29 November 2016
Tim Koch hopes to restore the memory of a remarkable but forgotten sculler:
In 1923, most people who learned of London Rowing Club’s entry for the Diamond Sculls at that year’s Henley Royal Regatta must have thought that the mighty had finally fallen. It had been a long time coming. Winning at Henley still carried as least as much prestige as at the upstart Olympic Games and, from its foundation in 1856 until 1890, London RC had enjoyed a golden age at The Royal. Its tally included twelve wins in the Grand, eight in the Diamonds, seven in the Thames and 13 in the Stewards’, the latter including a run of eight consecutive victories. While it was true that, in the 33 years since the Grand win of 1890, London crews had triumphed four times in the Wyfolds and twice in both the Stewards’ and the Silver Goblets, by the standards of a Grand Old Club, this was not good enough. This was especially so as the most prestigious wins were (and perhaps are) in singles and eights, not in fours and pairs. Thus, the hopes of London supporters were hardly raised when they found that their club’s entry for the Diamond Sculls, still regarded by many as the world championship of amateur sculling, was a 23-year-old who had been rowing for little over a year and had previously entered only three sculling races, winning two. Moreover, he had a deformed right arm – and the unlikely name of Morris Morris.
Probably relatively few people knew that Geoff had, at least, ‘promise’. He had joined London sometime in 1922. His proposer was HEW Lutt, a former London RC treasurer, but the records show that even this did not induce him to pay his three guineas a year (£3.15) subscription until 1925. Perhaps the fact that he was allowed to get away with this was an early indication of how highly the club regarded him? His address on joining was in Stratford Broadway, East London but by 1923 it was given as London Rowing Club. Again, this suggests that, as he had been given a bedroom at the club, he was both training seriously and was regarded as having potential by the coaches.
I can find no evidence that Geoff had rowed before joining London but he must have been strong, fit and a fast learner as, in his first year, he was given the ‘5’ seat in the club’s entry for the 1922 Thames Cup, Henley’s ‘club eights’ event. Possibly, Geoff’s first race was when London beat Lincoln College, Oxford, by a quarter of a length at Henley on Tuesday, 6 July 1922. On Wednesday, they beat Jesus College, Cambridge, by four feet. In the Thursday semi-final, London lost to Clare College, Cambridge, by a length. Still, this was not a bad introduction to rowing for the new boy at ‘5’.
A week after Henley, the same London crew, bar one, with Geoff still at ‘5’ in the ‘engine room’, beat eleven other contenders to win Junior Eights at the well regarded Staines Regatta. However, the precocious young talent was not finished for the season and, switching from sweep rowing to sculling, the next week he entered Junior Sculls at London RC’s prestigious Metropolitan Regatta, in those days run over the Putney to Hammersmith course. The Times report of the event does not say how many entered Junior Sculls, but it did write that the regatta had ‘one of the best list of entries of recent years’ and that, in the final, ‘Morris caught a crab soon after the start, but quickly recovered, and won by half-a-dozen lengths’. In a piece on Geoff in The Times on 9 July 1923, the paper noted that after winning his ‘Juniors’ at the Metropolitan Regatta, he had won Senior Sculls at the equally eminent Molesey Regatta in the same week.
Though clearly a natural talent, Geoff did have some very able assistance in achieving these early successes. A magazine called The New ROWING Vol 1, No. 23 of January 1955 remembered that:
Morris – very raw but amazingly fast – had been discovered and brought along by the great trainer of those years, the late ‘Bossie’ Phelps.
Bossie and Geoff must have put in a lot of hard work in the winter of 1922/1923 and they decided that the young sculler’s first race of the new season would be at Marlow Amateur Regatta on 23 June 1923. Here, for the first time, he would race the best two British amateur scullers of the day: Donald Gollan and Jack Beresford Junior. A retrospective in The Times on Geoff of 9 July noted that he ‘outpaced’ Gollan in a heat but that in the final he was beaten by Beresford by three lengths (though the paper held the opinion that ‘Morris had hardly recovered from a hard race sculled against Gollan….’ ). Whatever the reason for the defeat, Geoff was entered for his fourth sculling race, Henley’s famous Diamond Sculls, starting eleven days later, on 4 July 1923.
There were 13 entries for the Diamond Sculls in 1923. Those who claimed that they knew about these things thought that there were four possible winners, two from Britain and two from North America. Geoff, the man who had won his Juniors less than a year previously was not included in the favourites – even though he had already beaten one of them! The Times of 4 July was noncommittal and thought that Geoff ‘may win’ his first heat at Henley.
The two apparently best ‘home’ entries were Jack Beresford Junior of Thames Rowing Club and Donald Herbert Louis Gollan, also of Thames but entered under the colours of Leander. Beresford would eventually be remembered as the greatest British oarsman of the pre-Redgrave era but, in 1923, he had been rowing and sculling seriously for just three years. Even so, in 1920, he had won sculling’s ‘Triple Crown’ of the Diamonds, the Wingfield Sculls and the senior sculling event at the Metropolitan Regatta, the London Cup. Also in that year, he reached the final of the Olympic Sculls, led most of the way but ultimately lost to the great John B. Kelly Senior of the USA by one second. In 1922, he was the losing finalist in the Diamonds but again won the Wingfields and the London Cup.
The fact that Beresford is still remembered and that the other British favourite, Gollan, is today unknown has an interesting story behind it, one that deserves to be heard. Donald Gollan was a great oarsman who trained and competed hard for nearly ten years, but he achieved little top level sculling success for two reasons: the first was that his career overlapped with the outstanding Jack Beresford, and the second, I would suggest, was because Gollan was deaf (at the time, the now unacceptable phrase ‘deaf and dumb’ was used).
Beresford was Gollan’s nemesis, he beat him every time that they met (except in the 1923 London Cup when the race was decided on a foul). It was Beresford first and Gollan second in both the Wingfields and the Diamonds in 1920, the Wingfields in 1921, 1922 and 1923, and the Diamonds in 1925. However, when Gollan was racing Senior Sculls at top regattas in the absence of Beresford, he was difficult to beat.
Geoffrey Page, in his history of Thames Rowing Club, the well-titled Hear The Boat Sing (1991), says why he thinks Gollan came close – but not close enough – to defeating his old adversary:
Gollan…. never knew how to cope with his rival. Beresford, on the other hand, always knew what to do to beat Gollan. The latter, weighing over 13 stone, was magnificently built and ably coached by his father…. who used hand signals since his son had been born deaf. Beresford said that if Gollan could have pushed himself when it mattered he could have beaten anyone, but he never could….
I think it is reasonable to suggest that Gollan’s inability to read and react to a race was in large part due to him missing the sense of hearing. It was only when he moved into the centre of crew boats, where race decisions are made by the cox or the stroke, that he had great success, notably winning the Grand at Henley in 1927 and 1928 and a Silver in the eight at the 1928 Olympics.
Of the best overseas contenders, the favourite must have been the enormously strong American from Duluth, Walter M. Hoover. Despite his unorthodox style, he had four American national sculling titles and in 1922 he had broken the event record at the Philadelphia Gold Cup (said by Americans to be amateur sculling’s world championship – to which Henley disagreed). Also in 1922, he had sensationally beaten Jack Beresford in the final of the Diamonds by more than 30 seconds. That year’s Rowing Almanack said of his Henley races: ‘He went away after his sixth stroke, nobody could ever get near enough to throw him out of his stride….’
Initially, it seemed that the other North American favourite, Hilton Belyea from Canada, was an even less likely candidate for the Diamonds than was Geoff Morris. First, he was 38 years old. Second, his main sport until he reached the age of 35 was speed skating. Thirdly, he used a homemade boat (built by his brother) and had sculling blades made with extra-large spoons. Finally, he sculled with a short, sharp stroke, resulting in a rating about four strokes per minute higher than would it otherwise be. Despite his quirks, Belyea won the singles title at the Canadian Henley twice and, at the 1921 New England Championships, he set the world record for the one-and-a-half mile.
By 1923, rowing was finally recovering from the Great War and there were record entries for regattas. Also, in that year only, a new experimental straight course was tried out at Henley. The start was swapped to the Berks (enclosure) side of Temple Island and moved a little way down. This reduced the course by 110 yards or 100 metres, making it 1 mile 440 yards or 2,012 metres. When the programme for day one of the Diamonds was produced, Beresford and Morris, on one side of the draw, both got opponents that they could (and did) beat ‘easily’. On the other side of the draw, Belyea got a bye through to the second day but Hoover and Gollan were to race against each other. As Hoover had beaten Beresford in 1922 and Beresford had (often) beaten Gollan, there was little doubt that the American would win. Except, to everyone’s surprise, he did not, he lost by 3/4 length. The Times said that Hoover ‘failed to reproduce the pace which marked his sculling in 1922. In his short boat he appeared to be none too comfortable in the adverse wind, and hit the booms before reaching the first signal’.
Of Geoff, The Times said that on the first day, ‘Morris, the London Sculler, showed promising form in beating JE Pedder, and will probably defeat S Earl today’. The prediction was correct and the semi-finals came down to Morris against Beresford and to Gollan against Belyea. All had reached the last four without having to work too hard.
The Times said this of the semi-finals:
Mr Hilton Belyea…. gave a disappointing display. Mr Gollan jumped off with the lead, and went up so fast that he led by three or four lengths at the First Signal. Mr Belyea sculled pluckily, but was clearly outpaced. Mr Gollan, who had settled in beautiful form with length and steadiness, was able to drop his stroke rate after the last half mile.
Mr Morris…. won the other semi-final against Mr Beresford in remarkably decisive style. (Beresford) is not at his best this year, but managed to beat Mr Morris over the short Marlow course a month ago. Mr Morris has improved since then, and he sculled with great power and in such good form yesterday, keeping his boat running very smoothly between the strokes and there is every probability that he will beat Mr Gollan….
The official Henley record summarised the Morris-Beresford race thus:
Starting at 36 to Morris’s 35. Beresford took the lead, but Morris soon overhauled him and was a length ahead at the first signal, two at the second, and three at (half way), reached in 3.36. He increased this to four lengths at the three-quarter mile and won by three lengths in 8.5.
At this point, I must put an end to the idea probably most famously propagated by Geoffrey Page in his history of Thames Rowing Club. Page suggests that Beresford lost to Morris as the former was weakened by doubling up in the Thames RC eight for the Grand. I am not suggesting that Page, a lifelong TRC man, would ever look for an excuse as to why a member of Thames would lose to a member of arch rival, London – perish the thought. However, the facts show that when Beresford raced Morris on Henley’s third day, he should have been perfectly fit:
On the first day, The Times reported that, in the Diamonds, Beresford ‘had a mere exercise paddle against Blyth’. There was no race for the Grand.
For day two, The Times held that ‘Beresford had Wilson well beaten before (the half way)’ in the Diamonds. In the Grand, the Thames eight beat Christ Church by one length.
On the third day, the Thames eight raced Brasenose at 12.45 and won, said The Times, ‘quite easily’. Thus, when Beresford raced Morris in the Diamonds semi-final at 5.20, he should have been perfectly fresh.
At 2.45 on Saturday, 7 July 1923, MK Morris and DHL Gollan lined up for the final of the Diamond Sculls. The official record takes up the story:
Gollan led by a quarter of a length at the (1/4 mile) but….. Morris came up fast and passed him, to lead by two lengths at (half way) in 3.41. Continuing to gain, Morris was three lengths ahead at the (3/4 mile) and maintained this lead at the mile. Gollan sprinted and lessened the gap but was beaten by a length in 8.23.
The Times wrote that Geoff sculled ‘very neatly, with good length and a fine command of pace….’ It sounds like a very mature performance for someone so new to the sport.
The Times of 9 July 1923 said this of the win:
The London RC has been under a cloud for several years and it was therefore pleasing to find their colours carried to victory in the Diamond Sculls by MK Morris, a young and most promising sculler who may emulate the deeds of Cassamajor and the Playfords in the early days…..
The Rowing Almanac wrote of the 1923 Season:
In the sculling events, J. Beresford Jun. (Thames R.C.), D.H.L. Gollan (Leander) and M.K. Morris (London R.C.) were in a class by themselves.
Perhaps the winner of the Diamond Sculls in 2016 caused as much surprise as Geoff did in 1923. The unknown Hannes Obreno of Belgium beat five times Diamonds winner and 2012 and (as it turned out) 2016 Olympic champion, Mahé Drysdale. Obreno is holding a silver-gilt ‘Pineapple Cup’, which is his to keep, and the Diamond Sculls trophy which has all the previous winners’ names engraved on silver plaques. Geoff treasured his Cup for all his life. His stepdaughter, Pat, remembers:
Growing up with Geoff as my stepfather from age 5 to age 21, his gold cup was always on our mantelpiece. He was incredibly proud of it and called it the best thing that he had ever done, which I think annoyed my mother.
Jeremy Fisher-Smith, the son of Geoff’s stepson, John, and a builder of wooden boats:
My brothers and I only met him once in London 1974, but clearly remember his pride in the title, and the framed photo of him racing which hung on the wall of his apartment.
As an aside, those who believe in nature, not nurture, will be heartened by correspondence that I have received from Robin Morris and Sean Morris, both cousins (of some remove) to Geoff. Robin was in a very good Radley School First Eight in 1976, won a couple of national junior sculling titles and rowed as a lightweight at Oxford. Sean won at Henley twice (the Princess Elizabeth in 1962 and the Britannia in 1972) and was in the victorious Oxford Crew for the Boat Races of 1963 and 1965. His father, Cyril, won the Wyfolds at Henley in 1937. The family has many more members who have pulled an oar competitively or who were involved in other forms of aquatics.
Apart from a large number of plaudits, a place in rowing history, and the Pineapple Cup, there was something else that Morris K. Morris got out of winning the Diamonds in 1923. Stepdaughter Pat says that:
(At a post-Henley) celebration party, a girl poured champagne on his head and christened him ‘Geoffrey’, which she said suited him better, and the name stuck.
In Part II, I will look at the end of Geoff’s sculling career and, in Part III, his life outside of the sport.