Part II: The Extraordinary Mr Woodgate

The triumphant if controversial 1865 Head of the River Eight. Standing from left: J. Rickaby, W.B. Woodgate, A. Shepherd, A.J. Richards, S.R. Coxe, R.F. Rumsey. Seated from left: P.A. Latham, C. Thompson, S.E. Illingworth.
The triumphant if controversial 1865 Head of the River Eight. Standing from left: J. Rickaby, W.B. Woodgate, A. Shepherd, A.J. Richards, S.R. Coxe, R.F. Rumsey. Seated from left: P.A. Latham, C. Thompson, S.E. Illingworth.

31 January 2017

Here is part II of William O’Chee’s article about the great Oxford oarsman, Walter Woodgate (read part I here):

1863 was Woodgate’s last year as an undergraduate, although he would remain involved in the Boat Club for some years. It was also the year in which he founded Oxford’s famed Vincent’s Club.

Not surprisingly, it had its genesis not just in his legendary hard-headedness, but also on the river. He had been hailed on the riverbank in Hilary term by two members of the Merton crew, and invited to meet to discuss some matter or other at the Union. Woodgate had a low opinion of the Union, and refused to step foot in the place.

His friends then challenged him as to when he was going to found a club of his own, which he had apparently been boasting to do for some time. Once challenged he could not back down, and set about establishing the club within a week.

Originally situated above the publishers of the same name, Woodgate established Vincent’s with 36 members from among his friends (ten of them Brasenose men).

The new club was not slow to capitalise on a general dissatisfaction with the Oxford Union Society.  As Woodgate explained:

The Union tabooed tobacco and had no drinks, not even temperance, in those days. There was some doubt whether proctors might intervene if we sold drinks, so, for safety, we decided on free beer, tea and coffee for all members.

The move was typically Woodgate, displaying a strong view about what constituted good comradeship, and alacrity in circumventing any bothersome rules. For all that, or perhaps because of it, Vincent’s thrived, and continues to do so today.

In the Boat Race that year, Woodgate again rowed in the Oxford crew, which vanquished their Cambridge opponents as easily as the previous year’s crew had done.

In Eights, Brasenose only rose one place, and were denied the Head of the River. However the college decided to enter an eight in the Grand Challenge Cup, as well as the Ladies Plate. A four, featuring Woodgate, was entered in both the Stewards’ and the Visitor’s. Shepherd would combine with Woodgate in the Silver Goblets, and Woodgate would additionally enter the Diamonds.

Brasenose were perhaps unlucky to lose to a very fine contingent from University College, Oxford in the finals of the Grand, the Ladies Plate, and the Steward’s. Woodgate also lost in the first round of the Diamonds.

However, they took home the Visitor’s as well as the Goblets.

The following year, Woodgate was the only Brasenose entrant at Henley, where he finally won the Diamond Challenge Sculls by three lengths over E.B. Michell of Magdalen College, Oxford.

For Brasenose to win the Head of the River in 1865 would require them to bump Trinity, who had been in that position for the previous four years.

Achieving this feat was a task left to a crew that was not without promise, albeit on paper not boasting the same talent as in previous years. Gone were the likes of Woodgate; his Goblets partner, Robert Shepherd; and a number of other noted oarsmen.

By all accounts, there was not much to separate the top five boats in terms of speed, although it was suspected that the B.N.C. crew was perhaps the fastest. On the first two nights, this proved to be true, as Brasenose closed on Trinity, but were short of achieving a bump.

On the third night, Brasenose started to close on Trinity as the crews proceeded up from the Gut to the Crossing, only to finish one foot short of their quarry at the finishing post.

The opinion of Brasenose partisans was that Trinity’s time at the Head of the River might perhaps have been at an end. However, the bump still had to be effected, and bitter recent history had shown how elusive that bump could be.

At that point, an unexpected hurdle presented itself. The Brasenose two man had been unwell for the first three nights, and was unable to continue. A replacement had to be sourced at short notice, and one who would not slow the boat. The answer to this dilemma was to be found in none other than the redoubtable Woodgate, who was only too pleased to step in for the remaining three nights.

The final result between Brasenose and Trinity still lay in the balance on the final night of racing.

As it happened, Trinity got off to a bad start, and Brasenose were within half a length by the Gut, finally achieving the bump just after Saunder’s Bridge.

After more than a few years of frustrated ambitions, both individually and collectively, 1865 finally brought jubilation again to the Brasenose College Boat Club, although there were others who were not so pleased with the result. The Minute Book records:

A dispute arose after the races about allowing old members to come up and row when their assistance would enable the crew to make their bump, Brasenose being particularly blamed for allowing Mr. Woodgate to take an oar, but it is only fair to state that other colleges did the same.

Brasenose were allowed their bump, for the practice of getting past members to row was not a new one. Nor, indeed, was Brasenose the only college to do so. Three other colleges also imported past members; ironically all were colleagues of Woodgate’s in the Kingston Rowing Club crew training at the time for the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley.

This crew raced London Rowing Club in the final, with Woodgate and his friends leading off the start, and in spite of London closing to about three quarters of a length before Remenham, the Kingston crew rowed away, taking their water at Fawley, and winning by two lengths.

Woodgate’s other entries for Henley were less successful that year. Rowing with Wells from Kingston Rowing Club, he was defeated in the first round of the Goblets.

In the final of the Diamond Sculls, Woodgate had a direct entry as the reigning champion. He and the Cambridge sculler, Lawes, were much fancied, and the betting had them as equal favourites, with Michell of Magdalen College an outsider. Off the start, Michell got a quick lead, only to be overtaken by Woodgate with Lawes half a length behind him. At Remenham, Lawes closed on Woodgate, and Michell clung close behind. Both of them traded places as they slowly crept past Woodgate, so that at Fawley, Michell led, with Lawes a length behind and Woodgate behind him.  The final result was Michell by three to four lengths over Lawes, with Woodgate two and a half lengths further back in third.

1866 was the first year that Woodgate coached the Oxford Blue Boat, who achieved a comfortable win by three lengths over their Light Blue opponents in the Boat Race. He was to coach Oxford again in 1867 and 1868, in 1875, and from 1881 to 1883. In every case, Oxford was victorious.

In the Grand Challenge Cup, the Kingston crew which Woodgate prepared were the defending champions, and so only rowed the final. The boat contained Woodgate at seven, and two other Brasenose men, Frederick Crowder and Godfrey Meynell. The race was to have been between Kingston, Cambridge Black Prince, and the Oxford Etonian Club, however Black Prince decided they had no chance of winning and withdrew, leaving Kingston in the centre and the Oxford Etonians on the Berkshire station. Kingston were in front by a quarter of a length at Remenham, although the Oxford Etonians spurted to take the lead by a third of a length at Poplar Point. There Kingston replied, but the bend favoured the Etonians, who hung on to win by ‘a couple of yards’ at the end.

That was not the end of Woodgate’s regatta, though. He had managed to infuriate the Stewards by entering in the Goblets twice. The first entry was in his own name, and had him paired with M.M. Brown of Trinity College, Oxford, who had been the Blue Boat stroke for the previous two years.  Woodgate’s other entry was for Kingston Rowing Club under the name of Wat Bradford, and had him matched by E.L. Corrie.

As Woodgate was no longer the reigning Goblets champion, the intention was to make sure that he had a good draw through the heats and into the final. However, there were only four entries in total, with Woodgate crews making up half of the field. Woodgate decided his more favourable opportunity lay with Corrie, and the combination with Brown was withdrawn. This resulted in a three boat final, with Woodgate and Corrie in the centre, Kemble and Forster of New College on the Berkshire station, and Kinglake and Chambers from Leander on the Buckinghamshire station.

The Leander crew rowed into a boat immediately after the start and played no further part in the race. Meanwhile, the New College crew took a slight lead over Woodgate and Corrie, which they held as far as Remenham, where they were slowly overtaken. In their desperate efforts to recover their lead, the New College bow man pulled the boat around and they steered into the bushes, allowing Woodgate to register his fourth win in the Goblets. The Stewards appear to have been less impressed however, and immediately passed a rule preventing athletes from entering under assumed names, so as to avoid any more such antics.

The third and final part of O’Chee’s story about Walter Woodgate will continue tomorrow.

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