Muttle’s Volte-Face

Henley 2016: If you win the Ladies’ Plate, you can (briefly) wear a hat like this.

17 February 2021

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch talks through his hat.

When I encounter someone wearing a cap backwards (or even sideways), I am always tempted to ask: “Didn’t it come with instructions?” I resist this urge for two good reasons. Firstly, there could be consequences if it were perceived that I was disrespecting the sartorially challenged. Secondly, there are at least two occasions when I too rotate my headgear by 180 degrees.

The most common reason for turning a titfer is when coxing or rowing facing into a strong head wind. Here, reversing the peak obviously decreases the chance of the cap blowing away. When I have ignored this precaution, Old Father Thames has, over the years, taken possession of several of my favourite items of headwear.

The other occasion on which I look as though I am attempting to join the 1980s cool kids is when taking photographs and the peak of my cap prevents me from properly holding the camera viewfinder to my eye. This is something that once resulted in me getting the attention of a rowing high-up.

During one Henley, I was on the photographer’s platform at the finish and had reversed my Leander cap (the downwards design of the peak is particularly inconvenient when using a camera) when a mobile phone call was relayed to me from a senior person at the Pink Palace suggesting that I return my cerise chapeau to its conventional state. Suitably admonished, this I did, but had I wished to contest the Leander millinery missive, I could have cited a strong and distinguished historical precedent: Stanley Duff Muttlebury, ‘The greatest oar ever produced by Cambridge’, a Victorian who chose to row ‘cap converse’.

‘Muttle’ Muttlebury, 1866 – 1933, depicted in “Vanity Fair” magazine in 1890.

The biography attached to Muttle’s Vanity Fair cartoon was, typically, both charming and rude:

Like most machines he is adapted for one purpose only, and consequently he is not a brilliant scholar; yet he has a head which, it is currently reported, can stand more than that of any other man. He is a fine swimmer, who has scored nearly as many pots in the water as he has on it; and he has upon occasion run at a good rate and played [rugby] football with fitting violence…. He takes delight in tearing either side off a boat, for he can row on stroke or bow side. He is a brilliant conversationalist, for in himself he has a never failing subject of conversation in which he is well posted; and he is the strongest man on earth in a boat as well as the most ugly. He knows more of life in London than most men of double his age know, and he weighs fifteen stone when untrained. He can tell stories, and he is supposed to be the most successful pot-hunter in England. He personifies the triumph of matter over mind.

Muttle’s wins included the Ladies’ Plate with Eton twice; the Cambridge Pairs four times and the Sculls once; the Boat Race four times out of five; at Henley, the Silver Goblets three times and the Stewards once.

Rudie Lehmann wrote about Muttlebury in verse:

Muttle at six is ‘stylish’, so at least the Field reports;
No man has ever worn, I trow, so short a pair of shorts.
His blade sweeps through the water, as he swings his 13.10,
And pulls it all, and more than all, that brawny king of men.

Muttlebury and five friends pictured in a Henley studio. As to the striped blazer and cap, Muttle rowed for Eton, Third Trinity, Cambridge and Thames, but I do not know of any of them sporting such colours. The gentleman in the front middle is wearing a Trinity Hall, Cambridge, cap.

Adding to Muttle’s Times obituary, RPP Rowe wrote:

Muttlebury had a natural aptitude which amounted to a genius for rowing, and, as he was not only massively large and full of courage but herculean in muscular strength…  Added to this, he came to his prime when rowing was in a transitional stage, when the old methods of the straight back and the body catch, suited to the fixed seat and the short slide, had necessarily to be superseded by methods required by the long-slide. I consider that long-slide rowing sprang suddenly to perfection in Muttlebury, that on him this new (or partially new) art was built…

A slightly fanciful picture of one of Muttle’s Boat Races, 1887 – 1891. For some reason, the artist has obscured his face, but the reversed Cambridge cap is visible on the fourth oarsman from the left.
In later life, Muttle became a distinguished coach and seems to have reverted to wearing his headgear in the conventional way.

RPP Rowe concluded his final thoughts on Muttle with this:

[He] had the most charming good manners… I have never known Muttle to speak unkindly of anyone; and I have never known him [to] swagger. 

If anyone had reason to swagger, it was Muttlebury. I doff my cap to him.

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