22 July 2020
By Chris Dodd
Early in July, HTBS contributors – regulars and irregulars – gathered around their screens for a zoom meeting for a ‘show-and-tell’ and to show some of their favourite rowing memorabilia. Leaving out whiskers on kittens and warm woollen mittens, here are a few of Chris Dodd’s favourite things.
Two pivotal events heightened my interest in history. The first was the commission of Henley Royal Regatta, my first book, which sent me scurrying to Richard Way’s bookshop in Henley and Pat Smith’s rowing bookshop in America. The second was the idea of a rowing museum born during the 1984 LA Olympics, which led me to the doorstep of great historians such as Tom Mendenhall, Tom Weil, Bill Miller and John Gardner.
Somewhere between these events I determined to restrict acquisitions to books, mainly on economic grounds. So, I am not a serious collector – except that I have had the privilege of building collections for the River & Rowing Museum. The museum did not possess a single one of the 30,000 objects that it has today when collecting began 35 years ago.
Favourites among images on the walls at home are Julian Trevelyan’s modernist depictions of the Thames, including one of Chiswick Reach showing the artist’s studio which is located at the half way point of the Championship Course from Putney to Mortlake (identified from the water by its blue window frame).
I also have beautiful watercolours of Bled and Piediluco by Annabel Eyres, painted when she was rowing with the GB squad. The best photo on my wall is Peter Spurrier’s image of the Tideway Scullers ‘Great Eight’ passing Cambridge Boat Club during a snowstorm on their way to win the Head of the Charles. Everything is right about Pete’s picture. It captures power, grace, rhythm, speed, unison, light, movement and frozen droplets.
A prized possession is a fórcola – the oarlock of a gondola – made by Saverio Paster, master of the Venetian art, a beautifully sculpted piece with a purpose.
When it comes to the RRM’s collections, there are hundreds of items claiming attention. I’d start with the golden sovereign minted in 1829, the year of the first Boat Race, given to the race by John Snagge. Snagge, the legendary mellifluous BBC wireless broadcaster who gave live commentary on 50 Boat Races (and, incidentally, wore his dinner suit to read news bulletins, including the announcement of the D-Day Landings), presented it for conducting the toss for stations.
The Boat Race, with its long course from Putney to Mortlake, has long set a challenge to newspapers, photographers and broadcasters faced with reporting the action since 1829. The RRM has a 19-century canister into which a reporter on the press boat would seal his account as the race progressed and toss it to a boy in a dinghy. His job was to catch it or fish it from the drink and row it to a runner on the towpath, who in turn legged it to the nearest telegraph office. By such methods newspapers were able to get a report onto the streets of Oxford and Cambridge four minutes after the crews crossed the finish line.
In the 1920s, the BBC learned how to relay live wireless commentary from a moving boat to its transmission centre at Alley Pally. The corporation later used the Boat Race to learn how to film from helicopters.
My treasured book acquisition is the catalogue of boat builders Waters and Balch in Troy, New York. Waters and Balch published their volume in 1871 just as they introduced paper or papier-mâché sculling boats for top end professionals, and John Babcock had patented his sliding seat. Beautifully produced with blueprints and drawings, it coincided with the most important development in boat design. I spotted it in an auction of sporting pictures. Sporting in the auctioneering world usually means huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ – and this was no exception. There was no-on else present with an eye for Waters and Balch. My book is now part of the RRM collection.
Among souvenirs I have acquired at regattas are a bottle of sponsored Coca-Cola from the LA Olympics in 1984 and a can of Leopard Lager from the sponsors of the 1978 Worlds in New Zealand. The latter has been drunk, but the Coke is unopened. When the opportunity arises, the HTBS historians will be invited to taste it.