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.
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
The Procession of The Upper Boats
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’.
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.
The Procession of The Lower Boats
Postscript – history
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
My thanks to the Provost and Fellows of Eton College for their permission to photograph this event.