The Blackstaffe Trophy: A Case of Reverse Alchemy

The Blackstaffe Trophy, awarded by the Scullers’ Head of the River Race. Picture: @SPSRowing

16 January 2018

Tim Koch finds gold turned into base metal.

The recent HTBS article on the mystery bronze (or, I speculate, spelter sculling figure owned by Kai Stürmann  reminded me of a similar looking model of a man in a single, one that was recently at the centre of a rowing controversy. This is the ‘Blackstaffe Trophy’ awarded to the fastest finisher in the Scullers’ Head of the River Race, the annual time trial for singles held over the Mortlake to Putney course on London’s River Thames, an event that attracts over 500 entries. The race has been organised by the Putney-based Vesta Rowing Club since its inception in 1954 and the trophy celebrates the club’s most famous son, Henry Thomas ‘Harry’ Blackstaffe (nicknamed ‘Blackie’).

Harry Blackstaffe (1868 – 1951) was an all-round sportsman who, as a single sculler, won the London Cup nine times, the Wingfield Sculls five, and the Diamond Sculls and also the Championship of the Netherlands once. Guy Nickalls held that Blackstaffe improved with age, and indeed, most famously, he won the 1908 Olympic Sculls at the age of forty (legend says that he did this on his birthday, actually it was three days later).
The Blackstaffe Trophy displays the names of some distinguished winners. Picture: @SPSRowing

The Blackstaffe Trophy was presented to the Sculler’s Head by Harry’s widow in 1954. It is a brass (I think) copy of a ‘solid gold’ model that was presented to ‘Blackie’ by the Lord Mayor and Corporation of London in 1908 to mark his wonderful sculling career, notably his victory in the Olympic Sculls of that year. The presentation was from the City of London, the historic centre and business district of the metropolis, an area that covers little more than a square mile. This is different to Greater London which, at that time, would have been governed by London County Council. In later years, Blackstaffe was made a Freeman of the City of London. It was reasoned that Harry ‘belonged’ to the City of London as he had spent all of his working life there.

“The Times”, 9 December 1908.
The Blackstaffe Trophy in its case. Picture: Vesta Rowing Club.

Harry’s work was, in fact, a cause of great problems for his participation in amateur sport. He is usually described as ‘a butcher’ and this meant that he had difficulty in being accepted as an amateur. Until 1937, the Amateur Rowing Association’s strange definition of an amateur excluded not only the obvious, i.e. those who competed for cash prizes, but also ’mechanics, artisans and labourers and anyone engaged in any menial duty’. In his book, The Complete Oarsman (1908), R.C. Lehmann drew attention to the arbitrary nature of trades that were not considered ‘amateur’ and gave the example of the banning of carpenters, but not drapers. As another example, postal workers who served as counter clerks in Post Offices were classed as ‘amateurs’, but those who physically delivered letters were not. Blackstaffe somehow managed to avoid being excluded from amateur competition, despite his lowly trade. The only hint that I have found that suggests how he may have done this is in a newspaper cutting of 1950 titled “Sports Stars of Yesterday”. It describes him as a ‘Leadenhall game and poultryman’ (Leadenhall Market was a meat, game and poultry market in the City of London which dated from the 14th century). Perhaps being involved in ‘game and poultry’ was more socially acceptable than butchering carcasses – if that is what Harry ever did? All that H.B. Wells says on the matter in Vesta Rowing Club: A Centenary History (1969) is that ‘His job was in the meat trade, which entailed unusual hours of working and rather unconventional methods of training’.

A picture from a 1907 copy of the “Penny Illustrated Paper”. Harry, butcher and all-round sportsman, was the obvious person to publicise a new gymnasium at London’s Smithfield Meat Market.

As this report from Benedict Tufnell of Row 360 records, there was controversy after the Scullers’ Head of 2 December 2017 when the organisers initially decided not to award the Blackstaffe Trophy to the fastest finisher, who was, remarkably, an under-18 Junior from St Paul’s School, Calvin Tarczy. The organisers argued that the flow of the tide had unfairly helped scullers who started later in the division. After a ‘Twitter storm’, this strange decision was reversed and, in the words of Row 360, ‘The teenager’s name will now be engraved on the trophy, alongside the likes of Drysdale and Campbell’.


  1. “Training with a land-sculler in the Smithfield Gymnasium” A fore-runner of the Concept II? What was this device? It appears (from the phohot) to create resistance by way of extending the length of two hydraulic cylinders so presumably on a hinged rigger then.. I could not find a single reference online. Does anyone still have one of these?

  2. Dear Simon,

    ‘Rowing Machines’ in many forms have been around for a long time. Here is one from 1861:

    In later years, resistance was usually provided via hydraulics or a bicycle chain.

    Bill Miller gives a history on the Friends of Rowing History site:

    I wrote about such devices in 2011:

    The links to British Pathe newsreels in the above are no longer working but the best film (‘Oxford take note….’) can be viewed here:

    Göran Buckhorn wrote a follow-up to this post:

    These wonderful pictures of gyms on Transatlantic liners show a double sculling machine on the ‘Titanic’ in 1912:

    It’s pictured in use here:


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