Jerry Gardner, writer and sports historian in Ireland (in the picture with Hurling’s MacCarthy Cup), has just published a book on sporting trophies, The World’s 50 Greatest Sporting Trophies. HTBS is happy to publish a piece by Jerry about some of these trophies, among them the rowing prizes the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race and the Wingfield Sculls. Jerry writes,
It’s been an impossibly good month for aficionados of sport. Notwithstanding the wonderful Lions’ victory in Australia, the first few days of July have seen the staging of four of the oldest, most iconic and keenly contested sporting events in the world. Starting with youngest first, those four events are: (1) The Tour de France, which first turned a wheel in 1903, (2) The Ashes Series, which dates back to 1882/83, (3) The Wimbledon’s Gentlemen’s Singles, first contested in 1877, and (4) the big granddaddy of them all, The America’s Cup, which can trace its history as far back as 1851.
Many people assert that the America’s Cup is the world’s oldest sporting trophy, but are there any other contenders which can lay claim to this title? To answer that question, first we need some rules. Even the most cursory research throws up many sporting contests that are far older than the America’s Cup. However, some of these events are no longer contested, others have been revived after long gaps, many seemingly ancient trophies are in fact replicas, some sports have seen radical rule changes, some competitions are only open to a small, local field, and finally many long-standing competitions award relatively modern trophies. So which are the sports with the oldest, continuously contested sporting competitions where the original, perpetual trophy is still awarded?
The history of the America’s Cup dates back to 1851, when the yacht America beat all-comers to land the Royal Yacht Squadron’s “Cup of One Hundred Sovereigns.” Six years later, the syndicate behind America decided to donate their trophy to the New York Yacht Club with the intention that it should be held in trust as a “perpetual Challenge Cup for friendly competition between foreign countries.” They renamed the cup after their yacht, and thus was the America’s Cup born. It took until 1870 for the first challenge to materialise, and since then there have been a further 33 races. The famous and loudly-trumpeted 132-year winning streak between 1851 and 1983 – often lauded as the longest in sport – came to an end in 1983 in the 26th contest, when Australia II took the spoils. Over the years, the America’s Cup has survived legal challenges and even being attacked and flattened by a sledgehammer, but it still wears proudly its badge as one of the world’s most venerable sporting trophies.
And what of the other contenders? The very first Calcutta Cup match between Scotland and England took place in 1879, and ended in a draw. England became the first nation to lift rugby’s hoariest prize in 1880. The beautiful silver cup, featuring snakes as handles and an elephant on top, was commissioned by the Calcutta (Rugby) Football Club as a parting gift to the RFU when the club was disbanded in 1878. Sadly, the original trophy is deemed too fragile and valuable for the hurly burly and jiggery-pokery of international rugby, so a replica is now presented to the victors. The same is true for golf’s oldest and greatest prize. The Open Championship’s Claret Jug was first lifted in 1873, but today’s champion is presented with a facsimile of the precious old pot.
The FA Cup is the senior citizen when it comes to domestic association football (soccer), but the trophy isn’t. Since the Cup first kicked off in November 1871, there have been four versions of the trophy. The current familiar iteration is a 1992 copy of the 1911 original. The Scottish FA Cup, which began two years after its English counterpart, has a stronger claim to being the world’s oldest football trophy. The original Cup was presented to inaugural winners Queens Park in 1874, and wonderfully, to this day it is still presented to the winners. They have to hand it back almost immediately, due to its fragile state, but subsequently they do receive a replica to parade for a year.
Cricket’s celebrated Ashes are a little younger than the Scottish Cup, dating to 1882/83, but technically they are not a trophy at all; the celebrated urn has never been awarded to the English or Australian victors, and indeed it remained in the possession of the winning captain, Ivo Bligh, for some 44 years before he bequeathed it to the MCC in 1927. The name “The Ashes” was coined in 1882 by a journalist bemoaning the demise of English cricket after a loss on home soil to Australia. Bligh was subsequently given the urn as a humorous memento after a friendly game in Australia once the series there in 1882/83 had been secured.
The Wimbledon Gentlemen’s and Ladies’ Singles Trophies date back to 1887 and 1886 respectively, so the Ladies’ beautiful Venus Rosewater dish can claim the crown of being both the oldest tennis trophy and the oldest female sporting trophy. But both Wimbledon winners do not get to keep the trophies: they only hold them for a precious few minutes before the prizes are whisked back to the All England Club for safekeeping.
As we go further back in time, the sports of horse racing, rowing and archery come to the fore. The sport of kings throws up a number of contenders. Although the Grand National dates back to 1839, the current trophy has only been awarded since 2005. Royal Ascot’s Gold Cup was first run in 1807, but it fails on two fronts: firstly because there is no perpetual trophy, and secondly because there are several other older races. The Newmarket Town Plate dates back to 1664, although again, there is no perpetual trophy. It is noteworthy to mention, however, that the first four riders home in this race receive a box of Powters Celebrated Newmarket sausages as part of their prize. The Lanark Silver Bell can trace its heritage back to 1587 – and allegedly back even as far as the 12th century – but given that there were large hiatuses in the running of the race over the years, the Bell is disqualified; plus a new trophy is now awarded. Going further back still, the Kiplincotes Derby is the oldest documented horse race in the world. It has been held annually in the town of South Dalton in Yorkshire since 1519: but in the absence of a trophy, it sadly also falls at the first fence.
Rowing possesses some of the oldest sporting challenges: The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race was inaugurated in 1829, but in the early years contests were sporadic, and besides, the current trophy is a modern one. The Grand Challenge Cup, the oldest and most prestigious race at the Henley Rowing Regatta, dates from 1839, but since 1964 a replica trophy has been awarded. Though there are many other almost equally ancient trophies at Henley, they have all seen significant rule changes, meaning that their hopes of claiming the title of the world’s oldest sporting trophy are also sunk.
That said, two other races on the Thames are of interest here. Thomas Doggett’s ‘Coat and Badge’ Race, which was first run on the Thames in 1715 and which continues to this day. The race is open to up to six apprentice Thames watermen, and the winner’s prize is a crimson red coat with a silver arm badge depicting Liberty, the horse of the House of Hanover. So, it’s the world’s oldest rowing race, certainly, but not the oldest perpetual prize. Which leaves us with rowing’s strongest candidate, the Wingfield Sculls. First run in 1830, the race is open to leading amateurs, with the winner receiving a beautiful trophy in the form of a pair of miniature sculls. The race is named after one Henry Colsell Wingfield, a barrister who instigated and funded the race. Ironically, he later perished in a shipwreck off Canada.
Archery gives us two more contenders. “The Antient Scorton Silver Arrow” was and is an archery competition held in Yorkshire. Since the original competition in 1673, the winner has been awarded a silver arrow. The original arrow now resides in the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, but it makes an annual trip to Scorton on the day of the competition. The winning archer receives a replica of the original silver arrow, meaning that the Scorton Arrow thus misses the target for us. Archery also gives us the Papingo shoot at Kilwinning in Scotland. A papingo is an archery target in the form of a wooden bird. The Ancient Society of Kilwinning Archers, which organises the contest, purportedly dates back to 1483, but in the absence of a trophy, the competition does not pass muster for us.
Finally, honourable mentions should also go firstly to the Royal Musselburgh Golf Club’s Old Club Cup, which goes back to at least 1774, and which is still being competed for today, and secondly to the Sligo Yacht Club’s Ladies Cup, which was first run in 1821 and is still going strong. But both these trophies are essentially for club members only.
All of which rather brings us back to where we began: it seems that the America’s Cup is indeed the oldest, continuously contested, international sporting event where the original, perpetual trophy is still awarded, whilst on a national basis, that prize goes to the Wingfield Sculls.
For more on other famous sporting trophies, see The World’s 50 Greatest Sporting Trophies by Jerry Gardner which has just been published and available from www.publishpromote.com, cost €15 including p&p. Prints of original images and original commissions are available from www.tomdack.com
Many thanks to Jerry Gardner for his contribution to HTBS!