The Fourth At Eton: Swinging In The Rain

A member of Eton College’s Fourth Eight waits stoically in a shower of rain before rowing past the gathered teachers and parents on the school’s open day known as ‘The Fourth of June’ (though in rarely falls on that date, in 2019 it was held on 15 June). This picture also shows an open ‘fixed pin’ gate and an oar with a ‘button’ as opposed to a ‘collar’.

14 August 2019

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch holds that it is always Jolly boating weather – whatever the meteorological conditions.

Jolly boating weather,
And a hay harvest breeze,
Blade on the feather,
Shade off the trees,
Swing, swing together,
With your bodies between your knees,
Swing, swing together,
With your bodies between your knees.

This is the well-known first verse of the much-parodied Eton Boating Song (the most famous spoof chronicled the surprisingly perverse love life of the camel). It is often used in film and television to evoke a sense of ‘Englishness’ or to enhance an English summer scene. However, not everyone is enchanted by the air. In 1952, Old Etonian, George Orwell wrote:

From the whole decade before 1914 there seems to breathe forth a smell of the more vulgar, un-grown-up kind of luxury…… an atmosphere, as it were, of eating everlasting strawberry ices on green lawns to the tune of the Eton Boating Song.

Usually, I am a great fan of Orwell but ‘eating everlasting strawberry ices on green lawns to the tune of the Eton Boating Song’ does not sound too bad to me – particularly when viewing Eton’s annual Procession of Boats.

Eight of the ten fixed-seat boats used in the Procession. Most are very old and all are only used once a year and, as a consequence, some are not entirely watertight.
This shot of “Prince of Wales” clearly shows the fixed pin gates and the fixed seats. Newer seats seem to have been fitted above and slightly set back from the originals, presumably to accommodate today’s taller boys and/or to strengthen the old boat.

I have had the pleasure of watching the Procession of Boats three times: in 2011, in 2017 and in this year. A more detailed explanation of this unique event is in my 2017 piece, though I will plagiarise myself and repost many of my comments from two years ago in this report on the 2019 Procession – starting with this summary of the day:

‘The Fourth of June’… is the birthday of Eton’s greatest patron, King George III (1738-1820), and is the school’s equivalent of parents’ day or open day. The entertainments include a wide range of exhibitions, a promenade concert, a performance of speeches, a cricket match against Old Etonians, and the Procession of Boats. The Procession is a ‘row past’ by most of the school’s boat club in front of the parents and the teachers assembled in one of the school fields that rolls down to the Thames. It starts with the most senior boys’ boats and ends with those of the youngest. This does not sound particularly special – but there are several ‘Etonian twists’. The wooden boats are carvel, fixed seat, and most have fixed-pin (as opposed to swivel) rowlocks. The blades have ‘needle’ spoons and the leading boat is a ten-oar. All the rowers are dressed in the uniform of eighteenth-century midshipmen, with the cox dressed as an admiral or other senior naval officer of Nelson’s era. Most strikingly, the oarsmen wear straw boaters that have been extravagantly decorated with fresh flowers by their house matrons or ‘Dames’…. At a certain point in the row past, each boat in turn stops and the entire crew and the cox stand up. Those in boats with open fixed pin gates hold their oars erect. While Victorian eights are a little more stable than are modern racing boats, this is still a difficult thing to do. They then face Windsor Castle, remove their hats and cheer the Queen, the school, and the memory of George III, shaking the flowers from their boaters into the water. The crew then resume their seats and row away.

Marshalling for the Procession

In the background, “Britannia” containing the Third Eight, in the foreground, “Thetis” and the Fourth Eight.
The cox of “Prince of Wales”, the Second Eight.
A member of “Monarch”, the ten-oar.
“Victory”, the First Eight.
“Monarch” viewed from Fellows’ Eyot, an island opposite the school field in front of which the row past takes place.

The Procession of The Upper Boats

The members of “Monarch” stand and salute the Queen, the School and King George III.

Monarch, the ten-oar, is crewed by four ex-officio rowers, the Captain of the School (the top scholarship boy), Captain of the Oppidans (the top academically most distinguished boy), the Ninth Man in the Monarch (responsible for running internal rowing races) and the Captain of Boats (who runs the First Eight). The remainder were ‘members of the Monarch’, senior boys who help administer internal rowing. The rules of Eton College Boat Club say that: ‘All instructions given by members of the Monarch must be followed without argument’.

In the background, “Victory” (First Eight), in the foreground, “Prince of Wales” (Second Eight).

Monarch is closely followed in a ‘V’ formation by Victory and Prince of Wales. The former two have normal swivel rowlocks with the gate closed by a metal bar, while the latter has fixed-pin gates ‘closed’ by twine over the top. Thus, the boys in these three boats cannot hold their oars up when they stand to salute. To compensate for having the advantage of their oars on the water, they all stand up together. The remaining seven boats have open ‘fixed-pin’ gates (as shown in the first picture on top). In these, the cox will stand, then 4 and 5 will hold their oars up and stand, followed by 3 and 6, then 2 and 7, and finally bow and stroke. Sitting down is done in reverse order.

Only the fixed-pin gates of “Prince of Wales” are ‘closed’ by having twine stretched over the open part of the rowlock. The swivel rowlock was patented in the U.S. in 1875 but in Britain, it was not widely used until the early 1900s (though Leander won the Grand with fixed-pin rowlocks as late as 1949).
The Third Eight in “Britannia”. All the crew have stood and all except 4 and 5 and the cox have sat down again.
The Fourth Eight in “Thetis”. The cox, then 4 and 5, then 3 and 6 have stood. Numbers 7 and 2 have just raised their oars and are about to stand. They will be followed by stroke and bow.

The Procession of The Lower Boats

The Junior 16 ‘A’ Crew in “Hibernia”.
The Junior 16 ‘B’ crew in “Alexandra”. The boat is a wooden, fixed seat, fixed pin eight which, remarkably, was built in 2005.
“Alexandra”’s 3 and 6 about to stand.
The cox of “Alexandra” is the master of his craft.
“Defiance” carries the Junior 16 ‘C’ Crew.
‘Steady as she goes’: The cox of “Defiance” is in control.
The Junior 15 ‘A’ Crew in “Dreadnought”.
“Dreadnought”’s cox under scrutiny.
In “St George”, the Junior 15 ‘B’ Crew salute Queen Elizabeth II, her great-great-great-grandfather (George III) and what the Eton Boating Song claims is ‘the best of schools’.
“St George” is the last boat in the Procession.
The boats are put away for another year. This shot shows the carvel construction of “Dreadnought” and her external keel and generous rudder.

Postscript – history

The master providing the commentary for the row past revealed a recent discovery regarding the first mention of what became the Procession of Boats. It has been long held that a boy’s letter home written in 1793 was the earliest recorded reference. However, this piece in “The Times” of 29 July 1791 clearly predates it. ‘Surly (or ‘Surley’) Hall’ was a disreputable hotel opposite where the Dorney rowing lake now is. It closed in 1899.
Supper at Surley Hall, 4 June 1856.

Those not in the Procession did not want to miss the fun at Surly. In 1836 it was written: The Etonians… not belonging to the boats’ crews, get into skiffs and row up to Surly Hall, there to await the coming of the pageant flotilla…. An aquatic procession now commences, consisting of all the boats belonging to the Eton boys, in order, the ten-oars taking the lead; the whole preceded by one or two bands of music in two boats, rowed by ‘cads’ (low fellows who hang about the college to provide the Etonians with anything necessary to assist their sports). The place of destination is Surly Hall… where refreshment, or rather a very substantial feast, in which wine makes a conspicuous figure, is provided.

A book of Eton memoirs written in the 1840s noted:

Looking from Windsor Bridge on a scholar, whose hair was said to be parted in the middle lest the boat should upset, (the headmaster) murmured to his friend ‘I really think the time is coming when Eton boys will go up to Surley on a stick.’

Postscript – opportunity

A cutting from the “Sunday Times” of 3 March 2019 that hangs proudly in Fulham Reach Boat Club, a charity dedicated to giving state school children the opportunity to row and to counter the sport’s ‘elitist’ image. Its aim is ‘to unlock the potential of young people through rowing’. The article tells of Schuyler’s journey from a challenging West London council estate – via Fulham Reach BC – to Eton College.

My thanks to the Provost and Fellows of Eton College for their permission to photograph this event.

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