Issue 28

25 June - 22 July 1996

IC Reporter


Charlie Herbert Newens 1916 - 1996

Emeritus Professor John Levy pays tribute to Charlie Newens, who died on 1 June 1996.

Charlie Newens, boatman and waterman to the Imperial College Boat Club for 42 years, died on 1 June, his eightieth birthday. He was born in Colchester, the son of a yeast merchant and moved to Hammersmith some time later.

When he was three years old he became a victim to polio which, after a series of operations over the next six years, left him with a slightly shortened leg and a slight limp. As a boy, he wore an iron splint which later he managed to walk without. Because of his slim build, he was nicknamed 'Bones' at school, but on leaving became apprenticed to a well respected boat builder and waterman at the West End Boathouse at Hammersmith. Here he not only acquired the craft skills of building and repairing boats, but was also active on the river, first as a cox and then as a sculler. He also became a very good swimmer. He was fond of music and played both the piano and the accordion.

When his apprenticeship was completed he went from Hammersmith to join Harry Sykes, a boat builder, at Broxbourne, where he carried on with his sculling and won a number of events, which helped to restore his physique. He won the Lea One Mile Swimming Championship. He also became a very good darts player.

He stayed at Broxbourne until he heard that Dick Phelps, at Thames Rowing Club, required an assistant. In 1935 he was appointed assistant boatman to the club, with special responsibilities to the Imperial College Boat Club, which was housed in and boated from Thames.

He became boatman to the College a year later, when plans were well advanced for building the present IC Boathouse, next door to Thames. Under the guidance and direction of Charles Bristow, he kept an eye on the development as it progressed and on one occasion had to tell the contractors that they were not to go onto the site. Charles Bristow had discovered that the contractors were carrying out major changes from the detailed plans. He went to fetch the architect to put things right, saying the contractors should not be let back on the site.

In the same year Charlie won the Gold Sculls and Chamber of Commerce Cup, sculling at Putney.

In 1940, with World War II in full spate, Charlie joined one of the 'little ships' that made the evacuation of Dunkirk possible. He did so well that the Navy recruited him without discovering his limp and he joined HMS Vigilant mine sweeping in the North Sea. When his ship was damaged in an attack on the convoy and the ship's cat was blown overboard, it was Charlie who jumped overboard and rescued it.

When Vigilant was in dock for repair Charlie took the opportunity to marry Sally, on 1 December 1940, whom he had met two years earlier at Henley. Four days later he was recalled to duty. He wrote, 'Honeymoon in the middle of the North Sea without Sally - I will never forgive Hitler'.

In 1942 he was recommended for a commission and passed the selection board at Portsmouth, but when he went before the medical board his disability was discovered and he had to leave the Navy. He returned ashore and became an ARP warden.

Charlie and Sally came to live in Holt Villas, next to the Boathouse, which had been made into accommodation for the College boatman. While Charlie kept the boats and oars in good shape and looked after all crews using the Boathouse, Sally kept the club house spotless - woe betide any oarsman who went up the front stairs with muddy shoes - he was quickly reminded that there was a backstairs for anyone in that state.

Charlie was a man with a very big heart. He was always ready to help in any way he could and had a cheery smile and an encouraging word for every oarsman. His words, as he pushed the crew from the shore for their outing on the river, 'Have a good row chaps', became an important send off for every crew setting out to paddle to the start of a race. He had great pride in ICBC and during his 42 years with the club he was indefatigable in his work. He made very many friends, who always looked forward to seeing him at least once a year at Henley or at the boat club dinner.

In the late 1950s, Charlie was involved in a serious accident at the Boathouse when the old boiler fire blew back at him and he was badly burnt and spent eight months in hospital and in recovery. Being Charlie Newens, this did not stop him returning to spend another 20 years active service as boatman and waterman.

From 1968 Charlie became senior waterman at Henley Regatta and met and escorted royalty and other distinguished visitors through the boat tents and discussed the types of boat and equipment in use.

Charlie, having sculled and rowed, was very helpful and encouraging to scullers, especially novices. After Sally Newens' death in 1977, he had a trophy made in memory of her, the Golden Sculls, from the pin of crossed oars he had won in 1938. He presented it to ICBC as a trophy to be awarded to the winner of the Women's Single Sculls at the College boat club regatta.

Charlie was a delightful personality, always willing to help in any way. For many years after his retirement in 1979 he did voluntary work in association with the Red Cross, taking the elderly and disabled to and from hospital, either locally by car, or for long distance journeys by train or coach. As he said, it is not always easy to find your way around stations if you are fit and well, so it is important to make sure the sick and elderly are properly looked after.

For his services to Imperial College, Charlie received two awards. In the Queen's Jubilee Honours in 1977, he was awarded a Silver Jubilee Medal and in 1981 he was appointed an Associate of Imperial College. He was a member of the Royal Naval Patrol Service and in 1970 became a Freeman of the Waterman's and Lighterman's Company.

John Levy is a senior research fellow in the Department of Biology.

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Last Revised: 21 June 1996