It Gets Verse and Verse: Hargrave, An Aquatic McGonagall

The 1865 Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race (‘one of the most sensational Boat Races ever’) moved the Rev. Alfred Hargrave of Trinity College, Cambridge, to poetry – unfortunately.

27 March 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch says: Read please, if you would, of a poem so bad – it’s actually good.

It is widely held that William McGonagall (1825 – 1902), ‘The Great McGonagall’, an Irishman resident in Scotland, was the worst poet in British history. His work was in a long tradition of narrative ballads and verse about great events and tragedies. However, he had certain weakness for a poet. His Wikipedia entry sums them up as ‘he was deaf to poetic metaphor and unable to scan correctly. His only apparent understanding of poetry was his belief that it needed to rhyme… (McGonagall’s) inappropriate rhythms, weak vocabulary, and ill-advised imagery combine to make his work amongst the most unintentionally amusing dramatic poetry in the English language’.

William Topaz McGonagall. He seemed immune to criticism of his work and in modern times it has been suggested he may have had Asperger’s syndrome or autism. He certainly did things his own way; once while playing Macbeth, he felt the actor in the part of Macduff was trying to upstage him, and so when Macbeth was beheaded by Macduff, McGonagall/Macbeth simply refused to die.

Were evidence needed of McGonagall’s unique genius, the last verse of his work recounting the night in 1879 when the Tay Bridge near Dundee collapsed as a train was passing over it is irrefutable proof:

I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

Rev. Alfred Hargrave was not in the McGonagall class of bad poets, but he too suffered from the belief that rhyme was the only thing that mattered.

Before we expose ourselves to Hargrave’s narrative poem on the 1865 Boat Race, we should get the facts of that 22nd contest in prose. Drinkwater and Sanders’ The University Boat Race: Official Centenary History (1929) is probably the best source.

Cambridge, dashing away at 44 to (Oxford’s) 39 were clear in less than a minute. At (the football ground) Cambridge was still at 43 and… had taken Oxford’s water. Meredith Brown (Oxford stroke) however was not to be taken out of his stride, and instead of spurting to make up lost ground, steadied his crew out, with the result that Cambridge gained no more. Lawes (Cambridge stroke) still had two lengths lead at Hammersmith, but then the rate of stroke began to tell on his crew, and, in spite of the fact that the station was in his favour, he had only half a length’s daylight at (Hammersmith Pier)… Along Chiswick Eyot, the most desperate efforts of Lawes could not keep Oxford off. At Chiswick Church, Cambridge went to pieces, and Oxford went past them right away, shooting Barnes Bridge three lengths ahead and winning by 16 seconds in 21 minutes 24 seconds.

Charles Bennet Lawes, the Cambridge stroke in 1865. An all-round sportsman, in rowing he was in the First Eight at Eton for three years and later, at Trinity College, Cambridge, he won the 1862 Colquhoun Sculls and went Head of the River in 1863 and 1865. At Henley he won the Diamonds in 1863 and the Ladies’ in 1865. Also, in 1865, he won the Wingfield Sculls.

Drinkwater and Sanders continued with praise for Oxford’s cox, CRW Tottenham. They give an interesting insight into the conditions in which the Boat Race was held in those unregulated days.

CRW Tottenham… gave the most remarkable evidence of his nerve and judgement. A barge was tacking across the river right on his course, and a collision appeared to be inevitable, but he judged so exactly his own pace and that of the barge that he passed under its stern with only an inch or two to spare, without altering his course… After the race was over, the Cambridge boat was sunk by a tug.

CRW Tottenham of Christ Church steered OUBC 1864 – 1868. Here, he is pictured in 1864.

As Hargrave’s work may be hard to take in one lump, I shall reproduce it as it was originally published and intersperse it with some pictures. I cannot find any images of the losing Cambridge crew but there are at least three pictures of the Oxford Eight. Beneath each page, I have selected my favourite worst lines from it.

‘His stream is all with craft alive, And busy as a swarming hive’.
‘And the banks are lined with an eager crowd,/ Who discuss the race in accents loud’.
The Oxford crew as featured in the “Illustrated London News”.
There are 20 lines in brackets on this page and the next that complain about the steam boats that habitually followed the race too closely: ‘But I have got a word to say Of that which rather spoilt the day’. In 1865, the two crews waiting on the start returned to the boathouses until the steamer captains agreed to stay back. By that time, the tide had all but stopped running.
‘But see, – the light blues’ fiery speed/ Has slightly given them the lead’.
Oxford find it hard to keep still for this photograph.
‘Yet mark – methinks the Cantabs seem/ As if they’d put on too much steam’.
‘She gives a furious spurt – in vain –/ She very soon sinks back again./ And now, indeed, it is too plain,/ The dark blues manifestly gain’.
Oxford again.
‘If with a moral I adorn’d my tale,/ (It won’t be long so don’t turn pale,)’ Too late, Rev. Hargrave.

Last year, some interesting souvenirs of this race were sold at auction in London.


  1. I must say it does go on and on rather … I presume it was self published, i.e. the author paid the printers Deighton & Sons to produce his work. I wonder if it sold many copies and did it make him a laughing-stock?

  2. It’s such a thrill, I must confess,
    To read a poem in my own style,
    And then a rowing poem, no less,
    The readers suff’ring all the while.

    L. Fogelberg

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