More Pieces of Eight

Left: John “Jack” Hawks Clasper, a great oarsman and boatbuilder, pictured in the 1860s. Right: OUBC coach, Sean Bowden, standing outside Clasper’s second Putney boathouse in 2014. It is now home to Westminster School BC but, in John’s time, it was a workshop that turned rough timber into state-of-the-art racing boats. The Clasper picture is from The Sporting Tyne by Ian Whitehead (2002). Photo of Sean Bowden by Tim Koch.

15 February 2022

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch is not yet out of the woods.

My recent piece on the 1939 magazine article on the building of a wooden racing eight for that year’s Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race has attracted a lot of readers. However, while the piece had a number of interesting pictures, it lacked a detailed explanation of exactly how the boat was made. Recently though, I have found an article from an 1897 copy of The Strand Magazine titled “How a Racing Boat is Built” that is exactly the opposite: short on pictures, long on explanatory text. I imagine that boatbuilding techniques changed very little in the forty-two years between the two features. 

The boatbuilders visited by the 1897 article’s author, S. J. Housley, was that of JH Clasper in Putney, West London. John Hawks Clasper (1836 – 1908) is not as well-known as his father, Harry (1812 – 1870), but both were highly successful professional oarsmen and also important and innovative boatbuilders. More on John soon.

As the text in How a “Racing Boat is Built” may be too detailed or too technical for some interests, I have first reproduced the more accessible pictures and captions that the article says shows the six stages of building a wooden eight. If, after viewing these, the reader has not had their thirst for boatbuilding knowledge slaked, then they should move to the five pages of pictures, captions and text that make up the full article. To aid anyone wishing to skim read the latter, I have marked the start of each explanation of the six stages of production in red.

First stage. “Stem” is an upright at the bow.
Second stage.
Third stage.
Fourth stage.
Fifth stage.
Sixth stage.
Page one, explaining stage one.
Page two, explaining stages two and three.
Page three, explaining stages four and five.
Page four, continuing to explain stage five.
Page five, explaining stage six.

As an addendum, there is a very interesting study by Dr Simon Wenham titled The history of racing boat building available online. It includes a table based on the winners of the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race showing the leading racing boat builders between 1829 and 1976, a period that Dr Wenham calls “the wooden era”. He notes, “Other firms occasionally won races, but the table shows the dominant constructors…”

Dr Wenham concludes:

In 1977, a carbon fibre craft was used [in the Boat Race] and the development of new composite building materials led to new firms dominating the contest.

Thus, by the late 1970s, “The wooden era’’ was essentially over, both in the Boat Race and in the wider rowing world. While carbon-fibre-reinforced polymer boats out of a mould are, I suppose, “better”, it is difficult not to be enchanted by the ones that are the unique products of the skills time-served craftsmen and made using organic materials such as cedar, spruce and sycamore. As some old-school sailors are fond of saying, “If the Almighty had meant us to have plastic boats, he would have created plastic trees.”

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