Building Shells According to Hoyle

This boat was built by John Hoyle for Cornell, who used it in a famous 1901 record race on the Poughkeepsie. The shell was later sold to University of Washington, who rowed it to beat Stanford in a 1907 race on Lake Washington. From The Cornell Navy (1907) by C.V.P. Young.

29 April 2021

By Lee Corbin*

A few twists in historical events and George Pocock’s shop in the ASUW Shell House might have carried the name of John J. Hoyle, Lee Corbin writes.

On June 1, 1907, the Seattle Daily Times reported:

Purple and Gold Oarsmen Cross the Finish Line Two Lengths and Half Ahead of Visitors from the South.

Washington’s boat took the lead from the very start and never looked back. Over the four-mile course, laid out on Lake Washington, the Husky crew gradually pulled ahead of the Stanford boat until there were nearly three lengths between the two opponents as they crossed the finish line.

Was this yet another University of Washington crew race won by a Pocock shell? No, not this time, for the Husky crew was rowing a Hoyle shell.

On this June day in 1907, the Pocock brothers were still at home in England, five years away from crafting a shell for the University of Washington (UW). George and Richard “Dick” Pocock were not known when they arrived in Vancouver, Canada, in 1910. However, George would become the best-known and most skilled craftsman of the cedar racing shell of all time. But who held that same reputation before George Pocock? Is it possible the shell-building workshop at the back end of the UW Shell House could have had another name attached to it, that of John Joseph Hoyle of Cornell University?

Born in Ontario, Canada, in 1865, John Hoyle immigrated to Philadelphia about 1884; the 1889 city directory listed him as a cabinetmaker. At some point over the following decade, he also went to work for the famed Cramp & Sons shipbuilding company. Hoyle became interested in rowing and, between his woodworking skills and knowledge of nautical construction, started building shells for the various boating clubs along the Schuylkill River. Although he may have started as early as 1890, the earliest evidence of his boat building is a newspaper article from April 1896, concerning his construction of a “four-oar racing gig” for the Manayunk Boat Club of Philadelphia. By the end of 1896, newspaper reports have him building a shell for coach Ellis Ward and the University of Pennsylvania oarsmen. He would build at least one more shell for Penn over the following two years. In January 1899, Cornell University crew coach Charles E. ‘Pop’ Courtney travelled to Philadelphia in hopes of finding someone to build a few shells for the school, and Penn crew coach Ellis Ward suggested John J. Hoyle.

John Joseph Hoyle. From The Cornellian, v.32, 1899-1900

Coach Courtney’s offer, made on January 9, must have been a good one as Hoyle arrived in Ithaca about a week later. It was expected he would remain just long enough to build two or three shells for Cornell before returning to Philadelphia. He never left, although he came close.

By June of 1899, he had crafted an eight-oar and a four-oar boat for the Cornell varsity. It was not long before various colleges, universities, and rowing clubs around the country started to notice just how well Cornell’s ‘Hoyle-built’ shells were performing in various regattas. Not only new boats, but even second-hand shells from Hoyle’s shop were in demand. Harvard, Yale, and the University of Washington all signed contracts for Hoyle boats. In 1902, orders for six shells had to be turned down as he would be unable to fill them all.

An article in the Buffalo Commercial on November 18, 1903, stated:

When Mr. Hoyle, who is perhaps the most skilled builder of racing shells in the country, came to Cornell a few years ago the plan was that he should build only for the university crews. His skill in workmanship, together with Coach Courtney’s thorough mastery of the art of designing shells, have combined to make the Cornell boats the best in the regattas, and they have always been a factor in the success of the Cornell crews.

From The Cornellian, v.43, 1910-11.

Late in 1903, the Cornell Athletic Council decided to go into the used shell and boat building business. With Hoyle as the chief constructor, along with an assistant and more if needed, the council recognized substantial profits could be made. The orders began to roll in. This was the source of the University of Washington boat used in the race against Stanford in 1907. And a special boat it was, for it was the shell that Cornell set the 1901 record at Poughkeepsie that stood until 1928. But by December 1907, Cornell’s shell-building experiment was over.  Although the profits were there, so were the expenses. The university decided to turn the business over to a local boat-building company, Thomas & Grant, which hired John Hoyle as their supervisor of construction.

1908 Thomas & Grant Catalog Title Page

How is it that John Hoyle might have become the shell builder for the University of Washington, with the legacy and legend of George Pocock being quite different?

In 1913, UW crew coach Hiram B. Conibear took the first western crew to compete in Poughkeepsie, New York, at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) regatta. But Conibear had originally intended to go to Poughkeepsie in 1908, wiring the entry form on June 4, two days after winning the West Coast championship over California. Unfortunately, the deadline had passed for IRA entries, so Conibear decided to make the trip to Poughkeepsie by himself to observe the East Coast style of rowing. As a guest of Penn’s Ellis Ward and Cornell’s Charles Courtney, he had the opportunity to meet John Hoyle and make him an offer. Would he be interested in coming to Seattle to build shells for Washington?

University of Washington coach Hiram Conibear.

Despite having a five-year contract with Thomas & Grant, Hoyle agreed on the condition there would be enough shells to build to make the trip worthwhile. Conibear must have figured he could bring the California schools in on the deal, as it was costing nearly as much to ship the boats from the East Coast as it did to purchase them. There would probably also be interest across the border from the Victoria and Vancouver rowing clubs. In a December 18, 1908, article, the Seattle Times announced that the UW Board of Control had agreed to bring Hoyle west after the holidays to build boats for the school. That news would be short-lived, as events on both coasts were unfolding that would keep Hoyle at Cornell.

Fred Colson, Cornell class of ’97 and varsity coxswain, had served as Courtney’s assistant coach since 1898. In November 1908, he accepted a job as law librarian at the New York State Library in Albany and resigned from his coaching duties. On December 14, the Cornell Athletic Council hired John Hoyle as the new assistant coach. Late in that same month, UW athletics manager William B. Rasmussen was shocked to receive a letter from Ralph Merritt, the California manager, asking if Washington was going to place an order for new shells with Cornell. If the California schools had ever intended to have shells constructed by Hoyle in Seattle, they had changed their minds. Conibear’s plan had come apart, and he was not pleased that it came without warning. The newspapers of January 3 announced that Hoyle would no longer be coming to Seattle. Ironically, in late 1912, California would go after Hoyle for themselves.  Unhappy with their coaching results, both University of California (UC) and Stanford University decided they were finished with using graduate coaches and set out to hire professionals. They went so far as to send the UC varsity captain, Arthur Eaton, back to Ithaca in December with a contract in hand to convince Hoyle to come west. It would have made him the highest paid rowing coach on the Pacific Coast, but he was happy at Cornell. That is, until August of 1916.

From The Cornellian, 1901-1902

Probably the greatest collegiate rowing coach up to that time, Cornell’s Charles E. Courtney announced after 31 years of coaching that he was stepping down at the end of the 1916 season. He had been suffering health problems since the previous year, primarily from a skull fracture he received on the way to the Poughkeepsie regatta when the train suddenly lurched forward.

Cornell’s coach Charles Courtney

About mid-July, newspaper sports sections across the country were announcing that Columbia University was abandoning their rowing program, and Coach Jim Rice would be coming to Cornell. This went on for about a week until Columbia reversed their decision, eliminating Rice as Courtney’s replacement. Although Hoyle would probably have been disappointed in not becoming Cornell’s head coach, it would also be understandable if they were bringing in someone of Rice’s experience. Courtney must have known Rice would not be coming to Cornell.  On the same day that news made the papers, a new plan for Cornell rowing was announced. Courtney would retain the title of head coach, but in an ‘advisory’ role, and his assistant coach would be doing the day-to-day coaching. Unfortunately, that assistant coach would not be Hoyle. On August 5, it was announced that John L. Collyer, a Cornell junior from the varsity rowing team, was the new assistant coach. Collyer was Courtney’s choice.

One week later, John Hoyle resigned from his coaching position.

Newspapers in late October reported Hoyle in talks with the Penn rowing coach, Joe Wright, about a possible coaching job. Those discussions must not have gone much beyond talks. The Ithaca city directory for 1917-1918 lists a John J. Hoyle with the occupation of ‘carpenter’, while the 1919-1920 edition has ‘boat builder’. Employees of Cornell carried a “C U” next to their occupations in the directories, which do not show up next to Hoyle’s name in those two editions.

From The Cornell Era May 27, 1922

On January 30, 1919, The New York Sun announced that 70-year-old Charles E. Courtney, having regained his health, would be returning to active coaching of the Cornell crew. His staff would be comprised of John Collyer as ‘associate’ coach primarily during the rowing season and John Hoyle as “assistant and all-around man”. That arrangement only lasted about 18 months for, on July 18 the following year, Charles Courtney was found dead from a stroke in his home.

On October 26, 1920, the Cornell Athletic Council announced that John J. Hoyle, after 21 years of assistant service to the Cornell crew, would be the new head coach. Hoyle would coach the ’21 through ‘24 seasons, also known as the ‘lean’ years in Cornell rowing history. In mid-September of 1924, it was announced that Dr. Charles A. Lueder, 1903 Cornell graduate, famed oarsman of his student days, and doctor of veterinary medicine, would be the new head coach. Lueder chose his former teammate Guy Long as his assistant. Hoyle returned to full time boat builder and turned out his first shell since 1916.

John Hoyle returns from the 1922 Triangular Regatta with Yale and Princeton. From The Cornell Era, June 12, 1922.

At the 1925 Poughkeepsie Regatta, Cornell came in at #5 out of 7. After what was described as a ‘disastrous” showing at Poughkeepsie (dead last) by Cornell in June of 1926, coach Lueder resigned in August. Lueder’s successor, named on September 12, was James Wray, the former Harvard crew coach. Under Wray, Hoyle returned once again to the duties of freshman coach.

Having a boat-builder of John Hoyle’s reputation, Cornell was one of the last ‘hold-outs’ to purchase any Pocock shells. But Hoyle was starting to slow down and, in fact, only had one more shell in him. In March of 1928, the first Seattle-built shell arrived, to be christened the Lake Cayuga and served as Cornell’s Poughkeepsie varsity boat that year.

By 1929, age, ill health, and George Pocock’s boat building skills had begun to gain on John Hoyle. He completed his final shell that spring, which was christened John Hoyle in his honor. Sadly, its life was to be short. The Hudson River at Poughkeepsie that year swamped or sank four of the nine varsity boats, including Cornell’s Hoyle, which snapped in two and went to the bottom. Hoyle must have been heartbroken.

John Hoyle lived on until August 17, 1932, when he passed away quietly at home. It was the last connection with the Courtney era of coaching.

George Pocock continued to supply the Cornell Navy with shells, including, in 1948, one which was christened John Hoyle. This was probably one of the few times the same person was honored with two boats.

*When Lee Corbin, having had a lifelong career in military and civilian aviation (Navy, Air Force, Western and Delta Air Lines), started to volunteer in 2018 at the University of Washington “Shell House” restoration project, he did not know the first thing about rowing. He had never rowed (he still has not!), and he had no idea who George Pocock was, and he had never read Daniel James Brown’s book The Boys in the Boat or even heard about “the boys.”

His initial interest was the short Naval aviation history of the UW varsity boathouse. But having spent so much time in the building and Pocock’s workshop, it all started to eventually sink in, and he came to realize what a special place it is. Of course, George Pocock’s connection with Boeing just adds to his interest. Lee is convinced Pocock played a big part in keeping Boeing alive during the lean years of the post-WWI aviation industry. And, in turn, the aircraft woodworking techniques Pocock learned is what made his shells so superior.

In the current issue of the UW Shell House project newsletter, Lee has an article on George Pocock, showing an aspect that we seldom hear about, “George Pocock – Powerboat Builder.” Read his article here. Read more about the ASUW Shell House project (and do not forget to take the virtual tour) here.

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