Comic Cuts: A Few Hints on the Subject of Oarsmanship

The 1939 Boat Race edition of the comic, “The Boy’s Own Paper”. In British popular culture, improbable or daring endeavours are often described as ‘real Boy’s Own stuff’, in reference to the heroic content of the magazine’s stories.

30 May 2018

Tim Koch spends his pocket money on a particularly spiffing comic.

Most British men of a certain age will remember the pleasure of the weekly trip to the local newspaper shop on pocket money (allowance) day to buy sugar-based treats and one or two favourite comics. Both products were consumed rapidly and enthusiastically. I cannot remember my confectionary of choice, but my comics were Valiant, picked for its adventure stories, and the much more educational, Look and LearnValiant would probably not stand up to modern scrutiny (one of its most popular characters, Royal Marine, Captain Hercules Hurricane, would now be demoted to the ranks, put on Valium, and sent on a racism awareness course) but it is a great shame that there is apparently no market for the intelligent Look and Learn, the premise of which was to educate, inform and entertain. In 1962, the first edition included a serialisation of Three Men in a Boat, a work that would leave most modern children nonplussed, but which must have appealed to the 300,000 youngsters that once regularly bought a copy.

Since the 1970s however, the traditional British children’s comic market has been in terminal decline as successive generations of young people have grown out of the habit of reading weekly comics, their free time is given over to television and, more recently, computer games and the internet. It is perhaps surprising that these comics lasted as long as they did – many held onto their Victorian values long after the Old Queen had passed, and still promoted the patriotism and manly values needed to build and run an Empire long after the sun had set on that particular free trade area. Most especially and peculiarly, the English Public (i.e. Private) School story (a genre created by Tom Brown’s Schooldays in 1857) stayed on well past the age that it should have graduated, gone into the world, and got a proper job.

A constantly repeated storyline in English Public School stories was of the boy unjustly accused of stealing but who will not reveal the real culprit as he feels bound by the unspoken code against ‘telling’ on fellow pupils.

Public school stories transmitted establishment values, beliefs and codes of behaviour to middle and working-class boys who would have no chance of experiencing boarding school life at first hand. Common themes included honour, decency, sportsmanship and loyalty. Competitive team sports often featured and an annual sporting event between rival schools or houses was frequently a part of the plot.

Old Etonian, George Orwell, was not a fan, and in 1940 he wrote on the ‘mental world’ of the boys’ comic:

The year is 1910 — or 1940, but it is all the same. You are at Greyfriars, a rosy-cheeked boy of fourteen in posh tailor-made clothes, sitting down to tea in your study… after an exciting game of football which was won by an odd goal in the last half-minute. There is a cosy fire in the study, and outside the wind is whistling. The ivy clusters thickly round the old grey stones. The King is on his throne and the pound is worth a pound. Over in Europe the comic foreigners are jabbering and gesticulating, but the grim grey battleships of the British Fleet are steaming up the Channel and at the outposts of Empire the monocled Englishmen are holding the (plural n-word) at bay. Lord Mauleverer has just got another fiver and we are all settling down to a tremendous tea of sausages, sardines, crumpets, potted meat, jam and doughnuts. After tea, we shall sit round the study fire having a good laugh at Billy Bunter and discussing the team for next week’s match against Rookwood. Everything is safe, solid and unquestionable. Everything will be the same forever and ever.

The most famous of the boys’ comics that had their origins in the late Victorian age was The Boy’s Own Paper (BOP), which was started in 1879 by the Religious Tract Society with the aim of instilling Christian morals during boys’ formative years. It hectored its readers on the importance of cleanliness and on the dangers of masturbation (‘self-abuse’), promoting sport as an antidote to evils such as onanism. Perhaps rowing would have been particularly encouraged as it was a pastime that kept both hands fully and properly occupied (though rowing historian, Tom Weil, has previously put forward a contrary theory).

“The Cock House at Fellsgarth” – a story that the “BOP” deemed suitable for growing boys in 1891.
Later, the Fellsgarth boys appeared to have abandoned soccer and taken up rowing.

The BOP only just survived ‘the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP’ and ceased publication in 1967, finally defeated by the permissive society. However, it left an indelible legacy in the popular imagination, including some fine rowing stories.


Originally in the same vein as the Boy’s Own Paper – but less well known – was Chums, published between 1892 and 1932. It soon became less preachy and more popularist than the BOP. Its serial stories were particularly well written and in its time it carried works by authors including Robert Louis Stevenson and two HTBS favourites, Hylton Cleaver and PG Wodehouse. In “Chums (1892-1932): Heroes and Things in a British Boys’ Periodical”, Barbara Korte of the University of Freiburg wrote:

Many of Chums’s factual articles were dedicated to military subjects, sports, outdoor life and physical fitness, in contradiction to the dandyism and decadence of the 1890s, and especially in reaction to the Boer War’s revelation that not all British men were really fit for (military) service…  Athletics were announced as a special interest of Chums in the editor’s first address to his readers: ‘’We shall make a great feature of athletics in this paper. I don’t think there is anyone in life for whom I have so great a regard as the manly athlete schoolboy, the type of muscular uprightness and manliness… All forms of sports are encouraged here’’… In this spirit, Chums not only portrayed famous sportsmen as models but also promoted Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts movement and the British Boys’ Naval Brigade. Chums was thus fully impregnated with a spirit of healthy, masculine activity…

An 1899 edition of Chums contained a gushing interview with a sporting hero of the rowing world, Walter Bradford ‘Guts’ Woodgate (1841 – 1920).

Woodgate as pictured by “Chums” comic in 1899.

Regular HTBS readers will be well-informed on the career of Walter Woodgate thanks to William O’Chee’s splendid three-part piece, “The Extraordinary Mr Woodgate”, posted in January 2017.

Briefly, Woodgate was an oarsman, author and barrister. At Brasenose College, Oxford, he won the University Pairs three times and the Sculls twice. He rowed in two Oxford – Cambridge Boat Races, 1862 and 1863, winning both times. He won the Wingfield Sculls (The English Amateur Championship) in 1862, 1864, and 1867. Between 1861 and 1868, he had eleven Henley victories.

Woodgate had two notable clashes with the rules of Henley Regatta. In 1866, he entered the Silver Goblets twice, once as W. B. Woodgate and again as “Wat Bradford”. The Woodgate pair won the event, but, after the regatta, Henley changed the rules so competitors could not row under assumed names. In 1868, he had what we would now call a coxless or straight four and gave notice to the Henley Stewards that his Brasenose crew would row without a coxswain. Henley countered with a rule requiring all boats to be coxed, so Woodgate arranged for his cox to jump overboard at the start of his race. His crew won but were immediately disqualified. However, five years later, the Stewards’ Challenge Cup was made an event for coxless fours.

A 22-year-old Woodgate (left), winner of the 1863 Silver Goblets (with R Shepherd). Picture courtesy of the Brasenose College Boat Club Archive.

Woodgate’s Wikipedia entry notes that:

A larger than life character, he once wagered he could walk the fifty-seven miles from Stones Chop House in London’s Panton Street (near Leicester Square) to Brasenose College in time for breakfast. He lingered at Oxford well into the 1860s, mainly on the river… He practised (law) for forty years but took neither the law nor anything else save rowing too seriously and it is as a first-class oarsman and journalistic critic of rowing that he is remembered. 

Woodgate was the rowing correspondent for both Vanity Fair and The Field for many years and his books included Oars and Sculls, and How to Use Them (1874), Boating (1888, for the Badminton Library set, now accessible online), and Reminiscences of an Old Sportsman (1909). Wikipedia notes that

Woodgate’s writing attested to his clerical family background, classical Greek and Latin schooling, years of lawyering, and an insuppressible urge to tell stories, laced with legalisms and couplets from Horace. 

Woodgate in later life.

Woodgate was rather cussed and clearly enjoyed a legal fight. His Times obituary notes:

At one period he waged war on the railway companies. According to his view of the strict letter of the law, he insisted that a railway ticket was the only evidence of a passenger’s contract with the railway company, and therefore he declined to surrender his ticket until the full journey had been made.

On another occasion, he took a railway company to court in an action over a late train. He was awarded £1 in damages, but this judgement was reversed on appeal.

Woodgate never married but had eclectic interests and a life outside of rowing. His Times obituary observed:

His ‘‘Reminiscences of an Old Sportsman’’…. [tells] the story of a full and busy life, and cover a much wider field than their title would suggest… Woodgate had a share in the making of the steeplechase rules; he played a not unimportant part in explaining the search for Livingstone…; his book suggests that he inspired Pasteur in his hydrophobia discovery; one chapter is devoted to the first true and authentic account of the parentage of James I.

Woodgate’s obituary in ‘’The Times’’ of 2 November 1920 called him a ‘Sportsman and Bohemian’. The first two paragraphs are reproduced here.

Below is an edited version of the Chums interview with Woodgate. Inevitably perhaps, his views vary from the still relevant, to the outdated, to the simply wrong.

Every reader of ‘’Chums’’ who takes a delight in rowing and other things which tend to impart strength to the body knows Mr W.B. Woodgate, if not personally, at all events by name. Mr. Woodgate is, of course, the famous old Oxford oarsman and amateur sculling champion – an athlete who has taught more youths how to handle an oar than any other coach in the world. The probability is that there is no person living who knows so much about watermanship as this brilliant Old Blue…

Mr Woodgate is a busy barrister in London, but when I venture to impress upon him…. that the majority of Chums are keen on all exercises that help to develop the muscles, and boating in particular, he kindly consented to give me a few hints on the subject of oarsmanship…

[Mr Woodgate] I suppose you contend that [rowing] is the finest exercise under the sun?

I won’t go so far as to say that it is finer than some other forms of recreation. Perhaps the best exercise in the world is the prosaic one of pulling a garden roller. Rowing, however, stimulated the all-round growth of the body – it gives a boy a chance of filling out – and it has many other advantages. It teaches you to subordinate yourself to others: the man who rows is bound to meet the rest of the crew half-way – a crew must work together…

The Brasenose College Eight of 1864. Woodgate is at ‘4’. Picture courtesy of the Brasenose College Boat Club Archive.

I was a perfect weed until I took to rowing. I attribute my capital health almost wholly to my enthusiasm for boating… The modern oarsman on sliding seats, is a heavier man than he would have been had he confined his exertions entirely to fixed seats. The explanation is that with the slide you use your lower extremities to such an extent that from two to five pounds’ weight of muscle are added to the legs…

What course do you recommend a beginner to adopt?

To start with, positioning is everything… A youngster should be taught how to sit, then how to hold an oar, and after that how to place his feet. He must learn to sit upright with his shoulders well back, his heels together, and his toes apart… The two upper joints of the fingers do all the grasping (of the oar) that is required, and the hands should be three inches apart…

Woodgate’s illustration on how an oar should and should not be held. Grasp it in the wrong way and you could be mistaken for a Belgian oarsman.

As a general rule… beginners are apt to do all the work with their arms. This is a fatal mistake. The biceps should remain passive during the stroke. It is the back, loins, legs and shoulders that are of importance…

[On] the subject of training….. the trapeze system of gymnastics is practically useless for boating men…. the horizontal bar doesn’t exercise the rowing muscles. Let him stick to the boat and row on both sides, so that one half of the body shall be equal to the other half in muscular development…

The “Chums” interview in full.

If you are acting as a coach, you have to study the temper of your men, but it’s no good being too automatic in your language. You must have a positive, a comparative, and a superlative….

No benefit is to be derived from eating uncooked flesh… Bear in mind that vegetables are essential… What upsets a man more than anything else is the consumption of alcohol on an empty stomach… I am not a teetotaller, but when a man asks me to have a drink, I often say, ‘’I’ll give you five shillings to let me off, or I’ll take a cigarette.’’    

O’Chee concluded that:

Whilst firmly rooted in the Victorian era, [Woodgate] was also thoroughly modern. He was an innovator, a ruthless competitor, notoriously opinionated, and an incredible athlete. It is doubtful the rowing world will see his likes again.

I’ll smoke to that.

One comment

  1. Tim Koch’s article rings many bells, not least the reference to working class kids being fascinated with tales of Public School life. I went to a South London Comprehensive Boys School where, among many subjects, I learned to row. As Tim remarks and Orwell wrote, we were all well versed on the behaviour of Billy Bunter, Tom Cherry and the rules and regulations of the likes of Greyfriars School, though none of us had set foot in a real Public School and I well remember my , Welsh born , English teacher laughing his head off at our perception of gentlemanly behaviour.
    A rude awakening occurred when, in 1962, a group of us 15 &16 year olds from the School Boat Club paid a Wednesday visit to HRR. We were all warned to be on our best behaviour or else … Only to witness in the afternoon Fun Fair a running mawl an, apparently, annual event twixt School X and College Y (who’s Crews we had seen racing that morning in the P.E. Challenge Cup) punching seven bells out of each other !
    The British class system was alive and well in the 1960s. Hopefully, things have kicked on, excuse the pun, in the subsequent 50 plus years.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.