The Tale of a Boat, a Crew and a Summer of Long Ago – (To Say Nothing of a Regatta)

A postcards depicting the Bedford Regatta in 1905.

Greg Denieffe writes:

Now is the summer of our sweet content. Yes, regatta season is here and after our winter of discontented weather, rowers up and down the country are looking forward to a glorious season of side-by-side racing. Why, this week, I even purchased a straw hat! First up for me will be Bedford Regatta which takes place on Saturday, 10 May. And a very special regatta it will be – the 150th to be held since the first “official” regatta took place in 1853.

Regatta Secretary, Hugh Maltby, has written a splendid history of the regatta and rowing in the town of Bedford for the British Rowing website. You can read his article here.

Another postcard depicting the 1905 Bedford Regatta.

HTBS also has news that links rowing in Bedford from 1914 to 1964 to 2014. John Beresford (son of Jack, who learned to row at Bedford School) was kind enough to alert us to a reunion of his school crew also taking place at this year’s regatta. The Bedford School Boat Club VIII of 1964 is having a 50th anniversary dinner on Friday, 9 May and recreating the crew photograph (below) at the regatta the following day.

Bedford School 1st VIII of 1964. Standing left to right: David Warbrick-Smith (59-65), John Osbourne (60-65), boatman – Bill Maltby, Mike Harper (60-65), Andy Peake (55-65); seated, Richard Harrison (59-64), Mike Goodfellow (61-65), Coach – Neville Andrews (Staff 58-68), Captain – John Beresford (59-64), Peter Harpham (60-64); front, Anthony Joseph (60-64).

The ’64 crew is travelling from near and far to be reunited – John B. has calculated a total of 27,960 miles, with Mike Harper coming from Melbourne, John Osborne from Quito in Ecuador, Andy Peak from Johannesburg and Anthony Joseph from Los Angeles. They and the rest of the crew will commemorate a fifty-year and a hundred-year connection with Bedford School Boat Club. Peter Harpham who rowed ‘six’ that year wrote an article for the School magazine, The Ousel, and has kindly agreed to allow HTBS to reproduce it below:

Bedford Regatta, 1964, saw the culmination of months of hard work both on and off the water by the School 1st VIII. The crew chosen from a talented pool of Trial VIII oarsmen, turned out to be taller and heavier than most school crews of the time, weighing in at Henley at an average 12st 6lbs and about 6’2’’ average height.

We had reasonable success in the Easter Term, coming first out of the schools at the Bedford Head and the Cambridge Head and third at the Reading Head, having pushed Winchester all the way into second place, whilst we needed binoculars to see the crew behind us. These results gave great optimism for the summer regatta season.

Training that was to reach a different level began with a few days on the water at Henley, at the tail-end of the Easter holidays. John Beresford (59-64) had been appointed Captain of Boats and Stroke of the eight and, through the kindness of his father, Jack Beresford CBE (13-17); the crew was able to camp on his lawn at Shiplake for this exercise.

Our coach Neville Andrews (Goldie and Star Club), in conjunction with the late P.R.O. Wood and Company Sergeant-Major, Andy Middleditch BEM, brought in a regime of weight training, circuit training and interval training on the water for the first time at the School. This was innovative thinking in that era, at least for school rowing. The ARA Director of Training was apparently mightily impressed by what he saw on a visit and that quiet, hard and humble man of British Army and Bedford School boxing, swimming and gymnastics C.S.M. Middleditch must have taken great satisfaction in the physical development of his charges. He wanted to do more, but no further time could be spared off the water.

First up in the summer was Wallingford Regatta. Three members of the crew were classed as ‘seniors’, having won an event in that category the previous year. Unfortunately, ARA rules meant entering for the senior event rather than the junior-senior one, so we found ourselves up against some pretty classy outfits – Leander, Kingston, Staines, to name a few. Bedford disposed of Merton College by one length and Staines by 1¼ lengths, only to come up against the very powerful Kingston crew (who had beaten Leander by half-a-length causing great excitement along the way) in the final. There is no need to pursue the details of that race any further other than to say that we rowed neck and neck for the first minute! Nevertheless, it was great experience for the crew and a fine effort to get to the finals in that company.

The new boat had arrived, built by Sims of Putney; very sleek, a different rigger set-up, shortened in the stern with the rudder/fin underneath the cox’s seat. This boat was arguably the first of its kind in the country and at Henley was of great interest to the Soviet Union crew who were easy winners of the Grand – spies were everywhere in those days! She was christened Fifty Plus by Jack Beresford CBE, in recognition of the 50-odd years’ span between himself and son, John, in the Bedford School Boat Club. However, for all her fast pedigree she was a difficult craft for this particular crew to balance and just maybe with a retro-fitted fin, the lurch every now and again to one side or other would not have occurred, thereby saving precious distance and time over the longer courses. Who knows?

The first race in Fifty Plus was against Bedford Modern School who had very kindly agreed to this, over a Marlow-length course to the boathouses. The School won by one and a half lengths in a time of 3 minutes 29 seconds, which was believed to have been the quickest time by any Bedford School crew. Somehow we managed to lose to Oundle the very next day, dropping a length early in the first half, posting a slow time and losing by one-foot at the Three Trees! The time was a whopping eleven seconds slower to the finish at the Suspension Bridge than the previous day against BMS.

Reading Regatta saw the eight still having to race above its class, drawn in the Thames Cup event against Nottingham University and University of London. Going off at 44 and striding at 38 and with the crews dead-level, London veered close – a clash of blades and Nottingham squeezed away to a half-length lead. The umpire stopped the race (interference by a pleasure craft) and the crews returned to the start and set off again. After one minute, with Bedford striding at 38, Nottingham gained a half-length. Past the enclosures the eight came back, now rating 40, to close down to within a canvas of Nottingham with UL in third place. The time was one second quicker than the winners of the event where all the usual suspects were (Radley, St. Edwards et al), and having rowed half the course for a practice run!

Henley was up next and is probably best forgotten – a mishap at the start saw Bedford miss their explosive start against Pangbourne to finish a length behind. Pangbourne went out the next day to one of the three American semi-finalists, Washington-Lee High School; the American crews of the day in a different league to all the English schools.

Cambridge Regatta provided the lift that the crew needed after a disappointing performance at Henley. Disposing of St. Neots by two lengths, a fresh Star Club by one-and-a-half lengths and a multiple-winning Staines B.C. by one length in the quickest time of the day in pretty atrocious conditions. It was now apparent that this crew had reached their top performance level in terms of physical fitness and oarsmanship, and whilst other crews faded throughout the day’s racing, this lot seemed capable of coming back and dishing out more medicine!

We had found our form as St. Paul’s, Thames RC and poor old Star Club would find out at Bedford Regatta. St. Paul’s, who had been chosen to represent GB at a European Regatta the following week, were disposed of by half a length having been two feet up at Town Bridge, in a time of 3 minutes 30 seconds, breaking the record by six seconds! Thames suffered the same fate to the tune of one-and-a-half lengths in a time of 3 minutes, 32 seconds – four seconds quicker than the standing record – and in the final, Star went down by two lengths in 3 min 34 seconds – two seconds inside the old record. Conditions were not fast, they were neutral – no breeze, verging on the thundery. It was unfortunate that nobody in the crew was aware of the records only being taken in the finals; I suspect that another second or two could have been trimmed off the final race time particularly had Bedford met St Paul’s in the final – they were unable to cope with the pressure of an extremely fit and strong crew in their first race, but would have provided a stiffer challenge than the others, although Hampton and Latymer had been put out in the heats.

That record would be long gone; however, there is one record that probably still stands to this day and that is the feat of a Bedford School VIII that rowed faster than the standing record three times in the one day. And that incidentally was the first time since 1949 that the Eight had won their event at Bedford Regatta, a gap of fifteen years.

But the credit must go as well to those men on their rickety bikes and that man in his Gymnasium. To the indomitable coach, Neville Andrews, to the late CSM Andy Middleditch, the late P.R.O. Wood, Bob Carlisle and J. Hope-Simpson and Bill Maltby, boatman and craftsman of critical eye and acerbic tongue. Bedford School rowing would have been a poorer show without them.

‘Spanner’ Lee and the 1964 VIII paddle into history.

There remained one last hurrah for this Eight: to row the retiring Deputy Head V.F.D. Lee, after forty-two years at the School, in an eight on the river with him standing on the cox’s seat as he used to do when coaching the Bedford Henley-winning crews of the 40s and 50s. A clinker eight was used to minimise the chances of ‘Spanner’ (‘things need tightening up around here!’), Lee being hurled into the water by one of the Eight’s spectacular lurches. The outing was a success and we stowed our blades for the last time; somehow ‘Spanner’ had remained dry!

What I like about this photograph, is that the whole crew is rowing whilst Mr Lee is steering by holding the long rope-like rudder strings, the ones you had to tie up after every outing! However, this is not the first time that a ‘standing coxswain’ has appeared on HTBS. The Eton College ‘Procession of Boats’ has featured several times and in Etonians And Their ‘Boaters’, a post from 2010, there are two videos showing the whole crew ‘on their feet’. And the final post of 2013 showed the cox of a working men’s club, Orwell Rowing Club, posing for a photograph from c.1903.

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