Photo: Hydar Dewachi

The Spencer Family & Rowing's Changing Demographic


Roger & Chris Spencer who both competed in and won Doggett’s Coat and Badge. Courtesy of Roger & Chris Spencer

The Spencer family can trace their connection to the Thames back 400 years. They owned the river’s first steam powered boat, The Greenwich Bell.

The family’s long tradition of watermen and lightermen continues today with brothers Chris and Roger Spencer. Both started rowing at a young age and attended Poplar, Blackwall and District rowing club after school.

At age 21, the pressure was on Roger to win Doggett’s. Their father made him practice the first half mile of the course many times, planning for every eventuality. Roger thrived and won the race in 1985. Two years later, aged 18, Chris Spencer won the National Junior Sculling Championships and was awarded a scholarship to Pennsylvania. He returned to London on his 21st birthday to compete in Doggett’s and won.

The rowing club continued to play a major role in their lives. When their father died, hundreds of people from the club attended his funeral. But the traditions of the club have changed a lot in recent years.

The demographics of the local community have shifted significantly and today the membership of the club has transformed from its original working-class roots to a varied membership, many of whom work in nearby Canary Wharf. Chris commented at a recent club dinner: "For years we used to have 150 east end people eating posh food, now we have 150 posh people eating east end food."

Chris encourages apprentice watermen to row competitively, but it’s not always a level playing field: "To be honest, nowadays, if you’re at Oxford or Cambridge, you have a bigger advantage over normal people because people have to work. But if you’re at university for four years…it’s all scheduled in."

  • Poplar, Blackwall and District Rowing Club was established in 1854 and remains one of the oldest rowing clubs in the country. © Poplar, Blackwall and District Rowing Club