Part III: The Extraordinary Mr Woodgate

The 1867 Brasenose Head of the River Eight. Woodgate is seated on the right contemplating the trophy.
The 1867 Brasenose Head of the River Eight. Woodgate is seated on the right contemplating the trophy.

1 February 2017

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

Woodgate spent the summer of 1867 coaching the Brasenose College Eight, who started at Head of the River. With preparations going well, the crew was rocked the night before the races were to commence when Crowder injured himself, such that he was not able to row. With the headship at stake, and no second crew from which a suitably trained rower could be drawn, it was decided that Woodgate himself should step into boat until Crowder recovered. Having been in Oxford for some time, Woodgate was able to do this, as he had been in residence for more than ten days before the races – an ironic beneficiary of the very rule which had been introduced to prevent old members such as him racing for their colleges.

As it happened, the defence went almost without a hitch, although a broken oar after the five-minute gun on the Friday caused no little consternation. It was swapped with just ten seconds before the start, and the crew maintained its place on the river.

At Henley that year, an Oxford Radleian boat was entered for the Grand, with Woodgate rowing in it, but they were beaten in the first heat by London Rowing Club.

The Silver Goblets resulted in a straight final, with Woodgate again changing partners, and teaming up with R.T. Raises to row as an Oxford Radleian crew, while Corrie rowed with Woodgate’s other partner from 1866, M.M. Brown, as Kingston Rowing Club. The third entry in the final was a London Rowing Club boat comprising Willis and Graham. On this occasion, Woodgate did not manage to retain the Cup, losing to Corrie and Brown, with the London Rowing Club crew in third.

That year, Woodgate also rowed over to win the Wingfield Sculls on the Tideway.

In 1867, Woodgate had attended the International Regatta in Paris, and had observed how a Canadian crew from St John’s, New Brunswick, had rowed a four without a coxswain. In typical fashion, Woodgate decided that Brasenose should do likewise, and in 1868 entered a crew for the Stewards’ accordingly. A boat was specially built by Messenger, which had no fifth seat, and was steered using wires attached to levers employed by one of the crew.

In fairness, Woodgate wrote to the Stewards advising them of his intentions, noting that he was within the literal wording of the rules which stated that the race was for four oared crews.

This prompted a strident protest from W.W. Wood of University College. While conceding that ‘it is not actually stated in the rules that eight and four oared boats are to carry coxswains’, Wood complained that it was contrary to the rules of the University Boat Clubs, that it was somehow contrary to the unwritten ‘general law of boat racing’, and to long established custom.

A fair reading of the rules suggests that Woodgate was entirely within his rights, but perhaps because of his shenanigans the year before, the Stewards were not inclined to indulge him. A few days before the regatta, they passed a rule requiring all eights and fours to carry a coxswain. Eventually Brasenose nominally assented, but Woodgate would not be dissuaded from his idea, and they made it clear, following the precedent of the seven-oared race, that they would take it upon themselves to dispense with any part of their boat or the complement of the crew after the race had started.

In reality, they had little choice. They were unable to change the boat, and were faced with the prospect of either withdrawing, or employing their strategy and at least making a point.

The race itself was a three-boat first heat with the Kingston Oscillators on the Bucks station, Kingston Rowing Club in the middle and Brasenose on the Berkshire station. This proved a convenient lane, for they rowed without a cox to the start, and pulled in to the bank. Francis Weatherly, who had coxed the Torpid that year, climbed on board and perched on the stern. As soon as the start was given, Weatherly jumped overboard.

The crew – comprising Crofts in stroke, Woodgate at three, Rumsey in two and Wheldon Champneys’ younger brother, Francis in the bow – then set off in pursuit of the other two crews. The other boats were caught and passed in short order, and Brasenose won easily in the very fast time of 8 min 35 sec. This made them 53 seconds faster than the next crew. The Stewards would have none of it, and promptly disqualified the Brasenose crew.

That was not the end of the controversy, because it was well noted that while the Stewards had insisted on the crews carrying coxswains, they did not specify a minimum weight. While the Kingston Rowing Club crew carried a coxswain who weighed 7st 3lb, the Oscillators coxswain weighed a mere 4st 9lb, which the press observed made a mockery of the very rule the Stewards had passed. Moreover, it was noted that the Brasenose crew was given no notice of the protest against them, which was heard in their absence. When they enquired the next day for the reason for their disqualification, no official was willing to offer an explanation.

The same Brasenose crew was entered for the Visitor’s Challenge Cup later that day. Their point made, and their fate certain, they withdrew, leaving Black Prince from Cambridge to win the Cup with a row over.

That year, both Crofts and Woodgate were originally entered in the Diamonds. Also entered was Michell of Magdalen College, Oxford, who had beaten Woodgate to take the title in 1865 and 1866. Woodgate was evidently keen to even the score, but Michell had insufficient training and withdrew. Woodgate said he would not row unless to meet him, and withdrew also, leaving Crofts to defend his title as the only Brasenose representative. In the final however, Crofts, was defeated by Stout from London Rowing Club by two lengths.

Woodgate and Crofts were also entered in the Goblets. In their first race, they were drawn against a crew from Burton-on-Trent. The Burton crew took an early lead, however, the Brasenose men ‘rowing in splendid form’ passed them in the bay before Remenham, then rowed away to win easily.

In their final, they met another Burton-on-Trent crew, whom they led off the start, and beat easily to take the title.

This was Woodgate’s final race, for he retired at the age of only 27. In a postscript to the events at Henley, the following year the Stewards introduced a race for four-oared boats without a coxswain. Woodgate not only got his vindication, but the event ensured the popularity of coxless fours throughout the rowing world.

There is no doubt that Woodgate was considered one of the outstanding oarsmen of his age. That much we know because it is recorded in opinion at the time. His record at Henley is also significant. He won the Visitor’s Challenge Cup twice, the Wyfold Challenge Cup once, and the Silver Goblets five times. He also won the Diamonds once, the Stewards’ once, and rowed in a Kingston Rowing Club crew which won the Grand. Additionally, he rowed in the Oxford Blue Boat twice.

Only two men have bettered Woodgate’s record: Guy Nickalls and Sir Steven Redgrave. Neither reached Woodgate’s total of eleven Henley titles in as little time as he did.

Although he returned to the Isis many times as a coach, Woodgate was now busy crafting a career as a barrister and a writer. He was rowing correspondent for The Field, and wrote a number of books, notably Boating and Reminiscences of an Old Sportsman.

Twenty-two years after going down, Woodgate still held considerable influence over the Brasenose College Boat Club, and the College generally. One needs look no further than the admission of W.F.C. (Claude) Holland. The young Holland was the son of Woodgate’s Radley cox, W.J. Holland, who had chosen to send his son to the college on the basis of his friendship with Woodgate. More importantly, the young Holland had stroked the Eton crew that won the Ladies Plate in 1885.

The problem was that Holland had performed poorly and didn’t matriculate. Woodgate called upon Principal Craddock in December 1885, and found him gravely ill. Unperturbed, he pleaded Holland’s case, which Woodgate described as a ‘disaster’.

Notwithstanding his illness, the Principal instructed him:

Then don’t let him go to any other college; promise that; send him again next January; he can matriculate and reside at once, without losing a term. Let him take the same books; he is sure to do much better this time; they always do. You promise me this!

True to his prediction, Holland ‘tried his luck the next month; and as a matter of course passed in.’ Claude Holland would be Principal Craddock’s final gift to the Boat Club; he died at the end of January after 34 years as Principal, and this was Woodgate’s last meeting with him.

Claude Holland would become one of the greats of the Brasenose College Boat Club, winning the Grand three times with Leander, the Stewards’ and Visitor’s once each with Brasenose, as well as making four appearances in the Blue Boat.

In perhaps characteristic fashion, the oldest Brasenose man to enlist in the First World War was none other than Walter Woodgate, who joined up in July 1916 as a private in the 7th City of London Regiment (Veteran Athletes Corps). He was 74 at the time, and clearly too old to serve on the frontline, but saw out the war in a garrison battalion.

Woodgate in later life.
Woodgate in later life.

Walter Woodgate died in 1920, having lived what was, by any standards an incredibly full life.

Whilst firmly rooted in the Victorian era, he was also thoroughly modern. He was an innovator, a ruthless competitor, notoriously opinionated, and an incredible athlete. It is doubtful the rowing world will see his likes again.

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