A BBC Series That Will Float Your Boat

An illustration from the title sequence of the new BBC series, “Britain Afloat: A history of the British people told through six of its best-loved boats”.

21 October 2017

Tim Koch finally finds something worth watching on television.

Whilst at Henley Royal Regatta and also at the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race this summer, I noticed a BBC camera crew in action. They were a little vague about the project that they were working on but I now know that they were filming for a series titled “Britain Afloat”. A BBC press release says:

Presenter Mary-Ann Ochota travels the waterways of Britain, discovering how boats have shaped our lives. Britain Afloat is a six-part series that explores the regional distinctiveness of boat design and the floating way of life. It looks at boats ranging from the modest coracle – whose shape was adapted to suit individual rivers across Britain – to the imposing Thames sailing barges – boats that helped build London. In each episode, Mary-Ann uncovers the story of a different boat’s design and evolution and discovers the impact it had on the people and communities who have used it, both in days gone by, and today. Although many of the boats in question are no longer used for their original purposes, the series shows why they are still such an important part of ‘British heritage’. 

In this first series, the six craft covered are the punt, the narrow boat, the sailing boat, the coracle, the Thames Barge – and the rowing eight. First broadcast on 29 September, the ‘rowing eight’ programme is available on the BBC’s ‘on demand’ service, iPlayer, until 28 October. Unfortunately, only those in the UK can usually access this service, but a poor quality, five-minute extract is available to all on YouTube, here.

Of the programme on the rowing eight, the BBC says:

Mary-Ann discovers how the rowing eight – the fastest rowing boat in the world – developed from working boats on the Thames when river taxi men would race their boats for a bit of fun and a spot of gambling. Through the centuries, racing has become more formal, from the Doggett’s Coat and Badge race – still going strong on the Thames after nearly 300 years and open only to apprentices working on the river – to the Oxford-Cambridge boat race and the Henley Royal Regatta, where elite crews compete from all over the world. Yet despite its origins – entertainment for river workers – the rowing eight found itself at the centre of a class war that ended up in Parliament. Meeting up with celebrated Olympians Anna Watkins and Sir Steve Redgrave, as well as veteran boat builders, Mary-Ann learns how technology and the athletes’ quest for speed have produced the boat we know today.

Presenter, Mary-Ann Ochota (a broadcaster specialising in anthropology, archaeology and social history) at Henley.

It would be easy but churlish to ‘pick holes’ in the programme. For a general audience, it is entertaining, well researched and covers most of the salient points. I hope that ‘HTBS types’ will just sit back and enjoy it, grateful that any sort of programme on rowing history is on mainstream television.

Mary-Ann and Bobby Prentice on the river at Richmond, south-west London.

Following an introduction by Mary-Ann at Henley, the programme went to Richmond in south-west London where Doggett’s and Henley winner, Bobby Prentice explained the importance of working watermen, licensed to carry goods and people on the river, in the development of rowing boats and of rowing races.

Peter Capon, Head of Collection at Fishmongers’ Hall.

A visit to the 2017 Doggett’s Coat and Badge Wager followed, and in this section, I learned something new. Peter Capon, Head of Collection at Fishmongers’ Hall, showed possibly the earliest surviving Doggett’s badge, that won by George Staples in 1825. Capon says that in the early days of the race especially, winners would melt down their badges to fund their retirement, the solid silver producing a nice pension. Unfortunately, the result was that many older badges are now lost forever.

Mary-Ann with a picture of the two founders of the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race, Charles Merivale and Charles Wordsworth.

Moving from the professionals to the amateurs, the origins of the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race were investigated. It was explained that the eights that took part in the first race in 1829 were based on the six-oared Cornish Pilot Gigs and the programme set up a race between two replicas of those first boats. Mary-Ann coxed ‘Cambridge’ with 2012 Olympic Gold Medalist Anna Watkins at stroke, while Richard Phelps (of the ‘Phelps Dynasty’ of perhaps 13 generations of watermen and oarsmen) coxed ‘Oxford’. The Boat Race was given much credit for popularising the sport of rowing.

Richard Phelps won three University Boat Races with Cambridge, 1993 – 1995, weighing in at 14 stone each time. Thus, it was an unusual experience for him to be in the coxswain’s seat of a Dark Blue boat.

It was noted that, while the early Boat Race craft were fairly radical for their time, they had fixed seats and were inrigged. The developments that brought them closer to the modern racing boat, sliding seats and outriggers, were then explained with particular reference to the work of Harry Clasper, the great Newcastle oarsman and boatbuilder of the 1840s and 1850s. The ‘expert witness’ for this was Bill Colley, the last British builder of wooden racing boats. Mary-Ann took one of Bill’s singles out on the water at Molesey and, after an initial ducking, did a creditable job of tapping it along.

Bill Colley and Mary-Ann in Bill’s workshop in Richmond.

The next stop was the River and Rowing Museum at Henley, where Natalie Patel, Head of Collections & Exhibitions, explained rowing’s long-running amateur – professional debate, whereby ‘mechanics, artisans, labourers and those engaged in any menial duty’ were classed as ‘professionals’ and not allowed to train or race with ‘gentlemen amateurs’ (though the programme overstressed the influence of the British Parliament in the ending of the ‘manual labour clause’ in 1938*). This was illustrated by a brief segue into the story that millionaire Jack Kelly was excluded from competing at Henley because he was once a bricklayer.

Holding an old Rowing Almanac, Natalie Patel shows Mary-Ann the ‘manual labour’ rule, which excluded those who worked with their hands from amateur rowing clubs and events.

The programme ended where it started, at Henley during the Regatta. There were the predictable interviews with some purely social attenders of Henley, confirming that watching or understanding the rowing was not their primary concern. As is usual, the cameras were not allowed into the private members’ Stewards’ Enclosure, though the impression was given was that they had in fact penetrated the sanctum sanctorum.

Sir Steve and Mary-Ann in the Henley boat tent.

In visits to Leander and the Regatta site, the modern racing eight and the modern racing crew were examined in conversations with Sir Steve Redgrave, Richard Phelps, Debbie Flood (a former Captain of Leander), Henry Fieldman (GB cox) and Jacob Dawson (stroke of Leander’s 2017 Grand Crew).

Leander from above.

Remembering in particular the programme’s subtitle, A history of the British people told through six of its best-loved boats, Mary-Ann concluded by saying:

From the old wooden river taxis to the modern carbon fibre racers, across three centuries, the rowing eight has remained iconic in our quest to be the best. It has evolved from British innovation in the battleground of class struggle and captured the imagination in the search to find the limits of human performance. If history is anything to go by, the rowing eight will continue to deliver excitement and sporting drama for many years to come.

Although containing the usual clichés and hyperbole of such programmes, it is essentially a nice sentiment with which HTBS readers will surely agree.

*Footnote: Parliament and the ending of the ‘manual labour clause’.

Until the end of the 1920s, the manual labour clause seemed unassailable. However, in Rowing in England, A Social History: The Amateur Debate (1990), Eric Halladay wrote, ‘Yet, within ten years…. the manual labour clause was about to be removed from the ARA definition’.

Halliday attributes this turnabout to shifts in social attitudes in the 1930s and to the yielding of ‘the more rigid members of the ARA committee’ to a demand for change from ‘a formidable trio of old oarsmen’. These were, Lord Iveagh (heir to the Guinness fortune and a Wingfield Sculls winner), Robert Bourne (one of the great Oxford strokes and MP for the city) and Lord Desborough (an Oxford Blue and Henley Steward). Further, as many individual oarsmen and many of the smaller clubs became increasingly uneasy about the rigidity of the amateur rule, the ARA began to realise that, in Halliday’s words, ‘there was a larger version than that contained by the banks of the Isis, the Cam and the Tideway’. When the Henley Stewards also accepted the need for change, the end was in sight for the manual labour clause. A question asked by a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons may have helped move the inevitable change along, but it could not claim to be the deciding factor.

A question in the House.

On 7 April 1937, in a Parliamentary debate on the proposed Physical Training and Recreation Act, James Ede, Labour MP for South Shields asked:

If on Tyneside, some of the shipwrights’ apprentices took up rowing and produced, as they might well do, a first-class eight, would (the President of the Board of Education) use his influence with the authorities at Henley to get a relaxation of the rule that people engaged in manual occupations should not row at Henley? 

Sir John Withers, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Cambridge University, asked whether there was really a rule at Henley to that effect?

Philip Noel-Baker, Labour MP for Coventry (and the only person to have both won an Olympic medal and received a Nobel Prize) confirmed that this was the case and added, ‘Many members of the House would like to see this rule revised’.

Sir John Withers replied, ‘I will certainly do my best to get it revised’. The official record reported ‘cheers’ in the Commons Chamber to this statement.

When Henley and the ARA finally ended the near 60-year official exclusion of those who worked with their hands, a well-informed “Times” editorial was congratulatory, calling it ‘an anachronism removed’.

One comment

  1. I think it is worth pointing out that although the ‘amateur status’ rule had become admittedly outrageous well before the 1930s, it was originally introduced to prevent clubs from selecting professional watermen for their crews – amateurs could not hope to compete against people who rowed all day, every day and also raced for very large sums of money in gambling-mad Victorian England. Of course, being English, the ARA widened the definition of a professional to exclude all working class people whether watermen or not and that was the real scandal.

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