This past weekend, counting Friday as the first day, saw the first World Rowing Cup races for 2014. If you think it’s early in the season for a World Cup regatta, you are right. However, as the Cup was held in Sydney, Australia, the world rowing elite travelled down-under for their first meeting of the year. The racing was held during three days of ideal rowing conditions. Some of the reigning World champions found themselves knocked off the top position in some exciting races. It’s going to be interesting to see how the gold, silver and bronze medals fall at the two remaining World Cup regattas in Aiguebelette, France, between 20 and 22 June and in Lucerne, Switzerland, between 11 and 13 July. Though before the second World Cup there is the European Rowing Championships, from 30 May and 1 June in Belgrade, Serbia.
The organisers of the Head of the River Race have put out the following announcement:
The Head of the River Race was abandoned this afternoon at 2:55pm after about 75 crews had passed the finish line. The organisers faced the difficult decision as to whether water conditions were sufficiently safe to start the race. The tide turned about 20 minutes late, and whilst most of the course enjoyed near perfect conditions, gusting winds made the finish marshalling area very difficult for rowing. After a 15 minutes delay to the start, and a reduced wind, the decision was made to start Divisions 1 and 2. However, it soon became clear that as crews in these divisions were struggling to cope beyond the finish line, the decision was taken to abandon the race. A number of times had been taken before the abandonment and these are now published for information only purposes. As the Race was not completed, the times have no official bearing. We are very disappointed that we were unable to provide rowers with the race they wanted, and thank you for your understanding in difficult conditions.
Boating from Hammersmith. It started well, it was ‘shirtsleeves’ weather with a light breeze.
Reading Rowing Club II goes afloat.
Balliol College, Oxford passes the many blades stacked outside Furnivall Sculling Club.
Boating from Putney. As can be seen, the river was a little ‘lumpy’ at high water, but the expectation was that it would calm down when the tide started to fall. The race is timed so the first crews get the fasted water, usually about an hour after the tide starts to go out.
The wind picks up.
Leander I were the first crew to pass the finish line which is just above the ‘UBR’ stone marking the start of the Oxford - Cambridge Boat Race. Their time was 18 minutes, 16 seconds.
Molesey I were the second boat to finish, but were the fastest crew overall with a time of 18 minutes, 5 seconds.
Conditions were worst around Hammersmith, about a mile and a half from the finish. However, crews such as Forward Morges from Switzerland found the going fairly rough along Putney Embankment as well.
The first indication for those of us at the finish that there were problems was when Crew 42, Karlsruhe Wiking from Germany, became an ‘unterseeboot’.
Karlsruhe Wiking are rescued.
Muelhei Ruhr, also from Germany, managed to get the slipway below Waterman’s Green to empty several litres of the Thames out of their boat.
Suddenly, everyone was joining in. These Old Abingdonians seem stoical about the whole thing.
With the race abandoned, everyone who had started to race headed for the nearest land to bail out.
While accepting that a potentially dangerous situation developed (though thankfully no one was hurt) it must be admitted that it was good spectator sport, perhaps more interesting than if the race had gone off as intended. I was reminded of a verse from “Albert and the Lion”, an old comic monologue by Marriott Edgar about a northern English family’s trip to the seaside holiday resort of Blackpool:
They didn’t think much to the ocean The waves, they was fiddlin’ and small There was no wrecks... nobody drownded ‘Fact, nothing to laugh at, at all.
Today, at 14:15 (2:15 p.m.), it is time for the Head of the River Race (HoRR), when slightly more than 400 eights race the 4 1/2-mile course between Mortlake and Putney (the Boat Race course in reverse). The race was founded by the famous coach Steve Fairbairn in 1926. For more information and to see the start order click here. Follow the race on Twitter - @EightsHead
The other day, Peter Simpson of Vesta RC was looking through some old papers at Vesta and found some instructions for HoRR umpires from 1928. Peter sent it to HTBS, so we could share it with our many readers:
Head of the River Race, 24th March, 1928
Duties etc. of Umpires
.......... at ..........
You have been appointed umpire at the above point for the Head of the River Race on Saturday, 24 March, 1928. It is suggested that Umpires should be in pair-oared or four-oared tub boats. They should be on their alleted stations at 3.0 p.m. All crews will have numbers in the bows of the boat, and the cox's back. When the race has started, umpires should if necessary warn coxswains who are obstruting the passage of an overtaking crew.
Boats being overtaken must be got out of the course of boats overtaking, so that the latter have a clear way through. Umpires must see that this is done. Any delay in obeying may lead to disqualification if the overtaking boat is forced out of its course, whether or not a clash takes place.
Umpires are also requested to warn river traffic that the race is coming down, and so help clear the course. Your presence is requested at Westminster Bank Rowing Club, Putney at 6.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 20 March, when a meeting of officials will take place. Every umpire's boat must carry a flag. This is at the request of the Port of London Authority.
Great stuff, Peter ~ thank you for sharing!
And then we have some moving pictures that Tim Koch found on British Pathe, from the 1931 race and the 1932 race - enjoy!
On Saturday 22 March HTBS's friend Chris Partridge of the great rowing blog Rowing For Pleasure wrote about John Pritchard, Old Cambridge Blue and 1980 Olympic silver medallist in the eights. Pritchard has decided to scull in a Victorian skiff the entire length of the Mississippi. He will start on 2 August and it will take him at least three months to scull the 2,320 miles. Around 60 people will join him during certain legs. His 'outing', Mississippi Million, is a charity row for Right To Play, which is a global organization that, it says on its website, 'uses the transformative power of play - playing sports, playing games - to educate and empower children facing adversity. We reach one million children in regular weekly activities, and have a direct impact on the development of critical life skills that affect positive and sustainable change.'
With his row, Pritchard is hoping to raise $1 million.
Pritchard rowed for Cambridge in three Boat Races, in 1984, 1985 and 1986. The 1984 race became famous as Cambridge hit a moored barge and started to sink, with Pritchard in sixth seat - read more on that race here. He stroked the Light Blues both in 1985 and 1986, the last year to victory.
This blog post was updated at 9:25 a.m. on 26 March to reflect what is mentioned in Comment No. 1. G.R.B.
The Belgian “vainqueurs” or victors of the 1907 Grand Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta.
HTBS is proud to welcome famous rowing historian and collector Thomas E. Weil as a guest writer of today’s blog post. Thomas has a special take on the word “wanker”, which he thinks may have originated in the rowing world.
“Wanker” is a disparaging term, used widely throughout the Commonwealth countries, which has been “ranked as the fourth most severe pejorative in English” (Wikipedia, citing Advertising Standards Authority, December 2000, accessed via Wayback Machine. Retrieved January 14, 2012. (pdf)). While a number of sources trace its origins to post-WW1 (the Online Etymology Dictionary, for instance, cites its earliest appearance to “British naval slang for ‘midshipman’ (1929)”, I am inclined to agree with the statement that “The terms wank and wanker originated in British slang during the late 19th and early 20th century” (Wikipedia, citing A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Eric Partridge, Paul Beale. Routledge, 15 Nov 2002).
Falling squarely within this earlier time frame, my hypothesis for the origin of the term points directly to the results of the Grand Challenge Cup event at Henley Royal Regatta in 1906, 1907 and 1909, when, to the shock and horror of the English rowing world, the premier eights prize of the kingdom was won by non-English crews.
Several American eights had crossed the Atlantic to be vanquished over the almost three-quarters of a century that the Grand had been contested, but European crews had only rarely bothered to venture the short distance across the English Channel to challenge for the trophy before 1906. So, when Belgian crews from two clubs in Ghent won England’s most precious rowing prize three times in four years (and skipped the fourth because it was an Olympic year), English oarsmen were inconsolably traumatized. What was a frustrated Englishman to do?
It probably didn’t help matters much when the Royal Club Nautique de Gand struck a commemorative medal that showed a toga-wearing woman seated on a Roman galley deck victoriously blowing a trumpet while the British lion cowered at her feet.
The commemorative medal struck by the Royal Club Nautique de Gand. On the other side of the medal it says: "De Stad Gent/Great [sic!] Challenge Cup/Henley".
Nor would the British have been pleased at the sight of postcards touting the victories that popped up in the mail following the Belgian accomplishments. The postcards, which showed the crews posed on a bench or seated in their boat, were often headed “Vainqueurs au Grand Challenge Cup a Henley” (see image on top of a 1907 postcard).
Was the choice of “vainqueurs” (or “victors”), rather than the more typically English and modest term “winners”, particularly provocative? Perhaps it was. Was it so provocative as to have instigated a vicious verbal counter-volley? It could have been ...
“Vainqueur”, for practical purposes, is pronounced “vang-cur”, with the emphasis on the second syllable. Given the not uncommon practice in some circles of pronouncing a “v” like a “w”, could annoyed Englishmen have picked up on the Belgians’ own term, and started sarcastically and disparagingly referring to them as “wang-curs”, or “wankers” (with the accent on the first syllable)? Certainly they could have!
Did they? Who knows, but all of the ingredients for an international slanging war were there, and the timing is right for the supposition that first uses occurred some time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And that usage may easily have been exacerbated in later years by the contempt for the Europeans who crumbled so quickly in the face of Germany’s WWI advances, only then to be saved at the cost of so many British lives.
Should our breasts not swell with pride to think that the sport we love may have been the source of “the fourth most severe pejorative in English”? Absolutely. (And might we be grateful that it was the Belgians and not the French who first succeeded at Henley, in which event we might be using the term “grenwee” instead of wanker? Peut-être ...)
Female rowers with their ‘cute purses’ (‘purses’ are ‘handbags’ or ‘shoulder bags’ in British-English.)
Tim Koch writes:
The recent HTBS posting ‘Female Rowers With Their Cute Purses’ showed a 1939 photograph of a group of women taking their oars to the river’s edge while carrying cardboard boxes containing gas masks strung around their necks. Britain officially declared war on 3 September 1939 but ‘Air Raid Precautions’ to protect the civilian population had been going on for some time before that. There was a real fear that gas bombs would be used in air raids on cities and the distribution of civilian gas masks had started in June 1939. By September, 38 million masks had been issued.
A poster of 1939.
As the war progressed, the risk of gas attack diminished and masks were carried less and less. However, some men found that being able to carry a socially acceptable ‘manbag’ was too convenient a thing to give up and kept their cigarettes, spectacles, wallet, sandwiches etc. in their gas mask case. While gas bombs were never used in air raids, some people allegedly died when they ‘tested’ their masks by wearing them and putting their head in a gas oven. The mask filters (which contained white asbestos) were not designed to deal with the coal-gas used in heating and cooking.
Some of the boxes in the picture have been decorated by their owners and other women even knitted covers for their gas mask container.
A knitting pattern of 1940 for gloves, scarf and gas mask container. It is strange that there were concerns about such things when, by June 1940, the Nazis were in France poised for invasion across the English Channel. Perhaps it says something about the British ‘stiff upper lip’ and the spirit of Mrs. Miniver.
A range of commercial gas mask bags were produced for sale by enterprising manufacturers, though not all were as sophisticated as these.
Following the posting of the 1939 picture, rowing historian Colin Cracknell wrote in the comments section:
Any idea where this was taken? It looks as if it could be the foreshore at Tom Green’s Boathouse, Barnes Bridge. Alpha Ladies boated from there, but I’m informed that those are not their blades.
I do not know which club the blades belonged to, but I can confirm that it was taken on the Thames outside Tom Green’s Boathouse next to Barnes Bridge, half a mile from the finish of the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race course. The recent picture posted below shows the same spot – though it covers a much wider angle.
The double steps in the top right of the 1939 picture are shown above the coaching launch here. They were to gain access to the police launches that were moored opposite Tom Green’s, one of which can be seen in the old photograph. Also in the black and white picture, the windows of the red brick mansion (apartment) block opposite are reflected in the water. The colour picture shows Barnes Bridge on the left and next to it the distinctive ‘Tower House’ which was once the home of Geoffrey Page, rowing historian and rowing correspondent of the Daily Telegraph.
Boat Christening at Tom Green’s showing much the same view across the river as today. Picture: River and Rowing Museum.
Tom Green’s Boathouse, c.1937.
The core of the boathouse that was to become Tom Green’s existed before 1876, but it was in this year that it was taken over by the Thomas George Green and it stayed in the family until its demise ninety-nine years later. By accident or design, it seems to have attracted those whom most of the amateur rowing world marginalised. In the words of a 1947 newspaper ‘Green's boat-house provides for "homeless" tradesmen, artisans and women who like the river’.
Some ‘women who like the river’ at Tom Green's sometime in the 1930s. Picture: River and Rowing Museum.
Tom Green’s, sometime between the Wars. The women wearing the ‘club’ symbol are members of Alpha Rowing Club, based at Green’s. I think that the woman standing second from the right is Amy Gentry, a famous advocate of women’s rowing. She and the other non-Alpha RC women would be members of Weybridge Ladies Amateur Rowing Club. Picture: River and Rowing Museum.
The ever fascinating Pathe Newsreel website has a couple of wonderful films showing women rowing out of Green’s in the 1920s and 1930s. Eve on the River was shot in 1921 and River Girls in 1931. I think we see Tom Senior in the first film and Tom Junior in the second. There is also a 1927 film of Bert Barry training out of Green’s for the World Championship.
Before I attempt a brief history of Tom Green’s Boathouse, I would like to finish off the ‘wartime’ aspect that started this story. In the Cygnet Rowing Club newsletter of 2004, Rene Rawkins gave a wonderfully frank account of rowing out of Green’s during the 1939-1945 War. I reproduce it here with the permission of her son, Paul, who has written a history of Cygnet RC (click here and then on the ‘history’ link on the left).
Tom Green’s Boathouse was a rat infested wooden shack situated immediately adjacent to Barnes Bridge on the Chiswick side, close to the site where Thames Tradesmen’s Rowing Club now stands. There were no showers... Ma Green – Tom Green’s wife – cooked on a large (bottled gas) stove, there being no electricity either. Needless to say, no insurance company would touch the place.... For all that, we had some good times there.
A large number of clubs boated out of Tom Green’s during the war, some of them refugees from the Civil Service Boathouse, which had been requisitioned as a morgue in 1939. My own club, the Savings Bank.... moved to Green’s in 1935. Other incumbents were Alpha and St George’s [both women’s clubs, TK]. Come the war, we were joined by the likes of the Ministry of Pensions and the Ministry of Health.
Tom Green was one of the river’s great characters; a professional boatmen, he was given to binge drinking and frequently disappeared for days at a time, before being brought back much the worse for wear on the ferry that ran between Barnes and Chiswick. Ma Green was forever purloining our sweaters and shoes while we were out on the water. Yet, if you enquired about the whereabouts of a missing item of clothing she’d swear blind that she’d never seen it, even when she was standing before you actually wearing it....
Ma Green: ‘I don't know anything about a missing beret.... or earrings’. Picture: River and Rowing Museum.
Despite the war, rowing at Tom Green’s followed a very familiar pattern with outings during the week and on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings. On just one such Sunday morning in mid May 1940, I remember standing on the foreshore and watching a whole flotilla of brightly decorated craft.... heading down river.... Two weeks later less than half their number made their way back up river, all painted in battle grey and very battered – the remnants of Dunkirk.
Women’s rowing flourished during the war, most men having been called up..... There was a very full regatta programme right the way through the war...... mostly held in aid of the services and the Red Cross. We ventured as far afield as Torquay. I still have the trophy to show for our first encounter with coastal rowing and damned hard work it was too!
The story of this historic boat house starts with Tom Green Senior, that is Thomas George Green. At age 16, in 1864, he was apprenticed as a waterman to his father. He completed his apprenticeship and became a member of the Watermen’s Company in 1871 and won the Doggett’s Coat and Badge in 1872. He had a successful rowing career including winning the Champion Fours (‘The Championship of England’) at the Thames Regatta at least four times in the early 1870s. In September 1876 Tom’s waterman's four went to the United States where they raced on the Schuykill in Philadelphia and beat crews from New York and Halifax for a prize of $2,500. Tom also got $500 for second place in the Open Sculls. In later life he became a King’s Waterman.
Perhaps using his American prize money, in 1876, Tom Green bought a rundown boathouse next to Barnes Bridge and set to rebuilding it while also building a fleet of boats. Green’s eventually had sixty boats to hire to serious and not so serious rowers and it became the headquarters of several rowing clubs and the base for a number of regatta committees. In those days a rowing club did not have to own any boats, many survived by hiring craft as they were needed and this made the sport accessible to ordinary working people. In a short history of Green’s written by John Powell, a copy of which is with the River and Rowing Museum, it is recoded that the clubs using the boathouse at one time included: Cobden, Gaiety, Nelson, Temple, Metropolitan Police, Helen Smith’s, The Times, Daily Mail, News Chronicle and Star, University of London Medical School, The Ladies Boat Club of the UC Hospital, The Ladies Boat Club, Simpson’s on the Strand and Grosvenor. Powell later quotes from a history of Thames Tradesmen’s Rowing Club which adds that ‘Barnes Bridge, Amalgamated Press, Alpha Ladies, London Transport and St George’s Ladies made their home with Tom Green.’
Tom Senior was also an accomplished coach. He trained Bill Beach, the Australian who was undefeated as World Professional Sculling Champion from 1884 to 1887, when he undertook a series of challenges over the Thames Championship Course, Putney to Mortlake, in 1886. In his book A History of Rowing (1957), Hylton Cleaver reports the extraordinary story of Beach’s race against the Canadian, Jacob Gaudaur, when each sculler in turn stopped from exhaustion and slumped in his boat:
At Barnes Bridge.... Beach was exhausted. (Tom Green Snr.) the man who trained him.... shouted to his man to stop and to come to him at the raft – rather like a naughty schoolboy. Beach wearily pulled in as ordered; his trainer splashed him full in the face with water and spoke these words: ‘Now, Bill! Think of your wife and children, and go after him, for he’s as bad as you!’ Such were the effect of the cold shower and these orders that, in an unforgetable finish, Beach did win on the post.
A great story – a pity that it is not true. The Times carried a full report on the race and does not mention this incident. What it does say is that Beach led by half a length passing Green’s boathouse and extended this to three lengths at the finish. Further, Tom was not on the bank but was following the Australian in a pilot boat, acting as his steersman. However, the report does acknowledge that Tom’s motivational calls aided Beach greatly and that the sculler acted ‘in obedience to the earnest entreaties of Green’.
Tom Green Senior in later life. Picture: River and Rowing Museum.
Cleaver also records that Tom Senior trained Charles ‘Wag’ Harding to victory in both his races against the considerably larger Tom Sullivan of New Zealand for the English Sculling Championship in 1895. Many other professionals used Green’s as a base when preparing for Tideway races. The great Ned Hanlan trained from there in his race against Trickett for the World Professional Championship in 1880, and Ernest Barry often used Green’s, first in his race against Towns for the English Championship in 1908. No doubt all received the benefit of Tom’s advice and, in their races, many were steered by him from a pilot boat. Tom steered amateurs as well as professionals, notably in the Wingfield Sculls of 1887 when he guided Steve Fairbairn.
Tom Senior had five sons and six daughters. Three of the boys became Watermen, but it was Thomas George Edward Green (‘Tom Green Junior’ or ‘Young Tom’) who took over the boathouse on the death of his father aged 77, in 1925. Young Tom never weighed more than 8 1/2 stone / 120 lbs / 54 kg but came second in the Doggett’s of 1897. Cleaver says that he had a Clasper boat made that was 31ft / 9.44 m long, 8.5 ins / 22 cms wide and which weighed 21 lbs / 9.5 kg. In this he won the London Coat and Badge.
A rare picture of Young Tom Green (centre) without his cap. The man on the left is B.C. Fisher, described by Hylton Cleaver as 'a devout and long standing disciple of Steve’s [Steve Fairbairn]'. He was involved with Fairbairn in establishing the Head of the River Race. The man on the right is Geoffrey Carr, an Anglian RC cox from 1903 to 1914. He won the Thames Cup with Anglian at Henley Royal in 1910 and a silver medal steering a famous Thames four in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.
In the fifty years between 1925 and 1975 Green’s seemed to have carried on as if the world was not changing, particularly as regards health and safety and ideas on basic sanitation. The history of Thames Tradesmen’s notes that at some time:
Toilet facilities were very primitive consisting only of a canvas enclosure ‘out in the woods’. Guests were confronted by a board with two apertures and the entertainment provided by the birds, bees, and other denizens of the trees.
Rita Cramp (née Dennis) joined Alpha as a schoolgirl in the early 1950s. She recalls:
I used to take a filled hot water bottle so I could have a warm wash after our outings or evening runs. It was then used for others to wash their feet in. It was all so taken for granted, it’s amazing when one thinks of it now.
A contemporary of Rita’s, Nina Padwick, remembers' the cold water and big sink and the oil heater on which we could stand a kettle (and) the way that the leathers we used on the boats got ‘eaten by rats’ (though John Hart found many tucked away after Mrs. Green died)'.
John Hart was responsible for rescuing the extensive ‘Green archive’ (now held by the River and Rowing Museum) from certain destruction after Ma Green died.
Young Tom and his redoubtable wife, Kate, universally known as ‘Ma and Pa’, continued regardless, the premises decaying around them. Even so, in 1957 rowing journalist Hylton Cleaver wrote that ‘today sixteen men’s clubs and two women’s clubs use the quarters’.
When Tom became infirm in his late seventies, Ma continued the business, personally dragging the boats for hire in and out of the boathouse. Colin Cracknell recalls Ma making him stand outside in the rain when he arrived early one day because ‘Anglian’s time is two o’clock’. Colin continues:
I boated from Tom Green’s in 1961/62, before Anglian and Mortlake merged and moved into their new premises by the crematorium. By that time the accommodation at Green’s was rather Spartan, (perhaps it always was), but Anglian had a reasonably comfortably club room and bar.... there were showers although they were rarely used. People just sluiced down out of old enamel bowls after an outing. The mud on the foreshore was something to behold, (not like the gas mask picture, when it seems to have been well cared for with shingle etc.), and you could easily lose your (boots) there.
Young Tom died in 1958 in the rooms about the boat racks where he was born 84 years earlier.
Young Tom Green, possibly just back from the pub... Picture: River and Rowing Museum.
In 1923 the land upon which Green’s stood had been purchased from the Duke of Devonshire by the local government body, Chiswick Urban District Council, who became Tom’s landlord. Shortly after the Second World War, the council had made an effort to close down Green’s, so they could build a communal boathouse on the site. However, it would take more than the massed resources of local government to shift Ma Green and it was only on her death in 1975 that the authorities got their way. Sadly, they were assisted by the fact that the boathouse burnt down in 1977. It was, until then, as it was twenty years earlier when Hylton Cleaver wrote ‘Tom Green’s Boathouse today is a relic of the days when Putney Bridge was wooden and horse-drawn coaches crossed it...’
The trees mark where Tom Green’s stood. Thames Tradesmen’s Rowing Club boat from the undistinguished boat house in the centre. Across the river are the distinctive white double balconies of the 1899 White Hart pub in Barnes, a fine viewing point for races on the Championship Course and once the temporary base of many professionals training out of Green’s.
I found this decorative ironwork in the undergrowth alongside the railway embankment that ran alongside the boathouse. Is this the last, sad remains of Tom Green’s, a relic of Victorian rowing that lasted until 1975?
If you wish to find out more about Tom Green’s Boathouse, the River and Rowing Museum has put their extensive Green archive online.
A couple of days ago, Oxford University BC announced a change in the Dark Blue crew. Tom Watson (on the right), who so successfully has stroked Isis for three years, replaced Chris Fairweather in the two seat. Watson has represented Canada in the lightweight quadruple scull at the Under-23 World Championships.
According to the Boat Race website, the Dark Blue coach Sean Bowden said: “After further testing in the week after the Weigh-in, Tom Watson has been selected for the Oxford Blue Boat replacing Chris Fairweather in the 2 seat. Tom brings with him a good deal of experience having stroked 3 winning Isis crews. Chris Fairweather is now rowing in the Isis crew.”
Earlier today, Oxford raced against Leander in their final pre-race fixture. Oxford, on the Middlesex station, took the lead from the start, and was a length ahead at the Town Buoy, which at the Mile Post had increased to two lengths. At the finish at Chiswick Steps, Oxford was three lengths ahead. Read a race report from the Boat Race website here.
The 2014 BNY Mellon Boat Race will take place on 6 April 2014.
Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse, oarsman of Lady Margaret Boat Club and student of St John’s College, Cambridge, with his mock prize, the ‘Wooden Spoon’, which showed everyone that he was the last one on the 1909 honours list at the Mathematics Tripos. On Holthouse's left is a shield with St John’s College Coat of Arms.
The story of the ‘Wooden Spoon’ and the last man who received this award at Cambridge University, Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse, has been told many times by bloggers all around the web. Most of these bloggers have got the information, it seems, from the Wikipedia entry called “Wooden Spoon”. However, as many HTBS readers would agree, especially after having taken a look at the picture of Holthouse above, this kind of ‘story ‘is just what you would expect to find on HTBS. I am afraid that I have not a lot to add about Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse and his Spoon, but this is how the story goes:
Ever since man came up with sport competitions, the winner, an individual or a team, has received a grand prize. The ones coming in second and third have sometimes also got prizes, though of less value than the victor. Nowadays, gold, silver and bronze medals are handed out in most sports, but in a few sport events, for example Henley Royal Regatta, only the champion crew receives a winning cup.
Some sports have gone further and not only awarded prizes to the winner and the second- and third-placed persons or teams, but also the dead-last person/team has received a so-called booby prize. In the first fictional boat race report, in Book V in The Aeneid of Virgil, Aeneas presents Sergestus, who has steered his vessel too close to some rocks whereupon the oars wreck and leave Sergestus and his crew last of the competitors:
Aeneas presents Sergestus with the reward he promised, happy that the ship is saved, and the crew rescued. He is granted a Cretan born slave-girl, Pholoe, not unskilled in the arts of Minerva, nursing twin boys at her breast.
(translated by A. S. Kline, 2002)
The first time the mock prize ‘Wooden Spoon’ was recorded was in 1793 (though, Wikipedia says in 1803), but as an academic ‘award’, not as a sport prize. Two years earlier, in 1791, the ‘Senior Wrangler’, the top student on the honours list, or the ‘academic success’, was first mentioned. ‘Spoon’, as in the slang word ‘spoony’(foolish), found its way into the academic world of Cambridge during the 1700s.
This one-metre long spoon is one of two (!) that were handed out by friends to two students of Selwyn College in 1906 (both ended up at the bottom of the degree list). This spoon now hangs on the staircase of the Selwyn College library, Cambridge.
In 1823, the poem “The Wooden Spoon” was published in The Cambridge Tart. One stanza reads:
And while he lives, he wields the boasted prize Whose value all can feel, the weak, the wise; Displays in triumph his distinguish’d boon, The solid honours of the Wooden Spoon.
The year after this mock poem was published, the Cambridge student Hensleigh Wedgewood, who later would become a barrister and an etymologist, was handed a special prize as the Classics student at Cambridge who came dead last on the degree list. As it was a custom for examiners in the Mathematics Tripos to award prizes to top students and give the student who just managed to scrape by a wooden spoon, the examiners in Classics decided to award prizes to all their students, and as Wedgewood was last, they gave him a wooden wedge, a jest on his own name. In the 1860s, Wedgewood’s son, Ernest, kept up the good family tradition by becoming ‘The Spoon’.
The ‘Wooden Spoon’ also spread to other English-speaking countries. In 1847, it appeared at Yale University and, in 1861, at University of Pennsylvania. However, in America the ‘Wooden Spoon’ shifted from being a mock award to a honour award, so at Yale the most popular student was given the spoon.
The Wedge and the Spoon, from The Slang Dictionary (1913; published by Chatto & Windus, London).
At Cambridge, it was, however, the spoon handed out at the Mathematics Tripos that was most famous, or maybe it is more correct to say, ‘infamous’. The attitude towards ‘The Spoon’ also changed through the years, from being an embarrassment to receive to an attracted prize to walk away with. Reports tell that the student who was presented with ‘The Spoon’ in the Senate House, where the honours were handed out, was greeted with the same enthusiasm as the ‘Senior Wrangler’, at least amongst the students. At times, this occasion did turn out to be a disorderly event, as in June 1882, which came to be known as ‘The Battle of the Spoon’.
An unhappy student receives the ‘Wooden Spoon’. Detail from Robert B. Farren’s painting Degree Day (1863). See the full painting here.
While ‘The Spoon’ became quite notorious, it grew larger and larger, from a small wooden spoon to the last wooden spoon, which was 1,5 metre long and was handed out in 1909 to the student Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse (1887-1967). Maybe it was because Holthouse was an oarsman at Lady Margaret Boat Club of St. John’s College that the spoon took the shape of an oar?
According to the Wikipedia entry “Wooden Spoon”, there is an inscription in Greek on this oar/spoon, which may be translated to something like this:
‘In Honours Mathematical This is the very last of all The Wooden Spoon which you see here O you who see it, shed a tear Alternatively: This wooden object is the last souvenir of the competitive examinations in mathematics. Look upon it, and weep.’
Looking at the photograph of Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse, he does not look that displeased. We must remember that it was not that uncommon to receive a third degree. On this matter, HTBS’s Tim Koch has written ‘a Third was [an] entirely appropriate [degree]. It was known as “A Gentleman’s Degree” or “An Oarsman’s Degree”’, so it was very suitable for young Holthouse to be on the receiving end. We also have to remember that a good number of students placed below the ‘Wooden Spoon’ by getting an Ordinary degree. ‘In the 1860s about three-quarters of the roughly 400 candidates did not score enough to be awarded honours, and were known as poll men’, it says in “Wooden Spoon” on Wikipedia.
When Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse – don’t you think that it’s such a appropriate name for the last holder of the ‘Wooden Spoon’? – left Cambridge, he, of course, brought his award with him. Holthouse became a clergyman and was appointed an army chaplain during the First World War, in France in 1918. Before he went to Canada in the 1930s, he lent the ‘Wooden Spoon’ to St John’s, so the college could put it on display. When Holthouse came back to England, the ‘Wooden Spoon’ was returned to him.
It subsequently returned to the college in a very curious way. In the 1960s Holthouse put his house in Winchester up for sale so that he could move into a retirement home. One of those who came to inspect the house was another St. John’s oarsman, Guthie Easten, who on looking through the window immediately recognized the spoon. The upshot was that Easten drove the spoon to Cambridge in his small car, with one end sticking out of a window covered in a plastic bag.
When the tripos system changed after 1909, students were grouped into classes that made it impossible to tell who was the lowest place, so the practice ceased. Nevertheless, today Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse and his ‘Wooden Spoon’ live on; in our social media era, there is of course a Twitter account named @lastwoodenspoon.
Today, ‘Wooden Spoons’ are held in the colletions of Cambridge colleges St John’s, Selwyn, Emmanuel and Corpus Christi, and at Yale University, University of Pennsylvania and Oberlin College (Ohio). At the latter college, a wooden spoon was handed out to an 'ugly person'. There are also five known wooden spoons in private collections.
To come back to where I started this blog entry: wooden spoons came to be known in certain sports like tennis and rugby. Below is a short video clip from 1931 showing a rugby match between England and France where, figuratively speaking, England receives the wooden spoon.
FRANCE HANDS ENGLAND 'THE WOODEN SPOON"
See also: Tim Koch writing on Rudie Lehmann's "The Necessity of Having a Butt" in Lehmann Online.
Looking for a rowing book on the internet, on www.abebooks.co.uk to be more precise, I came across Steve Fairbairn’s famous Chats On Rowing, which was published in 1934 by W. Heffer & Sons Ltd., Cambridge. It is not hard to find copies of this book, especially not later editions, but booksellers are still asking a lot for it – as are they for all of Fairbairn’s books, just because …. well, it is Fairbairn. The price for the 1st edition of this Chats On Rowing is £140.00/$239.32. Not only is this copy a 1st edition, it also comes with a dust jacket, which has its wears and tears. I find this dust jacket lovely. The image has such a 1930-ish touch to it with the bowside/starboard oarsman rowing in what looks like a 'tub'. He is maybe not holding the oar right in the image, but I would not have dared to say a thing like that during Fairbairn's lifetime; Steve would for sure have accused me of being a member of the 'Pretty-Pretty Brigade', the camp of the English orthodox style.
My copy of Chats On Rowing was published in 1948 by Nicholas Kaye Ltd., London (a 2nd printing of this edition came out in 1949) and has a less attractive cover, a black&white photograph of two eights racing down the course at Henley (the photograph was taken in 1947 when Jesus College took the Grand Challenge Cup).
Both editions have Fairbairn's poem "The Oarsman's Song", in which the fourth stanza famously reads:
All through the swing he hears the boat sing As she glides on her flying track, And he gathers aft to strike the craft With a ringing bell note crack
He rowed a different ocean,
an ocean of sand
when he crossed the Sahara;
rowed in his mind
the upcoming competition
as he looked on dunes
mountaining against the rosy hued
Wind wrote the desert text.
as it does, often, the ocean’s,
a text he read with his oars,
like a blind man with his fingers;
waves of sand, waves of water,
his body a shell being propelled
through motion coming at him,
motion he met head-on.
Nearing the finish line, on race day,
the water he rowed had become
heavy as sand, ocean become desert,
but a desert he had already
crossed in his mind.
The ‘Hear The Boat Sing’ 5th Anniversary Lunch was held at the Coat and Badge pub, a short walk from the Putney Embankment, on Sunday, 16 March. A small but select group enjoyed roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and the company of like-minded people. It was a relaxed occasion but there was a brief period of formality when we drank a toast to blogmaster Göran and his wife Ellen, the two people responsible for the existence of HTBS. I then shared the following thoughts with those present.
On 12th March 2009, the very mixed blessing that is the Internet, already a forum for the mad and the bad, overcrowded with videos of wacky cats and friendly ladies (sometimes together, sometimes separately) gained a new eccentricity – a blog dedicated to the history of rowing. Göran Buckhorn’s first post started:
“Against better judgement I have become a blogger. If you would have told me a couple of months ago that I would start a blog, I would have called you insane... But things can change in life. After my contract as boating coordinator.... came to an end, and with that, my responsibility to write and edit the club’s newsletter, I was without a continuing forum to write about rowing and its rich history”. The post ended: '”So, when I had not been writing for a week or two, and got rather grumpy, my dear wife, who is a blogger par excellence, gave me the idea that I would maybe like to start a blog on rowing history, and well, here I am blogging away, although, I should know better…”
Five years, 1,540 posts, 265,000 visits and 809,000 page views later – here we are. ‘Hear The Boat Sing’ has been read from Albania to Zambia (and all countries in-between). It has a loyal following, though, due to the nature of the Internet, I suppose we never know how many ‘regulars’ we actually have. Occasionally one of them will ‘break cover’ to say how much they enjoy HTBS. This is always a pleasing experience as sometimes, writing late into the night, one wonders ‘is there anyone out there actually reading this stuff?’ I must confess though, even if no one was reading it, I think we would go on writing it. Over the past five years the blog has gained a ‘respectability’ in the rarified world that it operates in. It is unofficially recognised by such bodies as the Boat Race and the River and Rowing Museum. If you look for some aspect of rowing history via a search engine, possibly a majority of the usable results will be from ‘Hear The Boat Sing’. In its subject, HTBS has two great advantages. Firstly, rowing has a rich and deep history, much of it waiting to be uncovered. Secondly, because it is a ‘minority sport’ (ironically with few minorities) it is very accessible. If we wanted to write about British soccer or American football we would not be able to talk to the stars or mix with the super teams as we can do with the sport of rowing.
On the left, closest to the camera, Liz, then Chris Dodd and on the end is Molly Bushnell. On the right, Colin Cracknell and Sue Bushnell. Absent, Tim Koch and Jonny Ambrose.
As you all probably realise, Göran’s enthusiasm shows no sign of tiring. We contributors write when something inspires us but he must constantly find the two or three posts a week that a credible blog should have. Most bloggers find this easy at first but few can keep going for anything like five years.
As those of you who have met him will know, Göran is a delightful man, a ‘gentleman of the old school’. It is appropriate that I use that antiquated English phrase as he is a committed Anglophile. Very early into our correspondence, I stopped explaining particularly British terms that I thought a Swede living in the United States may have trouble with. I should have realised that someone who is a fan of P.G. Wodehouse would not need my help (in fact his English is better than mine).
We were joined by Bert Bushnell’s daughter, Sue, and granddaughter, Molly. This was Molly’s tribute to her grandfather.
We also have to give credit to Mrs. Buckhorn. As already indicated, Ellen was not only the original inspiration for starting the blog, she is also the ‘Hear The Boat Sing IT Department’. Without her, HTBS would be written on parchment and nailed to a tree. Over the years the blog has developed a style of its own and has gained a small group of regular contributors plus the occasional guest writer. Sometimes a post will have only a tenuous link with rowing but, as long as it is interesting, this is fine. HTBS is rather like Henley Royal Regatta in that it is a private party which you are welcome to join – providing you embrace its eccentricities.
‘Hear the Boat Sing’ (HTBS) was founded in 2009 by Göran R Buckhorn, a Swede living in Connecticut, a magazine editor, culture scribe and a rowing historian. In 1990, Göran co-founded the Swedish rowing magazine, “Svensk Rodd”, for which he is now a contributing editor. He has written numerous articles on rowing, and is one of the Directors of Friends of Rowing History and a member of BARJ, the British Association of Rowing Journalists. Regular contributors to HTBS are: rowing historians Tim Koch and Greg Denieffe, both in England; Hélène Rémond, France; and Philip Kuepper, Connecticut. Besides writing articles on The Boat Race, the Henley Royal Regatta, the Wingfield Sculls, and the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race, Tim has made some rowing documentaries. He is also a Director of the Friends of Rowing History and a member of BARJ. Greg is an Irishman who specializes on Irish rowing. Some of his finest pieces are on HTBS. Hélène, who wrote her thesis on British rowing, has covered The Boat Race and the Henley Regatta for French papers and HTBS, also shooting beautiful photos for this blog. Philip’s poems on rowing have topics about everything between the daily life and the divine.