19 March 2018
Chris Dodd writes:
Steve Trapmore, coach of Cambridge men until the annual duel against Oxford when he moves to Caversham to work with the GB high performance centre (as understudy to Jurgen Grobler?), has been clearing out his drawers. One document that came to light, after presumably being buried in the Goldie Boathouse for a century and a half, is evidence that CUBC and OUBC organised a joint annual dinner for several years. I must say that, as a historian and collector of Boat Race tales, I have never come across this fixture before. As with most aspects of rowing history, it is always delightful when something ‘new’ comes up.
Rules were established at a joint meeting of oarsmen and the committees of the two clubs at Putney in March 1876. The dinner ‘shall be managed by a Committee consisting of the Presidents, Hon. Secretaries and Treasurers of the two University Boat Clubs, and four Old University Oarsmen, generally resident in London, of whom two shall be members of OUBC and two members of CUBC.’
Rule 3 says that the committee shall select a chairman, arrange time and place of the dinner, toasts and other details. Rule 4 states that Blues, committee members and captains of college boat clubs are eligible to attend the dinner, and Rule 5 that Old Oarsmen and members of the current crews may introduce two guests.
The chairman must be an old oarsman of at least ten years’ standing and ‘shall be selected from the Oxford crews and the Cambridge crews alternately’. Five years must pass before chairing the dinner again. Free tickets are to be sent to the crews of the day, plus the chairman, the umpire and the judge, and the committee is empowered to invite captains of metropolitan clubs if it wishes. The University Clubs are to take it in turns to defray the expenses of guests and the band.
There is a list of chairman from 1876 to 1888. Whether joint dining continued beyond 1888 or was revived to this format later, who knows? Somebody might. In 1876, the chairman of the dinner was George Morrison of Balliol, an eminent coach in his time. Cambridge won easily, and the record says that the course was ‘probably 60 yards too long’!
If I had a chance to be a guest at a joint Boat Race dinner, I would pick 1877, when the crews received the controversial verdict of ‘dead heat’, encapsulated by Punch magazine’s headline ‘Oxford won, Cambridge too’. Finishing judge ‘Honest’ John Phelps was pilloried for allegedly saying ‘Dead heat to Oxford by five feet’ and, never having seen a close finish during his long term of office, had to visit umpire Judge Chitty’s chambers later to account for himself. I imagine that, with Lewis Lloyd of Magdalene College, Cambridge, in the chair, dinner was a night of long knives.
To me it seems, that “Honest” John Phelps was a victim of class stereotypes. I think he made the only
possible decision. To honour him we christened the Bowers and Phelps skiff in our collection “Honest John”.