In June, Göran R Buckhorn, editor of ‘Hear The Boat Sing’ (HTBS), published A Yank at Cambridge – B.H. Howell: The Forgotten Champion. The book covers the rowing years of Benjamin Hunting Howell, of New York, who began studying at Trinity Hall, Cambridge University, in the autumn of 1894. Howell had not previously rowed in America, but at Trinity Hall, he soon found himself out boating on the River Cam. During his years at Cambridge, 1894-1898, Howell took a heap of medals and trophies on the Cam and cups at Henley Royal Regatta (the Grand Challenge Cup in 1895 and the Diamond Challenge Sculls in 1898) and the Wingfield Sculls on the River Thames in 1898. After his studies, Howell became a member of Thames Rowing Club on the Tideway. In the colours of Thames RC, he would win another Diamonds in 1899 and the same year take another victory in the Wingfields. A Yank at Cambridge also tells the stories of the American’s contemporaries: ‘Old Blues’ of Oxford and Cambridge, amateur and professional scullers, legendary coaches and rowing writers. Read more about the book here (where you will also find information on how to order a copy). Following is an extract from Chapter 2 “1895: ‘The Hall, the Hall, I Bawl the Hall’” about the prologue for the 1895 Henley Royal Regatta.
The 1895 Henley Royal Regatta was rowed between 9 and 11 July, a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, three hot days with occasionally strong winds on the first day. To commemorate that his sons Guy and Vivian had won the pair-oared event, the Silver Goblets, either together or with others for the fifth time, Tom Nickalls presented a new challenge cup, which still today is called The Silver Goblets and Nickalls’ Challenge Cup. At the regatta, the Nickalls brothers, who rowed for the London RC, easily won the cup, in the final beating W. Broughton and S. Muttlebury of Thames RC.
Despite some interesting races, the year 1895 has gone down in the history of Henley Royal Regatta for one particular race, a ‘scandal’ that involved Leander Club and Cornell University, the first American eight to compete in the Grand Challenge Cup.
In 1894, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York State, decided to investigate if their best eight was welcome to race in England. A Cornell man, Horatio S. White, who was in Europe for a year, rapidly went to England to talk to ‘the leading rowing authorities of both Oxford and Cambridge University’. As it was impossible to get together an English university crew during the summer, when the Cornell eight wanted to come, the question went to the Henley Stewards if it was possible for Cornell to race in the Grand at Henley, Horatio S. White wrote in an article in The Cornell Magazine in December 1894. The Henley Stewards accepted the Americans’ application.
White’s ten-and-a-half-page article leaves a remarkable piece of information about the regatta for the readers of The Cornell Magazine and for us today. He told the readers which cruising lines to take across the Atlantic, which cities to visit on the way to Henley-on- Thames, which cups there were at the regatta and when they were established. He wrote a good description of the course, published the full 18-point laws of boat racing observed at the regatta, what a visitor would see along the towpath (the ‘cheap and light amusements are present, the fakir, the tumbler, the hawker, the masked quartette, and the fake Ethiopian’s minstrel strains’) and how ‘prominent Englishmen’ welcomed the presence of a Cornell crew at Henley – ‘perhaps the most welcome utterance of this sort to Cornellians would be the words of “Tom” Hughes [author of the famous books Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) and Tom Brown at Oxford (1861)]’.
In his article, White also mentioned some previous foreigners racing at Henley, among them Charles Psotta, a graduate of Cornell, who was the 1888 U.S. amateur champion in the single sculls, who sculled in the Diamonds twice, in 1889 and 1890. In 1889, Psotta, rowing for New York Athletic Club, was beaten in the final by Guy Nickalls, who only had a row-over to reach the final. The following year, the American managed to warm many hearts in his first heat of the Diamonds at Henley. This is how the story goes in the words of Guy Nickalls:
In the Diamonds the first heat was between C. J. Psotta, rowing under the colours of the Schuykill Navy Club, Philadelphia, and G. E. B. Kennedy [Kingston RC]. Kennedy bet Psotta twenty-five pounds level money that he would beat him. After a dozen strokes or so Kennedy caught a crab, broke the gate of his swivel, and went overboard. Psotta might, if he wished, have paddled over and claimed his twenty-five pounds and the race and got both; but no, he was too good a sportsman, he stopped, backed down to the start, and waited till Kennedy got ashore, fixed up his swivel, and started again. Eventually Psotta was beaten, somewhat easily this time.
Then, White mentioned in his article the Cornell four that raced in the Stewards’ in 1881. In a three-boat heat, together with Thames RC and the London RC, and after a restart due to a foul between the American crew and the London RC, Cornell led at the start, but was soon overpowered by both the English crews.
After their Henley race, the Cornellians went to race at a regatta in Vienna. The American stroke, J. N. D. Shinkel, disgraced himself by pretending to faint in the middle of the race, when his boat was well in the lead. The rest of the crew accused him for having thrown the race, which proved to be true. Newspapers all over Europe, including the English, wrote about this scandal.
By the time of the Cornellians visit to Henley in 1895, many Americans – non-rowers, that is – were drawn to England and to Henley Royal Regatta. To many of these visitors, the regatta was more a social event than a sport competition. One of the reasons for this was that gossip columnists in American newspapers and magazines fed their readers with stories of American upper-class ladies who had married into the English aristocracy and were holding garden parties and social soirees in their new country. Ever since the regatta in Henley had received its Royal patronage in 1851, it had become an event which was visited by the upper-classes which led to further Americans patronizing the regatta, and therefore ‘every year at Henley Regatta the number of houseboats which fly the Stars and Stripes increases’, Henry Wellington Wack wrote in In Thamesland, a book published in 1906 (a quote in the book Victorians on the Thames by R. R. Bolland, 1974).
The first foreign amateur crew racing in England was a Harvard coxed four, which had challenged Oxford for a race between Putney and Mortlake on the Thames in August 1869 (Oxford won). The first ‘overseas’ competitor at Henley was also from America, E. Smith of Atlanta RC, New York, who entered for the Diamonds in 1872. His entry was followed by ‘an invasion’ for the 1878 regatta, Gilbert C. Bourne wrote in Memories of an Eton Wet-Bob of the Seventies (1933), when there were two American entries for the Diamonds, G. W. Lee of New Jersey and G. Lee of Boston, and two fours, the Shoewae-cae-mette BC of Monroe, Michigan, for the Stewards’ and Columbia College for both the Stewards’ and Visitors’.
The Henley Stewards would later question the amateur status of the French Canadian lumberjacks in the Shoe-wae-cae-mette BC crew and G. W. Lee, which made the rowing journalist and historian Richard Burnell write in one of his history books on the regatta, ‘Unhappily the first foreign invasion of Henley had a sour aftermath’, or, as Christopher Dodd puts it in The Story of World Rowing (1992), ‘It was hard to be French, Canadian and a gentleman in 1878’.
This raises the question of what an ‘overseas’ or ‘foreign’ crew actually meant? Already in 1870, Henley Royal Regatta saw the first appearance of a club from Ireland. Rowing historian Greg Denieffe writes:
Trinity College, Dublin became not only the first Irish entry but also the first from overseas, albeit at that time not a foreign entry. They entered for the Grand, Ladies’, Stewards’, Visitors’, Wyfolds, Goblets and Diamonds but thinking better of it and having only nine men to man the boats, they withdrew from the Stewards’ and the Wyfolds. At the end of the regatta, Ireland recorded its first victory, in the Visitors’, which in 1870 was still an event for coxed fours.
In early June 1895, when it was time for the Cornell crew to leave Ithaca for Henley, the whole town, including a band and military troops, showed up to escort the young American oarsmen, who were all dressed up in their new lounging suits, to the railway station. There a special train took them to New York where the steamer SS Paris sailed them across the Atlantic Ocean to Southampton, England, together with 1,178 other passengers.