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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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).