12 November 2021
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch is drawn towards shiny things.
Considering that the origins of the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race go back to 1829 for the men and (officially) 1927 for the women, it is surprising that the first trophy for the men was awarded as late as 1977 and, for the women, as early as 1936. Another perhaps unexpected aspect of these trophies is how little they have been seen; they are usually put in public view only for a few minutes when placed in the hands of the exuberant winners at the finish when they are then covered in various fluids including sweat, spittle and alcohol.
However, a recent press release from the Boat Race Company says:
Until now, the two Blue Boat trophies have resided in the offices of sponsors and only brought out on Race Day. In 2020, it was decided that responsibility for safe storage of the trophies between Boat Races should pass to the winning University. The 2021 Men’s and the Women’s Boat Races were won on April 4th by Cambridge University Boat Club, giving a unique opportunity to display both trophies side by side in The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
Dr Vicky Avery, Keeper of Applied Arts at the Fitzwilliam, was quoted in the press release saying:
…the Blue Boat trophies are actually significant examples of contemporary British silver… For the first time in Boat Race history, people will be able to see for themselves just how beautiful these iconic trophies are, and appreciate all the skill and thought that has gone into their design and making….
On 8 November, the day before the trophies went on display to the public, there was a small press call and launch event at the Fitzwilliam. At the same time, a splendid blog by Dr Avery, “Showing Your Mettle, A long form story from the Fitzwilliam Museum and CUBC” went live. It is a wonderfully researched and original piece.
In the picture above, on the top shelf are the current Men’s Boat Race Trophy (The Aberdeen “Quaich” dating from 2000) and the current Women’s Boat Race Trophy (The Newton Trophy dating from 2014). Below are three more modest trophies. On the right is the Francombe Cup, the first Women’s Boat Race trophy, named after its donor, Miss Betty Francombe. It was presented from 1936 until some point before 1989. On the left is the Men’s Reserve Boat Race Trophy (The Isis-Goldie Cup) first presented in 1977 and also the Women’s Reserve Boat Race Trophy (The Osiris-Blondie Cup) which was commissioned by the 1991 Blondie Crew.
The idea of a trophy for The Boat Race only came in with sponsorship. Before that, the relevant University Boat Club gave each crew member a silver medal, though certainly not on the day and possibly with little ceremony when they did.
The sponsors for the men’s race have been Ladbrokes (1976–1986), Beefeater (1987–1998), Aberdeen Asset Management (1999–2003), Xchanging (2004–2012) and BNY Mellon (2013–2019). Between 2013 and 2019, Newton Investment Management, a part of BNY Mellon, sponsored the women’s race. Since 2021, Gemini has sponsored both.
David Searle (one-time Executive Director of The Boat Race Company Ltd) told Dr Avery that, before Ladbrokes sponsorship:
There was no ceremony after the Race and the crews simply got out of the boats and a few individuals were interviewed… For the 1977 Boat Race… (Ladbrokes) commissioned a trophy and medals for both the winners and the losers. I don’t know how long the Losers’ Medals lasted as they were deeply unpopular, mainly because Cambridge kept being awarded them, and the 1978 Cambridge crew even threw theirs into the Thames!
The Ladbrokes Trophy (pictured here) was awarded between 1977 and 1986, with Oxford winning it every year except for 1986. Its whereabouts are now unknown but, as Cambridge were the last winners, it could be under a light blue’s bed.
Aberdeen Asset Management (sponsors 1999–2003) commissioned the current men’s trophy and it has survived three changes of sponsorship since then. It seems unlikely that this wonderful piece of silverware will disappear like its predecessors.
As with the men’s race, the Women’s Boat Race has had three trophies. Annamarie Phelps told Dr Avery:
(The first) was called the Francombe Cup after its donor, Miss F.E. (Betty) Francombe, who was Stroke of the Oxford Crew in 1929 and OUWBC Coach from 1931 until 1936. She donated it the year she retired as Coach. It was lost for many years, and so a replacement trophy in the form of a shield was commissioned by Dr John Marks, a great champion of women’s rowing at Cambridge…
Newton Investment Management took over sponsorship of the Women’s Boat Race in 2011 but it kept the old Marks Shield until 2014 when it commissioned a new trophy “to mark a new era of sporting equality” ahead of the historic move of the race from Henley to the Tideway in 2015. While no offence to Dr Marks was intended, there was a view that his shield looked like a pub darts trophy.
Ultimately however, the most valuable “trophy” for both winners and losers of the Men’s and the Women’s Boat Race has always been the lifelong prize of becoming “A Blue” and wearing the coveted blazer that comes with the achievement.
A final thought
While it is good news that the current and retired men’s and women’s Boat Race trophies (Blue, Reserve and, hopefully, Lightweight) are to be put on public display, it will mean that in most years the “set” will be split between Oxford and Cambridge. If so, it would seem that the Ashmolean, Oxford University’s museum of art and archaeology, would be the logical place to show the Dark Blues’ prizes. While this situation is better than the silverware spending most of the year in obscurity, would not the best idea be to keep them all together on show on neutral ground in Henley’s River and Rowing Museum – apart from their annual appearance at Mortlake?
Addendum: On the town
* “The lion shall lie down with the lamb” is a paraphrase from Isaiah, an image used to represent the Messianic Age of universal peace. Less spiritually, Woody Allen has observed that if the lion did in fact lie down with the lamb, “the lamb won’t get much sleep”.