Aquatic Treasures Of The British Museum

The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, pictured in 1853, its centenary year. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

10 March 2021

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch spends a virtual night at the museum and sees some of the rowing related items come to life.

The British Museum was the first public national museum in the world, established in 1753. Today, it has a permanent collection of eight million works dedicated to history, culture and art, from the earliest times to the present day. It is sometimes said that the British Museum’s least British things are its exhibits; some were acquired from foreign countries during colonial times and have ongoing controversies over their ownership.

While researching my recent piece on the history of Venetian women’s rowing, I rediscovered the remarkable British Museum website, one that gives open access to high resolution pictures of much of its collection. It says of this generous act:

The British Museum wishes to encourage the dissemination and use of information about our collection and expertise that we publish on our website. For this purpose, we increasingly intend to release content on our website under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

HTBS Types will not be surprised to learn that I spent many interesting hours searching for rowing related items held at Great Russell Street. No doubt, I will have missed many that are hidden amongst the eight million other treasures so I would encourage readers to fill some lockdown hours by doing their own search and sharing any interesting finds with the rest of us. Here are some of my discoveries.


A rowing race on the Arno River, Florence, showing the Santa Trìnita bridge. This is one of ten small views of Florentine scenes surrounding a large bird’s eye view picture of the city by Stefano Bonsignori c.1627 – 1636. © The Trustees of the British Museum.
A Google Earth view of the same spot today – the Tower of Arnolfo, part of the Palazzo Vecchio, marked with an ‘x’ here, confirms this. The bridge was completed in 1569 but was destroyed in the Second World War. It was reconstructed using stones from the original bridge and from the original quarry.

This is the earliest image that I know of showing what we would recognise as a modern regatta for conventional rowing boats. Five crews race side-by-side with spectators standing in following craft and crowding the banks and the bridge. The flag on the left may mark the finish line. The carriage and those on horseback suggest that at least some of those watching were from the upper classes.

A ticket for the 1775 Walton Bridge Regatta. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

I cannot find any information on the Walton Bridge Regatta of 18 July 1775 but the Ranelagh Regatta held at Chelsea on 23 June 1775 is generally regarded as the first occasion in England in which the Venetian word ‘regatta’ was attached to such an event. Admittedly, the memoirist William Hickey used the term in 1768, but this was in reference to a ‘water carnival’ held between Hampton Court and Weybridge. It was only in 1775 that there was specific mention of boat racing as a component part of regattas. Ranelagh established a fashion among all social classes for such aquatic entertainment and the regatta at Walton Bridge followed less than a month later.

“Waterloo Bridge from the west with a boat race”, William Parrott, 1841. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The British Museum’s description of the above scene says, ‘Waterloo Bridge beyond to the right; on shore to the left can be seen Hungerford Market, Buckingham Watergate and Somerset House, the Royal barge rows into picture in foreground to right’.

The presence of the barge with the Royal standard is rather mysterious. A young Queen Victoria was monarch in 1841, but it seems unlikely that it would have been thought appropriate for her to attend what was almost certainly a race of working-class professionals (gentlemen would not row shirtless).

A design for a regatta ticket by Giovanni Battista Cipriani, 1787. Cipriani was born in Florence but spent the latter part of his life in England as John Baptist Cipriani. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The best-known design for a regatta ticket of the period is the one by Francesco Bartolozzi, ”Ticket for a Regatta Ball at Ranelagh Gardens, 23 June 1775”. The museum credits this as ‘after’ Giovanni Battista Cipriani, i.e. an interpretive design of a Cipriani original.

A Venetian regatta held in Milan on 17 December 1807 in the presence of Napoleon I (Napoleon Bonaparte). © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Napoleon had become King of Italy on 17 March 1805 and had been crowned in Milan on 23 May 1805. I would love to think that this aquatic stadium once existed, but I have my doubts. Presumably, there was a regatta on the date inscribed, but how much ‘artistic license’ has been used illustrating it here is open to speculation.

Racing of gondolas and rowing boats in Venice by Giacomo Franco, 1610. The inscription notes that races are ‘in various sorts of boats with different amounts of oars’ and that ‘it is usual to view this maritime spectacle with much delight’. A similar women’s race was drawn by Franco at the same time. © The Trustees of the British Museum.


“Charlie Beeson, A well-known character at Lambeth” by W. Alais, c.1800 – 1820. © The Trustees of the British Museum.
I do not know what Beeson is holding in his hands, but he is pictured standing in front of the carefully drawn premises of Lambeth boatbuilders, ‘Honey and Archer, late with Messrs Godfrey & Searle’. It is reasonable to suppose that he was a boatbuilder.
The top picture is from the 1829 Panorama of the Thames and shows the twin apex sheds of Honey and Archer situated along with other boatbuilders between Westminster Bridge and Lambeth Palace on London’s South Bank. The 1819 map below from Burnell and Page’s 1997 history of Leander Club, “The Brilliants”, confirms this.
The Eton boatman Matthew Groves c.1820 – 1837 © The Trustees of the British Museum.

According to Floreat Etonia, Anecdotes and memories of Eton College by Ralph Nevill (1911):

[One] well-known character in the beginning of the nineteenth century was Old Matty Groves, who was much teased by the boys on account of his rooted antipathy to clergymen, whom he used to denounce as the ‘black slugs’ of the country…. Old Matty was very unconventional in his ways, and had been known in flood-time, when the stream was running strong, to plunge into it in his clothes at Barnes Pool Bridge and swim across to his cottage.

Groves was one of the Eton ‘cads’, dubious men euphemistically known as ‘private tutors’, who according to Neville writing in 1911:

…assisted [the boys] in all sorts of sprees, providing dogs, fishing-tackle, badgers, ferrets, rats, fighting dogs, horses, and even, it is said, bulls for baiting. Eighty or ninety years ago, a dozen or more of such men were constantly to be seen loitering in front of the College every morning, making their arrangements with their pupils, the Ophidians, for a day’s sport, to commence the moment school was over… Some of these men were strange characters, who showed great recklessness when times were bad, and would be ready to let boys have a shot at them at a distance of seventy-five yards or so, three shillings a shot being the accepted price.

Charley Carr c.1820. Luggelaw Lake, also known as Lough Tay (Irish: Loch Té), is in County Wicklow, Ireland. We know nothing about Charley Carr, save that he is obviously a waterman or ferryman. © The Trustees of the British Museum.
“The Stroke Oar to the Royal George” by John Phillips, 1829. This is one of many satires on Lady Conyngham’s supposed political influence on George IV, who was her lover from 1819 until his death in 1830.  © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Old friends

There are several rowing prints in the British Museum’s collection that are familiar to those interested in rowing history and that are commonly reproduced – but rarely in the detailed, high resolution images that the museum’s website hosts.

“The Contest for Doggett’s Coat and Badge, A Prize rowed for every 1st of Aug st”. The museum dates this as 1822 – 1824 as this is the period that the printers, Hodgson & Co, operated out of Newgate Street. The pre-1825 Old London Bridge and the pre-1827 Fishmongers’ Hall are shown. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The press reports from around this time describe the various spectator boats much as pictured above. The Morning Post’s account of the 1820 Doggett’s said:

The banks and the river exhibited an unusually gay scene. Several bands of music played on the water and the gentlemen belonging to the Funny Club, the sailing pleasure boats, and the four-oared cutters, were more numerous than we have seen for many years… 

A ‘Funny’, a gentleman’s sculling boat.

For the 1838 Race, the West Kent Guardian wrote:

The hour for starting was five o’clock, but long before that time the river was crowded with eight, six and four oared cutters, several of which were manned by officers of the Guards and aquatic gentlemen of celebrity. There was also a variety of wherries, funnies and boats of every other description, many of which were filled with elegantly attired females, and a suitable number of ‘the lords of creation’…

In 1840, The Era reported:

The contest this year excited a great deal of interest and, long before the time of starting, London Bridge and the adjacent wharfs were densely crowded with persons who admire the old English sport of rowing. The cutters of the Guards and Leander Clubs, also those of the Oxonians and the Cantabs, in which there were a great number of noblemen and gentlemen who took an interest in aquatic sports, were waiting near the bridge at six o’clock.  

This detail of a spectating crew wearing square academic caps (‘mortarboards’) may be an early picture of a university crew. However, they could be clerical men as in the picture below and not secular students.
‘Sculls, Sculls to Lambeth! See how hard they pull ‘em! / But sure the Temple’s much nearer than Fulham’ (1747).  © The Trustees of the British Museum.

A cartoon satirising the three Bishops (Winchester, York and London) racing to Lambeth Palace, competing to become the new Archbishop of Canterbury after the death of Archbishop John Potter in 1747. York won. The idea of using a rowing boat as a political metaphor is a hackneyed one but this is an early example. A similar cartoon was produced when Potter first became Archbishop ten years earlier in 1837.

“A Boat Race on the River Isis” by John Thomas Serres, Published March 1, 1822, by I. Whessell, St, Aldates, Oxford. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The historian of Oxford’s Brasenose College Boat Club, William O’Chee, says that the print shows Brasenose College and Jesus College crews engaged in a close race in 1821. I have not seen it reproduced with the dedication before.

The Race for Doggett’s Coat and Badge nearing the finish at the White Swan Inn, Chelsea, by Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827). Rowlandson produced another famous picture of the Doggett’ s, one showing some mid-race action. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Rowlandson was a prolific artist and printmaker who included rowing and boating in all genres of his work. Examples include social observation in “Assailed by Watermen”, political satire in “The Clarke Cutter”, and conventional imagery in “Chelsea Reach”. Rowlandson also produced highly explicit erotica for a private clientele, pictures that are still ‘Not Safe For Work’. One of his milder works shows a couple in flagrante in a wherry.

A titillating end to our tour, visit the gift shop on your way out…


  1. Dear Tim,

    Thank you for telling your readers about this BM site. I had no idea of its existence, and have had a happy time this morning trawling through items of interest.

    I am glad to have joined the cc list for HTBS ! Should have done so much earlier.

    Thank you for all your good work.

    Best wishes,


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