Selections from the Memoirs of Mike Ashby, Part II: Joining the Fighting Cocks

Pic 7
The Oxford Crew, 1936. JS Lewes, KV Garside, MGC Ashby, DM de Winser, MA Kirke, SRC Wood, JC Cherry, BJ Sciortino and JD Sturrock.

Here is part 2 of Tim Koch’s story about Mike Ashby:

In my last post we had Mile’s memories of rowing for New College and going Head of the River. Here we hear of his time rowing for the Oxford against the seemingly invincible Cambridge.

It was New College’s victory (in the 1934 University Coxless Fours) that I think first brought me to the notice of the Oxford University Boat Club (O.U.B.C.)…. I had put on a lot of muscle, was 12 stone / 76 kilos, and the next great thrill was to be chosen to row in one of the (1935) University Trial Eights.

Orthodox dogma ruled the day, the coaches chosen by the O.U.B.C. President were all fixed pin fanatics, as opposed to swivels….. The chief coach was a past Cambridge Blue, chosen for his obsession with fixed pins. He had never done a day’s work in his life, except to get divorced, and to spend most of his fortune hunting in Africa….. As a coach I used to think that Peter Haigh Thomas was a disaster. We used to see the Varsity Boat out every day. Many of them very big men and good oarsmen. The thing which amazed me was that they seemed at least to go out in a different order almost every day, thus never really being allowed to settled down into a skilled machine. Of course Oxford again lost the (1935) Boat Race.

To this day I can remember my mortification at being tested in a fixed tub by Kenneth Payne, the Coach to the Varsity Crew. A full finish to the stroke meant leaning well back and drawing the oar right up to the chest at the finish of the stroke. I had always had proportionally more powerful arms and shoulders, and long slender legs. Leaning well back, one if not both of my feet came momentarily off the stretcher. “Look, he is not on his feet”. I was therefore rejected for further training that Easter Term, correctly so, but for a quite irrelevant reason.

In the Michaelmas Term of 1935 I had the thrill of being picked for the (1936) Varsity Boat as Bow….. In Boat Race training you enter a different world. After the vigorous period on the river at Oxford, the training is transferred to Henley, where the river is much wider and there are no other craft to get in the way. We would lunch in Vincent’s, and then I, with two or three others, would pile into my beautiful open touring Aston Martin, the Grey Goddess, and do a fast run to Henley, 80 mph most of the way.

Pathe’s 1936 newsreel, ‘Meet the Oxford Crew’, remains one of HTBS’s favourites, completed with clipped accents, period humour and private jokes:

There was one rather sad non-event for me, which I think must be almost unique. I was compelled to miss my own 21st birthday party. The six of us lodging at 51 The High, decided that as we were all of much the same age, we would have a really terrific combined party….. A week or so before, when many crates of champagne had been ordered, and all our invitations sent out, our O.U.B.C President announced that the crew would go for a well earned weekend holiday in Thorpeness, Suffolk. I was aghast, but there was no possible escape. The party was a terrific success, as can be imagined, and had it not been for the thrill of being ‘In the Boat’, it would have been an even greater loss for me. I believe nearly a dozen crates of champagne were consumed. I of course had to subscribe my share, and this gave the stiletto another couple of twists.

For our boat race training at Putney, we were housed at the Ranalagh Club, fed like fighting cocks, as indeed we were……. I do not remember much of the race. It is not an enjoyable experience if you lose. The other crew just gradually draws ahead, and you see them no more. The losing crew row their hearts out, and is far more exhausted than the winners, who once comfortably ahead, can settle down to a good rhythm, breathe better, and relax their muscles coming forward.

A British Gaumont newsreel of the 1936 Boat Race is online.

In my first three years at New College, Oxford rowing was very much in the doldrums. Morale had been seriously affected by Cambridge’s tenth successive victory in the Boat Race, followed by three further victories while I was up. A cardinal factor in this dire situation, was an astonishing adherence to an old-fashioned method of mounting the oars in a rectangular gate, referred to as ‘Fixed Pins’. Views about this were held and constantly expressed with almost religious fervour, and unlimited bigotry. Swivels were abhorred with single minded persistence, in spite of the fact that on swivels Oriel, quite a small College, had by 1936 remained at Head of the River for the fourth successive year.

The swivel mounting was used throughout the rowing world. It had been introduced to Cambridge by Steve Fairbairn, the Jesus College coach, with remarkable racing success. The Jesus Style of less body swing and greater dependence on leg drive had also been successful…… To be fair, a first class oarsman can perform as well, or almost as well, on fixed pins, but it takes very much longer to reach the top grade…..

Only coaches devoted to fixed pins were appointed to train and pick our University Trial eights and Boat Race Crews. Kenneth Payne and Peter Haig Thomas, both distinguished Cambridge Old Blues and fervent Fixed Pin addicts, were appointed to be our coaches, certainly in my Trial Eights training and in my 1936 Blue Boat.

Michael then gives a perspective into British rowing history that I had not come across before, finishing with a bold claim.

The Olympic Games for 1936 were to be held in Berlin…… An Oxford crew was to row in some regattas in Germany that year. I was secretary to the O.U.B.C, and Jock Lewes and I did much planning together, my task being mainly to encourage and support him. When we got to the small boat club at Bad Ems, we were rather put out to find that we were being lent an obviously very old boat, as its varnish was quite dark. In Britain’s pre-war days, when a rowing boat got old, it became tiresomely flexible and could twist, so that at a given moment it could be down on stroke side in the stern, and the opposite in the bows. To our pleasurable astonishment we found the boat was still as stiff as a brand new British VIII. A brief look at the construction showed the explanation. In the bottom of the boat, below the sliding seats, were long thin diagonal spars, like a flattened St. Andrews Cross. A diagonal cross cannot be twisted without flexing the spars, so after twenty years or so, the thin German spars were just as resistant to flexing as when they were built in, and probably more so!

From a carpentering point of view, British boats were thoroughly defective, their joints all being butt, at right angles and depending on just their glue and varnish. Both easily cracked. No wonder the clubs wanted new boats. A new VIII was built for the race each year, but it remained stiff against torsion for only a few weeks, and College boats were much worse. When Jock got back to order the new craft for the 1937 Boat Race, he gave the builders an ultimatum, “Build a stiff boat or I will order one from abroad”…….

To the non-rowing reader, this tale may have been a bore, but it is with some pride that I record that it was Jock and I who instigated the first major change in the construction of British racing boats. It is strange that we in Britain have led the world in inventiveness, and perhaps still do, but yet are too vain or too conservative to spot when the foreigner has got a better idea.

Our Oxford crew contained many who were destined to row at Putney the following spring. We won the contest for the VIIIs. I expect all the best German crews were in training for the Olympics in Berlin, due to start in a few weeks time……

Pic 8
The eights final at the 1936 Olympic Regatta, an event which inspired Jock Lewes.

(After Oxford’s races were over) Jock Lewes made his way to the Berlin Olympics to study the great concourse of oarsmen from all over the world. He took three vital decisions which were to have dramatic effects. It was at these Olympics that Jock was finally convinced that, whatever the ‘Old Men’ said or thought, the university boats would be rigged with swivels. He took note that not a single crew in Berlin used the fixed pins oar mounting which the Phoenicians and Pharaoh’s boatmen had found so useful, and determined that Oxford would also change.

Secondly, he noted that the great Washington crew, which was victorious in the final of the Eights, had been rowing together unchanged in the same order for over a year. Jock thereupon determined to pick the best eight men and weld them unchanged into a strong winning crew, and this indeed is what he did.

The third great triumph from Berlin was that Jock persuaded Jan Sturrock and Conrad Cherry, who had both rowed in the British Olympic Four, to stay up at Oxford another year for the worthy purpose of at last winning the Boat Race. They were to form the experienced powerhouse at 6 and 7 behind our first class stroke, Brian Hodgson. Paul Burrough….. and Ronnie Rowe, behind him at five and four…. Rinn Stewart was at three, Jock himself at two, and I was the little tweaker at Bow, weighing 12 st. 4 lb. I think by then, the heaviest bow ever to row for Oxford.

Following is Pathe’s introduction to the 1937 Oxford Crew:

Our three months or so of training was one of the happiest and carefree periods of our lives. There was however one sad drama…. To our astonishment and horror, Jock, our splendid President, got out and (gave) David Winser….. his place. Now he could only watch for the great victory for which he had done so much to achieve. Few people would have had the courage to impose such self discipline……

(On Boat Race Day 1937) Cambridge won the toss, and took the usual preference of the Surrey station…. There was no significant lead in the race up till Hammersmith…..

Pic 9
The 1937 Boat Race: Oxford (left) and Cambridge (right) at Hammersmith.

After shooting Hammersmith Bridge and hearing the cheering crowds, we really began to feel that we had got the measure of them. Hodgson was keeping at a steady and not too exhausting rate of striking, and yet we were holding them all round the outside of the great bend….. When we came out of the bend at about Chiswick Eyot island, cox then called for a ten, our first in the race. We did a good one, and drew away about half a length. I was the first one to see their bow slipping behind, and we knew then that, barring some accident, victory was really within our grasp. Gradually they fell back further and further astern on the outside of the Barnes bend, but still held on with splendid courage and determination. After passing under Barnes railway bridge, we began the final bend in our favour and knew that at last we had won……

Gaumont produced fine coverage of the 1937 Boat Race in this newsreel.

Jock Lewes had hired an old-fashioned stage coach, horse, coachman and all. He had in any case got an old coaching horn, and with the victorious crew in their dark blue blazers and O.U.B.C. caps, set off on a triumphant tour of the West End, to the beautiful notes of the horn and cheering spectators.

Pic 10

Pic 11

Mike Ashby’s Boat Race Medal (above). Uniquely, I think, the silver medal has been gilded, presumably to mark the end of thirteen years of Cambridge domination. The Latin inscription is from the Aeneid and approximately translates as “They can because they think they can”.

I felt that my career at Oxford had been a success, but my finals in Animal Physiology produced a Fourth, a quality of degree I shared with both a former Prime Minister and a Lord Chief Justice of England. On going onto the Royal London Hospital as a medical student, no one seemed to care a fig about my degree, but all seemed to have heard of other more important matters, though I had not breathed a word…. In those days the great teaching hospitals were only too keen to get Oxbridge students, and for most, a Blue was far more important than a First.

Pic 12
Ashby’s illuminated oar from the 1937 Boat Race.

Part 3, which is the final entry on Mike Ashby, will be posted on Friday 26 September.

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