1914: Last in the Last Torpids Before the War

The Christ Church 3rd Torpids crew in 1914, rowing badly.

6 January 2021

By Teresa Stokes

As a change from the elite athletes usually depicted on HTBS, in this article Teresa Stokes presents her maternal grandfather, Terry Durham, whose crew finished last in the 1914 Torpids, the final Torpids before war intervened and they were cancelled for five years.

Terry Colley Durham of Appomattox was awarded the Rhodes Scholarship for Virginia in December 1912 and went up to Christ Church, Oxford, in October 1913. Tennis had been his game at Richmond University, and he had never rowed before, but now he took it up with enthusiasm and rowed bow for the Christ Church 3rd Torpid crew in 1914. They had a postcard made of themselves rowing on the Isis (see above), taken by George Davis, Varsity Photographer, of 7 The Turl, Oxford.

Terry is at bow. He seems to be leaning a very long way back, long before the Lady Margaret style was invented. My father, Adrian Stokes, who rowed for Oxford twice, laughed at the bad rowing when he saw the picture.

Terry sent the postcard to his mother back home, postmarked 14 February 1914. Her address was simply Mrs W. A. Durham, Appomattox, Virginia, USA, but in those days that was sufficient to find her in a county of 9000 inhabitants! Terry wrote:

We are working our “tongues out” when this was taken. I seem a little “unhappy” – but some others do too! A boat is not the place to judge of one’s beauty. This is fine exercise. I am getting fat – have gained 8 pounds in 8 days. All goes well. Love, Terry.

The article writer’s maternal grandfather, Terry Durham.

Perhaps all the exercise was making him hungry, but my grandfather was certainly never fat. He was 6 feet 1 inch tall and his U.S. Army draft card states that he was slender, adding that he had dark grey eyes and dark brown hair.

A group photo of the Christ Church 3rd Torpid crew was taken, and Terry is the tall figure on the left in the doorway. If you look closely you will see there is something very funny about the picture: the cox was literally cut-and-pasted in afterwards. He looks a ghostly colour and appears to be levitating!

The 1914 Christ Church 3rd Torpids crew – with the “ghost cox”.

The 1914 bumps races took place from 19 to 26 February. The Times on 27 February reported that “The Torpid Races were brought to a close at Oxford yesterday. Christ Church had no difficulty in retaining the headship of the river … Christ Church finished fully four lengths in front of Magdalen.” At the other end of the scale, my grandfather’s Christ Church III were bumped on the first day and finished last.

The Great War broke out that summer and when he returned to Oxford from the United States in October, he found that many of his fellow undergraduates had left to join the fighting – “It will all be over by Christmas,” it was said – and, sadly, it’s fair to say that some of those young men in my photographs would have been among their number and were killed in the war. University sporting fixtures were cancelled, with no Torpids from 1915 to 1919, so that was the end of Terry’s rowing career – he took up golf after that! It is worth noting that when the Torpids restarted in 1920, Christ Church retained headship of the river, obviously with a completely new crew.

In the summer of 1915, Terry didn’t return to Virginia for the long vac. Instead, he volunteered as a Red Cross ambulance driver ferrying the wounded from the Western Front to military hospitals and learned to speak French fluently. Whilst at Christ Church, he became great friends with Harold Harmsworth, who was on the same staircase. In July 1916, just before Terry’s time at Oxford came to an end, he went to stay with Harold’s family and met Harold’s sister Dolly.

In 1918, with the USA having joined the war, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to France where his language skills meant he worked as a translator and was not sent into battle. He was still there in the summer of 1919, months after the war was over, and while waiting to be demobilised he took the opportunity to visit Oxford to take his M.A. During his week’s leave in England, he met up with Harold and his family and a transatlantic correspondence ensued between Terry and Dolly, culminating in their marriage in London two years later.

For real bumps buffs, you may see all the statistics for 1914 Torpids here.

2 comments

  1. What a lovely tale of one of the lesser lights of the sport we love. It is articles like this that make HTBS what it is , a cornucopia of aquatic tales , from Olympic heroics to glorious spear carriers. Especially when backed up with personal reminiscence and photographic evidence.

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