The Thames Finds a Champion

London Bridge in 1831, the year Charles Campbell beat the famous sculler John Williams for the Championship of the Thames.

14 September 2016

Chris Dodd writes: 

I have followed the great erudite debate about the origins of competition between the banks of the Thames with fascination. A few observations may be relevant in the light of Unto the Tideway Born, my recent book on 500 years of the Watermen and Lightermen’s Company. Apart from chapters on Thomas Doggett and his race, it includes one on all manner of competitions, regattas and entertainment on the tidal river both before and after the foundation of Doggett’s in 1715.

“The Great Race” (1846) between Robert Coombes and Charles Campbell for the Championship of the Thames is one of the truly great early rowing prints, Thomas E. Weil writes about this lithography. Weil writes: ‘One copy hangs in the Leander Club and another copy I’ve donated to the River & Rowing Museum.’ From the Thomas E. Weil Collection at the River and Rowing Museum, Henley-on-Thames.

One such concerns the story of Charles Campbell, the first professional sculling champion of the Thames, whom I write about in the chapter called “The Thames finds a champion” in Unto the Tideway Born, 500 Years of Thames Watermen and Lightermen, which was published by the Company of Watermen and Lightermen in 2015: 

A really significant event in rowing history occurred on 9 September 1831 when Charles Campbell, a waterman of Lambeth, became the first champion of the Thames. Campbell was a powerful sculler and a ‘thorough waterman in the strictest sense of the word’, according to Henry Humpherus in the Company history. After two years as an apprentice he joined a man’o’war for three years, and on the day of his return ‘unwittingly laid the foundation of his future greatness as the original champion of the Thames’. Landing at the Old Swan near London Bridge with his sea chest, Campbell hailed a wherry to take him to Lambeth. Once afloat, he told the waterman to ‘sit down, Mr. Holmes, I’ll scull her up’.

Holmes was reluctant until he found out who Campbell was. It so happened that Paddy Noulton, who had a reputation as a sculler, had just rowed a fare from Westminster to London Bridge and started back ahead of them sans sitter or sea chest. Noulton, in a new fast boat, was hard pressed to hold Campbell off, and on reaching Lambeth and finding out who it was that had so warmed him, remarked that he must ‘bring him out, for if he can row that old boat and carry a big box and a sitter in the stern as fast as I can my wherry, there’s no mistake about his sculling.’

Noulton arranged a match for the championship of the river between Campbell and John Williams, the most successful sculler of the day, to be held on 9 September. Campbell won, and thus began a fifteen-year reign. Robert John Jenkins Coombes of Vauxhall wrestled it off him in 1846, having tried unsuccessfully in 1838.

Coombes had been the favourite for Doggett’s in his first year of freedom in 1834, but he either lost out in the ballot or was beaten in the race. His apprenticeship had been extended because, like Campbell, he had served in the navy. He defended his Thames title, soon to be known as the world’s professional sculling championship, on two occasions before succumbing to T. Cole of Chelsea on two occasions in 1852. Coombes coached Cambridge’s Boat Race crew in 1853 in the days before a ban was placed on professional coaches by the Oxford and Cambridge clubs.

Meanwhile, Williams notched up some impressive achievements during the next few years but never won the Thames title. In 1832 he rowed from Waterloo to Gravesend, back to Richmond and back to Waterloo in eleven and a half hours hours. In September 1837 he rowed from Oxford to London with an amateur, Mr. Saunders, in 18 hours 48 minutes, five minutes inside the time set. The odds against them were six to one.

The urge to race, it seems to me, is human nature. I used to take part in FISA pleasure tours, and you have to look no further for evidence. The form of a pleasure tour is for, say, 50 foreigners to join 50 natives of the host country for a week of rowing between restaurants, usually in coxed quads. Each boat has a skipper attached, while the many-tongued crew changes each half day.

Typically, half of the participants are ex-competition rowers or masters and the other half are pleasure rowers, few of whom have ever benefited from coaching. What is immediately noticeable – and this is an observation, not a judgment – is that while the latter category is intent on photographing wildlife and disturbing the water as little as possible, the former are soon obsessed with catching the boat in front or staving off a ‘bump’ from the one behind. I once shared a double Alden with an elderly iron-Norwegian on the Merrimack River who set such a high rate for mile after mile that my legs eventually seized up, leaving him to do most of the work while we were humiliated by the chase boat. Bah!

Anyway, where two boats are on a similar course, they are going to race each other, are they not? Was it not ever thus?

One comment

  1. The Thames found a champion a year earlier than 1831 when Henry Wingfield presented his silver sculls to be held by the best as long as they raced on a flood tide against all comers (as long as they were gentlemen!). Whilst not instituted as a championship within a couple of year’s the race was known as the amateur championship perhaps to distinguish it from the professional races.

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