William O’Chee: When your Finest Possession is Memory

Frontispiece of the 1837 Brasenose College Boat Club Minute Book. All images reproduced by kind permission of the Principal and Fellows of Brasenose College, Oxford.

5 August 2020 

By William O’Chee

In the eighth installment of HTBS show-and-tell series, rowing historian and writer William O’Chee states that your finest possession can be Memory. 

Unlike my more illustrious colleagues at Hear The Boat Sing, I am a modest collector of rowing memorabilia, and the best of the pieces I have acquired have been donated to the archives of Brasenose College, Oxford. You can imagine my horror at Göran Buckhorn’s invitation to write an article about my favourite item in my collection. Would it be my battered copy of W.B. Woodgate’s Reminiscences of an Old Sportsman or my 1987 Oxford University Lightweights zephyr? How mundane!

It occurred to me, however, that I do possess one thing which is unique, and that is a digital copy of the entire archive of the Brasenose College Boat Club – all 3,300 handwritten pages of it. The originals are kept in leather-bound volumes in the College archives, which stretch all the way back to 1837. Apart from a hiatus of a few years in the 1930s, they are a continuous record of the great and the everyday occurrences of a rowing club over the past 183 years. There are also priceless photographs going back to the middle of the 19th century.

My favourite page is not the glorious frontispiece to the first Minute Book, shown above, but the poem which follows. Although Brasenose had been Head of the River in Oxford at least five times between 1815 and 1827, their fortunes had been parlous for much of the decade before the first Minute Book opened in 1837. In one of these years they failed to put on a boat at all.

The unknown poet strikes a note at once both melancholy and optimistic: “Of all their lessons learn this one / ‘What has been, may again be done.’” He concludes with the hope that the College will once again raise its name “To its own pinnacle of fame.” His wish was granted when Brasenose returned to the Head of the River two years later.

How did I come into possession of this trove of rowing history? In 2014, I foolishly volunteered to write the history of the Brasenose College Boat Club for its Bicentenary in 2015. The problem was that the records were sitting in Oxford, and I was 10,000 miles away in Australia. One of my crew mates, Dr Eddie Chaloner, kindly paid two undergraduates to digitise the entire archive, and for it to be made available to me that way.

The extraordinary thing about these Minute Books is that, until the 20th century, they not only recorded rowing on the Isis, but details of regattas up and down the Thames. These records include crew lists for long lost clubs such as the Oxford Subscription Rooms in London.

There are lively descriptions of races and revealing accounts of disputes with boat builders and watermen. The Minute Books contain the oldest report of a Bumps Supper, from 1845 – a dinner which continued until 3am the next morning!

There is also this charming explanation, from 1869, of the importance of finding a balance between port and claret in providing for a crew in training.

Among the many photos preserved, I particularly like this one, taken in 1860, showing the Brasenose crew that won the Oxford University Fours that year.

The Brasenose College Four in November 1860. Winners of the O.U.B.C. Fours.

The famous W.B. Woodgate is in the three seat, and Wheldon Champneys in bow. Woodgate and Champneys would win the Goblets at Henley Royal Regatta in 1861 and 1862. They would also participate in the crews that won the Wyfold’s in 1861 and both the Stewards’ and the Visitor’s in 1862. After Champneys retired, Woodgate would win the Goblets three times more, as well winning the Visitor’s in 1863, the Diamonds in 1864 and the Grand in 1865. In the photo, the coxswain, C.J. Parkin, is seen wearing his college rowing blazer, and holding his top hat aloft as if to start the crew.

One hundred twenty-seven years later, I would appear in a similar photo coxing the Brasenose 1st VIII at the start in Summer Eights. I was bereft of a top hat, but the same strain and attention evident in Woodgate’s four can be seen in the bodies and the faces of my own crew.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – The Brasenose College 1st VIII on the start in Summer Eights in 1987. The author occupies the coxswain’s seat.

The Brasenose College Boat Club Minute Books are a unique and historically significant record of rowing over a 200-year period, and I am privileged to possess a complete copy – proof that memory is the greatest possession.

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