7 January 2019
By William O’Chee
This year marks 190 years since the very first rowing race between the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. In that time, the race and its two constituent clubs have delivered drama, triumphs, tragedies, sinkings, and even rowing’s own version of an idiot pitch invader. There has also been not a small degree of intrigue within the clubs from time to time.
Perhaps the most famous such intrigue was the so-called Mutiny at Oxford in 1987 surrounding the selection of President Donald MacDonald, and the supposed rebellion by a number of American international oarsmen, who were rowing at Oxford that year. Americans also featured in a rebellion against the coaching of Jumbo Edwards in 1959, which was seen off by the coach and the President for an Oxford win.
For sheer duplicity and ruthlessness, both of these pale in comparison with the events at Oxford in 1930. With the assistance of Tim Koch, it has been possible to piece together the events.
While Oxford did much the better than Cambridge in the 19th century, the first half of the 20th century was somewhat different. After the First World War, Cambridge enjoyed a strong winning streak. In fact, Oxford won only one race in the 1920s, and by 1930 Oxford was desperate to win again.
In May 1929, Alastair Graham of Brasenose College was elected President of O.U.B.C., succeeding his close friend H.C. Morphett. That year, Graham and Morphett had combined to make the final of the Goblets at Henley Royal Regatta, where they lost to Thames Rowing Club.
Not only was Graham a fine oarsman, but he had been the driving force in restoring Brasenose College to the Head of the River in Summer Eights the year before. Not unnaturally, he brought all of his enthusiasm and fierce determination to the task of resurrecting Oxford’s fortunes in the same way he had done so at B.N.C.
Oxford had not won the Boat Race since 1923, which was largely attributable to the paucity of good oarsmen during much of that time. In Graham’s year as President that problem seemed to finally abate. The return of Jumbo Edwards, along with the promise of Graham himself, and new talent such as Lewis Clive and C.F. Martineau offered the promise of a turning of the tide.
The hallmarks of Graham’s approach to organising a boat club can also be seen in the reforms he brought to the Oxford squad. Dietary intake was aligned with training requirements, and a much more disciplined and demanding workload was reintroduced to the squad’s preparations. All of this had begun to make a noticeable difference.
However, Graham encountered another difficulty, in that the coaches he eventually appointed – Dr Mallam, Major Wiggins and Stanley Garton – were not his first choices. There was some suggestion that at Henley the year before, Graham had asked one of the Cambridge coaches to come across, but had not succeeded in securing his services. Even then, Mallam and the others did not come on board until 22 January 1930, with Graham doing all of the coaching up until that point.
Not merely as O.U.B.C. President, but as the best oarsman in Oxford at the time, Graham not unnaturally felt he was justified in rowing in the stern pair on his return to the boat. However he found himself in conflict with Mallam, an old University College Blue, who preferred that club’s pairing of Martineau and Tinne. Graham disagreed. Not only was he a Goblets finalist, but the Brasenose College IV had beaten the University College crew in the final of the O.U.B.C. Fours by over ten seconds.
Mallam now moved Graham around the boat. In nine days, he rowed four times in the seven seat, four times in bow, and once in the two seat. When Graham told Mallam he was dissatisfied with this and the lack of progress of the crew, Mallam countered by claiming that Graham did not deserve to be in the boat. It was an extraordinary claim to make, and one which was not supported by the Secretary, Ingle, nor by Morphett, both of whom had been on the bank for some days watching the crew training. The only member of the committee who had not seen Graham row from outside the boat was Tinne, so on the Monday a session was arranged in which Tinne could see from bank how Graham was rowing. The result of this was that Tinne agreed that Graham was rowing well. The committee then agreed with Graham that Mallam should be asked to resign as coach.
The press had noted the absence of Mallam for this and the following day’s training, but initially there was no inkling of the trouble that lay behind. Suddenly, the press started to report Mallam’s lack of confidence in Graham as an oarsman, questioning his place in the boat and claiming that the coaches had chosen to resign.
Such stories never appear without a motive, and are seldom entirely true. Tom Balding, who had access to both Graham and Johnston, wrote a very different account of the events in the Brasenose College Boat Club Minute Book. Crucially, Balding wrote that Graham had not acted alone, but had the unanimous backing of his committee for the actions he had taken, and also for retaining his place in the boat.
Due to the commentary in the newspapers, Graham thought it appropriate to call a meeting of the College Boat Club Captains and to seek a vote of confidence from them in order to stare down the press. What he did not realise was that he was about to be betrayed.
The meeting opened with Graham explaining to the Captains what happened, the disagreements with Mallam, and his desire to see the crew put on a more stable footing. He concluded by noting he had the support of all Blues in residence, as well as everyone on the committee. He then asked the Secretary to take the chair, while he left the room. Only when Graham had left, did Tinne show his hand, and withdrew his support for his President. In the two preceding days, Tinne and the other University College men in the boat had taken the opportunity to sow dissent amongst the Captains in order to remove Graham as President. Their attack was simple and deeply personal: the problem was not the coaching, but Graham himself, who was not a good enough oarsman and needed to be removed. Balding takes up the story:
There was however a lot of running about by the University College contingent which
resulted in the most amazing statements being made to the meeting, of which one was that 6 of the crew then rowing would resign if Graham were reelected, and another that the coaches considered Graham an unsuitable president….
Graham had acted with the full agreement of his committee, of which Tinne was a member. He therefore felt sure the Captains would back him also. However at the meeting Tinne allowed himself to be put up as a candidate for the Presidency and eventually won by 12-10. As a result four University College men gained Blues and the Boat Race was again lost.
Clearly, Ingles had erred in his handling of the meeting, for Graham should have been invited back into the room to answer the allegations against him, especially the suggestion that six of the crew would not row with him. This claim was patently untrue, for Ingles (Magdalen) and Edwards (Christ Church) staunchly supported Graham, as did Johnston. However none of these men was in the room since it was a meeting of the College Captains, who were not members of the crew, and poorly placed to know the truth of such matters.
But the greater blame must lie with Tinne, whose complicity in the falsehoods alleged against Graham was reprehensible. Moreover, he was, at the very least, honour bound to tell Graham of his intentions before the meeting and failed to do so.
The confidence motion being defeated, Graham promptly resigned, but this necessitated a further vote at the meeting for a new President. Tinne now allowed himself to be nominated, but some of the Captains were horrified by this, and nominated Johnston instead. Tinne won narrowly, presumably with the same votes that he had used to depose Graham. It was obvious that a strong disinformation campaign had been run by Tinne and his colleagues, for Balding also commented:
It has been spread about that between Univ. and B.N.C. exists a feud. This is not so. If we are annoyed at the behaviour of some of the men of that College we are not alone, and have the support of almost half the University, including Magdalen and New College.
While we consider Tinne’s conduct in first supporting Graham and then letting him down when the trouble arose most reprehensible, yet it has been fairly obvious that he was most heavily influenced by those of his College to whom his Presidency meant inclusion in the crew, and it is fairly obvious that Dr P.C. Mallam’s hands were pretty deeply concerned in the sticky deeds of the business. Unfortunately there are in Oxford, Colleges which bear us some grudge or other and which took this opportunity of paying it off. If this was not so, it is difficult to see for what reason any Captain should have voted for Tinne against Graham in the first place and against Johnston in the second.
Tinne and his colleagues may well have defeated Graham in the meeting room, but they also laid the foundations for their own defeat on the water. Graham had been one of the best oars in the boat, and was without doubt far better than the spare man who was brought in to replace him. To the discerning observer, the preponderance of University College men in the boat exposed the dangerous deficit of oarsmanship they brought to the contention with Cambridge. After all, University College had been conclusively beaten by B.N.C. in the O.U.B.C. Fours just a couple of months before; now all four of the losing crew were rowing in the Blue Boat, while of their conquerors only one remained.
Come the Boat Race two months later, Oxford rowed a tight race on the Surrey station and were level with Cambridge at the Mile, and led by a third of a length at Hammersmith Bridge. Oxford were a length up by Chiswick Eyot but could not get clear. The Light Blues made the most of the rough conditions that followed to get on equal terms before taking the lead at the Duke’s Meadows and winning by two lengths. Had Graham been on board, they would arguably have had sufficient horsepower to steal the Cambridge water at Chiswick, and the eventual result would have been different. This was certainly the opinion of one man who was in a position to know, Jumbo Edwards, who wrote that Oxford could have won, had it not been for the ructions which led to Graham’s resignation.
Here is a 4 ½-minute film from the 1930 Boat Race.
Time and events would vindicate Graham. In May, Brasenose College rowed over at the Head of the River for six nights denying the challenges of the University College. Weeks later, Graham and Johnston of Brasenose College defeated none other than D.E. Tinne and his brother of University College to win the O.U.B.C. Pairs by 15 seconds.
Finally, at Henley Royal Regatta that July, Graham was the only Oxford oarsman invited to row in the Leander Eight in the Grand, which was otherwise completely composed of Cambridge Blues. Graham ended the regatta rowing in three finals, winning the Visitor’s Challenge Cup, and finishing second in the Goblets and the Grand.