George Y. Pocock was internationally famous for designing and handcrafting the best and swiftest racing shells in the world of crew racing. A native of England, he was recruited in 1912 by Coach Hiram B. Conibear to build shells for the University of Washington. In the 1920s, the Washington Huskies began to dominate intercollegiate rowing regattas, challenging the dominance of Eastern universities in the sport and becoming a world-class contender. Following an unbeaten crew-racing season, the Huskies won a gold medal for the USA in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin at Grunau in the Husky Clipper, an eight-oared racing shell that George Pocock built especially for the games. Rowing Pocock shells, American crews also won Olympic gold medals in 1948, 1952, 1956, 1960, and 1964. The George Pocock Racing Shell Company in Seattle became the leading producer of quality racing shells in the country, making 80 percent of all those used by college crews in America. His boats were coveted by colleges and rowing clubs around the world. Among the innovations he developed were sliding seats, lightweight oars, special oarlocks, and a unique steering mechanism, replacing the tiller. In 1948, George Pocock, master boat builder and mentor to nine generations of Husky oarsmen, was named Seattle's "Man of the Year" in sports. And in 1999, The Seattle Times listed him as one of Seattle's top 25 most influential sports figures of the twentieth century.
Born to Build Boats
George Yeoman Pocock was born on March 23, 1891, in Teddington, Middlesex, England, the fourth child of Aaron Frederick Pocock (1859-1939) and Lucy Vicars. He had two older sisters, Julia Eleanor (1885-1969) and Lucy Grace (1887-1958), and an older brother, Richard John “Dick” Pocock (1889-1967). Aaron Pocock was a itinerant Thames-side boat-builder, as had been his father. George’s mother died when he was only six months old. In 1894, Aaron married Margaret Charlotte Watts, but she died the following year giving birth to a daughter, Kathleen Maud (1895-1989). The children were largely cared for by a series of housekeepers until the daughters were old enough to assume the household duties.
In 1901, Aaron obtained a permanent position as one of four boat builders working at Eton College, one of England’s most prestigious prep schools (established by King Henry VI in 1441). The Pocock family moved to Eton, on the Thames River 15 miles from Teddington. Aaron’s workmanship was so superior that he was appointed manager of the Eton boathouse in 1903.
Their Father's Sons
When George’s formal education at the Eton free school ended in 1904, he became an apprentice at the boathouse where his father and other master boat builders taught him the skills necessary to build splendid racing shells. Aaron Pocock lost his position at the Eton boathouse in late 1910, a victim of school politics and staff rivalries. Both George and his brother, Dick, also an apprentice boat builder, were asked to stay on, but allegiance to their father made it impossible. The Pocock family moved to the town of West Drayton, about seven miles down river from Eton, and Aaron went back to freelance boat building.
The boys tried to find suitable work around London, but without success. In 1911, they decided to emigrate to one of the countries in the United Kingdom: Australia, New Zealand, or Canada. Australia looked best, because of the popularity of the sport of rowing. But they met a man who told them about his brother in British Columbia, Canada, who was earning 10 pounds a week logging. So they headed to Vancouver.
George and Dick booked passage in steerage on the Allen Line Royal Mail Steamship Tunisian from Liverpool to Halifax. The ship sailed on March 9, 1911, and the crossing took eight days. From Halifax, the brothers traveled to Montreal where they boarded a Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) colonist train for the week-long journey to Vancouver, B.C. The “colonist cars” were crude with wooden benches and wall-mounted bunks that folded down for sleeping and a small kitchen facility in the vestibule. Mattresses and blankets were available for rent from the porter but passengers were advised to bring a supply of food.
The brothers were considered unskilled labor, as there was no demand for builders of racing shells. Dick was hired to work in Port Coquitlam, 15 miles east of Vancouver, as a carpenter. George found a job at the Vancouver Rowing Club on Coal Harbor, which paid $40 a month. His duties consisted of repairing boats and assisting the oarsman in and out of the vessel. After a month, he left for a better-paying job in a remote logging camp in the interior of British Columbia. His job was to supply water and firewood for a steam-powered donkey engine. After a month of back-breaking labor, George quit and returned to Vancouver. There he found a job stacking lumber at a sawmill. Later, he found a better-paying job at the Vancouver Shipyard where he suffered a severe injury to his right hand resulting in the loss of his third and fourth fingers.
Back to Building Shells
In early 1912, Dick and George returned to building racing shells and were commissioned by the Vancouver Rowing Club to build two single sculls for $200. Word spread quickly throughout the rowing community that professionally built racing and practice shells were now obtainable within British Columbia. In Kelowna, a group of former scullers from England were forming a rowing club on Lake Okanagan and ordered three four-oared practice shells at a cost of $1,000. Shortly thereafter, the Pococks received requests from the James Bay Athletic Club of Victoria for two four-oared practice shells, and from the Prince Rupert Rowing Club for one four-oared practice shell.
In the summer of 1912, the Pococks were visited at their floating boathouse on Coal Harbor by Coach Hiram B. Conibear (1872-1917), who was looking to get the eight-year-old rowing program at the University of Washington (UW) under way. He wanted 12 eight-oared shells but hadn’t money available at the moment to buy them. But, Conibear wanted Dick and George to move to Seattle where he promised space would be provided on the UW campus for their boat shop. They agreed to consider the proposal but wanted to visit the area first.
Decisions and Revisions
On Friday, July 12, 1912, the Pocock brothers traveled to Seattle on the CPR steamship Princess Victoria. After touring the rustic UW campus, Dick and George, who were used to seeing England’s beautiful college campuses, were unimpressed. The proposed boat-building facility was the Tokio Café (also known as the Tokyo Tea Room), a makeshift structure built in 1909 for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. The Varsity Crew House was the U.S. Life Saving Station on Lake Union, also built as a temporary structure for the fair. Undecided, the Pococks returned to Vancouver on the Saturday evening CPR steamship.
On Sunday, July 14, however, George sent a letter to Coach Conibear advising him they would come to Seattle and build his 12 shells. He then sent a letter to Aaron Pocock in England inviting him to come to Seattle and help. In late July, George received a letter from his father, accepting the offer and advising he was bringing Lucy and Kathleen. The Pococks expected to arrive in Vancouver on Thursday, October 10, 1912. Dick and George spent the intervening months completing shell orders for Canadian rowing clubs.
Before the Pocock family arrived from England, George received a letter from Coach Conibear advising he had only been able to raise enough money for one eight-oared shell, not the dozen they had been relying on for their livelihood. The brothers decided Dick and Aaron would go to Seattle and build the single shell, while George would continue building shells in their boathouse on Coal Harbor. The first racing shell built in the Tokio Cafe for the UW was christened Rogers in honor of William H. Rogers, owner of Rogers Candy and Ice Cream Company, 409 Pike Street, Seattle, who had donated $200 to Conibear’s shell-building fund.
The Pococks moved their boat-building operation to the spacious, new Vancouver Rowing Club boathouse on Coal Harbor as the orders in Canada increased. Julia came from England on the RMS Tunsian to visit the family in April 1913. Aaron stayed in Vancouver until June 1913, helping complete the backlog of work, and then returned to England, leaving the girls behind.
The Move to Seattle
Meanwhile, the Huskies were achieving moderate success in crew-racing competitions, giving Coach Conibear’s fundraising efforts a much-needed boost. He raised enough money to purchase two new eight-oared racing shells. Dick and George agreed to build them for $500 each and returned to Seattle in October 1913. The two new shells, built in the Tokio café, were christened Seattle Spirit I and Seattle Spirit II. Soon they received several more orders and in late 1913 and the Pococks, including sisters Lucy and Kathleen, decided to make Seattle their home. They rented a bungalow for $11 per month at 3917 15th Avenue NE on the edge of the UW campus. Julia decided she wanted to live in a more cosmopolitan city and moved to the East Coast, living first in Boston and later in New York City.
Life for the Pocock family was relatively tranquil for the next few years. Lucy was cooking in a local restaurant, taught swimming at the Moore Hotel pool, and was appointed by Conibear to coach women’s crew racing. Kathleen was training as a stenographer at a business college. Dick and George were making sufficient money building boats to pay for household expenses and the rent.
During World War I (1917-1918), Dick and George went to work for William Boeing's Pacific Aero Products, which became the Boeing Airplane Company in May 1917. The brothers commenced making pontoons for 50 Model-C seaplane trainers being built for the U.S. Navy. Due to a lack of space at the Tokio café, the Pococks moved their operations to Boeing’s Red Barn (now the Museum of Flight), an old boathouse on the Duwamish River. They hired a dozen craftsmen and were soon finishing two pontoons a day. The contract called for 150 pontoons, one third for spares, which was fulfilled before a single airframe had been assembled. Although both Dick and George registered with the Selective Service on June 5, 1917, as required by law, neither was conscripted into the military. The local draft board considered their work at Boeing, making pontoons for the Navy, as far more important to the war effort. And, George’s right hand was mutilated.
In June 1918, Boeing contracted with the United States Navy to build 50 Curtis-designed HS-2L flying boats for $116,000. After Germany surrendered on November 11, 1918, ending the war, the order was halved, and the workforce was greatly reduced. The crew at the Red Barn was put to work building the Hickman Sea Sled, a 26-foot, 100-hp single-engine vessel with an inverted hull, capable of speeds in excess of 45 miles-per-hour. Boeing built 10 Sea Sleds, but was only able to sell three. On Sunday, December 19, 1920, at Dick Pocock’s suggestion, Boeing advertised the speedboats for sale in the Seattle newspapers and the remaining seven boats sold for cash almost immediately. National Prohibition had been passed into law on October 8, 1919, and rumor was the buyers were all bootleggers. The Pocock brothers remained with the Boeing Aircraft Company through 1922, building racing shells during quiet intervals at the assembly plant.
In the meantime, on September 11, 1917, Coach Hiram Conibear was killed when he fell from a tree in his backyard while picking plums. He was succeeded by Edwin O. Leader (b. 1889), a former Husky oarsman under Conibear. On October 10, 1917, in Seattle, Lucy married James B. Stillwell, age 43, a widower with four children. Stillwell was a civil engineer and private contractor who was involved in excavating the Montlake Cut (1916-17) between Lake Union and Lake Washington. On January 23, 1919, in Victoria B.C., Dick married his fiancee, Jessie Apsey, age 28, who had arrived from England. Their first son, John George, was born in Seattle on December 23, 1919. On December 17, 1920, in Seattle, Kathleen married Harry L. Barrick, age 29, a carpenter, and moved to Yolo County, California. And on August 31, 1922, in Seattle, George married Frances M. Huckle (1901-1998), age 21, the sister of Myron Huckle, a member of his airframe assembly team at Boeing. Julia was the only sibling who never married. Also, the Pococks petitioned for and were granted American citizenship.
In 1922, Yale University offered Husky coach Ed Leader the varsity crew coaching job at New Haven, Connecticut. Leader accepted the position and attempted to recruit George Pocock as Yale’s shell builder and rowing consultant. George, who had just married and was still working at Boeing, declined the offer. Dick Pocock took the job and spent the rest of his life in New Haven, building racing shells for Yale. Leader was succeeded by Russell S. “Rusty” Callow (1890-1961), who had also been a member of the varsity crew under Conibear. Callow immediately went to the Boeing Airplane Company and asked George to build him a new eight-oared racing shell for the upcoming crew-racing season. He agreed to do so in his spare time, but required an adequate space.
Building the Finest and the Fastest
In 1918, the U.S. Navy built a large seaplane hangar for the Aviation Training Corps on Union Bay in Lake Washington, south of the Husky stadium. World War I ended, however, and the facility was never utilized. Built on university property, it was granted to the UW in 1920 and became the shell house for the rowing crews, replacing the dilapidated Varsity Crew House. Both the old Tokio Café and the Varsity Crew House had been demolished in 1920, leaving George Pocock without a shell-building facility. With plenty of space to spare, Coach Callow had a loft constructed in the new ASUW Shell House for George to build boats. Although primitive and unheated, the space was 70 feet long and 20 feet wide, enough room to construct the 61-foot-long racing shells. Ultimately, George decided to quit Boeing and left the company on December 22, 1922, to resume his true vocation, designing and building the finest and fastest racing shells in the world.
Before work could be started, however, George had to acquire everything necessary to make the first racing shell. And without money to purchase special machinery, it had to be constructed entirely by hand. The shell, christened Husky, was completed in the spring of 1923, in time for the prestigious Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) Regatta on the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, New York.
In 1922, the four-mile IRA Regatta was won by the Naval Academy, but Coach Ed Leader’s Husky crew was a close second, rowing an older Pocock shell. But in June 1923, Coach Callow’s varsity crew, in the Husky, handily beat Navy for the UWs first IRA Regatta national championship. A crew from the West beating the best from the East was an unprecedented upset, and George was present to witness the event. Rusty Callow’s crews repeated the victory in 1924, placed second in 1925 and won the national championship again in 1926. In 1927, Callow was recruited by the University of Pennsylvania to coach varsity crew racing. In 1950, he took over the rowing program at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and retired from coaching in 1959.
The Skill and Craft of George Pocock
Rusty Callow was succeeded at the UW by former Husky varsity oarsman Alvin M. “Al” Ulbrickson (1903-1980), who held the varsity crew coaching position for 32 years. A 1927 Business Administration graduate, Ulbrickson was only 24 years old, but he had crewed under Coach Callow for three varsity seasons (1924-1926) and was highly recommended by Husky rowing consultant George Pocock and Coach Callow.
Winning the IRA Regatta national championship in 1923 had gone a long way toward convincing college coaches that shells built in the West by George Pocock were winners. Within a short period of time, he had orders for eight eight-oared racing shells. Realizing his days as a one-man operation were over, George hired three men, who had worked for him at the Boeing assembly plant, as apprentice boat builders, and spent virtually all his waking hours at the shop. Already skilled craftsmen, Hilmar Lee, Charles Turner, and Malcolm MacNaught quickly mastered the trade. In 1924, to keep up with the growing number of orders, George hired brothers-in-law George and Donald Huckle, as apprentices.
Meanwhile, on the home front, Frances Pocock gave birth to two children: Stanley Richard, born October 11, 1923, and Patricia May, born August 16, 1925. And George purchased a home in the University District at 4044 11th Avenue NE, close to work. Some years later, the family moved to a beautiful brick house at 3608 43rd Avenue NE in Laurelhurst, east of the UW campus, overlooking Lake Washington.
In 1927, as an innovation, George began using western red cedar instead of Spanish cedar for planking on his boats. The red cedar was not only considerably less costly, but also a more suitable material, lightweight and rot resistant. And George believed by cutting the cost of the shells in half, he was promoting the sport of rowing, which was the most important thing. Now smaller schools and rowing clubs would be able to afford Pocock-built equipment, which was good for his business.
Victories and Gold Medals
In 1936, 19 of the 23 shells participating in the IRA Regatta on the Hudson River had been built by George Pocock. The UW eight-man crew came from behind to win the national championship by a comfortable margin. The Huskies went on to beat the University of Pennsylvania at the Olympic trials in Princeton, New Jersey, giving them the honor of representing the United States at the summer Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. And George built a new eight-oared racing shell for the competition, christening it the Husky Clipper. He accompanied Coach Ulbrickson and the Husky team to Berlin as chief boatman for the American crews.
On Friday, August 15, 1936, in Grunau, the Germans had just won five straight races, including the four-oared coxed and single sculls. The British, however, won the double-scull race, preventing Germany from sweeping the rowing competition. The final race for eight-oared shells was the last event in the rowing competition. In a steady rain, before 100,000 spectators, the Husky Clipper nosed out Italy and Germany to win a gold medal. Although the USA performed splendidly in track-and-field events, the Huskies’ regatta victory was considered the greatest triumph of the Olympics. The team members were Roger Morris, Charles Day, Gordon B. Adams, John G. White, James B. McMillin, George E. Hunt, Joseph H. Rantz, Don B. Hume (stroke), and Robert G. Moch (coxswain). Due to the outbreak of war in Europe, it was the last Olympiad held for 12 years.
During World War II (1941-1945), George and his craftsmen manufactured plywood parts for the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress in his shop on the UW campus.
George Pocock's Champion Shells
In 1948, Olympic trials were again held in Princeton, New Jersey. The UW four-man coxed crew won the honor to represent the U.S.A. in the summer Olympic Games, held in London, England. George Pocock was not only designated America’s chief boatman, but also Al Ulbrickson appointed him coach of the Husky four. The final heat was held on Monday, August 9, 1948, at the Henley Royal Regatta course on the Thames River. In a close race, the four-oared shell, Clipper Too, which George built in 1936, beat Switzerland and Denmark for a gold medal. In the eight-oared race, the University of California, rowing a Pocock-built shell, won a gold medal, beating England, the odds-on favorite.
Immediately following the successful Olympic games, UW Alumni Director Richard “Curly” Harris, captain of the 1931 varsity rowing team, lobbied the Washington State Legislature for $365,000 to build the Huskies a new shellhouse. The new facility, built on the site of an old refuse dump north of the Husky Stadium, officially opened in the fall of 1949. It was named the Conibear Shellhouse, in honor of Coach Hiram B. Conibear, the father of the rowing program at the UW. This was a modern building complete with cafeteria, dining hall, and a large shell-building shop for George Pocock. When the rowing crews moved to their new quarters in 1949, the old ASUW Shellhouse was granted to the Washington Athletic Club and renamed the Canoe House.
On Tuesday, August 29, 1950, George’s son, Stanley, married Lois E. Watney and on Tuesday, November 13, 1951, daughter Patricia married Edward J. Van Mason Jr. Both couples were married at the University Christian Church, 4731 15th Avenue NE, by Reverend John Paul Pack, the Pocock family’s minister and long-time friend.
More Gold Medals: 1952 and 1956
In 1952, the summer Olympic Games were held at Helsinki, Finland, and the George Pocock Racing Shell Company provided seven new racing shells and all the oars for the American crews chosen to compete. George and his wife, Frances, accompanied the shells to Helsinki where again he served as America’s chief boatman. Three of his shells won medals. On Tuesday, July 22, the two-oared coxless shell, crewed by Rutgers University, won a gold medal, beating Belgium and Switzerland, and the four-oared coxed shell, with a Husky crew aboard, won a bronze medal. The following day, Coach Rusty Callow’s Naval Academy crew, boasting an unbeaten season, won a gold medal in the eight-oared competition, easily beating the Soviet Union by one-and-a-half lengths and Australia by two lengths.
The George Pocock Racing Shell Company had an undisputed reputation for building winning boats. By 1956, the company had a virtual monopoly in the United States and employed a dozen craftsmen, including George’s son, Stanley, to keep up with production.
The 1956 summer Olympics were to be held in Melbourne, Australia, in November and George was contracted to build seven racing shells for the competition. As before, he was named chief boatman for the USA Olympic rowing team. The races were held on Lake Wendouree in Ballarat, a man-made reservoir which was barely long enough for the 2,000 meter course and wide enough to accommodate four shells abreast. The American team won six medals in the seven rowing events, including three gold medals: the double-oared coxless, the double-oared coxed. Yale University won the eight-oared competition, beating Canada and Australia.
The 1956 Olympiad was the last that George and Frances Pocock attended. In January 1959, Coach Ulbrickson retired from coaching varsity crew and was replaced by Fil Leanderson.
The 1960 summer Olympics were held in Rome, Italy in September. The rowing competition took place on Albano Lake, 13 miles southeast of Rome. Germany won the gold medal in the eight-oared competition, Canada the silver medal and Czechoslovakia the bronze. The USA eight-oared shell, crewed by the vaunted Naval Academy, failed to show. It was the first time since the 1920 Olympics that the Americans failed to win that event, much less a medal. Only one gold medal was won in rowing that year; the four-oared coxless shell, coached by Stanley Pocock. The USA double-oared coxed shell, under Stan’s coaching, won a bronze medal.
In 1962, the UW administration determined that George’s private shell-building enterprise, located on a public school campus, was in violation of university policy. As a result, the George Pocock Racing Shell Company, Inc. moved its operation to 509 NE Northlake Way (now Chihuly’s Boathouse Studio), a 11,352-square-foot facility built in 1954 on Lake Union below Interstate-5 bridge across the Lake Washington Ship Canal. In 1964, the Conibear Shellhouse was remodeled and a dormitory wing added.
The 1964 summer Olympics, held in Tokyo, Japan in October, were more successful. The USA eight-oared shell, crewed by the Vesper Rowing Club of Philadelphia, won a gold medal, beating Germany and Czechoslovakia. The four-oared coxed shell also won a gold medal. The double scull won a silver medal and the four-oared coxless shell won a bronze. The USA Olympic rowing teams were still using all Pocock racing shells at that time.
Superseded But Not Surpassed
The 1968 summer Olympics, held in Mexico City in October, was the beginning of the end for American dominance in world-class rowing. For the first time in three decades, USA crews used no Pocock-built racing shells. Instead, the Olympic committee overseeing the rowing competition chose to use less expensive fiberglass boats, mass-produced overseas. The USA won only two medals in the rowing competition. The men’s two-oared coxless shell took a silver medal, and the men’s double scull took a bronze. In the final race for eight-oared shells, West Germany won a gold medal, beating Australia and the Soviet Union. The USA, represented by Yale University, finished last in the field of six boats. It was distressing for George, who had devoted his life to the art and beauty of sport, to be rejected by the new generation of rowing experts who believed synthetic equipment and brawny oarsmen were the wave of the future.
By 1970, George, now nearing age 80, decided it was time to retire and relinquished most of the responsibility for the of the management of Pocock Racing Shell Company to his son, Stan. George devoted his time to constructing single sculls. Although philosophies regarding rowing were changing rapidly, he maintained a keen interest in the sport throughout his life. George Yeoman Pocock, master old-school craftsman and shell builder, died in Seattle on Friday, March 19, 1976, at age 84, leaving an indelible mark on the rowing world. He was interred in the mausoleum at Acacia Memorial Park, 14951 Bothell Way NE, Shoreline, Washington. In his honor, the Pocock family presented the University of Washington with an eight-oared racing shell, christened the George Pocock.
The Pocock Legacy
In 1984, Stan Pocock, former UW oarsman and rowing coach (1947-1955) and founder of the Lake Washington Rowing Club (1958), and Dr. Alan A. Mackenzie, DDS, also a former Husky oarsman and avid sculler, established the George Pocock Rowing Foundation, a non-profit organization to serve as a community resource for the support and advancement of the sport of rowing in the Northwest. The foundation built the Pocock Rowing Center, 3320 Fuhrman Avenue E on Portage Bay, which opened in 1994. The facility, which is home to eight rowing clubs and some 400 rowing enthusiasts, has space in its five boat bays for approximately 200 shells of various sizes. The center has offices, a conference room, locker rooms, and a large workout room with exercise equipment. It is open to any organization or person with an interest in the sport.
In 1985, Stan Pocock was looking to retire and since none of his children were interested boat building, he planed to close the business. Long-time family friend, William B. Tytus, a champion sculler and Lake Washington Rowing Club coach, believed the name of the world-famous George Pocock Racing Shell Company should be preserved and purchased the company. His first decision was to make all the shells of synthetic materials, with the exception of the 26-foot, cedar-hulled single sculls. Tytus found a boatbuilding facility that could accommodate 61-foot long fiberglass molds and moved the company from Lake Union boathouse to 615 80th Street SW in Everett, an industrial park near the Boeing aircraft assembly plant.
On Saturday, January 24, 1998, Frances M. Pocock, George’s wife, died in a Seattle nursing home at age 96. She was interred in the Pocock family crypt at Acacia Memorial Park mausoleum.
In January 2004, the Conibear Shellhouse was torn down and replaced by a modern, tri-level building at a cost of $18 million. After 16 months of construction, the new Conibear Shellhouse was officially opened on May 5, 2005. Husky crew-racing memorabilia is on display in trophy cabinets located in each of the building’s two entryways. The collection includes framed photographs of every team captain from 1907 to present, on the walls in the Captain’s Room on the bottom floor. There is also a “W Club” wall, bearing the names of every crew member who has earned a varsity letter in rowing.
The historic eight-oared shell Husky Clipper, that won a gold medal in the 1936 Olympics at Grunau, is hanging from the ceiling of the dining hall. And numerous framed pictures, magazine covers and news articles are hanging in the corridor leading to the two locker rooms. Today (2010) the 47,250-square-foot Conibear Shellhouse is the largest collegiate rowing complex in the country.