Rowing’s Continuation and Resilience in Wartime Oxford

The Brasenose College 1st Torpid, 1949 (David Goodes in two).

26 January 2018

William O’Chee writes: 

Michael Dover’s recent and kindly obituary for David Goodes on HTBS shed a light on a luminary of English rowing in the immediate post-war years. If anything, it understated his importance to the sport, as Goodes produced a steady stream of King’s School Canterbury, men who went on to row at Oxford and Cambridge. Not the least of these was the estimable O.U.B.C. President Ronnie Howard, who later had a coaching career at Radley College surpassing that of Goodes himself.

As a student at Brasenose College, Oxford (also known as B.N.C.), Goodes was also an exemplar of that generation of oarsmen whose sporting careers were sharply curtailed – and many ultimately terminated – by the Second World War. Brasenose College was one of the larger and more successful Oxford rowing colleges prior to the war, and provided a steady stream of Oxford oarsmen for the Boat Race.

Popular history – at least the Wikipedia kind – would have us believe that rowing ceased in Oxford and Cambridge during the Second World War. However, that is far from true. “Wartime” Boat Races were held between the two universities in 1940, 1943, 1944 and 1945, even if the oarsmen who raced in these crews were not granted Blues as were those who raced either side of the war. The exigencies of wartime London, however, necessitated these races happened elsewhere, at Henley, Sandford and Ely.

At both universities, college rowing also continued, albeit in highly curtailed form. But it did continue, in spite of all that happened around it. 

In part, this was a reaction to the loss and sadness which pervaded the universities between 1914 and 1918. The preceding war had brought an abrupt end to rowing. No oars were seen on the Cam or the Isis for four years, and when they returned in 1919, college rowing took place under a pall of unprecedented loss.

Twenty years later, students at the two universities resolved that this would not be allowed to happen again, although sadly few records of wartime rowing remain. There are two reasons for this paucity of records. Firstly, most of the colleges had so few students that their Boat Clubs had to merge, and secondly, students were at the colleges for only a few terms, so that there were few records kept.

Many Oxford colleges were taken over by the military. This was despite (or because of) the tacit understanding between Germany and Britain that the ancient university towns of Oxford, Cambridge and Heidelberg would be spared the destruction which befell other cities.

Brasenose College was largely given over to military intelligence, with some traces remaining even 70 years later. For example, that portion of college which housed the Middle Eastern intelligence specialists is still called the “Arab Quarter.”

Goodes and other Brasenose students were instead housed in the Meadow Building at another college closer to the river, Christ Church, a decision which had been made at the beginning of the war.

The Meadow Building at Christ Church, Oxford.

The number of students at all the colleges was greatly reduced. At Christ Church, there were just one third the normal number of students, and this was typical of all the colleges early in the war. The cohabitation of students from Brasenose at Christ Church made a merger of the two college boat clubs a natural, although not inevitable, idea. 

The Brasenose College Boat Club Minute Book is reasonably detailed for this period. The opening entry for Michaelmas Term 1939 records:

War was declared on Sunday, 3rd September; and for some time the future of rowing at Brasenose, and indeed at the university was dark and uncertain. However, at the beginning of Term it was decided to carry on in conjunction with Christ Church as a complete Boat Club. The only surviving member of the Summer VIII was M. Howard, the cox, who, at a meeting held at the beginning of Term, was accordingly elected Secretary of the combined boat club, and Captain of the B.N.C.B.C.

 The Minute Book notes that Christ Church had sacked their boat man, whereas Brasenose had not. Brasenose had no boats, whereas Christ Church did. The Brasenose men contributed their redoubtable waterman, Gibbons, and moved into the Christ Church boat house. The first boat on the river was the combined Brasenose – Christ Church crew, with four oarsmen from each college, and Brasenose supplying the coxswain. A few weeks later, a second combined Brasenose – Christ Church crew took to the water as well.

This happy arrangement almost ended on the rocks a few weeks later. Word reached the Brasenose men that the Christ Church captain was flirting with the idea of turning his back on his new found crew mates, and forging an alliance with Trinity College instead. However, when the Trinity men discovered that Brasenose were considering taking the advice of their Treasurer (the college Principal) they abandoned the discussion, leaving the Christ Church captain to endure a painful combined boat club meeting as a result.

The Brasenose – Christ Church – Pembroke VIII of 1941.

The first Eights regatta of the war, in the summer of 1940, saw a total of 28 crews take to the water. Most crews were composites, although Jesus College and St Catherine’s were exceptions, and managed to boat crews of their own. The Head of the River that year went to an improbable combination of Trinity and Balliol, with the Brasenose – Christ Church 1st VIII finishing in third place.

Soon the exigencies of war would reduce the college rowing stocks even further. In Eights in 1941, there were only 13 crews between all of the colleges, with a combined New College – Magdalen crew going head. The Brasenose – Christ Church crew was augmented by the addition of a man from Pembroke College, and managed to finish in second position. Captured in a crew photo, the men of this crew give little indication of the war in which they would soon all play a part.

The following year, it was the turn of the Brasenose – Christ Church – Pembroke crew to claim the Head of the River in Eights, having bumped up from second place on the first night.

In 1944 and 1945, Magdalen College was head in Eights, although the number of crews competing remained low. There were so few men in Brasenose, Christ Church and Pembroke that the three colleges between them were unable to field a composite crew in the final year of the war.

Throughout the war, racing also took place in Hilary Term, before Easter, although often this did not take the shape of normal bumps racing in eights. For example in 1941, there were so few experienced oarsmen at the university that the colleges were broken into two groups, which each produced just two eights for a brief match racing competition.

In 1942, the traditional Torpids bumps races were held in the Hilary term, as was the case in 1943.

However, in 1944, when David Goodes was at Oxford, he rowed in the bow of one of two junior fours put on by Brasenose, Christ Church and Pembroke in Hilary Term of that year.

When the war ended, the colleges returned to their 1939 finishing places for Torpids and Summer Eights in 1946. The composite college clubs were disbanded, and single college crews were once more de rigueur.

Michaelmas Term 1945 was Oxford’s first term after the war. Those men who had not been obliged to relinquish their studies at the end of Trinity Term remained, and were joined by the first of those to be demobilised.

At Brasenose, the Minute Book observed:

We were determined to see that Brasenose rowing got off to a good start and succeeded in enlisting the interests of 25 men. Of these only J. Darch and H. Grummitt had previous experience of Brasenose eights, but E.H. Dreyer had rowed for Capetown University and D.A. Fanner had previous experience of fours at Worcester. Also there were a number of men with experience of college rowing apart from races. They all proved extremely keen to put up a good show in this first year of peace.

 The 1946 1st Torpid eventually comprised five oarsmen who had served in the war, and another who had rowed during the war but not been called up for service.

Many men did not return, however. In fact, at Brasenose, the losses in the Second World War were greater than in the First: a total of 124 men, including the German Karl von Ruperti, were killed in the course of the conflict.

In his history of the College, J. Mordaunt Crook attributed this to the pre-war spirit of athleticism.

He noted that the college ethos, which was athletic, loyal, light-hearted, and physically courageous, matched closely the ethos of the RAF. Consequently, many men from the college were attracted to the war in the air, with a large number dying as a consequence.

Among those killed were two-time Blue Dick Holdsworth and Conrad Cherry, the Leander Captain, who was described as the greatest oarsman of his age. Another who died was Sir John Croft Bt, who had coxed three Oxford Blue Boats from 1926 to 1928. He was a Captain in the Hertfordshire Regiment when he was killed on active service.

1949 Brasenose College Eights crews.

Naturally, with millions of men under arms, the process of demobilisation took some time, with some men still awaiting discharge a year after the war ended. Nor was it possible for the universities to take the flood of men returning from the war immediately. Former servicemen would continue arriving at Oxford and Cambridge over a number of years. For David Goodes, his return to Brasenose did not happen until Michaelmas Term at the end of 1947, when he was one of four oarsmen who had rowed during the war to return to the college.

By 1949, the number of college oarsmen would return to pre-war levels. That year there were 87 crews competing in Eights. Brasenose, which in 1945 had been so starved of oarsmen that it was incapable of fielding a single crew, even in combination with Christ Church and Pembroke, was one of six colleges to put on five crews that year.

Goodes, who had rowed in the 1st Torpid the previous term, stroked the 4th VIII, which was what was known as a “Schools VIII”. This was a crew of experienced oarsmen who were taking their Schools (final examinations) and were therefore obliged to limit their training in order to study. He did, however, row in the college’s Henley crew that beat Downing College to qualify for the Thames Cup, although they lost their first round match against Caius College Boat Club.

By the following year, the vast majority of oarsmen at all colleges had no war service. The world was beginning anew, and Oxford was no different. The enthusiasm for this new beginning saw Oxford’s wartime rowing history almost overlooked. That would have been an injustice. The fierce determination to keep rowing alive at Oxford’s colleges during the war epitomised the spirit of continuation and resilience that saw Britain endure the Blitz, and the Battle of the Atlantic, before becoming the launching pad for the campaign which eventually liberated Europe.

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