27 August 2019
By Chris Dodd
Chris Dodd reports on a great international boat race that took place on the Tideway 150 years ago today.
At precisely 14 minutes and 16 seconds past 5 on 27 August 1869, Mr Blaikie yelled ‘Go!’, thus releasing coxed fours representing Harvard and Oxford universities from their stakeboats to race from Putney to Mortlake. The largest crowd ever assembled – estimates begin at half a million – thronged the banks and opened their lungs on the hottest day on record, and the largest assembly of reporters yet witnessed at a boat race crowded aboard the Press steamer to record the race and its result.
The fixture arose when William H Simmons, the captain of Harvard University Boat Club, wrote to his opposite number at Oxford, J C Tinné, on 6 April challenging OUBC to ‘row a race in outrigger boats… each to carry four rowers and a coxswain’ between the middle of August and 1 September 1869, the exact time to be agreed upon at a meeting of the crews. Tinné said Yes (Cambridge, also challenged by Harvard, declined), and Oxford began training while Harvard set about raising the money, selecting a crew and finding a boat.
While students in Cambridge, Mass, organised private theatricals and alumni put their hands in their pockets, Simmons borrowed a boat and formed a crew that tested its strength against several of the best professional combinations in New England. By early July, Joseph S Fay and F O Lyman had joined Alden P Loring and Simmons as substitutes for Messrs Rice and Bass, and on 10 July the Crimsons embarked aboard the Inman steamer City of Paris, accompanied by their boatbuilder and two servants, and escorted out of New York harbour by crews from Nassau BC and other clubs.
Oarsmen from Liverpool and Royal Chester escorted the Americans into the Mersey, and after hospitality at the Adelphi Hotel they were conveyed to Putney by special train coupled up to a flatcar for the two boats shipped from Boston, They were put up at the Star & Garter until their accommodation at the White House, Barnes, was ready.
When Tinné picked three Blues and a cox to join him in his crew – F Willan, A C Yarborough, S D Darbishire and steersman F H Hall – Dr Warre and the Oxford coaches did their training at Datchet, Eton and Pangbourne, out of the public eye.
Harvard wrestled with the change of climate at Putney and were trying to find a comfortable shell to use in the race. Their travelling boatbuilder had completed his 49-ft long by 18.5 inches wide four-oar the day before it was loaded onto the City of Paris, and so the crew had only rowed in it once. The second boat shipped to England was built by an Englishman recently arrived in the U.S. carrying a reputation, but his boat did not appeal.
While these were given racks in London RC’s boatshed, Elliott studied the width, depth, mud and tides of the Thames and set about making a boat more suited to the conditions. He had packed a model and ribs that matched his most successful shell, the boat that had beaten Yale for the last three years. He hired two assistants and turned out a new boat five days before the race was due.
Meanwhile, English racing boat builders came knocking at Harvard’s door, hoping to get in on such a prestigious occasion and seeking international recognition in the leading edge of their industry. The Americans were not convinced that the fastest American-made boat was necessarily the fastest possible, and so J and S Salter of Oxford were instructed to build their very swiftest boat. Hearing this, London RC members opined that the Tyne builders Jewitt and Clasper made better fours than the eights specialist, Salters, and both were commissioned on similar terms to the Oxford firm. Not to be left out, E Searle and Sons tendered a boat free of charge, and so the Crimsons were presented with seven boats from which to choose.
Eventually, the new Elliott was chosen. Roomy and comfortable at 44 feet long, 21.5 inches wide and 8 inches deep, she had centred fixed seats and knees of Maine Hacmatack which was strong but lighter than the white oak used by the English makers.
From the day they arrived, the Americans attracted enormous attention in the boat and on the bank. Visitors flocked to the White House, horsemen followed them on the towpath, and the London newspapers described and analysed their every stroke, comparing their rowing with Oxford’s in minute detail. ‘Their aim,’ said the London Times, ‘was to pull every part of the stroke equally hard. To affect this, they reached farther over their toes than their antagonists and at the end of the stroke thrust their hands very quickly away from their bodies… Oxford sat up straight, reached well forward, though they took their time getting there, and seemed to hang for a moment to balance their oars for a hit at the water…’ Weight, height, fitness and diet were compared across the heavy Oxford men and the lighter Harvards (Oxford weighed in at 790 lbs to Harvard’s 731).
Acres of this sort of stuff appeared in the print for weeks on end, and American papers joined in, at least fifteen of them locating correspondents in London to cover the race. The draw of a rare international sporting event between the leading universities of England and America was one cause of media interest; the other was the recently opened Atlantic cable that enabled New York and Boston papers to print the result minutes after it was known.
So attentive was the attention focussed on Harvard that William Blaikie, their chef de mission, complained that his men could find no privacy. Their two fears were of tampering with food and drink before the race by the disrespectable betting fraternity, and interference on the water during it. The first was tackled by arranging for a double allowance of food to be brought into the house, one sourced through normal channels and the other by Americans in secret. The second concern was met by Parliament placing control of the Tideway in the hands of the Conservators who, with the agreement of the crews, restricted steamers following the race to one for the umpires and one for the press, and allowing two spectator ships to anchor near the finish line, each with two policemen on board to stand over the captain and ‘arrest him the moment his paddles moved’.
On the day, every inn, dwelling house and shanty along the Championship course was a mine of gold to its owner. Roads were blocked off, vendors and ventriloquists did their stuff, bands played the national anthem and Yankee Doodle, police boats marshalled spectator wherries and barges and 800 policemen controlled the crowd. Every by-line of note went down to the river to tackle the great challenge of a boat race – how to follow an event that moves four and a quarter miles over water from Putney to Mortlake, from one location to another.
At 5 pm everyone was in place except for the crews, who were having difficulty getting attached to their stakeboats. Charles Dickens Junior, the organiser of the whole affair, was pacing the deck of the steamer, looking anxious. Blaikie the starter was hollering at the coxes trying to make himself heard above the roar from both banks. Thomas Hughes MP, the referee, was standing on deck between the umpires, Judge Chitty for the Blues and FS Gulston for the Crimsons, while the professional sculler Harry Kelley was in Oxford’s stakeboat on the Surrey station and his American challenger Walter Brown was manning Harvard’s on Middlesex, Simmons having won the toss and chosen the Fulham side. Also on deck were Sir Aubrey Paul, the judge at the finish, Colonel Henderson, the superintendent of police, and Mr Lord of the Conservancy.
Brown was almost stretched overboard by Harvard cox Burnham’s attempts to bring his boat under control. Eventually, the starter cried, ‘I shall start you by the words Are You Ready? Then I will pause for a moment and repeat, Are You Ready? If no response comes I will say Go! If either side breaks an oar in the first dozen strokes, I shall call you back by swinging my hat back vigorously. Now, then look out, Are You Ready?’
‘No’ shouts Tinné.
‘Again, are you ready?’
‘No’, again from Tinné.
‘When will you be?’
Both boats eventually sprang away almost 15 minutes after the appointed hour. They almost clash, Oxford’s Mr Hall shrieks at Harvard’s Mr Burnham, and they part, and after three minutes Harvard lead by a length and a half. Burnham then steers across the Fulham flats away from the tide, and at Hammersmith Bridge is only a length in front.
The boats are level off Chiswick Eyot and Oxford lead by two lengths at Barnes Bridge. Harvard stroke Loring is in trouble and Burnham is vigorously dashing water over him. The dense mass on the shore is swaying and sweeping over fields and fences, ditches and hedges, wild with excitement. Derby Day cannot compare.
Harvard’s ‘2’ man, Lyman, is also distressed, and the boat is rolling badly. Oxford cross the line first, half to three-quarters of a length of clear water ahead, says Sir Aubrey, in 22 minutes 20 seconds – remarkably fast for a coxed four on a sluggish tide. Oxford supporters opined that the distance was three to four lengths, but whatever the truth, most of the gap was opened up after Barnes Bridge, and it was a mighty fine contest.
That evening the crews are entertained to a grand dinner at the house of Mr Phillips, brewer of Mortlake. The Queen and President Ulysses Grant are toasted, and Tinné says he has never been pushed so hard in a race.
Among Harvard’s 20 invitations to dinner was one hosted by London Rowing Club, a grand blowout at the Crystal Palace on Sydenham Hill where Thomas Hughes and Charles Dickens Senior were the key speakers.
Meanwhile, the press gave Harvard’s Arthur Burnham a hard time for squandering the opportunity of gaining the tide and washing Oxford down when passing the Crabtree. The American papers covered their front pages with yard-long accounts of the race in their Saturday morning editions. All except the New York Tribune, that is. After its scribe toiled all night to file his story, the Atlantic Cable Co failed to transmit it under the ocean.
The London Times declared that the lesson of the event is a victory for education on both sides of the ocean. The day, said the Thunderer, will be ‘ever immortal in Anglo-American annals’.
Chris Dodd writes: I first came across this story when writing the history of the Boat Race in the early 1980s (The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, Stanley Paul). For many reasons the event of 1869 is significant. It was one of the earliest international sports events; it was responsible for the spread of ‘crew’ in American colleges; it did much for Anglo-American relations and, perhaps even for the elusive Special Relationship; it was manna from heaven for daily and weekly newspapers; it provided high entertainment value for hundreds of thousands of people. The events of 1869 also gave me the idea for a historical novel, the plot of which I’ve been chewing over for almost 40 years. Currently, it bears little resemblance to the first idea, but the international boat race still features in the story. And the chewing phase is over. With luck, my story will appear in 2020!