The Worst of Times and the Best of Times: Adrian Stokes’ Boat Races

LAF Stokes as depicted in the 1951 Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race programme.

25 February 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch on some living history.

I am sure that HTBS Types will have enjoyed Gavin Jamieson’s articles on Jumbo Edwards that we ran last week. However, some readers may have missed a comment posted after part four by Adrian Stokes. Adrian is a regular reader and an occasional contributor, especially commenting on Oxford rowing in the 1950s, a time and place that he is particularly familiar with as he was President of Oxford University Boat Club in 1952 and rowed in the Boat Races of 1951 (lost) and 1952 (won). He was part of the Oxford coaching team in 1957, 1958, 1960 and 1961. I reproduce Adrian’s comment in full below as it is always worth hearing from someone who was there when history was made:

1952 was a key year for Jumbo. Oxford coaching had for ever been dominated by the “orthodox” style, but Oxford had only won 4 of the 22 races since WW1 and only one of the 6 since WW2. I was elected President of OUBC for 1952 with a mandate to make a difference. I had stroked the very successful New College crew of 1950 which was coached by hugely experienced members of Thames Rowing Club, arch rivals of the London Club on the Tideway. We went Head of the River, and won the Ladies Plate at Henley, and the Reading Grand. This crew should have formed the basis of the 1951 Oxford Boat, but the President was Christopher Davidge (Eton and Trinity); though one of the greatest strokes of all time, his presidency was disastrous. The coaching was strictly “Orthodox” (even fixed pins were retained) and humiliation was total. In the race, Oxford sank within a couple of minutes and lost the re-row by 12 lengths. So I called in Jumbo out of the cold, and to cut a very long story short (including Jumbo’s own novel design of swivel-riggers), Oxford won after an epic race in a snowstorm. Orthodoxy was dead. Cambridge’s dominance was broken. The Boat Race came to life again.

Jumbo Edwards (front left) and Oxford stroke, Chris Davidge (front right), after the Dark Blues’ victory in the 1952 ‘Blizzard’ Boat Race.

Adrian has, in his own words, ‘cut a very long story short’, but I am sure that we would all like to hear the uncut version. As an encouragement, below I have posted edited summaries of Wikipedia’s descriptions of the Boat Races of 1951 and 1952 – two very different races for Adrian and Oxford.

1951: ‘Anti-climax following disaster’

The Boat Race Crews of 1951, the 97th Race.

According to Wiki, in 1951:

(There was) a strong wind blowing against the tide, creating ‘sizeable waves’. Oxford had already taken on board a considerable amount of water from their row to the stake boats…. The Light Blues took an early lead and appeared to be coping with the conditions better than Oxford, and were over a length ahead by the time they passed London Rowing Club. The Dark Blues shipped more water until they became entirely submerged, and were rescued by spectators on the Oxford launch… 

Oxford go under shortly into the first attempt at the 1951 Boat Race.

Since the umpire declared a ‘no row’ and because the reason for the sinking was deemed to be ‘equipment failure before the end of the Fulham Wall’, it was agreed that a re-row be arranged (for two days later)…

(In the re-row, the) Light Blues were clear by the end of Fulham Wall…. passing the Mile Post more than two lengths clear, and Harrods three lengths up… (By) the time Cambridge passed below Hammersmith Bridge, they were four and a half lengths clear and seven ahead by Chiswick Steps…. By Barnes Bridge, the lead was 11 lengths.

A magazine’s view of the 1951 Race.

Cambridge won by a margin of 12 lengths in a time of 20 minutes 50 seconds, securing their fifth consecutive victory. It was the largest winning margin since the 1900 race and the slowest winning time since 1947… The rowing correspondent of ‘The Manchester Guardian’ suggested that ‘the 1951 race, with anti-climax following disaster, is best forgotten as quickly as may be.’

Below is newsreel film of 1951 from British Pathe. The re-row (the final race) is shown first. At 1 minute 24 seconds, the film suddenly cuts to the first (abandoned) race.

1952: ‘One of the most exciting races ever rowed’

The Boat Race Crews of 1952, the 98th Race.

Wiki’s full piece on the 1952 Race is here.

The weather was inclement, with gale-force winds and snow disrupting the race and limiting the number of spectators lining the banks of the Thames to a few thousand…. Cambridge made the cleaner start in the rough conditions, and held a quarter-length lead at the Dukes’ Head pub. Despite making a number of spurts, the Light Blues could not pull away from Oxford, the Dark Blues’ stroke maintaining a higher rate to keep in touch. Keeping to more sheltered conditions yet in slower water, Cambridge passed the Mile Post with a lead of half a length.

Sparse crowds in the snow at Hammersmith.

With the bend in the river beginning to favour Oxford, the lead was slowly eroded until both boats passed nearly level below Hammersmith Bridge. Alongside Chiswick Eyot, the Dark Blues were almost half-a-length ahead but not gaining further… (At) Barnes Bridge the Dark Blue lead was down to less than a quarter of a length. 

Nearly level at Hammersmith Bridge.

Oxford won by a canvas… in a time of 20 minutes 23 seconds…. and their first win in six attempts. At no point during the course of the race did either boat have a clear water advantage over their opponent.

Magazine coverage of the finish.

The rowing correspondent for ‘The Manchester Guardian’ described the race as ‘one of the closest fought of all time’, while Ian Thomson, writing in ‘The Observer’, suggested it was ‘one of the most exciting races ever rowed’.

British Pathe produced a particularly good record of the event.

Raising the standard of Oxford rowing

Disposing of Orthodoxy and fixed pins and bringing in Jumbo (who was to stay coaching OUBC for most of the following twenty-one years) were not Adrian’s only innovations as Oxford President. It seems that he was partly responsible for building of the ‘Leviathan’, a sixteen-oared coaching punt made ‘to raise the standard of Oxford rowing’.

British Pathe made a wonderful newsreel of the Leviathan. The film includes a piece to camera by Adrian and nice shots of the Isis in 1951, a time when college barges still outnumbered land based boathouses.

British Pathe rivals, British Movietone, also produced a report on the ‘sixteen-oared coaching punt’. Twenty years later, Jumbo Edwards had made a version half the size of the ‘Leviathan’, the eight-oared ‘Octolog’. The film is a good chance to see Jumbo in action, probably trying to resist the urge to tell the students of 1970 to ‘get their bloody hair cut’ (he once told his mildly hirsute son, David, ‘You can’t expect to go fast in a boat with hair that long.’)

2 comments

  1. I am Adrian Stokes’s daughter and sharing this wonderful article with friends in the 1829s, which is a squad of Oxford and Cambridge graduates here in Perth, Australia, where once a year Oxford and Cambridge race for the Swan Blues Cup, a tradition started by my friend, Cambridge graduate Nick Suess. The 1829 squad includes David Rose who rowed for Oxford in the 1984 Boat Race.

    The number 1829 is because of it being the first year of the Boat Race and also the year the Swan River Colony was founded.

    I have rowed for Oxford in the Swan Blues Cup and in the 1829s as Dad’s representative, though my rowing skills are more suited to long distance ocean rowing from my days in the Jersey Rowing Club, competing in races such as the Sark to Jersey, than rowing on a river where the hazards include sharks and jellyfish, but thankfully too far south for crocodiles….

  2. Thank you for the comment, Min. Yes, ‘Swan Blues Cup’ was a crazy idea of mine way back in 2009, but I have succeeded in establishing a wonderful tradition for the Perth alumni of our two great universities. Ours was the first Boat Race in the southern hemisphere, and also the first east of the meridian line, so that’s three quarters of the world in which we were the pioneers.

    I wasn’t a Rowing Blue, nor anyone’s idea of an elite oarsman, but I learnt to row at Caius when I went up to Cambridge in 1966. I was way too small and skinny to achieve great things, but I was considered a useful guy in any seat of a college eight, and I had so much fun that I have kept up with the sport down the years, as a club rower on three continents. Now in my 70s, I often find myself encouraging rowing to young people seeking a great sport in which they can actively participate through life.

    Greetings
    Nick Suess

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