1950s – partying at HYC

The Hillyer brothers had massive energy and besides all their other activities they were able to build their own magnificent and much admired double skinned boat, a multi bulkhead 28 foot vessel that had an engine as well as sails.

If Wally was perhaps not much of an eccentric, his brother Johnny most certainly was. These two were indeed like chalk and cheese. Whilst big Wally provided the stability and helped the Club grow, it was sinewy Johnny who set the place alight with his phenomenal creativity, fantasy, originality, joie de vivre and sheer outrageous exhibitionism.  These are no exaggerations. Looking at the picture above of the 1970 50th Anniversary party you can see Johnny Hillyer had a hand in it alright. Let me give you some other examples of Johnny’s activities………

First of all it was Johnny who painted the murals at the Club and the iron gates. But more outrageously, when asked to put on a show at the annual RNLI Rally, he lead an HYC team and organised a hilarious version of Swan Lake, danced on a pontoon with the dancers dressed in costumes that he and his wife Iris, a very popular and hardworking club member (a dress maker who sadly died at the young age of 52 of cancer) had specially made for the occasion. What an effort and what dedication to delight others and simply have fun.  The RNLI soon enough cottoned on that this should become an annual event and turned it in to a competition, a cup being awarded to the winners.

So, the next time, with all competitive energy and with great hilarity and spirit, Johnny produced a Moby Dick, the whale, in the yard of the Club, using chicken wire and papier mache, fixed the whole thing on floats, with pumps to squirt water from its nostrils, with someone underneath to do the pumping, a mouth that would open and close and then an outboard motor was fitted the whole contraption to propel it forwards…A sweet touch was that they used a secret anchor to allow it to sit quietly and unperturbed midstream and sit there without moving, despite the tide, to the astonishment of all around……..and, as if that was not enough there was a boat made to look like a whaler to chase it and so the show was put together!!! Incredible energy and imagination! Not surprisingly HYC won the Cup!

Here is a picture of Moby Dick


There was more and more and each year HYC won. Another year there was Blackbeard and the Pirates. Johnny dressed as a pirate needed a small gun, so he made one which really worked and fired blank shots….. Another year there was South seas dancing, with lady members of HYC dressed in grass skirts and a band providing the appropriate music, all paraded on suitably decked out boats or pontoons. See picture below


The HYC shows started to become famous and drew great attention from far and wide.  For example, Arthur Lowe, of Dad’s Army fame, and Jack Hawkins, would regularly arrive in the 120 ft yacht Cutler, to watch the shows. In fact, after the first one they attended, they came to every single one. Eventually HYC was asked to withdraw from the competition to give other clubs a sporting chance. But no way were they going to accept that!

Here is Johnny lapping it up, dressed up as a Red Indian, with his arms round two happy looking female members of the Club. This picture gives one the flavour of the spirit alright…

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It was during Wally Hillyer’s tenure that the HYC Annual Christmas Party for children was initiated. Wally asked  Johnny to put this together. It became a much appreciated tradition, with a Father Christmas and all kinds of entertainment, which lasted through in to the eighties. This was a party to which the members could bring their kids but had to leave them there to have a riotous time without their parents supervision! More importantly it was a party for the underprivileged children of the area who lived in borstals and other places for the less lucky. Club members would get together and organize transportation by minibuses. Johnny would dress up as a clown and perform all kinds of acts including one with a rat on a lead. Wally would dress up as Father Christmas and arrive in a boat, laden with presents. They had rather a lot of fun as can be seen from the gorgeous picture below.


Johnny remembers little 8 year old Doug Francis receiving a Christmas present on one of these occasions.  It was an important annual event that went on for more than 20 years and was part of HYC’s contribution to the local community. Today, a similar initiave is being started.

Here is a picture of Johnny the clown…

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The Club had grown and was doing well. Around the end of the sixties there were more than 200 boats moored at the HYC. Somewhere around that time the Club bought a house adjacent to the site, in Deodar Road. These are important facts. Spirits were clearly high at the time and HYC, in 1970, decided they needed to celebrate and they organised a 50th anniversary party. You can sense the fabulous atmosphere from the fantastic picture below.


What you might not realize is that the above picture is of men, not women….

Wally decided to hand over commodoreship after those hyperactive 4 years, whilst the going was good. He handed over to Commodore G R Welch (1968 and 1969). Welch was also ex army, a very nice little man, I am told. It was, however, hard for Welch to live up to the Wally years and soon enough Wally was brought back in and did another 2 year stint.

Wally relinquished again and handed over to Commodore L Pratt (1972 and 1973), another ex soldier and one who had lost an eye in the Italian campaign. Pratt, so I am told, was a man who was highly popular before becoming commodore but somehow could not get anything done when he took over.

So then the dedicated Wally was asked or persuaded to do one more year in 1974. This was Wally’s downfall. He had already done so much! Being Commodore is a thankless tasks after all. Wally had probably in fact given too much. He and Johnny had put the Club before anything else. Perhaps Wally was also a little tired, whatever, but unfortunately he made an error of judgement by publicly chastising a member at an Annual Dinner. It seems he was not forgiven for that or was it just an excuse? Difficult to know, but the members allegedly plotted against him, they ganged up on him, according to his brother, and ousted him. Sad end to a glorious story? Well yes, it left Wally very upset. The two Hillyer brothers, despite all this, remained members (indeed Johnny, aged 87, still is at the time of writing….December 06…but then, he is a Member for Life), but they also joined another club, up river at Weybridge.

Johnny says, looking back, that being commodore or doing the entertainments were indeed thankless tasks and sometimes he cannot understand where they got all the energy from and what motivated them (though he recognizes that Wally played a big part in spurring him on).

He was an inventive and highly imaginative man, hugely traumatized during the war. He was a gunsmith originally and designed a machine gun that eventually had field trials but never became manufactured. After the war he became a bench fitter. During his years as Entertainments Officer of HYC he was offered a job by the BBC who were immensely impressed by his originality and energy. They offered him a job as Set Designer but he did not take it up. Doing it for fun at the HYC appealed more. Later in life he made miniature guns that actually worked. Beautiful little classics of astonishing quality measuring hardly 2 inches but firing miniature bullets! His most satisfying and rewarding job, he says, came at the end of his life, when he taught youngsters some of his many skills at the South Thames College. Finally Johnny gave away his boat to a young person who he felt to be in the same situation as he himself was in his early life when he could not afford to buy one.

Vic Saunders was commodore in 1975. Although he was Commodore for just one year, he did leave a mark. He owned a factory, which made Saunders Dog Guards used in cars to keep dogs to the back of them, a well known brand. He organised some of his employees in to a band which became known as The Hurlingham Thumpers (fabulous name, I think….how about reforming this group but from Club members?). For a good number of years they played at the Club Annual Dinner and Dance and on other occasions.

At this time Billy Marsh was a member of the HYC. Billy was an entrepreneur of worldwide fame. He was an impresario who owned a considerable number of theatres in London, including , I believe, the Palladium. He was responsible for many great shows that were presented at that time. In the boating world he was also known for having bought Willows Boat Yard in Windsor and soon enough turning that into Windsor Marina.

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Graham Hutchison, commodore from 1977 to 1982 was a car salesman. He was one for joining with the high spirited fun alright but was not everyone’s cup of tea. What a difficult job it is to be commodore! A thankless task, as Johnny says, and you certainly can’t please everyone. Here he is (centre)

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Mr G Edwards, Mr A Cusack, Mr Arthur Francis, brother of Doug and Mr R Wright-Watson took it in turns to be commodore for a year each from 1983 to 1986.

The HYC spirit remained high and members of all kinds continued to make contributions. A good example were Keith and Sharon Hamilton, generous and generous spirited. Keith, a former priest or other religious officer, was an inventive and superb builder and was always helping out at HYC. Sharon used to do a lot of the painting around the clubhouse and yard, including the old Red Telephone Box. She was like an assistant to Johnny Hillyer. Additionally her impromptu Sunday lunches and working party breakfasts were infamous.

Here is a picture of Sharon painting the white lines we still have now. Johnny is there too.