Chris Dodd on Göran Buckhorn’s A Yank at Cambridge – B.H. Howell: The Forgotten Champion.
Göran Buckhorn, esteemed editor of esteemed Hear The Boat Sing, has written a biography of Benjamin Hunting Howell, an American educated at Cambridge University who became an English tyro of oar. I say English because although of American nationality, Howell did all his rowing with Trinity Hall, CUBC, or Thames RC and it never crossed any British mind in that he was a foreigner, or any American mind that he was an oarsman.
Looking back at the 1890s from our era where, for example, Yale’s winners of the 2015 Henley’s Ladies’ Plate contained two Aussies and three Brits, and where home-grown oarsmen are often in a minority in Oxbridge Boat Race crews, it seems curious that anyone cared what passport you held, if indeed you had a passport at all. But Howell was around in an era when furious argument raged in England about the definition of an amateur and whether a manual worker qualified for amateur status.
In 1892, the Amateur Rowing Association split into two, with the offcut National ARA recognising engineers, mechanics and manual workers as amateurs. The long-running dispute was infused with class warfare: if you could style yourself a ‘gentleman’ you were clearly an amateur, and members of the professions and university students automatically qualified as gentlemen – including the Brooklyn-born Hunting Howell.
Howell was 6ft 5ins and had an enormous reach. He learned to row at Trinity Hall and won the Grand at Henley in 1895 as a virtual novice. His Hall crew beat New College in the final after defeating Cornell in the semi. Cornell became a bit of a cause célèbre as the book explains. Their cry of ‘Cornell, Cornell, I yell Cornell!’ was answered by Hall’s supporters shouting ‘The Hall, The Hall. I bawl the Hall!’
In 1897, Howell became the second American to row for Cambridge (the first being Francis Peabody). Cambridge lost, and next year Howell was embroiled in mutiny and never made the Blue Boat. He turned his attention to sculling and won Henley’s Diamonds and the Wingfield Sculls before his rowing career ended in 1900.
The New Yorker caught up with Howell in a Henley centenary piece in 1938. It’s customary, said the magazine, for sports writers to mention that only two Americans have won the Diamond Sculls… Edward Ten Eyck (1897) and Walter Hoover (1922)… But B Hunting Howell outranks them both by virtue of having won the coveted trophy twice – in 1898 and 1899.’
The Wingfield Sculls is dubbed the Amateur Championship of England, and so had Howell’s nationality been known, he would have been ineligible to enter (more recently the Olympic champion Mahé Drysdale won the Wingfields after a debate about how much British blood is in the Kiwi’s ancestry).
Buckhorn’s A Yank at Cambridge was inspired by the late Hart Perry of the National Rowing Foundation (NRF) when it was given an album of Howell’s rowing photographs. Buckhorn tells the story of Howell’s episodic, plucky rowing life meticulously – a sporting life which ended with Howell’s return to the U.S. and his business of electronic components. It is copiously illustrated from the photo album and elsewhere, and resonates with both social realism of the 1890s and arguments exercising rowers and their blazerati.