29 December 2021
By Chris Partridge
Chris Partridge, who has been a reader of HTBS almost from the start, shares this lovely story about novelist Samuel Butler as a cox at Cambridge.
One of the delights of the internet is the serendipitous discoveries that come one’s way. I was looking for a text by the great Victorian satirist Samuel Butler, author of Erewhon, and came across this recollection by a friend of his at Oxford:
Butler wrote various other papers during his undergraduate days, some of which, preserved by one of his contemporaries, who remained a lifelong friend, the Rev. Canon Joseph M’Cormick, now Rector of St. James’s, Piccadilly, are reproduced in The Note-Books of Samuel Butler (1912).
He also steered the Lady Margaret first boat, and Canon M’Cormick told me of a mishap that occurred on the last night of the races in 1857. Lady Margaret had been head of the river since 1854, Canon M’Cormick was rowing 5, Philip Pennant Pearson (afterwards P. Pennant) was 7, Canon Kynaston, of Durham (whose name formerly was Snow), was stroke, and Butler was cox. When the cox let go of the bung at starting, the rope caught in his rudder lines, and Lady Margaret was nearly bumped by Second Trinity. They escaped, however, and their pursuers were so much exhausted by their efforts to catch them that they were themselves bumped by First Trinity at the next corner. Butler wrote home about it:
11 March, 1857. Dear Mamma: My foreboding about steering was on the last day nearly verified by an accident which was more deplorable than culpable the effects of which would have been ruinous had not the presence of mind of No. 7 in the boat rescued us from the very jaws of defeat. The scene is one which never can fade from my remembrance and will be connected always with the gentlemanly conduct of the crew in neither using opprobrious language nor gesture towards your unfortunate son but treating him with the most graceful forbearance; for in most cases when an accident happens which in itself is but slight, but is visited with serious consequences, most people get carried away with the impression created by the last so as to entirely forget the accidental nature of the cause and if we had been quite bumped I should have been ruined, as it is I get praise for coolness and good steering as much as and more than blame for my accident and the crew are so delighted at having rowed a race such as never was seen before that they are satisfied completely. All the spectators saw the race and were delighted; another inch and I should never have held up my head again. One thing is safe, it will never happen again.
This rings true: a crew facing disaster will usually focus on retrieving the situation, leaving the matter of cursing the guilty until later, and Butler’s dramatic escape meant they could forgive.
Interesting to read. Samuel Butler is still remembered at St John’s, and what in some colleges is known as the “Middle Combination Room” is known at SJC as the “Samuel Butler Room”.
I love the fact that there is a 136 word sentence in Butler’s letter home!
Ah, yes, and it was a time when they knew how to use semicolons…