Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse: The Man with the Last Wooden Spoon

Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse, oarsman of Lady Margaret Boat Club and student of St John’s College, Cambridge, with his mock prize, the ‘Wooden Spoon’, which showed everyone that he was the last one on the 1909 honours list at the Mathematics Tripos. On Holthouse’s left is a shield with St John’s College Coat of Arms.

24 September 2020

By Göran R Buckhorn

Here is another article in The Dry Season Bottom-of-the-Barrel Series. This is an ‘updated’ version of an article first published in March 2014.

The story of the ‘Wooden Spoon’ and the last man who received this award at Cambridge University, Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse, has been told many times on the web. Most of the writers have got the information, it seems, from the Wikipedia entry called “Wooden Spoon” – and after the story was posted on HTBS in March 2014, a few social medialists have ‘borrowed’ the text from HTBS because there was a rowing angle. So be it.

As many HTBS readers would agree, especially after having looked at the picture of Holthouse above, this kind of story is just what you would expect to find on HTBS. This is how the story goes:

Ever since man came up with sport competitions, the winner, an individual or a team, has received a grand prize. The ones coming in second and third have sometimes also got prizes, though of less value than the victor. Nowadays, gold, silver and bronze medals are handed out in most sports, but in a few sport events, for example at the Boat Race and Henley Royal Regatta, only the champion crew receives a winning cup.

Some sports have gone further and not only awarded prizes to the winner and the second- and third-placed persons or teams, but also the dead-last person/team has received a so-called booby prize. In the first fictional boat race report, in Book V in The Aeneid of Virgil, Aeneas presents Sergestus, who has steered his vessel too close to some rocks whereupon the oars wreck and leave Sergestus and his crew last of the competitors:

Aeneas presents Sergestus with the reward he promised,
happy that the ship is saved, and the crew rescued.
He is granted a Cretan born slave-girl, Pholoe, not unskilled
in the arts of Minerva, nursing twin boys at her breast.
(translated by A. S. Kline, 2002)

The first time the mock prize ‘Wooden Spoon’ was recorded was in 1793 (though, Wikipedia says in 1803), but as an academic ‘award’, not as a sport prize. Two years earlier, in 1791, the ‘Senior Wrangler’, the top student on the honours list, or the ‘academic success’, was first mentioned. ‘Spoon’, as in the slang word ‘spoony’(foolish), found its way into the academic world of Cambridge during the late 1700s.

This one-metre long spoon is one of two that were handed out by friends to two students of Selwyn College in 1906 (both ended up at the bottom of the degree list). This spoon now hangs in the staircase of the Selwyn College library, Cambridge.

In 1823, the poem “The Wooden Spoon” was published in The Cambridge Tart. One stanza reads:

And while he lives, he wields the boasted prize
Whose value all can feel, the weak, the wise;
Displays in triumph his distinguish’d boon,
The solid honours of the Wooden Spoon.

An unhappy Trinity Hall student receives the ‘Wooden Spoon’. Detail from Robert B. Farren’s painting “Degree Day” (1863). See the full painting here. Some websites wrongly call the painting “Degree Morning”.

The year after this mock poem was published, the Cambridge student Hensleigh Wedgewood, who later would become a barrister and an etymologist, was handed a special prize as the Classics student at Cambridge who came dead last on the degree list. As it was a custom for examiners in the Mathematics Tripos to award prizes to top students and give the student who just managed to scrape by a wooden spoon, the examiners in Classics decided to award prizes to all their students, and as Wedgewood was last, they gave him a wooden wedge, a jest on his own name. In the 1860s, Wedgewood’s son, Ernest, kept up the good family tradition by becoming ‘The Spoon’.

The ‘Wooden Spoon’ also spread to other English-speaking countries. In 1847, it appeared at Yale University and, in 1861, at the University of Pennsylvania. However, in America the ‘Wooden Spoon’ shifted from being a mock award to an honour award, so at Yale the most popular student was given the spoon.

The Wedge and the Spoon, from The Slang Dictionary (1913; published by Chatto & Windus, London).

At Cambridge, it was, however, the spoon handed out at the Mathematics Tripos that was most famous, or maybe it is more correct to say, ‘infamous’. The attitude towards ‘The Spoon’ also changed through the years, from being an embarrassment to receive to an attractive prize to walk away with. Reports tell that the student who was presented with ‘The Spoon’ in the Senate House, where the honours were handed out, was greeted with the same enthusiasm as the ‘Senior Wrangler’, at least amongst the students. At times, this occasion did turn out to be a disorderly event, as in June 1882, which came to be known as ‘The Battle of the Spoon’.

While ‘The Spoon’ became quite notorious, it grew larger and larger, from a small wooden spoon to the last wooden spoon, which was handed out in 1909 to the student Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse (1887-1967). Maybe it was because Holthouse was an oarsman at Lady Margaret Boat Club of St. John’s College that the spoon took the shape of an oar?

According to the Wikipedia entry “Wooden Spoon”, there is an inscription in Greek on this oar/spoon, which may be translated to something like this:

‘In Honours Mathematical
This is the very last of all
The Wooden Spoon which you see here
O you who see it, shed a tear

Alternatively: This wooden object is the last souvenir of the competitive examinations in mathematics. Look upon it, and weep.’

Looking at the photograph of Cuthbert Holthouse, he does not look that displeased. We must remember that it was not that uncommon to receive a third degree. On this matter, HTBS’s Tim Koch has written ‘a Third was [an] entirely appropriate [degree]. It was known as “A Gentleman’s Degree” or “An Oarsman’s Degree”’, so it was very suitable for young Holthouse to be on the receiving end. We also must remember that a good number of students placed below the ‘Wooden Spoon’ level by getting an Ordinary degree. ‘In the 1860s about three-quarters of the roughly 400 candidates did not score enough to be awarded honours, and were known as poll men’, it says in “Wooden Spoon” on Wikipedia.

When Cuthbert Holthouse – don’t you think that it’s such an appropriate name for the last holder of the ‘Wooden Spoon’? – left Cambridge, he, of course, brought his award with him. Holthouse became a clergyman and was appointed an army chaplain during the First World War in France in 1918. After the war, he went to Canada and lent the ‘Wooden Spoon’ to St John’s, so the college could put it on display. When Holthouse came back to England, the ‘Wooden Spoon’ was returned to him.

In July this year, Cuthbert Holthouse’s granddaughter, Margaret Horner, wrote a comment to HTBS:

My grandfather got married in 1919 and almost immediately emigrated to Canada. All four of his children were born there. My mother is the eldest and was born in 1920. The family returned to England in 1935. Cuthbert’s three daughters are all still alive. My aunt can’t remember how the wooden spoon got back to the university [see below], but she does remember going to the college and seeing it displayed in the senior lecturer’ common room.

In the essay “The Wooden Spoon. Rank (dis)order in Cambridge 1753-1909” (2012), Christopher Stray writes:

It subsequently returned to the college in a very curious way. In the 1960s Holthouse put his house in Winchester up for sale so that he could move into a retirement home. One of those who came to inspect the house was another St. John’s oarsman, Guthie Easten, who on looking through the window immediately recognized the spoon. The upshot was that Easten drove the spoon to Cambridge in his small car, with one end sticking out of a window covered in a plastic bag.

When the tripos system changed after 1909, students were grouped into classes that made it impossible to tell who was in the lowest place, so the practice ceased. A few years ago, the Cuthbert Holthouse and his ‘Wooden Spoon’ story had a Twitter account, but that has now been terminated.

A lady’s ticket for the Wooden Spoon Exhibition at Yale in 1869, depicting a six-oared shell. From Yale University Library.

Today, ‘Wooden Spoons’ are held in the collections of Cambridge colleges St John’s, Selwyn, Emmanuel and Corpus Christi, and at Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania and Oberlin College (Ohio). At the latter college, a wooden spoon was handed out to an ‘ugly person’. What ‘ugly’ means here is not explained. There are also five known wooden spoons in private collections.

To come back to where I started this blog entry: wooden spoons came to be known in certain sports like tennis, football (soccer) and rugby. In rugby, in the Six Nations Championship, there is no physical prize handed over. The last rider in Tour the France (who finishes the race) receives the Lanterne Rouge, the Red Lantern.

Let us end with ‘spoons’ and rowing. Two more comments came for the first 2014 article. Signature ‘Anonymous’ wrote:

I was a rower at Corpus, Cambridge, and ‘spoons’ cropped up in bumps terminology. A crew received spoons if they were bumped down on every day of bumps as opposed to a crew receiving ‘blades’ for bumping up every day. I remember our 2nd VIII getting spoons one year – their cox bought wooden cooking spoons and painted them in boat club colours to hand out as a prize at boat club dinner.

Signature ‘Tillerman’ wrote:

I rowed in the May Bumps at Cambridge for Queens’ in one of the lower divisions in 1968. None of us in our crew had ever rowed before. We narrowly escaped winning our “spoons” with one row-over and three bumps down.

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