Selections from the Memoirs of Mike Ashby, Part I: Silencing The Old Men

Pic 1
Michael Ashby pictured in his OUBC blazer in 1936.

Tim Koch writes:

The historical pieces that appear on Hear The Boat Sing, HTBS, are usually the product of collating information which exists ‘in the public domain’. Admittedly the facts and figures are often well hidden within that allegedly accessible realm but, nonetheless, they can be flushed out given enough time and effort. While this can be very rewarding for the writer and (hopefully) the reader, it is even more satisfying to produce something based on writings previously accessible only to a few. Thus, it was with much anticipation that I recently met up with Julian Ashby. Julian’s father was Dr. Michael George Corbett Ashby (1914 – 2004) who, in his 80s, produced a delightful written record of a very full and rewarding life. As regular HTBS readers will be anticipating, that life included rowing. Mike Ashby was at Oxford from 1933 to 1937 and in that time he achieved the two pinnacles of success for any Oxford oarsman – rowing in the Boat Race and taking his college boat to the Head of the River. In the course of this he met some remarkable people and had some wonderful adventures and experiences. Until now the biography has only enjoyed circulation within the immediate family but Julian has kindly given me permission to reproduce as much of it as I wish.

Ashby’s memoirs (edited by Julian) are, conventionally, set out in chronological order. I have taken the liberty of collecting all the rowing material together in separate sections. One part covers New College Boat Club, one the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Races of 1936 and 1937 and a third compilation is of odd stories and memories (some to do with rowing, some not) that particularly appealed to me. I hope that my editing has maintained the spirit of the original.

Mike Ashby was born on 1 November 1914 and his childhood home was on the Upper Richmond Road in Putney, a short walk from the Boat Race start. The family was ‘comfortably off’ but not, by the standards of the day, ‘rich’. The young Mike was educated privately at Ashdown House Prep School and later at Oundle School.  Of the latter he remembered:

Oundle was a very tough place. Rugger was everything, and I was far too spindly to be any good, having never really caught up from my death struggle with TB Peritonitis, from two to four years old……. Life was hard and rather spartan. We had to have an ice cold plunge every morning, in and out like lightning into the big overflowing tin baths. It was certainly very healthy and we became impervious to cold…….. Unless carried too far, the tough lives of hardship and intense competition did most of us good, and by the time I left I felt as hard as steel in both body and mind, and that I could face Dame Fortune, whatever she may bring.

Pic 2
Ashby, the undergraduate.

As we will see later, Mike made the most of his university years, though how much credit can go to regular immersion in freezing water is open to speculation. Post Oxford, Ashby did not row again but he approached the rest of his life with the same enthusiasm that gave him sporting success. After his degree he became a medical student at the Royal London Hospital where he became the United Hospitals light-heavyweight boxing champion for two successive years. He recalled:

Without being in any way arrogant, the self confidence I had built up from all the rowing victories was boarding on the pathological. When told that I was to represent the Hospital as a light-heavyweight, I admit that I had some initial anxiety, but the idea of defeat was no part of my make up.

By the time Ashby qualified, the war was on and he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps from 1943 to 1947. In 1949, he became a consultant neurologist at the National Health Service’s Whittington Hospital in North London where he remained for the rest of his career. He also had a private practice which involved him as an ‘expert witness’ in some high profile criminal trials. He retired in 1975.

Pic 3
Ashby, the boxer.

Returning to the university years, Ashby’s ‘character building’ experiences at an English boarding school of the 1930s were far from unique but life as an undergraduate at Oxford must have seemed to be some sort of ‘reward’ given in compensation for the previous austere years.

Ashby had rowed for only one term at Oundle but it seems that this was enough to make him a competent oar when he arrived at New College in late 1933.

My rowing prospered quickly, and as far as I can remember, after one session in a paired tub, I got into the first Torpid boat, I think rowing at Four. I have a vivid picture in my mind of the first time we went out in this eight, and my utter amazement at the speed that even a modestly skilled VIII goes through the water. As the cox called, “Easy”, I had looked down over the side, and seen the bubbles rushing past. After having been a thin weedy fellow all my school career, I must have grown remarkably in strength with the physical exertion of rowing, and to my astonishment, and my father’s delight, I was asked to come to College a week or so early to train in the first eight for the (1934) Head of the River races.

Ashby was to take the place of one of the crew who chose books over boats:

Sadly, the Captain of the Boat Club, the delightful Gerald Ellison, a Blue, decided that he must work for his finals. As he later became a distinguished Bishop of London, he was probably right…..

Those unfamiliar with Oxford’s method of ‘bump racing’ for the Headship of the River can refer to the explanation in my report on the 2014 Bumps.

I believe that it is true that the New College VIII had never been out of the first three places on the river for at least the previous thirty years. We were lying second out of twenty colleges at the time that I got into the boat. As the first College boats did their division of the bumping races last, and this was at about 6 pm, the afternoon’s racing was therefore referred to as ‘nights’. On the first night we caught up close to Oriel, and were full of confidence for the Tuesday night to follow. We did then row at our best, and just above the New College Barge we caught up with them, and clearly overlapped. Strictly, the cox of the bumped boat should hold up his hand to signal that he had felt his rudder being hit. Our Siamese cox, whose name I cannot recall, feeling certain that we had made our ‘bump’, called “Easy”. To our horror, the Oriel boat rowed on. There must have been a bump behind us, as we were not run into, having stopped in mid stream. There was an appeal to the President and Race Committee, but we were not held to have bumped as the Oriel cox swore that he had felt nothing. At the beginning of the stroke the bow of a racing eight does tend to rise an inch or so above the surface. Witnesses agreed that we had indeed overlapped Oriel, and tragically our bow must have crossed over the Oriel rudder without touching it.

Further thrills were to follow… I won an exciting place as Bow and Steersman of the College Coxless Four. We beat University, and then a very sweet victory over Oriel, finally winning our Oars by beating Magdalen in the final……

Pic 3a
A college coxless four, 1934.

Next year, in the 1935 May Week Bumps Races, New College again chased Oriel all six nights without success. In 1936 and 1937 Ashby also rowed for Oxford University Boat Club against Cambridge in the Boat Race – more on this later.

The New College VIII……. of 1936 had three Blues, Ralph Hope, David Mynors and myself. We should have gone Head on this basis, but we did not settle down well together. At least I formed the view that chaps were thinking more about the shortcomings of the others, than of the ‘Beams in their own eye’. Yet again we failed to catch (Oriel) the Heretics, no Blues in their crew, rowing with the ‘crippling handicap of the despised swivels’!

Pic 4
Torpids, 1937.

Ashby became Captain of New College Boat Club in 1937 and was determined to make some changes.

……New College, on its fixed pins, was lying second on the river. I had rowed eighteen times in that position, and was now Captain, and was determined to implement what had been learned under Jock Lewis (President of OUBC, 1936 – 37). In previous years there had been some tendency to criticism and lack of harmony. I picked what I thought were the best eight men, told them that perhaps none of us were all that good, but we were not to think about how the others were rowing, but that we were going to be a team, were going over to swivels, and would go Head of the River. The old boatman, Harry Round, was almost speechless with horror when I told him to rig the eight with swivels. “What will the Old Men think”? I replied that we would not hear a word from them if we went Head, as we intended.

We just failed to catch Oriel on the first night, but caught them easily on the next, and remained Head for the last four vital races. The College generously gave the traditional Bump Supper, and it was the proudest moment of my life.

Pic 5
New College goes Head of the River, 1937.
Pic 6
The Captain of New College Boat Club and member of the First VIII: ‘The proudest moment of my life’.

Part 2 will be posted on Wednesday 24 September.

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