Back To The Futures

18 November 2019

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch took a cheap day return to Henley. Chris Dodd was waiting for him.

The future is always with us and on Saturday, 16 November, Henley’s River and Rowing Museum (RRM) hosted “Rowing Futures”, an event that they called ‘a conference’ but one that I would call a series of talks as ‘conference’ suggests back-and-forth debates. Pedantry aside, the RRM promised speakers on:

the future of the sport, innovations in format and the growth of indoor rowing, as well as an exclusive opportunity to hear from pioneers in rowing and the chance to meet current GB Rowing Team rowers…

Sessions will include an insider’s view on the GB Rowing Team’s preparation for Tokyo 2020, how competitive rowing is embracing new formats such as beach sprints and adaptive rowing, and how young people are being welcomed into the sport at grass root level.

Often seen as the preserve of the elite, the River & Rowing Museum – in partnership with British Rowing – will be showing how the world of rowing is changing.

I have to confess that I did not attend “Rowing Futures” with a totally positive attitude. While it is perfectly proper that the RRM should put on such an event, they have done it in place of the bi-annual “Rowing History Forum”. Thus, a museum pushes aside the study of the past in favour of speculation on the future. The £70 cost per head (including lunch) was also a little too futuristic for my taste.

HTBS covered the Rowing History Forums of 201720152013, and 2011. They were mostly enjoyable and informative events, though the 2015 Forum had a ‘theme’ (‘women in rowing’) a perfectly laudable subject for those with something original to say, but not all the speakers could cast new light on the topic they were rather forced to talk about.

People gather for the start of the 2019 Rowing Futures Conference, held in the International Rowing Gallery of the RRM.

The Rowing Futures day was divided into four. In the morning it was ‘Setting the scene’ and ‘Engagement and widening participation in the sport’. The afternoon saw ‘Inspiration’ and ‘The Future’.

I will return to the first of this quartet later. ‘Engagement and widening participation in the sport’ may have had the least exciting title of the four, but it turned out to be the most engaging part of the day, notably because of the contributions from David Tinnion of London Youth Rowing, Steve O’Connor of Fulham Reach Boat Club, and Richard Sinnott and Ben Dunne of Warrington Youth Rowing. It was very interesting to see three organisations with one aim (which I shall paraphrase as ‘to improve young people’s physical, mental and social development by making them aware of – and giving them access to – rowing’) but with three different pathways to achieving this same end. The evangelical passion of the four people for their respective projects came across very clearly (even when they were producing dull but necessary stats and figures) and the room responded with enthusiasm to people who have a bold vision and who are making it happen.

A slide used in the London Youth Rowing presentation, but one that could also apply to the aspirations of Warrington and Fulham Reach.

The afternoon was devoted to ‘Inspiration’ and ‘The Future’. For the former, the main speaker was Brendan Purcell, British Rowing’s Director of Performance, and, for the latter, Mark Davies, Chair of British Rowing. Both were good, confident speakers with a firm grasp of their topic but anyone who pays reasonable attention to the activities of British Rowing may not have ended up much better informed than they were before lunch.

Other post-lunch pieces included a charming presentation by five young students from Langley Academy, all clearly bitten by the rowing bug and all clearly enjoying their time in the spotlight. Clare Holman talked on the promotion of ‘indoor rowing’ on the ergo as an exercise and a sport – including BR’s ‘Go Row Indoor’ initiative. Camilla Hadland interviewed Matt Rossiter and Erin Wysocki-Jones for an inside view of Team GB and then Guin Batten spoke on possible new Olympic formats – beach rowing and coastal rowing.

All this was interesting enough, but there was sometimes a feeling of filling time. I would have thought that more talk devoted to possible/probable changes to Olympic rowing would have been appreciated by the audience.

The River and Rowing Museum viewed from the town side. © Jaap Oepkes/The River & Rowing Museum.

In a case of The first shall be last, I previously mention that the day started with some speakers ‘Setting the scene’. The keynote speaker here was Chris Dodd who the museum allowed to sneak in some rowing history in order to give the upcoming thoughts on the future some context. Naturally, HTBS approves and Chris’s talk is reproduced in full below.

Rowing historian, journalist and author, Chris Dodd, pulls a big oar in the RRM’s trireme mock-up.

Chris Dodd:

Friends, Rowers and Watermen, lend me your oars. It gives me great pleasure to be here today in the International Rowing Gallery of the River & Rowing Museum, exactly 21 years to the month since Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth declared this building open, and about 35 years since what seemed like a crazy idea came to reality.

When I was asked to introduce this conference on the future of the sport that we love, I thought it appropriate to highlight its rich past, a past to which both the museum and a series of history forums – held in conjunction with the Friends of Rowing History – have added a ton of knowledge and inspired a lot of well-deserved interest.

Could I, I was asked, tell the story through five significant objects? Well, up to a point. I have chosen to highlight five boats, five objects and five people.

BOATS

When the idea of this museum was mooted, there was no collection. Now the museum has more than 30,000 objects and pieces of reference material in its collections, and the most important of these is boats. The history of racing boat design hangs in the RRM’s Rowing Gallery.

All boats in the collection answer at least one of three questions: is it a prototype, is it typical of a genre, or is it and its crew famous? Many examples are in the RRM’s store, including monocoque hulls, a 1x hydrofoil, a sculling boat in a travelling case, and a four with the cox seated centrally and rowed asymmetrically.

The Oxford Boat of 1829.

The boat in which Oxford won the first Boat Race at Henley here in 1829 is a clinker (or lapstrake) hybrid of upper Thames passenger and cargo carrier and Cornish ocean-going pilot gig. It was built for racing and picnicking for Balliol College in 1828 by Isaac King, an Oxford boat builder and Stephen Davis, a Cornish journeyman. The oarsmen sit either side of the external keel and the curves of the hull and the width inboard determine the length of their oars.

Matthew Taylor’s innovative coxed four, ‘Victoria’ is hanging at the top right.

The coxed four Victoria was built in Newcastle by Matthew Taylor for Royal Chester RC in 1855 and is thought to be the earliest surviving shell. The oarsmen are seated either side of the inboard keel, and the boat is fitted with small outriggers, the one allowing the hull to have a smooth bottom, thus reducing friction, and the other making the boat narrower and lighter. After the success of this boat at Henley, Taylor was engaged to build eights for OUBC.

Rupert Guinness in the boat now in the RRM.
Guinness’s boat (below), built by JH Clasper in Putney in 1894, compared with a Ray Sims boat of 1994 (above). Guinness’s boat was five feet longer than the modern plastic shell, but only four-and-a-half pounds heavier.

The sculling boat known as the Guinness Boat was built by Harry Clasper of Newcastle and Putney and used by Rupert Guinness to win the Diamond Sculls at Henley in 1895 and 1896. It is a state-of-the-art example of late nineteenth century cabinet-making, equipped with features that are recognisable today – full outriggers, swivel oarlocks and a sliding seat.

The Carbon Tiger.

British Aerospace built Carbon Tiger to a design by John Vigurs for the British Olympic eight in 1976. It is moulded in carbon fibre and epoxy resin and is the forerunner of the boats we see today. Technical hitches prevented its use in Montreal 1976, but it sounded the death-knell of wood as rowing’s material.

Redgrave’s ‘2’ seat in the Sydney coxless four.

Until the arrival here of Helen Glover and Heather Stanning’s pair-oar this month, the four used by Steve Redgrave for his fifth Olympic gold in Sydney 2000 was the most recent modern racing craft to enter the museum. The boat was designed by Aylings of Putney and tailor-made for the crew of James Cracknell, Tim Foster, Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent. Among its innovations were aerodynamic riggers, contoured staterooms and decks to cope with side winds, steering gear below decks and a tiny rudder hinged to a small fin.

There you have in five boats the key developments in racing boat design – the inboard keel, the outrigger, the sliding seat, the swivel oarlock and the material change from wood to carbon and plastics.

OBJECTS

And so, we come to objects. Three of my five have connections with the Boat Race, which is one of a handful of British competitions at the root of the development of rowing as the first team sport – if not the first, certainly the greatest. Among those pioneering early 19th-century amateur fixtures are the Eton-Westminster race, the Boat Race, the Wingfield Sculls and regattas at Durham, Chester and Henley.

The letter that started the Boat Race.

In 1829 Cambridge challenged Oxford to a race on the Thames at Henley. The famous letter which the Christ Church founder and oarsman Charles Wordsworth sent to his Trinity Cambridge friend Charles Merivale on the merits of the dark blues (slightly tongue in cheek) has been acquired recently by the RRM. This letter sets the tone for a day on Henley Reach that, unbeknown to the sixteen oarsmen at the time, was to put rowing on the world map.

The letter announces four days of practice at Henley and describes the merits of the Oxford crew. For example: ‘Staniforth, four foot across the shoulders and as many through the chest; Moore, six-foot one inch, in all probability a relation of the giant… Arbuthnot, strong as Bliss’s Harrow best bitter; Toogood – too good for you…’ etc.

Getting the news out.

Rowing, and particularly fixtures like the Boat Race that run from A to B over long distances, has challenged newspapers, photographers and broadcasters faced with following the action and reporting on it for nearly two hundred years. The RRM has a 19th-century canister into which a reporter on the press boat would seal his account of the race at various points and toss the canister to a boy in a dinghy who would catch it or fish it out of the water and take it to a runner on the towpath, whose job it was to leg it to the nearest telegraph office. There was great rivalry amongst papers – particularly titles in Oxford and Cambridge – to get the result in print on the streets minutes after crews crossed the line. The Cambridge Evening News got it down to four minutes in the nineteenth century.

John Snagge’s 1829 Gold Sovereign, kept by the RRM.

In the 1920s the BBC learned how to relay live wireless commentary to its transmission centre at Alley Pally from a moving boat, and the corporation later perfected the technique of filming from helicopters to televise the Boat Race. John Snagge, the legendary mellifluous BBC wireless broadcaster who covered 50 Boat Races live (and, incidentally, wore his dinner suit to read evening news bulletins, including the announcement of the D-Day Landings), presented the Boat Race with an 1829 golden sovereign to use for the toss.

The Doggett’s Coat and Badge won by Dick Phelps in 1923.

The annual sculling race for watermen’s apprentices from London Bridge to Chelsea was started by the Irish actor Thomas Doggett in 1715. This 5-mile test of watermanship for which a red coat and breeches and a silver badge is awarded to the winner serves to remind us that rowing was a way of life for centuries before its adoption as a sport by amateurs. It reminds us that rowers row, while the rest play games. Some examples of working boats – cargo carriers, coast guards and warships of the ancient world; pilot gigs, whaleboats, life boats, ship-to-shore tenders, ferries and wherries, Whitehalls and gondolas are modelled in the RRM’s International Rowing Gallery.

‘Sampan Pidgen’, a history of Shanghai Rowing Club.

The RRM has a comprehensive library and archive, among the books being Sampan Pidgen, a history of Shanghai RC that is one of my favourite stories. The club was situated on Soochow Creek near the British consulate. Sampan Pidgen was edited by Norman Harris and published after the Sino-Japanese war began, at a time of course when membership was closed to Chinese. It borrows much from writers like Kipling and gives an entertaining account of life among expats of several countries and records episodes such as rowing on the Hangzhou river wearing tin hats as the Japanese navy bombarded Chinese installations.

An exhibition at the RRM on Shanghai a few years ago uncovered the resurrection of the club in the 1950s. Fortunately, rowers keep writing books, and the RRM library – which was sponsored by the Keller family in honour of Thomi, a renowned president of World Rowing – is a gold mine of archival information and a resource second to none for our sport.

PEOPLE

My last category is People, and on this 21st birthday, I have deliberately chosen movers and shakers who made this place happen. They are, of course, representative of dozens of people who have contributed their expertise, knowledge, time, money, objects, information and enthusiasm since the idea began to be kicked around in 1984.

Tom Weil.

Thomas E. Weil is the foremost collector of rowing stuff, and much of what was exhibited in the Olympic rowing exhibition at the LA Games of 1984 came from his collection. It was that show that gave me the idea of this museum, and Tom has been an incredible friend and a tenacious digger into rowing’s past, its roots, culture and art ever since.

When David Lunn-Rockliffe and myself determined to try and build the RRM, we had no contact with the museum world. This may have been an advantage in some ways, but engaging Professor Richard Marks who had directed the Burrell Collection in Glasgow and was in charge of the Brighton Pavilion when we met him, and is a passionate rower, gave us the connections and courage that we needed to join the museum world.

Early ideas.

Our strategy for finding money was to look for a site and an architect before appealing to the great and the good, and that is how we came across an unknown Brit who had been practising in Japan. This is the first complete building in Britain designed by David Chipperfield – now Sir David – an iconic, beautiful place attached to an excellent café. Now he is one of the most prominent architects in the museum sector round the world.

Martyn Arbib – now Sir Martyn – fell in love with Henley town and established his financial services emporium here. He was an early advocate for a museum in Henley and was waiting for us to come along with a plan. He has been the museum’s most generous sponsor, and, much to his (and my) surprise, became a rowing enthusiast over lunch one day with our vice-presidents, Steve Redgrave and Matt Pinsent (now Sir Steve and Sir Matt). Things almost went pear-shaped when Martyn queried the fait accompli of engaging an avant guard architect, but after a nail-biting tea party in Martyn’s garden at the Old Rectory during which Chipperfield explained his approach to vernacular architecture and to this, his creation, Martyn became an enthusiastic supporter.

Some Friends of Rowing History: Chris Dodd, Tom Weil, Peter Mallory and Bill Miller.

My fifth offering in the People category are The Friends of Rowing History. The Friends are an informal group of rowing history nuts who straddle the Atlantic and have tentacles in other continents. Their purpose is to bring together historians, archivists, collectors, writers, journalists and interested parties to exchange information and encourage clubs, regattas and rowers to value and nurture their history. The Friends held history forums at Mystic Seaport Museum every two years, and when the RRM opened, forums were organised here in the years in between. The Friends are also loosely associated with heartheboatsing.com, the blog run by Göran R Buckhorn that recently celebrated its tenth birthday.

HTBS ‘covers all aspects of the rich history of rowing, as a sport, culture phenomena, a life style, and a necessary element to keep your wit and stay sane’.

There is now some concern that these forums busy themselves more with the future than with the past. For 30 years the Friends and the RRM’s original committee of rowing volunteers have been an informal source of inspiration for staging exhibitions, and growing collections, libraries and archives. The Friends, I can assure you, intend that their voice continues to be heard, and they would point out that days like today are history in the making that must inspire new generations if rowing is to continue to make history.

That brings me to the end of my talk. Incidentally, if you wish to know more about how the museum was set up, my personal history – and I stress it is my personal take, not an official history – can be found in a series headed RRM@21 on heartheboatsing.com or in Row-360 magazine, numbers 26 and 27.

So – happy anniversary to the RRM, and thanks to all those hundreds of rowers and others who have supported this place and continue to support it one way or another, including Director, Sarah Posey and her talented staff, and Chairman, David Worthington, and his trustees.

Friends, Rowers, Watermen – please paddle on and spread the word.

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