On 1st June, HTBS’s Tim Koch witnessed the Eton Procession of Boats. Here is his report:
The recent HTBS posting by Hélène Rémond on the French magazine 6 Mois picturing the boys of Eton School rowing during their ‘Fourth of June’ celebrations pre-empted a plan of mine to see the 2011 Procession of Boats in person. As Hélène points out, I have already written about the history of this unique occasion but I have now taken some nice pictures to illustrate it.
Eton School (more correctly called ‘Eton College’, though the boys are aged 13 to 18) is the most famous fee paying school in the world. Founded in 1440 by Henry VI to provide himself with some reliable civil servants, it has produced nineteen British Prime Ministers and innumerable oarsmen. Today, rowing and sculling at Eton is divided into four groups:
Boys aged 13 and 14 only race in inter school events, in single sculls and quads.
Fifteen year olds are called ‘Junior Colts’ and race in events held under the rules of British Rowing in the J15 class.
Sixteen and seventeen year olds are called ‘Colts’ and race in British Rowing events in J16, Novice and Intermediate 3 classes if eligible.
Seventeen and eighteen year olds can row in ‘Upper Boats’ at J18, Intermediate 3, 2 and 1, Senior and Elite if eligible.
Eton College Boat Club (ECBC) has a website that is open for anyone to view but, as it is intended for internal consumption, an outsider will find the organisation, argot and acronyms of the ancient institution difficult to understand.
The programme for the row past by the (mostly Victorian) boats is almost exactly the same today as in this programme of 1885. The first four crews are from the ‘Upper Boats’.
The first boat to stand and salute the School and Her Majesty the Queen is Monarch, the ten-oar. It is usually stroked by the Captain of the Boats (there is an interview with the current Captain here) and crewed by senior boys who help administer internal rowing. Here are two extracts from the rules of ECBC:
‘Members of the Monarch assist, under the supervision of aquatics masters or coaches, with discipline and safety on the river, and the administration of internal races.’ and ‘All instructions given by members of the Monarch must be followed without argument.’
The next boat is Victory, the First Eight, or (more commonly) just ‘The Eight’. They presently hold the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta and the Queen Mother Cup for Championship Eights at the National Schools Regatta. Unfortunately, they do not hold the ‘Triple Crown’ as they came second in the 2011 Schools’ Head. The VIII (they usually use Roman numbers) has their own blog but it has not been updated recently.
Monarch and Victory have swivel rollicks with the normal closed gate so the boys cannot hold their oars erect when they stand to salute. To compensate for having the advantage of their oars on the water, they all stand together. The remaining eight boats have open ‘fixed pin’ gates. Thus 4 and 5 will hold their oars up and then stand, followed by 3 and 6, then 2 and 7, and finally bow and stroke. All ten boats are fixed seat.
Of the remaining Upper Boats, Prince of Wales (2nd VIII) is followed by Britannia (3rd VIII).
The ‘Colts’ A, B and C crews then pass in Thetis, Hibernia and St George respectively.
Finally, the ‘Junior Colts’ A, B and C crews pass in Alexandra, Defiance and Dreadnought.
Even these delightful pictures do not fully capture the feel of the occasion. The Procession is viewed from a lush meadow on (in 2011 at least) a warm summer’s day. Behind are the ancient and noble buildings of the College. On the other side of the sparkling river is lush woodland with the tower of Windsor Castle peering above the trees in the distance. A school band is playing The Eton Boating Song.
On the water, young Corinthians play out an old, strange and slightly silly tradition in archaic dress. There are people who would not be moved by this – but they can stay at home and play video games in a darkened room. The rest of us (who are lucky enough) will spend a delightful day on the riverbank and hold that it is always ‘jolly boating weather’.