RRM@21 – 2: Friends of Rowing History

Friends of Rowing History snowed up at Mystic Seaport Museum – (left to right) Chris Dodd, Tom Weil, Peter Mallory and Bill Miller.

15 February 2019 

By Chris Dodd 

In his second piece to celebrate the River & Rowing Museum’s 21st anniversary, Chris Dodd introduces the historians who shared his interest in rowing’s past.

My undistinguished schoolboy coxing and rowing career sowed the seeds of interest in the sport’s social history. When I began writing about it years later, I was soon hooked on its culture as much as its regatta scene, and my interest found its outlet when I was commissioned to write a history of Henley Regatta and, later, the Boat Race.

For becoming an author I have to thank Peter Coni who was chairman of Henley at the time and sought recognition for his event’s place in history. I learned a lot from the ‘heavy’ rowing correspondents with whom I was in friendly competition – Desmond Hill, Richard Burnell, Geoffrey Page, Jim Railton and colleagues on the Guardian, particularly the Olympic expert John Rodda. Researching those books brought me to Diana and Richard Way’s bookshop in Henley and Pat Smith’s American shop by mail order, both sources of deep knowledge. It also introduced me to foreign rowing historians, particularly a group calling themselves Friends of Rowing History in the United States.

The Professor of the Friends was Tom Mendenhall who, apart from being the world’s leading expert on England’s medieval wool industry, followed A Short History of American Rowing with a history of the Harvard-Yale race that he claims introduced collegiate sport to America. I met Thomas E. Weil, the most erudite and witty collector of rowing memorabilia. I met Bill Miller, collector and convenor of the Friends, who organised a series of history symposia at Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut.

At the Museum, I once interviewed John Gardner, journalist and curator of the Museum’s vast collection of small workboats native to the East Coast. When the River and Rowing Museum (RRM) opened, I was elevated to the Friends’ board, and I set about replicating the Mystic symposia, bringing many historians manqué out of the woodwork and spreading the word. Among the more prominent were Tony Owen of Putney Town and London RC, who dug deep into the lives of ‘professionals’ who manned boats as a way of living, long before amateurs took up rowing as a sport. Tim Koch and Peter Mallory became doyens of the Friends, and Mystic’s Swede, Göran Buckhorn, started heartheboatsing.com in 2008, a blog that has attracted several ace contributors and become the voice of rowing history, culture and mystique.

At the 2011 Rowing History Forum, Peter Mallory (left) and Chris Dodd took a look at one of the four-volume “The Sport of Rowing”, written by Peter. The book was published by the River and Rowing Museum that year.

The history forums at the RRM have heard about all sorts from all sorts – Bob Janoušek on his three lives as a Czech coach, British coach, and boat builder; John Cox on a life in wooden boats; Ian Whitehead on Tyne professionals; Richard Twining on Calcutta RC: John Hall-Craggs where Cambridge blue comes from; Colin Porter on Barn Cottage; Guin Batten on British women’s breakthrough at Sydney 2000; Jerry Sutton on how to make a wooden oar; Maurice Phelps on his family dynasty of Doggett’s winners; Boris Rankov on polyremes; Bobbie Prentice on how to survive upturning in the Atlantic Ocean; Rob van Mesdag on student rowing in the Netherlands; Ian Volans on Victorian oarsmen who shaped other sports; Terry Morahan on tracing the oldest known blazer to Kabul; Annamarie Phelps on women advancing ‘from assisted drifting to driving force’; Miriam Batten on the advance of Henley Women’s Regatta and Mike Sweeney on women at Henley Royal…

And more.

As you can see, casting off to fill the empty galleries and storeroom in a new building was an adventurous voyage. For me, it was a new way of telling stories, and I hope to share further insight and incident in the coming weeks.

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