week throughout the year, besides Saturdays and Sundays. In 1983 there was a daily average attendance of between 50 -70 and the Pirates’ Club had 35 craft of varying types.
The staff consisted of the Warden, two assistant staff and 2,000 assistant hours. They employed 12 part-time staff. All salary costs were met by the Inner London Educational Authority, but when this body was abolished the club became the responsibility of Camden Borough Council. Things continued as they were for about a year.
Camden Council now had two water clubs to support within a short distance of each other, the Pirates Club and the Jubilee Waterside Centre. The latter is further down the canal, at Camley Street, just by the King’s Cross gasometers. An old railway shed there had been converted into a Youth Centre, with canoeing, mountain bike racing, and a fine inside climbing wall, all as part of Camden’s celebration of the Queen’s Jubilee.
At the end of 1992 Camden was having to pull its horns in because a loan taken out from a French bank some years before had been forgotten and now had to be repaid immediately. A large sum was due and each council department had to make cuts. In this situation the Youth Service had to make decisions on how to deliver the best service in the coming years. Since the Pirates and Jubilee Clubs overlapped, one had to be preferred.
The Pirates Club had more going on at the time and was attracting more children, but the Jubilee Club had the greater potential. It was a larger building which, unlike the Pirates Club, had disability access. There was a fine indoor climbing wall, more storage so, while the two clubs had equal access to the canal, the prospects for broader outdoor activities of all kinds was greater at the Jubilee.
In the end Camden withdrew its support from the Pirates Club, concentrating all available funds on the Jubilee Waterside Centre. For a number of years the Pirates Castle, at Camden Town, stood almost empty.
The Jubilee Waterside Centre
Today the Jubilee Club offers canoeing, kayak racing, indoor rock climbing, and runs one-day trips for mountain biking to Epping Forest. It is the centre for the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, an Accredited Centre for mountain leader training for adults and runs British Canoe Union courses for teachers. In addition there is an Urban Bunk House which can sleep 27, offering accommodation at very low prices to young people visiting London.
The Jubilee is considering applying for a National Lottery Award to improve, among other things, their climbing wall. Only a very tall wall would be considered, so tall that it would go through the roof. However, there is a deep cellar below the floor which used to house engines. By starting the climb in the cellar, there might be room.
Access to the bottom of this new wall would be by stairs, or a ladder, but they could add to the fun by creating a series of narrow tunnels and larger caves around the cellar, leading eventually to the base of the climb. While there would be emergency lighting inside the tunnel system, it would normally be negotiated by scrambling and crawling on hands and knees in darkness, lit only by a torch held in a miner’s helmet.
The Pirates Club
In 1995 the Pirates Club was revived, with Giles Higgitt as the only paid employee, helped by a number of volunteers. The club has two narrow boats, The Pirate Princess, which was named by Prince Charles in 1982, and The Pirate Viscount, named after Viscount St David who founded the club. The Pirate Viscount is hired for day trips by youth clubs, pensioners, Prince’s Trust volunteers and many other groups. The Pirate Princess is hired by groups for longer periods as a holiday boat.
These narrow boats provide income which supports other club activities. There are rowing boats, three coracles, open Canadian canoes and the club is hoping to attract volunteers qualified to teach the use of kayaks and other covered boats. With the influx of families with young children into the new housing nearby, there is need for a local club and it is hoped that Pirates Club will be able to expand to something like its previous importance. At present there are about thirty members, but the number is limited by the number of volunteers ready to teach them. Increased funding support is important if the club is to prosper. Perhaps it is something which should be examined seriously by any new Mayor of London. In the meantime, it is hoped that visitors faced with fund-raising pirates demanding their treasure, will hand it over with a good grace.