3 March 2022
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch comes to the end of an Arthurian quest.
Since 1850, many ambitious and able scullers have spent a large part of their rowing career trying to win a so-called Pineapple Cup, the prize given every year to the victor in Henley Royal Regatta’s men’s single sculling event, The Diamond Challenge Sculls.
Famously, the common phrase used about a thing or objective that is relentlessly – and usually unsuccessfully – pursued is that it is a “Holy Grail”. This is a reference to the lost Grail or Chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper and that was widely sought by the knights of Arthurian legend as part of a spiritual and physical quest. Wonderfully, I have recently learned that, for a time, Geoff Morris’ chalice-like Pineapple Cup really did become, if not exactly a Holy Grail, then an object of religious significance. Like all good stories, a preamble is required.
It is fairly easy to summarise Geoff Morris’ rowing career because it was as short as it was spectacular. He joined London Rowing Club (LRC), almost certainly as a novice, in 1922. He got into that year’s LRC Thames Cup crew for Henley, and they won two rounds. His talent was noticed by the great “Bossie” Phelps who coached him to finish the 1922 season by winning the single sculls at two very prestigious regattas, Molesey and the Metropolitan.
Geoff lost his first sculling race of 1923, beaten to second place at Marlow by the greatest British oarsman of the pre-Redgrave era, Jack Beresford. However, the 23-year-old with a deformed right arm who was a veteran of just three sculling races was still LRC’s entry for the Diamond Sculls – which he promptly won.
As it turned out, the 1923 Diamond Sculls was really both the beginning and the end of Morris’ rowing career. Over the years, he had many plans to continue competitive sculling, both in Britain and the US, but none were followed through.
The reason that Geoff’s very promising rowing career was so short was tied up with his incredibly complex and contradictory character. He was a man of great and multiple talents, tremendous charm, driving ambition and an infinite capacity for hard work. Most notably, these qualities made him a successful photographer in fashion, advertising and Hollywood, and also led him to be an early and keen exponent of organic farming and what we now call “alternative remedies.” However, Geoff also had many personal demons, perhaps stemming from various childhood experiences and later periods of alcohol abuse. His stepdaughter Pat:
Geoff was… a bundle of opposites – by turns angry or ebullient, rude or charming, strict or indulgent. You never quite knew where you stood… He was more fun to write about than to live with.
However, Geoff’s positives outweighed his negatives. Stepson, John:
[My sister Pat] and I agree we benefited a great deal from the generous fathering and love we received from Geoff, in spite of his tumultuous unpredictable sudden mood changes.
Geoff Morris lived in the US between 1925 and 1951, with a brief return to London for a few years in the late 1930s. After permanently returning to the UK in 1951, he lived in various places in the south of England in or near London. Sometime in the late 1970s, Geoff moved to the rural county of Norfolk, 130 miles north-east of London, back to his beloved country living, growing his own food. In a letter to his stepdaughter, he claimed that he “dug in” seven tons of manure in a year.
In Norfolk on 27 January 1984, Geoff died in his 85th year, a third wife having predeceased him. An inquest decided that the cause of death was “poisoning by an unidentified agent.” He had been self-medicating with herbal remedies (something that he had done for much of his life) and had accidentally overdosed on one or more toxic substances. It was an extraordinary end to an extraordinary life.
In 2016, thirty-three years after Morris’ death, I came across a brief reference to his Henley win in an old rowing magazine. Intrigued, I started to do some research on this long-forgotten sculler. The internet produced very little, but it did bring up a short piece that Göran Buckhorn had posted on HTBS in 2011. It showed three cigarette cards of scullers from the 1920s and included one of Geoff. Most importantly, below it was a comment posted a year later by one of his step-grandsons, Jeremy Fisher-Smith, a builder of wooden boats based in California:
I have to share what for me is a delightful coincidence. My brother, who for years taught ocean rowing… just discovered with great enthusiasm your posting of three “cigarette cards” from 1924, one of which sports an illustration we’ve never seen of our very own step-grandfather, MK Morris of London, winner of the 1923 Diamond Sculls. My brothers and I only met him once in London 1974, but clearly remember his pride in the title, and the framed photo of him racing which hung on the wall of his studio apartment… Then scrolling down, just two days previous in your blog, you posted a reference to an article about boats that I’ve built for San Francisco rowing clubs. How many degrees of separation is that?
Through Jeremy, I made contact with Geoff’s relatives in the US and in Britain. Several were or had been involved in rowing or in boats and a few had investigated the family history. I collated information from them and from many online and offline sources and, by November 2016, I produced a three-part biography and posted it on Hear The Boat Sing.
While I was happy that my biography had rescued Geoff from obscurity (amongst HTBS Types at least) I felt that two tasks still remained. One was to have Geoff’s picture hung in London Rowing Club and the other was to find his Pineapple Cup, lost since his death. The LRC archivist, Julian Ebsworth, and the LRC President, Mike Baldwin, agreed to facilitate the former. Many, many emails followed and what was going to be a simple unveiling of Geoff’s picture morphed into what I Christened “Geoff Day”.
On 5 April 2019, “Geoff Day”, eight of his relatives (plus some partners) gathered at London Rowing Club. Jeremy Fisher-Smith, boatbuilder and son of Geoff’s stepson, John, had flown in from the US. Proceedings began with an eight going out crewed by four of the Morris/Fisher-Smith contingent and four members of LRC, including President Mike Baldwin at stroke, and myself as cox. As it was a scratch crew, I was not expecting a particularly comfortable outing, but the spirit of Geoff must have been with us, and we had a really solid row. On the eight’s return there was a buffet lunch and a few drinks in London’s Long Room, and then Geoff’s picture was unveiled to hang permanently alongside other LRC greats.
My second self-assigned task, to find Geoff’s Diamond Sculls prize was more difficult. It was not until February 2022 that I made contact with a man who would like to remain anonymous but who is happy for me to tell the story of his involvement with Geoff when he was living in Norfolk in his final years:
I never took gifts but Mr Morris insisted that I take the black chalice which stood on top of a dresser. It was the Henley gold cup… I was his parish priest… and I think he enjoyed my company as much as I did his… It is good to be reminded of those days and the interesting conversations I had with Mr Morris…
I got to know him pretty well and was sorry that such an interesting and talented person finished his life in relatively drab surroundings, even with an oar on the wall which told of better days. The cup was black and I reluctantly accepted it as a gift for our group of churches. A jeweller told me to use “Silver Dip” and it came up worn, but in its silver gilt glory. I used it as a chalice for our best attended services. Years after I left [the parish] I heard it had been disused and was in a church chest. The then Rector returned it to me and I now have it clean and on display.
When the Anglican priest who was the original recipient of Geoff’s Cup first had it, he arranged for it to be engraved with an inscription denoting it as a gift from Geoff to the Church.
Thus, Geoff’s beloved Pineapple Cup – which will celebrate its centenary next year – now resides with the priest who provided him with spiritual and social comfort in his last years. I think that the best part of this story is that, for a time, the Cup played a central role in services of Holy Communion. Rowers may regard Henley as “The Holy of Holies” but surely few, if any, of the regatta’s prizes can claim such a divine distinction.
My HTBS biography of Geoff Morris is in three parts. Part I covers his active rowing career, 1922 – 1923. Part II looks at the years 1924 – 1925 when Geoff’s rowing career proved to be a promise unfulfilled. Part III investigates Geoff’s non-rowing life, 1899 – 1984.