Alan Spong

Alan Spong

Our past president Alan Spong has passed away, aged 94.

The timing is particularly aposite as the club is planning its 'Row to Remember' Sponsored Row and Alan was one of the last surviving Dunkirk veterans.

 A dozen or so Scarlet Blazers attended his funeral to complement the Dogget Coat and Badge uniforms worn by three recent winners  (Alan was a member of the Worshipful Company of Watermen and Lightermen of The Thames and was elected their Master in 1980)

The eulogy was read by Harry Purchase (and was published in the Henley Standard 26th August 2014):-

SIDNEY Ernest Albert Spong has died, aged 94.

He was known by everyone as Alan because on his first date with the woman who would become his wife she announced that she would not call him either Sidney or Ernest and certainly not Albert. Alan would have to do.

With considerable presence and style, Alan was a very generous and charming man, of whom I never heard a bad word. He loved all company, especially female. He loved music and dancing. He was just a rather special guy. Yes, we all loved him.

Alan was born in May 1920 in Twickenham and had a rudimentary education at Archbishop Cambridge's Church of England School.

Sometime in his teens he found himself employed as the cabin boy-come-deckhand on a Thames sailing barge. There was a crew of two — the old, gnarled skipper and Alan.

They plied their trade, carrying bulk cement or coal from the Medway in Kent up the east coast. There were very few river crossings so this means of transport was cost-efficient.

The east coast and the North Sea were challenging in all weathers. No engine, sailing into mud berths for the flat-bottomed craft to settle, unload and wait for the flood, then afloat again. Weigh the anchor. Let go the warps, luff the sails, now fill them. Out to sea and eventually back to the Medway. Just a man and a boy living in a cramped cabin of a flat- bottomed boat. Plus an acreage of rusty red canvas.

Alan took part in the Dunkirk evacuation, codenamed Operation Dynamo, to rescue Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbours of France between May 27 and June 4, 1940.

There were 700 little ships taken from the rivers and harbours of England and a memorable page of world history was to be written in those nine days. More than 100 ships perished but 385,000 troops were taken off the beaches.

Alan, then aged 20, volunteered to take a Thames river passenger vessel across the Channel. Queen Boadicea II, with a draught of only 3ft, was not ideally suited to the crossing.

Alan and a naval rating made a number of trips, first to the harbour, which was under constant bombardment, and then to the beach at La Panne. The waiting troops were ferried out to the Royal Navy vessels in deeper water.

The small ships were subjected to constant bombing and strafing by the Luftwaffe. The vessel next to Alan's was blown to pieces by a direct hit. He rescued three survivors from that incident and a great many more. He would say: "I tell you, cocker, I was.... scared".

Alan told me a lovely story that only the Navy could concoct. In the midst of all this savagery, he manoeuvred Queen Boadicea II alongside a frigate and, with the wash from all the other naval vessels travelling at speed, they collided violently.

An officer appeared on the bridge and, with muck and bullets all around, he yelled through a loud hailer at Alan: "Do you mind, old chap, we have just painted that side."

Alan volunteered for service in the Royal Engineers. He was commissioned to the rank of major.

He transferred to the Indian army and commanded a company of Sikhs in the regiment of waterborne engineers for which he learned Urdu.

Alan was then posted to Burma, where the Japanese were conducting a savage campaign. At Chittagong his troops were constructing barges under constant attack from Japanese bombers.

During one particularly heavy bombing raid, Alan was quite seriously wounded. At base hospital he was nursed by a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse who was to become his wife. He and Aidin were married in Singapore.

At the end of the war, when Alan was still recuperating, the couple settled in a beautiful apartment in Kingston.

Through a relative of Aidin, Alan obtained a job with Royal and Sun Alliance. He obviously impressed the management team as it was not long before he was appointed branch manager in Cardiff and he was later posted to a branch in the West End.

He and his teams were highly successful and he was a good man to work with.In 1948 he decided to return to the River Thames and took up rowing with Quintin Boat Club in Chiswick. To satisfy the joining criteria, he chopped a few years off his age.

I was then a 15-year-old schoolboy member of Quintin, coxing an eight stroked by Richard Hylton-Smith, who is now 101. Later, I coxed the eight that Alan stroked to victory at a number of regattas.

Alan loved every part of the Thames, from source to estuary.

In May 1956 came the Suez Crisis and Alan, now a reservist with the waterborne regiment of the Royal Engineers, was called up. He went with a platoon straight to what was a battle zone.

At that time I was 24 and working at Royal and Sun Alliance when I was called up as a reservist — all because I had once been trained in bomb disposal. Thankfully, I only made it to Portsmouth.

Our government sent in the Paras and the fighting was over in about 72 hours. Alan was in Egypt for some time afterwards, helping to unblock the canal.

He joined the Worshipful Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the Thames and he sponsored me. He was elected Master in 1980. He was also a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Cooks.

Alan would have been so proud to have the three Doggett's Coat and Badge Race winners as his guard of honour.

In 1978 he became a member of Leander and Remenham clubs. He never missed Henley Royal Regatta.

Sadly, Aidin, the woman who nursed him back to health, suffered from Alzheimer's, a cruel and debilitating illness, and she then died. For some time Alan lived alone in their apartment at the Albany, Kingston. He immersed himself in Kingston Rowing Club, becoming president, and he financially supported the acquisition of a boat which, I believe, bears his name.

After remarrying, he moved to Maidenhead but dementia was beginning to destroy his memory.

He was supported by some wonderful neighbours. I spent many hours trying to recapture memories of his life before they faded.

I wrote a newspaper article about unsung heroes and the Sunday Express picked up the story. Alan wanted me to be his agent. "Come on, cocker, we are going to be famous," he would say.

In 2010, researchers for a television production company picked up on the article. It was discovered that Queen Boadicea II had survived and was in a Bristol marina.

Alan was whisked off and was filmed at the helm, cruising along the river with presenter Dan Snow by his side.

Shortly after this his dementia became so bad that Alan had to be placed in a care home.

Alan had the most amazing life. I knew him for 68 years and participated in some of it.

One more thing — a 14-year-old girl who lived in Kingston found early morning employment before school, delivering newspapers. Every day she delivered newspapers to a Mr Spong at the apartment in the Albany.

Diane is here today, a little older but not sure that she is much wiser because she is married to me!

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