Tim Koch writes:
Following my post on rowing images used in advertising, ‘Mad Men and Oarsmen’, Robin Privett asked via the ‘comments’ section if anyone remembered the Bemax ads on the back of Boat Race programmes? Bemax was a wheatgerm cereal produced in Britain between 1927 and the mid-1970s. Anyone who was involved in rowing during that period would be very aware of the product – particularly if they rowed past the Bemax factory sited on the Thames in the west London suburb of Hammersmith, almost exactly half way along the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race course.
Bemax was produced by a company called Vitamins Ltd that, together with its sister company, Agricultural Food Products Ltd, moved to a site on Upper Mall, Hammersmith in 1930. Both companies were founded by Dr. M.J. Rowlands, a researcher into the effects of nutrition on health. Following the discovery of many vitamins in the 1920s and 1930s, the ‘health food’ industry grew and ‘Bemax, the Stabilized Wheat Germ’ was marketed as ‘the richest natural vitamin – protein – mineral supplement’ with great emphasis on its Vitamin ‘B’ content. It was advertised heavily, both as a supplement suitable for everyone and also as an aid to sportsmen. Sometimes its ads in the Boat Race programme and in Rowing magazine were aimed at athletes in general but most were ‘rowing specific’.
Bemax was a very popular product amongst oarsmen, possibly because of its heavy and specific marketing, partly because it was produced in a factory sited in the centre of the Putney – Mortlake course and partly because there did not seem to be much else available. It had an unpleasant taste and smell but that possibly only added to the idea that something so distasteful must be effective. On the cycling website ‘Classic Lightweights’, Tony Bobbett recalls his time as a serious amateur racing cyclist in the early 1960s. I am sure that his remarks could also apply to dedicated oarsmen of the time:
….controlled and scientifically based diets for sportsmen and women in the 1960s were, as far as I knew, virtually non-existent…… Myself and the rest of (my) team were always looking for ways to be better ‘racers’ and were always willing to try the latest ‘in food’ that was ‘guaranteed’ to make you go faster, climb quicker or last longer. Many were tried and most failed, we did have some foodstuffs that we religiously stuck with and if you believed in them then they had to work….. didn’t they? One that springs to mind was a wheat germ product called ‘Bemax’. I’d known the pungent smell of Bemax since the day I was born as their factory was situated on the River Thames at Hammersmith, not too far from where I lived. When they went into a certain part of the production process the aroma would permeate the surrounding area for miles, little did I know that a few years later I would be eating the stuff – YUK. For the uninitiated, Bemax looked like finely crushed up Weetabix only lighter in colour. The best way to eat it was to sprinkle copious amounts of it onto your chosen breakfast cereal, cover it with enough milk and sugar to kill the taste, hold your nose and eat the offending mess as quickly as possible. It was supposed to be an essential part of any sports person’s diet; whether it did any good is anyone’s guess but I stuck with it until I had to retire from racing.
Senior members of what was then Auriol Rowing Club in Hammersmith recall that in the 1960s one of their keen scullers consumed so much of the stuff that he was actually nicknamed ‘Bemax’.
It seems that anyone who rowed in the vicinity of Hammersmith between 1930 and the mid-1970s will distinctly remember the smell produced during the manufacture of Bemax. Hammersmith Mall (or Upper Mall and Lower Mall as the Hammersmith riverfront area is sometimes divided as) is today a desirable and expensive place to live. The western end of the Mall was fashionable for part of the 17th and 18th centuries and some fine houses still exist from that time – including Kelmscott House, home of William Morris. The eastern end however, remained a quiet country spot with a few pubs and cottages, home to fishermen and boatbuilders, until the 19th century when increasing industrialisation brought polluting manufacturing concerns such as the lead mills at ‘Little Wapping’ (now Furnivall Green) and the oil mills opposite Chiswick Eyot (vegetable oil, not petrochemical oil). It was the Albert Oil Mills buildings that Bemax took over in 1930.
In an October 2009 edition of the local government produced ‘Hammersmith and Fulham News’, Anne Wheeldon of the Borough Archives and Local History Centre wrote about Hammersmith’s most pungent factory:
The riverside at Upper Mall in Hammersmith has a long and varied history. The artist JMW Turner had a house there around 1811, finding inspiration in the river views. However, its rural charm was soon to be obliterated by factories and warehouses which predominated until the mid 20th Century. Many large industrial works were situated along the river, with their own wharves where barges could transport goods to and from the site. One such company was Vitamins Ltd, whose premises covered a substantial portion of Upper mall, including the site of Turner’s house……. If the wind was in the wrong direction the pungent odour from the manufacturing process lingered over the immediate district…….The company had a thriving social club and, like many riverside works, held Boat Race parties that were both an early opportunity for marketing and corporate entertaining, and a chance for employees to relax and enjoy themselves…… The company finally left Hammersmith in the mid-1970s, one of the last survivors of the industrial riverside.
Looking through old issues of the British Rowing magazine, it seems that the 1950s were peak years for advertisements aimed at rowers who were looking for some magic elixir to make them go faster. Unfortunately, as the selection of ads below shows, the most common miracle food that was marketed as a sportsman’s aid was, in various forms, sugar.
Most ambitious British athletes of the post-war era would have been better served by changes to their everyday meals rather than searching for a ‘magic bullet’. The country’s traditional diet following the war (and for many years after) was generally very poor. Even food that was initially potentially beneficial often had most of its nutrients boiled out of it in the cooking stage. As well as changing what they ate, British athletes would have benefited by altering their attitude to hydration. Most oarsmen were very happy to rehydrate with beer in the club bar after a session on the river but a rower who competed seriously at Auriol Rowing Club in the 1960s recalls that it was not considered ‘manly’ to carry drinking water in the boat. In 1969, he was in an Auriol eight that got the record for covering the 31 miles / 50 km of the Lincoln to Boston Rowing Marathon in Lincolnshire, England. However, in this three and a half hour endurance event, no one in the crew thought to take water in the boat with them. He was reduced to attempting to scoop up handfuls of river water as they rowed along.