Morris Morris: So Good They Named Him Twice – Part II: Promise Unfulfilled, 1923-1925

Geoff Morris at his marriage to Peggy Emett in February 1926.
Geoff Morris at his marriage to Peggy Emett in February 1926.

30 November 2016

Here, Tim Koch continues the story of the short but extraordinary rowing career of Geoff Morris. In Part I, Tim looked at the two most remarkable years in Morris’ rowing life, 1922 and 1923. As it turned out, the bright future in the sport commonly predicted for the precocious young sculler did not happen. In Part II, Tim speculates on why this was and investigate the brief ‘twilight years’ of Morris’s short competitive career.

Geoff’s frenetic rowing and sculling activities between joining London Rowing Club in 1922 and winning the Diamonds on 7 July 1923 seemed to indicate that he was ‘a young man in a hurry’. However, following his Henley victory, the promising career immediately stalled. The first indication of this was at the Metropolitan Regatta, five days after Henley. Three of the last four in the Diamonds, Geoff Morris, Jack Beresford and David Gollan, all entered the prestigious sculling race, the London Cup, but on the day, Geoff did not compete. Two weeks later, on 25 July, The Times report on the upcoming Wingfield Sculls noted:

There will be much disappointment at the absence of Mr M.K. Morris…… It is understood that the hard racing at Henley severely taxed his strength, and he has done no sculling since.

According to The Evening News from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in August 1923 Geoff turned down a challenge from Walter M. Hoover, the American winner of the Diamonds in 1922 and an unexpected early loser in 1923, to race him in Duluth, Minnesota, as he had ‘broken training’.

The next year, 1924, presumably using a news agency report, Pennsylvania’s Pittsburg Press newspaper of 12 April wrote:

England’s (1924) Olympic sculling hopes were dimmed somewhat by the announcement that Morris K. Morris… has been forbidden by a physician to compete again this year. Morris raced so often and hard last season that he wore his heart out. 

Geoff did not defend his title at Henley on 1 – 5 July 1924 but, ‘worn out heart’ or not, he did enter the London Cup at the Metropolitan Regatta on 16 July. He won his heat by a length against an unknown sculler from the small Kensington RC, but lost the final by a big three lengths to K.N. Craig, who Beresford had recently defeated in the final of the Diamonds.

Jack Beresford – the man who wore Geoff’s crown?
Jack Beresford – the man who wore Geoff’s crown?

In 1924, it was Jack Beresford who won the Diamonds and the Wingfields, and who became Britain’s representative in the single sculls at the Paris Games, winning his first Olympic Gold medal. Had Geoff maintained his early form, when he had beaten Beresford, perhaps these prizes could have been his?

Come 1925, The New York Times of 18 February wrote that Geoff had challenged for America’s Philadelphia Gold Cup, ‘emblematic of the amateur sculling championship of the world’. This was not an entirely strange thing to do as the Cup was technically in Britain, held by Jack Beresford, and the race could have been held in London over the Putney to Mortlake course. In fact, this is what happened in July, but it was Walter M. Hoover, not Geoff, who was the challenger (though an unsuccessful one).

Geoff’s attempted comeback continued. Four months before the Henley of 1925, The Times of 2 March carried the story that:

M.K. Morris (London R.C.), who won the Diamond Sculls two years ago, and DHL Gollan (Leander)….. are in training at Henley for this year’s race. Both had long spins during the week-end.

Geoff had an unchallenging first round in the 1925 Diamonds, easily defeating an unknown provincial sculler who was 23 lbs/10.4 kg lighter. In the second round, he met much tougher opposition in the form of the 1922 Diamonds winner, Walter M. Hoover. The Times race report was short and brutal, stating ‘Hoover led from the start, sculling brilliantly… He was well clear at (half way)…. and won easily’.

To be defeated by Hoover at his best was no disgrace, but to have clearly lost by the half way point was more concerning, as was the earlier comprehensive defeat in the London Cup. Geoff had severely ‘lost form’. This is a good point to speculate on exactly why his early sporting promise failed to materialise.

Geoff setting out for one of his races at the 1923 Henley Regatta.
Geoff setting out for one of his races at the 1923 Henley Regatta.

The 1923 newspaper report reproduced above said that Geoff ‘severely taxed his strength’ at Henley and the 1924 story quoted wrote that he ‘has been forbidden by a physician to compete again this year’ as he ‘wore his heart out’. These are vague and unscientific statements but we do have some medical evidence.

It does seem likely that Geoff had some sort of illness during the Henley Regatta of 1923. Rowing journalists Geoffrey Page and Hylton Cleaver both said that he lost 14 lbs/6.35 kg during his four days of racing. Such a drastic weight reduction does not happen to a healthy person.

In further support of the idea that Geoff raced for the 1923 Diamonds while very ill, compare the picture above, taken during the 1923 Regatta, with the picture below, taken while training for the 1925 Regatta.

Geoff in training at Henley, 1925.
Geoff in training at Henley, 1925.

The man pictured in 1923 is not the same as the man pictured two years later; the former does not look well, the latter seems to be the epitome of health. In seeming contradiction of the two photographs, the Henley programmes for the two years gives Geoff’s weight as the same for both, 12 stone 6 lbs/174 lbs/79 kg. However, the weighing of competitors would have been done before the start of the regatta and Page and Cleaver both say that Geoff suffered his weight loss during the event.

After the finish of the final of the 1923 Diamonds, Geoff fell in, seemingly exhausted, and the picture below shows him having to be supported when back on land. Usually, the winner of a race, even a hard one, somehow finds unlimited reserves of strength, it is normally only the loser who may have trouble standing. Geoff’s heats up to the final were not particularly taxing affairs. The final against Gollan was a hard race but Geoff was three lengths up at one point and finally won it by one length – which means that he was not required to give ‘100%’ for all of the 8 minutes 23 seconds. Thus, his exhaustion to the point of collapse at the finish was not normal.

Did Geoff’s racing at Henley when he was ill cause some permanent impairment to his future athletic performance? It seems a possibility, though only a medically qualified person can properly speculate. It could be that his weight loss was caused by something mundane and with no long term consequences, such as gastroenteritis.

After winning the Diamonds and overturning his boat, back on land, Geoff is supported by trainer, Bossie Phelps (left) and by Major Howell (right).
Back on land after winning the Diamonds and overturning his boat, Geoff is supported by trainer, Bossie Phelps (left) and by rowing journalist Hylton Cleaver (right).

Another medical theory is suggested by a recollection of Geoff’s stepdaughter, Pat. This indicates that there may have been long term biomechanical damage:

I never heard him speak of illness when he won the Diamond Sculls but he did say he strained himself to the utmost, suffered pain during the race and had muscle knots on his arms as a result and he showed them to me many times.

A website run by a physical therapist and athletic trainer says this about ‘muscle knots’:

Muscle ‘knots’ are incredibly common but common doesn’t mean they are normal or harmless. Chronic stress on our muscles creates micro-tearing of muscle tissue, which creates scar tissue. Unfortunately, if left untreated, the muscle tissue will continue to lose elasticity and cause postural stress that is hard to reverse.

It seems possible that Geoff’s bent right arm (which was permanently crooked after been badly set when it was broken in his youth) could have put ‘chronic stress’ on his arm(s) when sculling, and thus he developed ‘muscle knots’ which went untreated, affecting future performance.

Geoff’s ‘dog-leg’ right arm.
Geoff’s ‘dog-leg’ right arm.

The newspaper’s suggestion that Geoff made himself ill because he ‘raced so often and hard’ is ridiculous. One of the unique points of the Geoff Morris story is that he raced so little: three sculling events up to the Diamonds, and perhaps two rowing events with the Thames second eight. Did he damage himself by training too hard? This seems unlikely, his coach was the great Bossie Phelps, who would have not allowed him to overtrain.

If Geoff’s poor performances were not due to medical reasons, they could have been for psychological ones. Perhaps he could no longer push himself to train or race hard enough after achieving great success so soon and with such relative ease. He had won the Diamond Sculls, arguably the world’s amateur sculling championship, and, having thus proved himself, there was no incentive to do it again.

I think that it is possible that Geoff invented a vague medical problem as an excuse for his complete lack of form after winning the Diamonds. As will be seen, he would often make a sudden and complete change in his life – and one was coming up.

Coming to America – The Shining City on a Hill (at least from a distance).
Coming to America – The Shining City on a Hill (at least from a distance).

The Henley of 1925 was probably Geoff’s last race in Britain – he was now to set out in a new direction. The Times of 3 August 1925 carried this report from the Reuter’s news agency:

Mr. M.K. Morris…… has left London for Philadelphia, U.S.A…… in order to devote himself to American rowing and his immediate purpose is to get in touch with the leading American clubs with a view to competing, as far as possible, in the remaining regattas of the present season.

The Chicago Tribune of 14 August 1925 had the news:

Morris K Morris…… plans to make his home in America and will enter business either (in Chicago) or New York…… Morris was entered for competition on the Schuylkill River (Philadelphia) last week but found it impossible to get here in time. He said today that reports in British rowing circles that he had retired were unfounded.

A similar story was carried by The New York Times but it was posted as an announcement by Walter M. Hoover, Geoff’s American friend and rival from Henley. In 1925, Hoover had joined the Undine Barge Club, founded in 1856 and situated on Boathouse Row along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He sculled for the club and also coached its crews with great success. Thus, it was little surprise when The New York Times of 15 September 1925 printed that:

Morris K. Morris….. who arrived here from England a month ago, has just been elected a member of the Undine Barge Club and will row from that organisation next year.

The historic Undine Barge Club boathouse.
The historic Undine Barge Club boathouse.

Unfortunately, the very comprehensive history of the Undine Barge Club up to 1956 (which is available online) makes no reference to Geoff. Michael Allbrook, a distant relative of Geoff’s by marriage, and who has researched the family history, says that he stayed in Philadelphia awhile and supported himself by selling cars. The only mention of Geoff again in the American newspapers that I can find online is when he marries his British bride in New York on 17 February 1926.

Philadelphia in 1925.
Philadelphia in 1925.

I think that it is safe to conclude that Geoff’s plans for a serious sculling career in the United States never came to fruition. Why? Michael Allbrook says that he developed pneumonia. If true, this would have been a setback, certainly. Possibly, he had permanently injured himself in winning the Diamond Sculls in 1923 and that he was a long time in accepting this. Possibly, he could no longer mentally push himself hard enough to win at the top level. However, even if we dismiss these theories, I think that Geoff, just married, a new immigrant to The Land Of Opportunity, and a man driven by many interests, passions and ambitions, soon decided that he did not want to devote his new life in the New World to sculling up and down the Schuylkill River, training for the ridiculous number of hours that a few minutes racing every year demands. Walter Hoover, the coach at Undine, demanded ‘hard work and plenty of it’. Geoff had no problem with hard work – but it was not going to be on the water.

In Part III, I will attempt some understanding of the fascinating non-rowing life of the great but complex character that was Geoff Morris.

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