Eliot House Boat Club at Henley

Harvard beating Boston in the final of the 1914 Grand Challenge Cup.

26 June 2019

By Larry Fogelberg

Larry Fogelberg remembers the 1964 Henley Royal Regatta.

Everyone who has been to Henley Royal Regatta has fond memories of the experience, be it as a competitor – win or lose – or on the shore, anywhere from the Stewards’ Enclosure to the start line, or across the bridge, maybe in The Angel on the Bridge or The Catherine Wheel or any one of the many pubs in Henley on Thames. When I was there the first time, in 1964, it was said that one could have beer in a different place every week of the year.

I was there to watch the eight from Eliot House – one of the residential houses (then all male) at Harvard – compete for the Thames Challenge Cup. Eliot House Boat Club was stroked by Paul Wilson, a man from my school. On Saturday – back then semifinal and final races were both on Saturday – I was standing near the entrance to the Stewards’ Enclosure, properly attired, of course. I don’t think I was looking enviously at the people going in, but probably I was. A man who wasn’t wearing a blazer spoke to me, saying that his wife couldn’t attend, that I could have her badge. Good things happen!

He went on to tell me that they were guests in nearby manor house full of rowing memorabilia, the family celebrating Henley each year. It sounded like something out of a story by Wodehouse, just without Bertie Wooster’s escapades. I watched Eliot House BC win the semifinal and final races, saw the crew receive their gold medals from U.S. Senator Leverett Saltonstall. The crew didn’t have EHBC blazers, just round red lapel pins from Avis: “We try harder”. They had.

How could that crew win? Shouldn’t they have been rowing for Harvard?

The Eliot House crew was selected from undergraduates who lived in the house. It was known as the “prep house” and had more students from prep schools with rowing experience, but nothing like the pool the university coaches had: four eights each of heavy and lightweights. On Friday, Eliot House had eliminated the Harvard lightweight crew by three lengths in the quarterfinal.

Paul has provided a nice comment: “I’ve got one memory, half-amusing, half-annoying, related to the Harvard reaction to our Henley entry. The parents of Charlie Welch, the Harvard JV stroke and a boatmate of mine at Exeter and in the Harvard frosh, were longtime friends of my parents. I met Mrs. Welch at Henley, who said: “You’re really here on sort of a social adventure, aren’t you?” The obvious contrast was with Charlie’s crew, in the Grand. “No,” I said, “I actually think we have a chance to win.” She gave me a very skeptical look, pitying my delusion. The Soviet crew, of course, had open water on Harvard by the Barrier – and we did, in fact, win.”

How could the EHBC crew have won? They were strong, of course, but there was another significant factor, their coach.

Dr. Harold O. J. (Joe) Brown had rowed as a lightweight for Harvard. Later, studying theology in Germany, he learned Karl Adam’s new training methods and rowing style, with which the German eight had won the 1960 Olympics. With just a handful of oarsmen to select from, Joe put together a winning crew using Adam’s training techniques and rowing style. Joe and the crew demonstrated their superiority.

John Ashby, the EHBC captain, also has a nice comment, which connects the EHBC crew with the Soviet crew that defeated Charlie Welch’s Harvard crew in its first race in the Grand:

Somehow, before the regatta started, Joe Brown managed to arrange an evening practice row between EHBC and the Russian entry. That was one of the highlights of the entire week for me. We raced off the start to the “Barrier”, the first official time marker on the course. They beat us, but I think both crews beat the then Barrier record for their respective events. The older I get the faster we were.

Paul has pointed out that “Russian” was a Cold War expression for anything from the Soviet Union. The English commentator in a video also called it the “Russian” crew. The successful crew was actually from Lithuania, as this New York Times article reports. I had forgotten that Paul’s and my prep school was competing for the Prince Philip Challenge Cup, losing the final race against Molesey.

U.S. Senator Leverett Saltonstall

But why was a U.S. Senator congratulating the winning crews? In 1964, the first American crew to win the Grand Challenge rowed past: the 1914 Harvard crew. Fifty years later, the old crew was still complete, including its captain, U.S. Senator Leverett Saltonstall. The crew donated a replica of the Grand cup, the original trophy weak after so many years.

 

The Harvard 1914 and 1964 crews racing in the Grand had something in common. Paul has mentioned that it was Harvard’s JV (junior varsity, second boat) at Henley; the Varsity crew was training back home for the Olympic trials. Captain Saltonstall’s crew was also not Harvard’s first boat in 1914.

In 1964, it was the crew from Eliot House BC that upheld Harvard’s rowing tradition at Henley. In those days, the Thames Cup was engraved and then sent and entrusted to the winners’ club, in this case EHBC, where it spent the winter in a display case in the Eliot House dining hall.

I returned to Harvard from the U.S. Army in Germany that autumn, looking for a room. When I called on the John Finley, Master of Eliot House, he was just opening the case with the Thames Cup. I enthused about having seen his crew win, mentioning my experience. I got a room. Good things happen.

The next year, Eliot House returned to defend the Thames Cup. At the weigh-in for our weights to be put in the programs, we kept on all our warm-up clothing to conceal that we were not all six foot plus types. We did well till the semifinal Saturday morning against Oxford’s Isis crew. They won by half a length, but we had pushed them to a new record. Isis went on to win the final. Five years later, on boathouse row in Melbourne, Australia, I met a member of the Isis crew. It can be small world.

In 2004, the winning EHBC crew had its 40th reunion at Henley. I was along as a member of the 1965 crew. Joe Brown was member of the Stewards, could arrange everything, and did: the whole week of the regatta in best company, including wives and at least one son, who surprised his father by presenting him with the HRR programs for their races so long ago, an eBay find. Good things happen.

I shall be back in Henley, now 15 years later, with a group from my German club to celebrate its 150th anniversary with a row-past. A few years ago, the club won the Thames Cup, but the crew didn’t get to take it home. The club has enough old silver on permanent display. None of those along for the party can know what it will mean for me to be in Henley again – unless someone asks.

3 comments

  1. Larry, We at your German club Frankfurt Rudergesellschaft Germania 1869 e.V. are very happy to have you in Henley at the Royal Regatta to help celebrate our sesquicentennial – especially since, as you mentioned, we won at HRR for the first time in 2014: Winning The Thames Challenge Cup by a canvas in the final against Sport Imperial. After our first start at HRR in 1880 the first win was a long time coming! This year’s trip will be a trip down memory lane for all of us. See you in Henley! Nigel

  2. Thank you, Nigel and Peter, and also a „Fixture“ on HTBS, who sent me a personal email recalling his own memories of the 1964 HRR regatta. I had a fine day on Saturday, topped when a gentleman looked up at my yellowing woolen hat with a red “E” and crossed oars and asked: “Exeter, America?” We were both delighted that he was right. He had coxed our school’s four in 1952. I had earned my “E” in 1959. The last line of the article had been right:
    “None of those along for the party can know what it will mean for me to be in Henley again – unless someone asks.” Someone had.

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