John Hall-Craggs, 1931 – 2020: A quiet man who got things done

John Hall-Craggs and Cambridge crewmate AAM Mays-Smith, caricatured in the 1956 Boat Race programme.

9 April 2020

By Tim Koch

John Hall-Craggs passed away last week at age 88. Here Tim Koch compiles, edits and adds to tributes and memories from John’s son, Wade Hall-Craggs; fellow Johnian and LMBC member David Biddulph; Henrietta Butler who worked with John on the LMBC histories; rowing historian Tom Weil; and Diana Way of Way’s Bookshop in Henley.

John Hall-Craggs died peacefully at home on 30 March. The family announcement of John’s death in The Times of 4 April ended:

Proud Salopian, sapper and Johnian, he spent a busy life at Plenty and Sons, Newbury, on the river and creating a 9 & 1/2 gauge garden railway. A quiet man who got things done. Memorial service to be arranged.

‘Salopian’ refers to the fact that John attended Shrewsbury School, ‘sapper’ that he served in the Royal Engineers, and ‘Johnian’ that he was an alumnus of St John’s College, Cambridge (whose boat club is Lady Margaret, LMBC). HTBS would respectfully add ‘rowing historian’ – even though this still does not complete the list of John’s talents and activities.

John on the 9 1/2 inch gauge light railway that he built in his garden.

John Francis Hall-Craggs was born in September 1931 and attended Shrewsbury School between 1945 and 1950. He first appeared at Henley Royal Regatta stroking the Shrewsbury crew in the Princess Elizabeth in 1950.

John’s son, Wade:

In 1948, Dad and two friends determined to watch the Olympic regatta held at Henley. With their parents blessing, the three 16-year-olds set off by train with a budget for food and accommodation burning a hole in their pockets. The first night, they found somewhere to eat but on presentation of the bill found they had blown their three-day-budget. Thus, they ended up sleeping in railway station waiting rooms – but they did see Ran Laurie and Salopian, Jack Wilson, win the Coxless Pairs.

During his National Service, 1951 – 1952, he was a Captain in the Royal Engineers and represented the corps at Henley in the Wyfold Challenge Cup in both his years as a sapper.

After military service, John rowed at Maidenhead, coached by Richard Burnell. He stroked the Maidenhead entry in the Thames Cup in 1953. Wade says that at this time:

Dad went to a crammer to get Latin for entry into Cambridge and ended up sleeping on the boathouse balcony at Maidenhead when he was thrown out by his aunt.

John went up to St John’s College, Cambridge, in 1953. His father and his grandfather had also been oarsmen at St John’s. Grandfather, EH Craggs, had won the Pearson and Wright sculls at LMBC in 1883 and father, RBT Craggs, went Head in 1925 and 1926, and was in the winning crew for the Ladies’ of 1925 and the Boat Race of 1926. Wade:

Dad had to fund himself through Cambridge, the college letting him pay them back when he was earning. He lived on beer and barley sugar, a diet which led to occasional fainting. According to contemporaries, he seemed to have an endless supply of thunder flashes which were let off at judicious moments, but the college could never quite pin it on him.

John pictured in the 1950s.

John’s arrival at Cambridge in 1953 was during a period of enormous success for Lady Margaret Boat Club under their coach Roy Meldrum. After the war, Roy had developed the ‘Lady Margaret Style’ or the ‘Meldrum Style’ and his crews suddenly achieved startling success. Most notably, Meldrum emphasised a long lay-back to produce a well-drawn-out and covered finish. It attracted imitators but few other coaches could make it work. Lady Margaret held the Headship of the Mays for five years, 1950 – 1954. There were also headships in the Lents and the lower boats rose sharply up the bumps charts. Roy’s death in February 1955 had a devastating effect on the club and they lost both the Lent and May headships that year.

Wade again:

Roy Meldrum’s coaching had a huge impact on my Father. Roy was quite frail by then and Dad would recall how the whole boat lifted as they heard his car start up so he could follow the last part of an outing on the Cam. From Roy, he got his emphasis on shove and the feeling of moving the boat passed the blade. They had to paddle at rates as low as 6 strokes a minute, which was very exhausting. I think Roy inspired Dad to update the LMBC history.

Cambridge in the 1950s, when men were chaps and women were rare.

In his first term, John was in the Lady Margaret Boat Club crew who won the 1953 Clinker Fours.

In 1954, John was in the LMBC crew which went Head of the Lents. After they were training for the Tideway Head when they stopped at Baitsbite Lock and the boat was nearly lost when it was caught by a high cross wind and swung out into the river. It was only saved from crashing over the weir by John ‘who, taking a dramatic leap into the water, saved it in the nick of time’. The May boat that year were Head for the 5th consecutive year and went on to row in the Grand at Henley.

The next year, 1955, John’s LMBC Henley crews in the Ladies’ and the Visitors’ both reached the finals, and during the summer vacation John (in the colours of Lady Somerset Boat Club) won Senior fours at Bedford, and Senior coxed fours and Open gig pairs at St Neots.

John was captain of LMBC in 1955-56 and was in the winning Cambridge crew in the 1956 Boat Race. At HRR in 1956, he again rowed in the Ladies’ and the Visitors’.

The 1956 Cambridge Crew. They were regarded as a heavy and tall crew at the time – even cox JMP Denny was 6ft 2in and 10 stone.

It is difficult to believe now, but at one time the quality press (notably The Times) covered rowing in considerable detail and John’s path into the 1956 Blue Boat is well documented:

In a 1955 report, Richard Burnell, rowing correspondent of The Times (and John’s old coach at Maidenhead) wrote that ‘… JF Hall-Craggs… inexplicably failed to get a trial eights cap last year…’.

One of Burnell’s pieces on the trials for the 1956 Blue Boat in The Times of 18 November 1955 said, ‘JF Hall-Craggs at six, though he has a weak finishing position, has great power, and looks the most confident man in the trials’. On 25 November, Burnell suggested John for the stroke seat.

By 4 January 1956, ACF Thomson was stroking the University crew but Burnell noted, ‘The appearance of JF Hall-Craggs as stroke of the Goldie boat may signify that the coaches are not yet satisfied… Hall-Craggs had some reputation as a racing stroke before going up to Cambridge, but in two years has not rowed in that position in an eight-oared race on the Cam’.

Two weeks later, 17 January 1956, Burnell felt that, ‘…Hall-Craggs… looks an altogether more formidable proposition than either of the trial eights strokes’.

On 12 February 1956 the Cambridge crew to race Oxford on 24 March was announced; John was at stroke. The Times said, ‘Of the (Cambridge) newcomers… Hall-Craggs is probably the most valuable discovery. Rediscovery would perhaps be a better word… he stroked Shrewsbury before coming up to the university, and a Maidenhead crew which did well in the Thames Cup…’

However, on 5 March, Burnell reported MG Delahooke replacing John in the stroke seat. ‘The intention, no doubt, was to check the unsteadiness and tendency to rush… It must still be questionable whether these faults were due to the stroking…’ However, John stayed at ‘2’.

The 1956 Boat Race at Hammersmith. John is at ‘2’ in the Cambridge boat (right).

On the big day, Cambridge won the 1956 Boat Race in the fourth fastest time ever. With a little hyperbole perhaps, The Times called it ‘one of the greatest battles in the history of the race’. Decide for yourself by viewing the British Movietone cinema newsreel:

Wade recounts a nice post-race story:

His 1956 Cambridge crew toured Brazil which began a lifelong appreciation of the country. They were presented with a crate of avocados which none of them had seen before and had no idea what to do with them and they were a little surprised when Dad said he’d have them. The following morning, he woke his room mate with the sound of the avocados exploding on the roof of passing buses in the streets below.

John remained a stalwart supporter of Lady Margaret for the rest of his life. He coached the LMBC Henley crews for many years and a highlight of the Henley experience was the crew visit to John’s house for tea and a turn on the light railway. He wrote Vol. II (1926-1956) of the club’s history in the late 1950s, assisted by Hugh Stewart. Vol. III (1957-1982) was published in 2008 and Vol. IV (1982-2010) in 2016, assisted by Jane Milburn.

Tom Weil remembers John the writer:

Before we ever met, his name was known to me through his celebration of The History of the Lady Margaret Boat Club St. John’s College, Cambridge Vol. II 1926-1956, a 350-page tribute to the beloved club which he had served as First Boat Captain in 1955-1956, and to which he remained steadfastly devoted throughout his life.

Perhaps as impressive was his authorship, fifty years later, of a remarkable little 26-page pamphlet titled Lady Margaret and the Origins of the First Boat Race, published in July 2007, which dove in great detail into the correspondence and minute book entries which paint a fascinating, and hitherto unseen, picture of the circumstances surrounding the remarkable debut of that iconic rowing fixture.

In 1957, John was in the Leander crew in the Stewards’, and in 1961 he rowed for Leander in the Wyfold.

Wade:

In 1959, Desmond Hill (Rowing Master at St Edwards and Daily Telegraph rowing correspondent) and Roger Dixey recommended Dad for the position of coach to the headmaster of Pangbourne College when the school wanted to start a boat club. They won the Princess Elizabeth in 1963.  Desmond Hill also got him involved in establishing National Schools’ Regatta at Pangbourne.

John pictured in 1981.

In the 1960s, John was one of those instrumental in setting up the cadet scheme that eventually revived a flagging Leander. The club had been in the doldrums for some time, relying on recruiting, as it always had, mainly from Blues and Henley winners. In 1965, an initiative to restore the club’s fortunes with a squad of young oarsmen drawn from schools was conceived and implemented by Harold Rickett, John and another Salopian, George Brown, all under the captaincy of Donald Legget. John took the cadets around different schools to train in an effort to encourage school leavers to continue rowing. Derek Drury later took over and by 1968 the Leander cadets won the Thames Cup, revitalising the club.

Wade says that sometime between 1963 and 1966, Jumbo Edwards asked John to coach Isis, the Oxford reserves, which he did (although Jumbo would not let them race the Blue Boat).

Henrietta Butler:

1982 saw the arrival of women at the LMBC and John both followed and supported their progress. He kept in regular contact with the LMBC boatman, Roger Silk, who also became Head Coach of CUWBC in 1984 and their crews boated out of the Lady Margaret boathouse. John took pride in the fact that by 1985, after only three years of women at the club, six LMBC women were in Cambridge University crews (including the first female cox of the men’s Blue Boat) all but one of whom had learned to row at Lady Margaret.

When it came to writing Vol. IV of the LMBC History, John felt it important to include accounts from the first generation of women to join the male bastion of LMBC. The book includes essays by more than thirty LMBC women, sharing their rowing memories and experiences. These memoirs, together with the chronicles of the Club, exemplify the special bond which unites the members of the Lady Margaret Boat Club past, present and future and which John himself personified.

Some final words from Diana Way and Tom Weil:

Diana:

John Hall Craggs was a fine gentleman, always beautifully turned out in the best cut jackets and suits. A charming, considerate customer, which made him a favourite, and an enthusiastic buyer of rowing books! His brain fizzed with rowing history. He often came in after sculling, and I always enjoyed his presence. During Henley Regatta, he updated assembled customers in the rowing section, with pertinent (and sometimes wry) remarks and predictions on the day’s racing. Richard remembers the stylish duo of father and son, effortlessly propelling a double club skiff at the Wargrave and Shiplake Regatta. Their style embodied a beautiful and precise example of sculling a skiff and a joy to watch. John was a brilliant star in so many orbits, completely deserving fine accolades and he’ll be hugely missed. Hip Hip Hurrah for Hall-Craggs!

(Wade adds that the propelling of the double skiff was only apparently effortless and ‘definitely not with Dad, he had a way of expecting the best from you without uttering a word’).

Tom:

Words fail to adequately capture the kind, generous, interested, engaged and scholarly qualities constantly on display when one was in the presence of, or in correspondence with, John Hall-Craggs.

In a world in which bluster and projected power are too frequently the coin of the realm, John Hall-Craggs commanded respect for his kind and engaged manner, and the quiet vigor with which he took on his many activities, whether rowing out of Upper Thames, or chatting with Diana Way at Way’s bookshop, or enjoying a drink or meal at Leander, or asking questions at a River & Rowing Museum rowing history symposium. His dress spoke to his good manners and composure, as did his regard for tradition courtesies, always illuminated by bright eyes and a welcoming demeanor.

Both gentleman and gentle man, he made any gathering or conversation more enjoyable and more interesting.  His passing leaves a notable void, for which the phrase “we shall not soon see his like again” is, once more, completely inadequate.  

Well rowed, John

 

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