Alf: The Twinn Who Was One Of A Kind

Alfred Charles Twinn (1915 – 1990) started as an apprentice boatman at Cambridge University Boat Club in 1930 when he was 14 and officially retired as head boatman aged 68 in 1983. Before Boat Race sponsorship brought in professional coaches in the late 1970s, CUBC and OUBC boatmen did more than just maintain boats, they played an important role in the coaching of crews.

 23 March 2021

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch on a Cam legend.

Unlike most of the thousands of young gentlemen from the University of Cambridge that he coached and cajoled, and mocked and mentored in his half-century as boatman to CUBC, Alf Twinn merited a Times obituary when he died. In summary, it read:

Alf Twinn personified the diligence, knowledge, experience and determination that lay behind Cambridge University’s success in the Boat Race in the period after the Second World War. As Boatman, he helped with the coaching, looked after the boat, and his sturdy figure could be seen on Boat Race day in waders leading it into the water, ready to do battle…

Alf Twinn went back to the days when coaching was done on horseback… He came [to CUBC] as a lad of 14 on 1 January 1930 to be assistant to ‘Cooee’ Phillips… He succeeded Cooee in [1937], and he stayed in the job… until his retirement in 1983. [During his time] Cambridge won the Boat Race 29 times.

He worked with many great coaches, starting with Peter Haig Thomas… But he treasured most his association with Harold Rickett, the celebrated post-war finishing coach…

Boatmen had their own crew, and Alf rowed at No 6 behind Percy Bullock (Jesus) and Fred Benstead (Pembroke).

Apart from being a good coach himself, Alf was a great supporter of college rowing, which he believed to be the mainstay of the Cambridge University Boat Club…

Two hundred letters came to him on his retirement, sent by, among others, an Earl, an Admiral, a General and a Bishop…

The Times obituary was a splendid and workmanlike tribute, but it did not capture the real character of the man and why those who came under his influence remember him for much more than just his undoubted technical skills as a boatman and coach. My request to various Cambridge alumni for their memories of Alf produced many heartfelt and humorous stories and an amazing list of ‘Alfisms’. Recording these means that they will not be lost with the passing of time.

Alf pictured at ‘the Goldie’ when he succeeded ‘Cooee’ Phillips as CUBC head boatman after the 1937 Boat Race. His “Times” obituary (corrected above) wrongly said that he took charge in 1933 but contemporary newspaper sources confirm 1937. Certainly, an apprenticeship lasting seven years, not three, would be more likely. ‘Cooee’ had been boatman to Trinity Hall, 1882 – 1895, and to CUBC, 1895 – 1937.

Alf Twinn began his life’s work in an age of deference. Like NCOs drilling officer cadets, he could say anything he liked to the young gentlemen in his charge as long it finished with ‘Sir’. Thus, rude and crude comments were sometimes used, though perhaps this is not too surprising as the boat club was very much a man’s world in Alf’s time. Chris Dodd recorded a memory of Alf’s semi-deference in his book, The Oxford Cambridge Boat Race (1983):

An American who rowed for the light blues in the 1970s said of Alf: ‘I was flattered that he called everyone else ‘Sir’ and me ‘Dick’ and then looked as if he’d blasphemed when he’d said it’.

Sean Gorvy, Goldie 1986 and 1987 

By the time I arrived at Cambridge in 1985, (Alf) was retired and plugged into his kidney dialysis machine. My sculling boat was stored on the hanging rack from the roof of the Goldie and he would unplug and wheel himself out and sit on the bank under what was known as “Alf’s Tree” and make me go up and down as I was preparing for GB lightweight trials.

Apart from the usual “if you don’t mind me saying so, Sir, you look like a sack-a-potatoes sitting on that seat, Sir” type thing he caught me putting surgical spirit on my blistered hands (getting used to sculling from sweep). “Oooh, you don’t want to be doing that Sir”. I looked up curious as this was what I had done since starting rowing at the age of 13 as did all my contemporaries. “Gentleman’s hands Sir, you want gentleman’s hands”. He then explained that you want the softest possible hands not toughened hands to avoid blisters, as the more supple the skin the less the two layers rubbing against each other occurs which causes the problem. “You go off to the chemists and ask them to give you some of that lanolin, that’s sheep’s fat, Sir, and rub that into your hands. ‘Orrible smell mind you, Sir”.

I’ve done this ever since though I’ve swapped lanolin for ‘Sudocrem’ nappy cream which does the same thing. All of Crabtree now follows this lead and we have a tub of it in the changing room…. The legend goes on.

Alf pictured in 1948. His only time away from the job that he loved was between September 1940 and July 1946 when he served with anti-aircraft detachments of the Royal Artillery.

Chris Rodrigues, CUBC 1970, 1971

Alf to me on a freezing January day when I donned a pair of white tights handed down by my father (who had been in the Royal Ballet along with my mother). Cor blimey Sir, who’d ‘ave believed a couple of things like that could’ve produced a thing like you.

On being charged with using CUBC paint to paint the front door of his cottage. That’s not Cambridge Blue, Sir. That’s hydrangea blue.

On finding out that I had ordered the first sectional eight (as 1971 President). You may not make it to the finish, Sir. After we won by 10 lengths in the second fastest time in history, I returned to the Goldie to find him starting to cut through the hulls of multiple boats… It’s the way of the future, Sir.

An unforgettable character – worth a couple of lengths to any crew!

A picture from 1952.

David Searle, CUBC 1976 and 1977

Alf Twinn was a man of his time, so his vocabulary was often littered with profanity. One of his favourite forms of insult was to call you a “know-nothing c***”. It is also fair to say that there was no way you could describe him as politically/socially correct. He had started as an apprentice in 1930 and always said that he had been with CUBC “man and boy”…

When you were rowing as a student you often had a nickname. Mine was “Peg leg” because I had had polio and had a wasted calf muscle and other minor issues as a result of the disease; he was not at all discriminatory in this regard: John Lever, who won his Blue in 1973 and later went on to become Headmaster of Canford had the same nickname for the same reason. After you went down from Cambridge, you became “Mr”. He was sometimes referred to as “Gunner Twinn” due to his service in the War in the Artillery….

All the years following the crews meant that Alf had a good eye for an oarsman and was a very good coach. He was in huge demand by college crews and so was busy all the way through the first half of the Michaelmas Term and for coaching May Boats, ie when he wasn’t doing Trials and following the Boat Race crews in the lent term.

In my time he charged a “tip” of £1 an outing and preferred to be paid in “oncers”….

When the boat had been washed down and put on the rack, Alf would always shout “Thank you, gentlemen”. The shouted reply was “Thank you, Alf”.

On Boat Race Day, Alf would be waiting for the crews at Mortlake. Whether you had won or lost, he would say, “Thank you, my lovelies”.

Alf leads the Blue Boat out of Leander’s Putney boathouse for the start of the 1955 Boat Race (Leander moved to Putney from Lambeth in 1860, built this boathouse in 1866, left it in 1961, Barclays then rebuilt on the site but sold to Kings College School, Wimbledon, in 1993).

Peter Ainsworth, CULRC 1978

Despite… excellent coaching (at school), I still had not perfected the catch and it was Alf who transformed my rowing by explaining to me that the catch was the last thing on the way forward and not the first thing on the way back. I was enormously grateful to him and wrote to thank him. He was a bit surprised by that.

Stephen Fowler, CUBC 1990, 1992

Alf was before my time (but) I did visit him in Addenbrookes shortly before he died in 1990 and he still had a twinkle in his eye when talking about rowing. I think he and the Oxford boatmen in their day were the real continuity in the clubs, in the era of gentleman amateur coaches, and I’ve always heard older Blues quoting him affectionately. He clearly inspired loyalty.

Alf (right) at Putney in the 1950s with his opposite number at Oxford, Albert Andrews, OUBC boatman 1952 – 1987. Picture from Chris Dally, CUBC 1970.

Charles Lowe, CUBC 1970

I rowed… when Alf was, I reckon, at his finest. In addition to University stuff, he also coached our Fitzwilliam College IVs and VIIIs, leading to us winning the Light IVs and the Henley Visitors, and getting to and staying Head of the River in the Mays for three years.

His malapropisms were legendary, for example his description of a journey to Ely in Viscount Chewton’s sports car, when ‘we went round this corner, Sir, and there was this bleeding great matriculating lorry…’

He was a really lovely man and I still miss him greatly.

Alf pictured outside Leander in 1961.

Alfisms

A list of ‘Alfisms’ was widely circulated amongst the Cambridge rowing alumni so it is difficult to credit who added which. That other Cambridge legend, Donald Legget, CUBC 1963 and 1964, probably had the best recall but Quintus Travis, CUBC President 1986, Howard Jacobs, CUBC 1973 and 1974 and David Searle, CUBC 1976 and 1977, have also proved to have good memories. I have edited this list to only include ‘Alf Originals’, because he also used more common expressions. For example, he would comment on a man’s lack of strength by a reference to his inability to remove the epidermis of a rice-based dessert. He was also fond of the Biblical misquote from Matthew: The sun shines on the righteous (i.e. Cambridge).

Men’s water. (Referring to the Thames Tideway).

Them there pearly gates. (The doors of the Goldie boathouse).

If I looked like you, Sir, I would bend over, shave my arse and walk backwards. (To Dick Fishlock, OUBC 1960).

Who have you been romancing? (Alf’s response to an attempt to justify something).

One at a time every time, and show ‘em the way ‘ome.

Tarts, whores and comic opera singers. (Referring to Oxford I presume, TK).

Q: What would you do if we won by 20 lengths? A: Ask for 21.

A picture from Simon Butler, Goldie 1963 and 1964. Chris Dalley wrote ‘I think it is from November 1963. The phrase ‘lock-to-lock’ comes to mind. I like it because it shows Alf in his working mac – and cap’.

You need to put a shilling in the meter. (Later 50p).

Not just some of the time, all of the time.

They was all right when I left ‘em. (Said about a crew which he had coached and which later failed to perform to expectations).

Out of the boat you can hug ‘em, you can kiss ‘em, but in the boat they’re your worst enemy. (About any opposing crew).

The sort of person we’re looking for is the sort of person who’d rather die over his oar than give in. 

Your firm’s my light, your row is my firm and when I say row you’ve got to find something else.

If he’s an expert, thank God I know nothin’. 

Alf had two favourite crews: CUBC 1934 who broke the course record and CUBC 1951 who beat Oxford by 12 lengths and went onto victory over Harvard, Yale, MIT and Boston.

A bootiful person (Alf’s highest personal accolade).

You was right and I was wrong. (Rarely heard).

Get them rods on.

Turn the mangle ‘andle down and round.

Thank you kindly, Sir. You shouldn’t ‘ave done that, Sir. (While trousering a tip in the form of a crisp banknote).

Mister ‘Arold, ‘e don’t like ’em 14 stone. Cut out the liquid, Sir. No coffee for breakfast. No water, never, Sir. (Referring to Harold Rickett).

That there Lee an ander.

Cookin’ an sewing, an that. (Mrs Alf’s main attributes).

You know nothing (insert name of school) git, Sir.

Well, they are prettier than their faces. (Alf on the 1977 Oxford crew ‘mooning’ him from their Ford Transit).

Alf gradually (and probably unilaterally) made the CUBC colour less sky blue and more green by judiciously stirring together zinc white, ultramarine blue and yellow, reputedly to ensure that it could be distinguished from the colours of ‘them Rugger buggers’, but also taking the colour gradually back to the Eton original.

Sweaty Betties. (Referring to female rowers, of which he was not a fan).

I’ve just had me blood corporals changed... (Referring to corpuscles’ during treatment for his blood disorder).

I am not getting in a car with them there declining seats.

Earlier with the draw sir, not ’arder, earlier.

The only good Oxford man is a beaten ‘un.

Your blade was pissing in the wind sir … I could drive a London Bus under it.

Come on you know-nothing brain surgeon. (To John Gleave, Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons).

The retirement presentation of a watercolour to Alf by James Crowden at the 1983 Blues’ Dinner.

What’re you sweating for? Fear?

I’ll catch ‘em, Sir. (A reference to catching testes, shouted to those scared of coming fully forwards in case their balls got stuck in the slides, accompanied by Alf holding out his cap whilst cycling along the towpath).

You look like you don’t know whether you want a shit or a hair-cut.

The most bootiful oarsman I ever did see. (Referring to Ran Laurie).

The difference between you and me, Mr Hill, is that I know that I’m a c*** (Alf’s response to Desmond Hill, The Daily Telegraph Rowing Correspondent, suggesting that Cambridge’s win in 1973, by 48 secs, must have come ‘as a pleasant surprise’).

You reckon? (To Oxford’s Dan Topolski after he greeted Alf with ‘Good morning’ on the day of the 1970 Boat Race. Cambridge won by 3 1/2 lengths).

‘Thank you, Alf’.
‘Thank you, my lovelies’.

2 comments

  1. Having rowed for Oxford in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s I subsequently took up a teaching job in 1980 at the King’s School, Ely. In those days CUBC still boated from the school boathouse and in the last few years of his working life I got to know Alf. Upon retirement we presented him with a painting of Ely and upon receiving it from me he said, “For an Oxford c . . . . you’re not a bad bloke”. Praise indeed!

  2. Never met the man but, he was obviously fond of the ‘C’ word. His comment to Desmond Hill, one time Daily Telegraph rowing correspondent, is a classic.

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