18 November 2020
By Jane Kingsbury
Jane Kingsbury, co-author of Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club 1941 – 2014 (2015), wonders: who was the ingenious burglar who nicked the King’s College silver and what’s in a name?
Some rowing clubs and crews pay more attention to the names they give their boats than others. For instance in Scotland, as we learn from the fascinating blog on Scottish coastal rowing, Row around Scotland, some island communities build their own boat and then put a lot of thought into how to name it.
Among Cambridge colleges, boats are often named after historical figures, well-loved coaches or generous donors. In the early 1970s, King’s College Boat Club, for quite a while not the highest boat club in the pecking order on the river at the time, took a different tack and, on the suggestion (many crew members at that time claim) of Rev. Michael Till, Dean of Chapel, who was a keen supporter of and coach for the Boat Cub, decided to name their new VIII The Ingenious Burglar. At the time, the folk myth around this name was that there had been a cunning thief in Cambridge (obviously an insider) who had made a habit of stealing the college silver while the Fellows were dining in hall. It was never established who he was.
When it came to launching and naming the new boat the crew approached the Provost, but he decided not to take part in the ceremony so, as a groupie and girlfriend of a crew member, they asked me instead. Of course, I was delighted to baptise The Ingenious Burglar with champers (those were the days) and duly turned up on the back lawn on a chilly day to do the honours.
To the delight of myself and the crew, from that point on, the fortunes of KCBC took an upturn and the crew started to win and climb up the ladder at the Bumps. (This, of course, was in no way linked to the rowing abilities of the crew….)
Years elapsed and one would have thought that oarsmen who rowed later had forgotten all about the boat of 1972, but in 2019, the club had another boat to name and decided to have another Ingenious Burglar. So, on a rather warmer day in 2019, I found myself outside the KCBC boathouse once again naming the boat for the club, and once again progress in rowing ensued for the crew of the burglar – at least, until lockdown. It now remains to be seen whether this success will continue once competitive rowing starts again post-COVID. (See also here.)
All this led me to pondering on whether there was any substance to the story of the ingenious thief, who had got away with the college silver and never been tracked down. Club members from the 1970s had hazy memories, so I turned to the college archivist, Patricia McGuire, who was very helpful and dug into the archives to discover that the college silver had indeed been stolen mysteriously, the culprit never having been found. But rather than the silver disappearing while the Fellows were dining, it had been purloined while the provost was away during the summer of 1796 from two rooms in college in which it had been securely locked away. And the haul was quite considerable as the inventory showed. All that was left after the theft of ‘700 ounces of the Provost’s plate and 200 ounces of other old plate’ was two ‘Tempest’ salvers and Lord Carlisle’s salver and an epergne.