2 March 2017
William O’Chee writes:
Four hundred years ago this year, a 9’3” giant, John Middleton, paid a visit to Oxford, staying at Brasenose College, where his landlord had been a student. Middleton was a farmer from Hale in Cheshire, and was known by the name the Childe of Hale. He was returning from Court where he had famously beaten the King’s champion in a wrestling match. Middleton was warmly received, and a portrait painted of him, which the college still has.
200 years on, Brasenose men took to the water in the world’s first recorded rowing race between two clubs in 1815. Either at that time, or shortly after, the boat the college rowed in came to be called the Childe of Hale.
Sadly, the records of the Brasenose College Boat Club do not begin until 22 years after its success in the first Head of the River. Worse still, when the Brasenose College Boat Club Minute Book begins in 1837, the club’s stocks were at such a low ebb, it did not even manage to boat a crew in Eights that year.
The paucity of early records makes it difficult to know, therefore, how and when the college Eight came to be named the Childe of Hale, nor when the crews adopted his wrestling colours of yellow, purple and red.
We do know that Brasenose were Head of the River in 1815 and 1816, forfeiting the position in 1817 to Christ Church. In the early years, the crew included a paid waterman, Stephen Davis, who stroked and coached the boat, and undergraduate Thomas Morres, whom we now believe to be the father of Oxford rowing. Despite having only one arm, he was an oarsman of note and had a prodigious reputation on the Isis.
Brasenose returned to the Head of the River in 1821, but from 1827 there was a long run where the college was winless.
By 1839, the Boat Club’s fortunes had been restored with the Eight once again Head of the River. By then, the use of the name “Childe of Hale” was so firmly established that it needed neither introduction nor explanation. It first appears in a motion dated 22 May 1839, which unanimously resolved to enter the Childe of Hale at the first Henley Regatta.
That year’s Henley Regatta also provides the first record of the use of the Childe’s colours. Brasenose were drawn in the first round of the Grand Challenge Cup against the Oxford Etonian Club. The records of the regatta state:
The Etonian Club were dressed in white guernseys with pale blue facings, rosette sky blue. Brasenose had blue striped guernseys, blue cap with gold tassel, rosette yellow, purple and crimson.
Unfortunately, Brasenose lost to the Oxford Etonians, a disappointing result for a crew who had swept away all before them on the Isis. However, the Minute Book provides a somewhat insouciant explanation for the loss, ‘which may be accounted for by the B.N.C. having pulled down from Oxford to the scene of action only the day before.’
Although the regatta may have been a disappointment, the description of the crews in the first Grand still appears each year in the Henley Royal Regatta programme.
In 1840, feats of the previous year were also celebrated in the College’s Ale Verses on Shrove Tuesday. One of the songs that year made a witty pun on the Childe of Hale, and attributed to the ale the success of the College Eight:
Yes, Childe of Ale, well named, thou too canst tell
The virtues of that beer you love so well;
While with nice skill, and mixture true, you float,
Beer for the crew, the water for the boat;
Empty and dry the craft, the tankards full,
Stout hearts to cheer them, and strong arms to pull;
We’ll fear no rival boat shall match our speed;
Wadham’s blue ties shall still look blue indeed;
The startled Universe shall ask for quarter.
Why, scan those stalwart forms that well have fought her;
Think you such shoulder broad were ever bred on water?
A long standing Boat Club tradition began at roughly this time – having a nose attached to the bow of the boat. At a Boat Club meeting in February, 1841 ‘…the length and dimensions of the boat were agreed upon, also that a nose should be carved upon the same, that the “Childe of Hale” be the name of the new boat.’ Having a nose on the bow continued into the 20th century.
A handkerchief was adopted by the Boat Club in 1841, and this possibly used the yellow, purple and red colours.
However, the college mostly rowed in yellow and black “bumblebee” zephyrs, like those shown in an 1851 lithograph by Brasenose oarsman, Canon George Winter.
The Boat Club was also an early adopter of a rowing coat. The black Childe of Hale blazer with gold piping was also so well established by 1862 that Clare College, Cambridge had to ask the Boat Club’s permission to wear something similar.
The original gold in the Brasenose blazers seems to have been very dark, as a wonderful photo of the 1862 winners of the Steward’s Challenge Cup and Visitor’s Challenge Cup at Henley shows. The blazer was, and remains, the entitlement only of those who have rowed in the first boat in Summer Eights.
Interestingly, the coxswain in the photo, Edward Parr, is shown wearing a plain coat and not the Childe of Hale colours. He was brought in at short notice to cox the Visitor’s Challenge Cup, because the normal cox was not eligible. Parr had never coxed before, and is possibly the only person to win at Henley in their only outing on the water.
The College’s 1st VIII also sports a yellow, purple and red tie in honour of the Childe of Hale. This, however, is relatively recent, dating from 1954. In that year, Boat Club Captain Richard Marriott had his mother make a yellow, purple and red favour with scrap material. The Secretary, Andrew Davis, then took it to the university outfitters, Castells, and asked them to make ties in the exact colours.
This year marks 400 years since the Childe of Hale visited Oxford, and the Brasenose College Boat Club is planning a special celebration.
While the garb has changed a little over the years, the Childe of Hale has been the name of the 1st VIII boat since at least 1839. The men of the College have honoured the Childe by winning Summer Eights 21 times, and recording as many Henley wins.
The Childe of Hale colours are arguably the oldest sporting colours in the English speaking world. Today the Brasenose College 1st VIII continues to wear the colours of his fantastic outfit, and long may they do so.