Kings of the Cam

Sam’s The Boat Race.

18 April 2022

By John Drew*

A fellow cricketer, hearing that my erstwhile cricketing grandson Sam had become such a rabid convert to rowing he had been elected vice-captain of his school’s boat club, kindly passed on to him an old print simply titled The Boat Race.

The article writer’s grandson, Sam, at a Christmas row on the Thames. He rows at 6 in the Latymer Upper VIII.

I have put aside bat and pads and picked up my iPad in an attempt to determine the where, the when, the who and the why of the scene. Trawling the Net for information concerning the arcana of early collegiate rowing, I find myself invariably directed to a serendipitous site delightfully named heartheboatsing.com.

In particular, I have come upon an article written by Tim Koch, “Things That Go Bump in the Day”, HTBS 3 January 2022, a farrago of tales concerning the ingenious competitive racing devised by Oxbridge colleges suitable to their narrow rivers and, even more to my point, another by Peter Mallory, “Rowing History’s Baker Street Irregulars”, HTBS 21 April 2021, an account of his acquisition of a copy of the oldest oil painting of a rowing crew (Lady Margaret) on the River Cam. This he dates to 1842. His article says something about the vagaries of art works as well as of boat clubs.

To these instructive articles I am tempted to add a tentative footnote.

Koch’s article includes a photographic version of the very engraving that has come into my grandson’s possession. Here its title is more precise: A Boat Race on the Cam in 1838. That this collation of the where and when is correct is confirmed by reference to a copy of the original in the River and Rowing Museum (Acc. #2004.175), a possession passed on to it by its erstwhile trustee, Tom Weil, the doyen of rowing memorabilia collectors.

Sam’s copy, like this one, has the advantage of being an aquatint. If the colourist had any respect for the real – always a big if – we might hope to identify the crews depicted racing on the river. The picture shows an eight in pink in pursuit of a leading boat whose crew is attired in pale yellow with black (horizontal) stripes. The bow of a third boat can be seen coming into the picture.

The colours associated with the colleges, like the boats themselves in those formative years, were somewhat experimental and changeable. The pink, initially the colour used by the Cambridge University Boat Club, is that of the Lady Margaret Boat Club (seen as red and white stripes in Mallory’s painting). LMBC were Head of the River in both 1837 and 1838.

The striped yellow of the leading boat is more problematical. On the Isis a crew wearing these colours would be identified as Brasenose but on the Cam, Clare is the only likely possessor. Yet records show Clare had not been in contention since 1832. My guess is that these colours were adopted for purposes of differentiation by one of the three distinctly different Trinity College boat clubs that took three of the top four places behind LMBC on the river in 1838.

Since 1835, Cambridge Bumps had taken place on a new, longer course and in this picture we can identify the exact spot. The crews are in mid-course coming into Plough Reach. Curiously, however, it is not the racing boats that command our attention, though the varied deployment of the crews in the boats, sometimes in singles, sometimes in pairs, may occupy us for a moment. Our attention is taken by a far more prominent boat in the foreground of the picture.

This boat, so central to the scene, is rather strangely parked athwart the course, its oarsmen neatly arranged in four pairs, apparently taking no part in the action at all other than observing it. Their boat is adjacent to the sylvan Ditton shore that, as Mallory observes, is mentioned by Bell’s Life at the time as a refuge, especially for the ladies, in sharp contrast to the opposite bank. There a stampeding crowd of spectators are in danger of being trodden down by equestrians hurtling pell-mell along the tow-path, forerunners of today’s crazed cyclists.

This central boat is the only one flying a ceremonial flag. It is coloured the royal purple, as are the shirts of its crew, and evidently belongs to King’s, the tip of its flagstaff providing confirmation of this by pointing up to the King’s College Chapel on the horizon (more determinate than the nondescript chimney and spire that flank it on either side).

In a note that, incidentally, gives the lie to Rouse Ball’s attribution of the event to 1837, the then captain of Lady Margaret writes that 1838 saw the first appearance of a King’s boat on the river, adding, perhaps a trifle ambivalently, that it was the prettiest. King’s has lived up to this somewhat platonic image ever since, its boats rarely showing much appetite for competitive sporting activity. Its rowing website gives pride of place to Alan Turing.

John – getting ready to bat.

In the face of it, it really does look as if the 1838 aquatint, apparently the oldest known illustration of collegiate rowing on the Cam, had been commissioned by someone who wished to commemorate the arrival on the river of the King’s boat, perhaps even designed to reflect the college’s aesthetic ethos.

If this is so, the title of the picture, The Boat Race, though not a misnomer, is a trifle misleading. That at least is how it appears to an interloping cricketer foolish enough to stick an oar in.

*John Drew, a poet and tutor, is Twelfth Man in the Clare Hall Cambridge Cricket XI that routinely includes players from a dozen countries. As an infant in 1940, John attended his first cricket match – between two villages in Kent – which was interrupted by a dogfight between RAF and Luftwaffe aircraft. John has told that story in The Cricket Monthly. In another article for the magazine, “Cuppers, Fenner’s, winners, dinners”, John tells the story of the trials of tribulations suffered by Clare Hall, a very small graduate college, during a Cambridge cricket season.

John’s concern with rowing has hitherto been confined to trying to establish (so far in vain) that Captain John Hodsoll (1622-1683), the beloved great-grandfather of William Hodsoll, cricket’s first named fast bowler, was a cricketer no less than the succeeding generations of Hodsolls. William’s favourite painting (now lost) was of his great-grandfather rowing Charles II on the occasion of a ceremonial visit to the Fleet on the Medway. John has also made the suggestion that the local Kolis who saw East India Company marines first playing cricket on Indian shores in 1721 might have supposed they saw someone throwing a small cannonball at a target defended by someone else trying to stave it off with (as it may have been) an oar.

John about to bowl, in a village in Bangladesh.

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