When Keble Went Head

Keble oarsmen getting ready for the Head of the River on Isis. Photo from Keble College website.

17 June 2019

By Anthony Hackett-Jones

HTBS receives an e-mail from Anthony Hackett-Jones where he remembers the Heads on the Isis in the 1960s.

Tim Koch’s two recent pieces on the Oxford Summer Eights (part I here and part II here) have awoken me from recent torpor, and so I felt I had to drop HTBS a line. For almost the last year, I have managed to catch a few crabs and this has not only slowed the boat alarmingly but has also contributed to the dreaded falling off of various pieces and some further damage to the hull and general malfunctions. Mr Sawbones and friends have very wonderfully kept up with necessary repairs and, so far, prevented a sinking.

Tim’s pieces about bumping races were a great reminder of those wonderfully chaotic times. However, the topic of the ‘over bump’ did not, I think show. I was at Keble College at a time when they were probably the best rowing college. Certainly, we went Head, and many celebrations were enjoyed. But it was, I think, our 2nd VIII, which was almost equal to the 1st, that very narrowly missed a ‘double over bump’. By about six feet.

Obviously, this could only come about if a very fast crew were preceded by the right ones in front of them, but it was huge fun making the attempt. I wonder if it has ever been done on such a short course as the Isis?

It was obviously distressing to see included in the pieces, pictures of Keble being bumped by Oriel!

Cecil Vere Davidge pictured at Abingdon School in the 1919 first IV. Photo: Wikipedia.

One of the reasons for the college’s supremacy was a cunning plan by our lecturer in Jurisprudence to encourage applicants from as many rowing schools as possible. We had a good complement from Eton, Radley, King’s Canterbury, Pangbourne etc. Proficiency at oarsmanship weighed at least equally with intelligence, if not more so. The tutor in question was one Vere Davidge. He was the progenitor of CGV (Chris) Davidge, who was pretty much at the pinnacle of his international rowing powers leading up to 1962. So he was quite a hero of ours, but nothing to do with the college.

There was another bit of a legend around the same time. An Australian chicken sexer by the name of Stuart A MacKenzie. His initials led to him being known as Sam. A brilliant sculler, who was happy to let his races do the talking. He was a bit raw when he arrived in England to join with the rather stuffy rowing elite and had many bust ups with the Leander hierarchy, but a happy position was soon achieved. There is a story, much told, of how on one occasion, when racing at Henley, he was so much faster than his poor opponent that he stopped sculling to let the man catch up. He excused himself later by saying that he had to adjust his headgear. But we knew that a couple of minutes earlier, we had been paddling down to the start. We knew his race was expected, so we stopped to watch. He stopped opposite us. Took off his tracksuit top, stowed it and when his opponent got close, he raced on with huge energy, thereby leading to the recorded stop. Many a brow was furrowed, but he still won The Diamond Challenge Sculls for the sixth consecutive year, 1957-1962.

It was slightly unexpected that these two, Davidge and MacKenzie, joined forces (an outback Aussie and an Old Etonian) and rowed together quite a few times, winning the Double Sculls Challenge Cup at Henley in 1959. Their intense desire to win along with their great rowing abilities meant that this pair had a great time together.

Keble College, Head of the River, the 1960s. Photo from Keble College website.

Sorry to waffle on, but just before I end, we had some fun with building our new boathouse, with Jesus College sharing the semi-detached half. It was all planned out as a project over a few years, but in 1962 the actual construction of the building could start. They had chosen a not hugely well-known, but ultra-modern architect called Z W Nirrenski. At least that’s what I seem to recall. He was not English. Neither was his No.2.

So, just to ensure that all was well, the Captain of Boats and I went down to the site, with plans, to check out the site for the final time. The ground had not been broken, but white perimeter lines had been set out. When lining up with the building next door, which had started to excavate, something did not look quite right. We measured and found that ours was to be 3 feet too short to accommodate an eight. Lucky that we checked!

That’s all for now. Keep up the good work with HTBS.

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