The 2019 Wingfield Sculls: Best Scullers Forever

Meghann Jackson of London Rowing Club, a second-time Wingfields contender, prepares to go afloat alongside the 42-foot saloon launch “Verity”, a splendid Edwardian craft that served as the Wingfield Sculls umpire, press and spectator boat.

6 October 2019

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch follows the oldest but least known of the Putney – Mortlake boat races.

Henry Colsell Wingfield was born in 1805 and consequently was probably not very familiar with the Internet, social media and an acronym now much used by teenage girls, ‘BFF’ (Best Friends Forever). However, he may have invented the abbreviation ‘BSF’ when, in 1830, he instituted a race for amateur scullers with the prize of a pair of miniature silver sculls ‘to be held by the best’ provided that the event was held annually ‘forever’ on his birthday. ‘Forever’ is a long time but, on 4 October 2019, evidence that Henry’s wishes are still carried out was on show when the 179th Wingfield Sculls and the 13th Women’s Wingfield Sculls was held on the Putney to Mortlake Course on the River Thames.

On board “Verity” going to the start are, left to right, the 2019 men’s race umpire, Graeme Mulcahy (Champion 1976), Wade Hall-Craggs (Wingfields secretary, archivist and 1993 Champion) and Peter Laverick (owner of “Verity” and father of two times Olympic Bronze medalist in the double sculls, Elise Sherwell, née Laverick).
The 2019 women’s race umpire, Guy Pooley (Champion 1991 & 1992), left, enjoys some of the tea, sandwiches and home-made cakes generously provided by Mrs Laverick. “Verity” was commissioned in 1906 by the famous Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba, and in 1922 it was purchased by Neville Chamberlain, later Prime Minister.

The course is the 4 ½ mile (6.8 km) ‘Championship Course’ from Putney to Mortlake complete with tides, bends, shallows, rough water, driftwood, head winds, cross winds, tail winds and other river users. These can be unsettling conditions for those who usually only race in the (near) sterile conditions of FISA approved 2000-metre rowing courses. The Wingfields requires skills of watermanship that top scullers and rowers do not necessarily possess in modern times.

Nowadays, Wingfields is open to all scullers of the United Kingdom who are registered to race with British Rowing. Historically, winning the Wingfield Sculls carried great prestige and it was part of the ‘triple crown’ of British amateur sculling. Today, ‘the best’ are usually part of the GB Squad and their commitment to this often means that they are unable to take part. The management of the event is in the hands of a committee made up of previous winners or ‘Champions’ who meet at least once a year to examine the entries and to appoint the umpires for the upcoming races from amongst their number.

In the Members’ Room at London Rowing Club, the men’s race umpire Graeme Mulcahy gives his pre-race briefing.
Wade Hall-Craggs, who has done wonderful work preserving and adding to the Wingfields archive, examines the Wingfields medal and portrait of one of London RC’s most famous sons, AA Casamajor, Champion 1855 – 1860.
London’s walls also display a Vanity Fair or ‘Spy’ lithograph of Guy Nickalls titled ‘Wingfield Sculls’. Copies of this print of the three times Wingfields winner, 23 times Henley winner and 1908 Olympic Gold Medalist are common enough – but this particular one is autographed by Nickalls and he has added a note that he also won Henley’s Diamond Sculls (five times).

The 13th Women’s Wingfields

The Women’s Wingfields is a revival of the Women’s Amateur Rowing Championship first raced in 1927 and reactivated under the Wingfield’s banner in 2007 with the support of the Wingfield Family Society. The 2018 Champion, Ruth Siddorn, ‘resigned her title’, i.e. she did not race this year to defend her right to be called the ‘Champion of the Thames’.

Left to right, Meghann Jackson (London), Katy Wilkinson-Feller (Tideway Scullers), Fran Rawlins (Tideway Scullers, winner or ‘Champion’ in 2017) and Jess Leyden (Leander, Champion in 2016). It was a clean start but, as Wilkinson-Feller moved towards Surrey and the faster water, she converged with Jackson who seemed to be moving to Middlesex.
Thirty seconds into the race, Jackson and Wilkinson-Feller clashed and they took 10 seconds to disentangle themselves.
More drama rapidly followed as the PLA launch ‘Lambeth’ moved slowly across the course. This gave concern but, ultimately, there was no danger.
By the Black Buoy, Leyden was a length up on Rawlins, who was the same distance ahead of Wilkinson-Feller, who was overlapped by Jackson. This sequence stretched out but lasted to the finish. In Fulham Reach, pictured here, Leyden took a very wide course but it did not seem to affect her lead.
Olympic hopeful Leyden (centre) steered a confident if sometimes unusual course but she was always in control, often underrating her opponents. There was a good fight for second place between the Tideway Scullers club-mates, though Wilkinson-Feller (left) never got past Rawlins (right).
Leyden reached Hammersmith Bridge in 8.26, Rawlins in 8.32, Wilkinson-Feller in 8.37 and Jackson in 8.47.
The lead three near the half-way point (the blue window on the right).
Approaching Chiswick Eyot. The spirited Jackson never slackened off and fought all the way to the finish.
Nearing Chiswick Steps where the times were Leyden 13.28, Rawlins 13.38, Wilkinson-Feller 13.47 and Jackson 14.01.
The Barnes Bridge times were Leyden 18.02, Rawlins 18.20, Wilkinson-Feller 18.56 and Jackson 19.31.
Passing Mortlake Brewery, Leyden (left) strangely hugged the Surrey Bank where the water is shallow and slow. However, it seemed to do little to change her control of the race.
At the finish downstream of Chiswick Bridge, the final times were Leyden 22.30, Rawlins 22.43, Wilkinson-Feller 23.05 and Jackson 23.31.
A happy Jess Leyden of Leander, the winner of the 13th Women’s Wingfields.

The 179th Wingfield Sculls

The 2018 Champion, Charles Cousins, resigned his title so the 2019 winner would be the 94th man since 1830 to hold the title. The men raced two hours before the top of the flood tide and had more challenging conditions than did the women 75 minutes earlier.

Approaching the Black Buoy, left to right, Ashley Cowley (Notts County), Sam Meijer (Tideway Scullers), George Bourne (Durham), Chris Revell (London), Gregor Maxwell (London). Trailing the others but out of shot on the right was Alex Morris (Thames).
Approaching the football ground, a tug working on developments there threatened to cause problems but, in the end, did not. Pictured here are Meijer, Bourne and Revell.
Sam Meijer went off at 43, went down to 35, took the lead and stayed there.
In Fulham Reach, Meijer had the lead and Morris was bringing up the rear leaving the middle four to fight it out. The Mile Post times were Meijer 4.02, Maxwell 4.07, Bourne 4.08, Cowley and Revell 4.18, and Morris 4.21. Maxwell was only briefly ahead of Bourne at the Mile, but the Durham sculler soon reclaimed second place and continued to chase Meijer.
Approaching Fulham Reach Boat Club, the order is Meijer, Bourne, Maxwell, Cowley in a duel with Revell, and Morris. Cowley is out of shot on the right but pictured left to right is Meijer, Bourne, Morris, Revell and Maxwell.
Passing Harrods.
The Hammersmith Bridge times were Meijer 7.33, Bourne 7.38, Maxwell 7.43, Cowley 7.49, Revell 7.51, Morris 7.55.
Uniquely, Wingfields allows the old practice of each competitor having a following launch behind the umpire that can ‘steer’ their man or woman by means of pre-arranged signals. Not used to such an arrangement, many scullers seem to forget to watch for this advice.
Past Dover Pier, Hammersmith, the order remained Meijer first, Bourne second, Maxwell third, Cowley and Revell swapping between fourth and fifth, Morris sixth and last.
By Corney Reach, Maxwell (left) had his forearms start to seize up and he began to drop back. Here, approaching Mortlake, he was down to fifth place.
Meijer’s lead was unassailable, at Barnes Bridge he was 16-seconds ahead of his nearest rival, Bourne.
Morris passed a pained Maxwell in the approach to Barnes Bridge where the Thames man took a five-second lead over the London sculler. In the far distance on the right, Meijer heads for victory.
The final times were Meijer 20.35, Bourne 20.48, Cowley and Revell both 21.18, Morris 21.42, Maxwell 21.50.

Despite the probable winner emerging early on, it was a great race. All competitors steered a good line and all fought to the finish. Meijer led from the start, Bourne did brilliantly on a course strange to him, Cowley and Revell could rarely be separated throughout the whole race, Morris hung on and avoided finishing last, Maxwell persevered through great pain in his arms. Champions all.

The 94th Champion of the Thames, Sam Meijer, a product of Westminster School, Harvard University, USA, and now Tideway Scullers.
Meijer and Leyden at the prize giving at Tideway Scullers.
Only 94 men and 10 women have ever won a Wingfield’s medal. Initial and any subsequent victories are marked by a bar engraved with the appropriate year added to the ribbon.

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