How Oxford Won The Boat Race

A page with photographs that accompanied Adrian Stokes’s article in the 1952 Eagle Sports Annual.

1 February 2022

By Adrian Stokes
President and member of the victorious 1952 University Boat Race crew

Introduction by Teresa Stokes, who also provided the illustrations to this article. (To clarify, these are not the pictures that illustrated Stokes’s article in the Eagle Sports Annual.)

What must be my father Adrian Stokes’s first published article is this piece in the Eagle Sports Annual 1952, which would have been an eagerly anticipated Christmas present for a genera­tion of schoolboys that year. The Eagle was a hugely popular boys’ magazine/comic started in 1950 by the Reverend Marcus Morris, who was horrified by the lurid comics that boys were buying from the American GIs and wanted to start a more wholesome, British alternative! People tend to remember it as the comic with the hero Dan Dare on every front page, but it also featured articles and sports pages every week, and 1952 was the first year of their Sports Annual. This piece explains very well to its young readers, without talking down to them, all about the boats, how the crews are selected and coached and their training regime, and finally taking them through the race itself and how it felt to be there.

The article writer, Oxford President Adrian Stokes, February 1952. The photo first appeared in the Field magazine. In the background is the OUBC barge (which now belongs to David Sherriff at Caversham Lakes.)

The Boat Race lasts about twenty minutes, but the preparation for it takes nearly a year. It was May when I started selecting the Oxford crew, while the 600-odd oarsmen of the 23 colleges which make up the University were practising for the summer races. I spent hours on the towpath with my battered bike and a note-book; I was not encouraged by what I saw.

The old Blues still at Oxford were all off form, and of the rest the strong men looked too clumsy and the skilful men too light. However, after Henley Regatta, in July, I assembled my team of coaches and we hatched our plans. We had to make a crew out of nothing, so in the Trials, which we held before Christmas, we decided to look first for the qualities of courage and determination, the sheer ‘guts’ which wins races of any sort. You can teach a man to row, but he has to be born with the ability to race.

The Fishermen in Our Galley
Our coaching ‘galley’, the 16-oared Leviathan, was not built in time for us to use it for training the Trial Eights, though we had one or two trips in it for the benefit of the Television engineers, who put so much equipment in the stern that the bows were riding right out of the water. They also brought a fishing-rod. ‘A bit optimistic,’ we thought. However, we let them take it on board and watched with interest as they dangled it over the side. But it was not fish they were after; they were catching sound-effects from the oars with a small microphone.

Our Crew
The business of selecting men for the different places in a crew is rather technical, but after the trials we found that we had just about eight suitable man, and none to spare. About one member of the crew at least we never had any doubts; David Glynne-Jones, the red-headed Welsh cox, had the two vital qualities: a sense of humour and a keen eye for ‘wind and water’.

Ken Keniston, the American, gave us some headaches, but he eventually adapted himself to English methods and did splendidly in the important position of Number 6. Mike Thomas, the first Blue from his college since 1836 [Jesus College], worked like a Trojan in ‘the engine-room’ in the middle of the boat where the heaviest men go.

Three of us had rowed in boat races before: Gladstone in 1950, myself in 1951 and Davidge in 1949 and 1951. The others were newcomers to the Boat Race, but mostly old hands at rowing. Apart from one or two experiments, we only made one change in our eight oarsmen in the whole of our twelve weeks’ training.

Coach Freddie Page following the Oxford crew’s training from the towpath.

Our Training Objective
There is much more to making a Boat Race crew (and for Heaven’s sake don’t call it a ‘team’) than most people suppose, and the preliminaries are most important.

At last we came to January, with three months to go. Our first coach, Freddie Page, was with us for three weeks, in which he drummed into us the basis of the style and the particular technique which was to make us go faster later on. His problem was to work out the style that would suit this crew best.

We never had a hope of rowing with the easy grace of the Cambridge crew; all their men rowed in much the same way as each other even before they were selected for their Trial Eights, while our men all looked different. We overcame this difficulty by not worrying too much about what the crew looked like so long as their oar-blades, which are, after all, the things that really move the boat through the water, were timed to work together to perfection.

‘Get all the blades doing exactly the same thing at the same time and the rest will look after itself’ was our motto. And it worked.

Wanted – A Stroke!
After three weeks we moved to Wallingford, where there is a long, unobstructed reach of the Thames. During this period our main problem had to be faced. Who was to stroke the crew?

Peter Gladstone, a descendant of the great statesman, had been at stroke so far, but he is a short, stocky man, and the longer members of the view found it hard to fit in with him. So we tried Christopher Davidge. He had stroked Oxford brilliantly in 1949, but since then seemed to have lost his grip.

After three weeks rowing Number 2, where he had to think only about his own personal rowing without the responsibility of stroking, he was performing very well. But as soon as we put him at stroke he went off form again, and Peter had to go back.

By the way, neither stroke nor cox nor anyone else ever shouts ‘In … Out.’ The crew time them­selves from the man in front, though a good crew can feel the rhythm without looking.

Cambridge Unbeatable?
We had five gruelling weeks rowing mile after mile, hammering home our coaches’ lessons. All this time our blades were getting more and more uniform, and the boat steadily increased its pace. Every day the newspapers were declaring that the Cambridge crew were unbeatable; but we just chuckled to our­selves. The newspapermen were trained to look at the bodies of the crew and not at the blades of their oars. They noticed how nicely the Cambridge men swung along together, but not how our blades bit into the water in spite of our uglier swing.

During these weeks, when we boated every day at Wallingford and Henley, we used to drive over in ancient cars belonging to members of the crew. We often got more exhausted pushing and cranking them than we did in the boat, and the crew gave the President more anxiety by their driving than they ever did when climbing into their colleges by unofficial routes after lock-up! However, in February we went into strict training, which meant giving up smoking, rationing beer, and going early to bed. This was compensated for by extra food. An afternoon on the river gives you a tremendous appetite, and the extra food helps to build up your muscles for hard work.

The first weekend in March 1952, the Oxford crew and coach Jumbo Edwards were invited to Eastbourne as guests of the Mayor.
President Adrian Stokes arriving for training at Putney in March 1952 in his 1929 Lea-Francis Hyper, ‘Phyllis’. Teresa Stokes wrote about her father’s automobile: ‘This car was commonly known among their owners as the “Leaf” hence the name he gave it, “Phyllis”, which means a green leaf in Greek. (You would have to be clever to work it out without being told!)’.

Final Preparations
Early in March we arrived at Putney, and started rowing on the Tideway there. Now we let ourselves off the leash and surprised everyone except ourselves by improving very fast. The critics still thought we had no chance at all against Cambridge, but we had been holding ourselves back so as to be quite certain we had mastered our particular technique.

Our finishing coach, Group-Captain Edwards, an old Oxford Blue himself, flew over from Germany to give us our final polish and to tune us up to racing pitch. We had a break in our routine when we went to Brighton for a sunny week-end, and the day before the race we visited a film studio to take our minds off it all.

On 28 March 1952, the day before the Boat Race, the Oxford Crew were given a tour of Elstree Studios. There, they met American film actor Van Heflin, who had arrived in England in January 1952 to shoot the movie South of Algiers, which was released the following year. In the USA, the film title was The Golden Mask. Left to right: Nigel Sanders, Ken Keniston, Peter Gladstone, Hugh “Harry” Quick, Adrian Stokes, Chris Milling, Van Heflin, Mike Thomas, Chris Davidge, Jumbo Edwards, David Glynne-Jones and unknown (probably the spare oarsman).

During the last three weeks we had several practice rows over the course, or parts of it, and as time went on we began to feel sure that we could get to the post first. This was confirmed when we decided to give Christopher Davidge another chance to stroke the crew. It was a risk, but this time he kept his form and immediately we felt in our bones that this was a winning crew. It was in this mood that we came to the day of the race, March 29th.

The Course, and Our Boat
The Boat Race course is 4¼ miles long and is hardly straight anywhere. The race is rowed with the tide coming in; although the river is several hundred yards wide, the channel in which the tide runs is barely sixty feet across, and it is by no means easy to keep the boat in this channel, which is not marked in any way.

The cox has to learn all the landmarks and features of the course, and so he spent many hours going over the river in our launch. If the boat is out of the tide it will lose several lengths over the whole course. When the wind is strong it can make the water extremely rough, and as the boats only ride about six inches out of the water you can understand why they sometimes sink. The cox has to keep an eye on the conditions of the tide and wind, and must keep his crew out of difficult water.

Our stroke was rather shorter and snappier than Cambridge’s long swinging one, and we found that bad conditions suited us better. The weather is often bad in March, and last year had taught us the importance of being able to cope with stormy waters.

As time went on we became more and more familiar with the landmarks we could see out of the corners of our eyes as we rowed past, and it is odd how the course seems to grow shorter as you get to know it.

It is odd, too, that one boat feels quite different from another. This must be due to the fact that they are all hand-made by traditional methods, by eye and rule-of-thumb rather than with blueprints and plans, and the slim, 60-foot craft, which two men can lift, are masterpieces of craftsmanship. Their sides are only an eighth of an inch thick, so you have to be careful with them. We had a new boat built to fit our weight and it was a beauty, with many special improvements.

Siberian Saturday! We Make Our Plans
When we saw the Siberian weather of the day of the race we laid our final plans. We already knew that with our shorter stroke we would have to keep up a higher rating (that is, row more strokes per minute) than Cambridge, if we wanted to go faster. Our practice rows had proved that we could do so without getting unduly exhausted. We also knew that they liked to settle down to a steady stride and to keep slogging at that.

So we planned to keep pushing them and not to let them get away and settle into their comfortable stride, but to tire them out at a higher rating than they wanted. With the strong wind blowing we decided to choose the Middlesex station because it was more sheltered and the water was smoother on that side. Otherwise we relied on Davidge and the cox to deal with any emergency.

This Is It!
In spite of our confidence, we could not help feeling weak at the knees on that snowy afternoon. While the others were changing, I went out to the toss under the Television cameras, but lost and had to take Surrey.

Once we had got into the boat and were paddling down to the start we felt better. It was still snow­ing hard when we came up to the stake-boats moored in the middle of the river. There was no time to think how cold we were. Off came our sweaters, a man grabbed the rudder and held it level with that of the Cambridge boat, and then the Umpire stood up in his launch with his flag raised. He dropped it and we were off. Ten strokes of blind fury and then the thought ‘This is it!’

The boat was bumping in the rough water, and there was the enemy alongside. Perhaps a little ahead? Never mind Cambridge, think of putting every ounce of energy into driving the boat through the waves!

After a couple of minutes we got our second wind and it was easier to think clearly.

How I Saw the Race
I could hear the roar of the crowd and the shouts of the coxes. Harrods’ great building loomed through the mist, and Cambridge were still alongside. They had failed to get their lead, and now the bend was in our favour; they must have been rattled out of their stride.

Through the deafening noise of the crowd on Hammersmith Bridge, I somehow found the breath to yell: ‘Lovely stuff, boys.’

Just after Hammersmith we saw the Light Blue blades almost touching ours and the coxes were shouting at each other. Nobody touched and we plugged on, our hands numb with the bitter cold and beginning to feel the strain in our legs and shoulders. ‘We ought to get away here,’ we thought, with the long bend to go round and smoother water; but Cambridge hung on. We tried to shake them off with sudden spurts, but they would not give in. I remember glancing back to the launches and steamers thinking, ‘It must be an exciting race to watch.’

We Can Do It!
Now we had had the last of our bend, but Christopher was driving us along quite unperturbed. There is one thing about a close race … it keeps you from thinking how tired and agonizingly uncomfortable you feel. The bend came round in Cambridge’s favour. We were aching all over, but we knew we could still do it; they must have been feeling worse.

We shot Barnes Bridge almost level, and the coxes had another argument. I was now only conscious of the rhythm of the boat and the Light Blue blades so near ours.

This was the worst moment. We were on the outside of the last bend, and doubt assailed me. I did not see how on earth I could row another stroke or draw another breath; but then I saw out of the corner of my eye that the Light Blue blades were splashing badly. All doubt was gone, my aching limbs for­gotten. I shouted with what felt like all the breath I had: ‘We can do it!’

Stroke’s blade bit harder into the water, and the whole crew seemed to come to life. ‘They’ were beaten, rowed out, with two minutes to go. They were the longest two minutes of my life, but I did not mind so long as Cambridge were slipping astern.

The grim Mortlake Brewery was in sight. Where was that winning-post? Our gallant enemy were ten feet behind, then one more stroke, and up went the Dark Blue flag. Gasping for breath and pouring with sweat, we were the nine happiest men in England!

Another Chapter Closes
The closest finish ever, and won on the outside of the last bend! We almost forgot to feel tired in our triumph.

Davidge was the hero of the day. He had stroked brilliantly and avenged his narrow defeat of 1949. But he could not have done it by himself. Every man in the crew backed him up all the way, and the cox had steered magnificently in the blinding snow and mist.

The result proved that ‘guts’ are more important than grace, and that Oxford, far from being dead, was capable of producing one of the fastest of its crews since the First World War out of less promising material than they had ever had.

The secret of success was the selection of nine brave and cheerful men who were willing to learn. The greater the odds against them, the more determined were they to win.

For the future, a sadder and wiser Cambridge and renewed interest in the annual Battle of the Blues.

It will have done great things for Oxford, but it was enough for us, as we drifted through Chiswick Bridge at the finish resting on our oars, to have added another eventful chapter to the century-old history of the Boat Race.

Here is a 3-minute film about the 1952 Boat Race:

Editor’s Note: When Teresa visited her parent’s home, she found a can marked “Oxford Crew” with a 16mm reel. She had it copied onto a DVD, which she has now uploaded on Vimeo. The film is just under 10 minutes and shows the 1952 Oxford crew in training – in slow motion, probably to allow the coaches to check out the crew’s technique and watermanship. This is followed by a Paramount newsreel of the race itself (starting at 5:45). It really shows how ghastly the weather was on Boat Race Day. Watch the newsreel here.

2 comments

  1. Teresa thanks for posting. In 1952 I was too young to appreciate the Eagle but , as I grew older , the adventures of Dan Dare, The Mekons and PC. 49 were part and parcel of growing up in fifties Britain.
    Fast forward forty odd years and I came to know one of the Comic’s illustrators, Bruce Cornwell, who told of last minute deadlines and extraordinary subjects to draw. He also said that the Reverend Morris , the acclaimed driving force behind the publication, was a most exacting editor and the most irreverent Reverend he had cause to meet!

  2. Also ‘There is much to making a Boat Race Crew ( and for Heaven’s sake don’t call it a ‘team’ )’ … Modern journalists please note !

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