7 May 2020
By Mark Blandford-Baker
Mark Blandford-Baker presents a c.150-year-old story of the Boat Race.
Rowing is sometimes described as poetry in motion. Those of us who love the sport know the feeling of the boat running smoothly, even perfectly, beneath us and the analogy with poetry is not lost on us. Doggerel is described as comic verse in irregular rhythm and perhaps not as sweet as the motion of a boat, but nonetheless a lot of fun.
H.G. Clarke & Co. published in the 1860s and 1870s all manner of chapbooks (small pamphlets containing tales, ballads or tracts, sold by pedlars) in a series called Whims and Oddities. Number 3 of that series was entitled “The Boat Race and Who Went To It”. These were sold to the crowds long the river on Boat Race Day – at just a penny, they were printed on very low-grade paper with a coloured cover which also contained some advertising. Firms such as Geo. Mann & Co. could produce these on a lithographic machine at the rate of 7,000 per hour (according to The Encyclopedia of Ephemera by Maurice Rickards, The British Library, 2000). At 6” x 4 ¾“ (150 x 120mm), they slipped in a pocket. For a little more cost, other editions could be obtained with colouring or with a chart of the course.
Because these were so cheap, printed on thin paper and of such low cost not many have survived. Some years ago, I bought one from Diana Way at her bookshop in Henley and learnt that others from other years remain but are equally scarce.
The simplicity of the crude woodcuts of the race and spectators coupled with the verse make a lovely insight on the Boat Race of the Victorian period. Indeed, it gives some interesting insights to the social norms of the time, and the role of boatmen, the police and umpires. The 16 panels appeal to all and in doing so make it clear that the race is for all to attend, regardless of who they are. Of course, everyone supports either Oxford or Cambridge, no one who watches the race is neutral in their allegiance; something that remains largely true today – one does not have to have been at either university to be a supporter.
Being an umpire (albeit not of the Boat Race), I find the panel showing two umpires in the bow of a boat intriguing – why two? Perhaps one is the Timekeeper noting signals from the bank. The lines accompanying are a good mantra on the role: ‘of the rival crews they never lose sight, see the start is fair, and all goes right’. Apt here, of course, as the Boat Race is notoriously one of the most, if not the most, demanding rowing event at which to ensure fair play with no buoying to separate lanes and its own rules on taking water.
“The Boat Race and Who Went To It” has 16 panels, which read across eight on the top row, then eight on the bottom. To be able to see them and read the verse printed on each panel, they are here shown two panels in a row followed by two panels below. (Click on the images to enlarge.)