Fishing for Compliments

An advertisement from the 1954 Boat Race programme. Crookes, a manufacturer of healthcare and pharmaceutical products, has its origins in a company founded in 1912.

26 August 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch on advertising that is more Magdalen(e) than Madison.

The recent HTBS piece by Mark Blandford-Baker, “A Letter of Recommendation”,  reproduced an open letter written in 1947 by the Cambridge University Boat Club Medical Officer Edward Bevan, extolling the benefits that the Light Blues gained by taking Crookes Halibut Oil while in training. Mark noted that:

This sort of letter is now thought extraordinary by modern standards and would make the reader immediately wonder what inducement was provided for him to write the piece. However, of its time it seems unlikely that might be the case.

Crookes obviously targeted sportsmen in their advertising and this 1955 magazine advertisement promotes their ‘Athletes Advisory Service’, a body that had already dealt with ‘7,000 specific enquiries’. I speculate that the advice was generally to buy Crookes Halibut Oil.

Crookes and the Boat Race had another mutually beneficial relationship in that the company paid to advertise its Halibut Oil in the Boat Race programmes of the early 1950s (though I am not suggesting that this influenced Dr Bevan’s recommendation). Most such advertisements were rather dull generic pieces but, as shown above, Crookes made a special effort for the 100th Boat Race programme of 1954.

Taking fish oil as a dietary supplement was not a new idea. Bottles of cod liver oil were given out by the Ministry of Food during and after the 1939 – 45 War to ensure that children were getting vitamins A and D in their diets during a time of food shortage. Unpleasant to the taste, a spoonful of cod liver oil was something endured by many thousands on a daily basis.

The Official Boat Race programme was a post-1945 innovation that was sold in aid of both University Boat Club (though a Centenary Boat Race programme was published by the National Union of Students in 1929). The programme was at its peak in the 1950s and 1960s when, as well as giving crew details, it had knowledgeable articles on various aspects of the race.

Instructions to Boat Race programme sellers, 1951.

Advertising was also a major part of the content of Boat Race programmes, much of which was specific to the occasion. As would nowadays be expected of a publication for a sporting occasion, many advertisements, such as that for Crookes Halibut Oil, were promoting (allegedly) healthy products.

A 1951 ad for Bemax, a wheatgerm cereal produced between 1927 and the mid-1970s. Its factory was sited on the Thames at Hammersmith, almost exactly half-way along the Boat Race course. HTBS has previously written about the company’s rowing connections.
Ovaltine (‘for strength, vitality and stamina’) was a long-time advertiser in Boat Race programmes.
It seems that, in 1956, crisps (potato chips) were a health food and training aid for athletes.

However, it was alcohol advertising that dominated the Boat Race programmes. This was partly because many British people drank heavily and drank often, but also because several alcohol products had some sort of connection to the sport of rowing.

The Boat Race finishes almost opposite the brewery at Mortlake – as shown in this 1951 ad. It includes the information that ‘The Oxford University Boat Race Crew train on Watney’s KKKK Burton’. As Oxford sank in the first 1951 race and lost the rematch by 12 lengths, this may not have been a good idea.
1964: More from the Mortlake Brewery.
A bit of rowing history (the Cambridge swamping of 1978) is used by Watneys in this 1980 ad.
Other breweries are available – Youngs of Wandsworth make some puns in the 1980 programme.
Guinness advertising has a long tradition of involvement in rowing, not least because of Henley and Wingfields winner Rupert Guinness.
Beefeater Gin, advertised here in 1964.

When support by the Boat Race’s first sponsor, Ladbrokes, ended in 1980, Beefeater Gin took over. The chairman of the family firm was Alan Burrough, a triple rowing Blue at Cambridge in the late 1930s. He returned to competitive rowing after the 1939 – 1945 War despite having been wounded and losing his right leg below the knee when his tank was blown up near Tripoli in 1943. He was not expected to live, but three years later he was Captain of Thames and rowing in the Stewards’ Challenge Cup at Henley. From 1947 to 1949 he competed in a pair, rowing twice more at Henley and also in the European Championships. In later years, Burrough became the chief organiser of the Boat Race. His home at Henley looked on to the finishing line of the regatta course and he also bought Temple Island, at the start of the course, and gave it to the regatta.

Other gins were not going to be left out:

Gilbey’s, 1949. Sir Harcourt Gilbey Gold (‘Tarka’), former Boat Race and Henley winner and then Chairman of both the Henley Committee of Management and of the Amateur Rowing Association, was part of the Gilbey Gin distilling family.
Booth’s, 1964.
A drink needs a cigarette to go with it. This is from 1973 but, strangely, there was little or no tobacco advertising in the Boat Race programmes of the 1950s and 1960s, times when promoting such a product would have been perfectly acceptable.
Still smoking in 1980.

The BBC’s first radio commentary on the Boat Race was in 1927 and it attempted television coverage as early as 1938. The race was the sort of event that made people take the difficult decision to spend several month’s pay on a set.

In 1956, the height of luxury would be to watch the Boat Race on a 17-inch, 405 line, black and white set.
The “Radio Times” listed not only radio schedules but also the television programmes on the one BBC TV channel that existed in 1956.
Pye of Cambridge – ‘makers of the world’s finest radio and television’.

Finally, the official Boat Race website has recently posted Saturday, 3 April 2021 (Easter Saturday) as the date of the next Oxford – Cambridge Boat Races, a day when the two universities will ‘renew the oldest rivalry in sport’ (with or without the aid of fish oil).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.