14 January 2017
Tim Koch writes:
Lord Snowdon died on 13 January, aged 86. The general public knew him as the society photographer who, in 1960, married the Queen’s only sister, Princess Margaret. However, HTBS types remember him for an achievement ten years earlier when he coxed Cambridge to victory in the 1950 Oxford–Cambridge Boat Race. In 2015, I wrote about his rowing career in a piece titled “Rowing: Not The Sport Of Kings” and the text of this is reproduced below.
Lord Snowdon and Princess Margaret were both rather strong-willed and open-minded people and they had a somewhat tempestuous relationship but for a time they were Britain’s most glamorous couple. In the 1950s, the Princess had been at the centre of the so-called ‘Margaret Set’, a group of aristocrats who seemed to spend their lives in the pursuit of pleasure. She married Armstrong-Jones just as the 1960s started to swing and her Guardian obituary noted:
The Snowdons seemed the ideal cipher for an age that was promoting style above status but had not yet completely kicked deference. In the early days of their marriage, Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon broke new ground socially, making friendships, or at least acquaintance, with all the usual 60s names, Nureyev, Peter Sellers, Vidal Sassoon, Mary Quant, and the more flaky, including John Bindon, a minor actor of East End sensitivities famed most for an interesting trick involving beer glasses with handles and a private part of his anatomy.
Years before mixing with this eclectic crowd, Armstrong-Jones had been to Eton and then to Jesus College, Cambridge where he coxed the Light Blues to a 3 1/2 length victory in the 1950 Boat Race. There is a nice picture of him taking his crew out of Leander’s Putney boathouse on the Alamy stock photo site and a good post-race photograph on the Getty Image site.
Perhaps Armstrong-Jones needed even greater skills than are normally required to navigate the Putney to Mortlake course as, in his book The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race (1983), Chris Dodd noted that the Cambridge boat was nicknamed the ‘Banham Bombshell’ and that it ‘didn’t hold in the water all that well’ and that Cambridge ‘were frightened of going up Beverley Brook’ (the creek that runs at 90° to the course at the end of Putney Embankment). However, Armstrong-Jones not only successfully steered the boat but, according to a recent biography by Anne de Courcy, he designed a new rudder for it as well.
Armstrong-Jones clearly maintained his interest in rowing and he and Princess Margaret were in the Cambridge launch for the 1960 Boat Race (evidenced both by the picture below and by British Pathe).
In 1964, Princess Margaret, Lord Snowdon and the Queen Mother visited Henley Royal Regatta for its 125th year and to witness the Harvard crew of 1914 rowing over the course. Again, the wonderful Pathe newsreel was on hand to capture all of this for posterity.
Snowdon was once quoted as saying ‘‘It’s no good saying ‘hold it’ to a moment in real life’’. He was probably talking about his photography – but, judging by the many amusing, uncomfortable or lurid stories about him, this may have been the philosophy by which he conducted all of his affairs. It’s a good dictum for a cox though.