2013 Rowing History Forum: Not just for Nerds…

Henley’s River and Rowing Museum (RRM). The Times newspaper recently put it on its list of the top fifty museums in the world.

Last Saturday, 12 October, the Rowing History Forum was held at the River and Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames. Here is HTBS’s Tim Koch’s report:

For many people the prospect of spending the day at something entitled ‘The Rowing History Forum’ holds about as much appeal as a 5k ergo test. However, those who attended the fourth such event at the River and Rowing Museum on 12 October had no regrets. They were entertained and informed by tales of things such as the largest oared vessel ever built or of cheating death on the high seas. Add to these stories of bloody blazers, a levitating sculler and Dutch foetuses and there was something for everyone.

Professor Boris Rankov, six times Boat Race winner and professor of Roman history, spoke eloquently on rowing galleys in the ancient world. The unpredictable winds of the Mediterranean resulted in the development of rowing rather than sailing boats for both trade and war. Originating with craft having a single tier of 25 rowers on each side, one man to an oar, from 600 BC a second and later a third level of oars were added to increase power. As it was impracticable to add a fourth level, from 500 BC extra men were added to each blade and within 200 years there were oars manned by eight people, some pushing and some pulling. By 200 BC, Ptolemy IV of Egypt had built a galley of 137 metres / 450 feet in length. Its longest oars were 19 metres / 62 feet and it was rowed by 4,000 oarsmen (though, not surprisingly, it moved ‘precariously and with difficulty’).

Professor Boris Rankov with the museum’s mock-up of a section of a trireme (from the Latin meaning ‘three banks of oars’).

Doggett’s Coat and Badge winner Bobby Prentice enthralled the audience with an account of how he and another Doggett’s man, Colin Briggs, fought for survival when their boat overturned during the infamous 2005 Atlantic Rowing Race. Even Bobby’s humorous and self-deprecating style could not disguise the fact that it was a story that could easily have ended in tragedy.

The River and Rowing Museum curators gave the Forum an update on some recent acquisitions and projects in progress. Chris Dodd reported on an unpublished manuscript written by Julius Beresford which may give new information on his famous fall out with coach Steve Fairbairn. Chris also talked about a possible ‘e-book’ on Tyne rowing. Eloise Chapman showed the recently donated archive of Lucy Pocock (of the famous rowing and boat building family) who was a women’s sculling champion before the 1914 – 1918 War and later went to the United States where she briefly coached women’s rowing at the University of Washington.

Lucy Pocock pictured in a silver frame that she won as a prize at Henley Town and Visitor’s Regatta in 1906.

Eloise also spoke of the British Rowing / Amateur Rowing Association film collection recently given to the museum. It is hoped that it would be available online sometime in the future. Suzie Tilbury displayed an 1844 rowing vest, perhaps the oldest one known, and a Henley prize from 1848, a model wherry in silver. Delightfully, it was won by a local man and it has stayed in Henley ever since.

The silver wherry won by Henry Sergeant in 1848 for the event run between 1845 and 1850 for ‘amateur scullers residing within twelve miles of Henley on Thames’.

Peter Mallory is both a rowing and an art historian and so was well qualified to talk on the recent River and Rowing Museum acquisition, the 19th-century portrait of Newcastle sculler Edward Hawks. Peter showed the historical processes which resulted in this work by very cleverly juxtaposing classic paintings with the Hawks and other rowing pictures. He then spoke on the social and economic story behind its commission and execution. Possibly, the painting was a ‘vanity project’ by Hawks, who may have hoped to sell prints of it. The painter himself had no pretensions at great art. Among other things, the body proportions are wrong, the boat is depicted in a very crude way and the figure appears to be hovering above the ground. Strangely, it is still a delightful picture.

Edward Hawks, sculler (left) and Peter Mallory, art and rowing historian (right).

A glimpse into the fascinating history of Dutch student rowing was given by Rob Van Mesdag. Before the 1939 – 1945 War, Dutch freshmen had to become what were called ‘foetuses’ and undergo harsh initiations before joining student boat clubs. The big event in Dutch student rowing then and now is the regatta known as ‘The Varsity’, founded in 1878. It is an event full of tradition such as the members of the winning university swimming out to the victorious boat and (according to this) throwing coxswains at frozen chickens. Post Varsity celebrations are famously drunken affairs and there seems to be a large amount of nudity. A more explicit picture is here but I am pleased to see that these chaps follow Henley rules and keep their ties on. Click on these thumbnails for more health and safety violations.

Algemene Rotterdamse Studenten Roeivereniging (‘Skadi’) wins the 124th Varsity in 2007. Picture: P. Kemps.

A meticulously researched work by Ian Volans was entitled ‘What was it about Victorian Oarsmen? Rowers who helped to shape other sports’. In particular, EC Morley of London RC and HT Steward of Leander were among the seven founders of soccer’s Football Association and JG Chambers of CUBC and Leander formulated boxing’s ‘Queensbury Rules’.

A tantalising preview of his forthcoming book on rowing blazers was given by Jack Carlson. The lavishly illustrated publication will show the great, the good and the ordinary of the rowing world resplendent in the blazers of their club or country, all pictured by a top fashion photographer. Jack also debunked some ‘blazer myths’ including the one that the scarlet blazer of St John’s College, Oxford, commemorates an oarsman killed when St John’s attached a sword to their bow at a bump race.

Jack Carlson in front of the museum’s current exhibition of rowing blazers.

To summarise a presentation by Terry Morahan is a difficult task as he always seems to have several highly involved researches into rowing history going on at once. However, this year two of them seem to have reached very satisfactory conclusions. With Leander founded in 1818, it is usually thought that the world’s second oldest public rowing club is Der Hamburger und Germania Ruder Club (1836), but Terry claims it is in fact the (Royal) Northern Yacht Club which was established in Belfast in 1824 and today is based on the Clyde in Scotland. Records show that a race ‘for four oared gigs the property of members of the club’ was held in 1825. For his next trick, Terry produced ‘the oldest rowing blazer in the world’. It was the Eton School rowing jacket worn by General Sir George Higginson (1826 – 1927) in 1844. Much to the surprise and delight of all present, Terry then presented it to the River and Rowing Museum. It was a rather nice end to a most enjoyable day and thanks are due to all the speakers, the RRM, the Friends of Rowing History and American Friends of the RRM.

Terry Morahan (left) presents ‘the oldest rowing blazer in the world’ to Chris Dodd of the River and Rowing Museum.

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