Cameo of the Cam

William Frederick Douglas, pen and wash sketch, The Boat Race, 1837.

27 June 2022

By John Drew

Kits of Many Colours

In a moment of joie de vivre when an intriguing, slightly perplexing, print of early rowing on the Cam fell into the hands of my oarsman grandson Sam, I penned an article, “Kings of the Cam”, (HTBS, 18 April 2022). This wove a story out of the kits of many colours worn by rowing crews in the picture.

The colours in Sam’s copy of what is probably the earliest and is certainly the most widely reproduced illustration of collegiate rowing on the Cam, The Boat Race, first published in 1838, showed, I hazarded, the Trinity College boat “Black Prince” (crew in black stripes on old gold) leading the “Lady Margaret” boat of St John’s College (in pink) in the competitive May Bumping races of that year.  

The crew in the most prominent boat in the picture, rather awkwardly athwart the river mid-course at the Plough Inn and not rowing but waving, belonged, I speculated, to newcomers on the river in 1838, King’s College (in royal purple).

Wiser (rowing) heads than (cricketing) mine had warned that aquatints of old rowing prints were beguiling will o’ the wisps, artists being more concerned to paint a pretty picture for their patrons than to reflect real life.

That the outrigger pundits were right became clear when I later looked at the colouring of two other versions of the same engraving available in the public domain. The first was reproduced (though cropped) by Dr John Marks in the seminal work he co-authored with John Durack and George Gilbert, The Bumps: An Account of the University of Cambridge Bumping Races, 1827-1999 (2000).

The leading crew in the Marks’s variant is in green, the second in blue and the foreground boat in bright yellow. The Queens’ (with whom the colour green has been associated from time immemorial) was not in contention for Head at this time and though the Clare (with whom yellow is invariably associated) might conceivably have been drowning their sorrows at the Plough, what cause was there to make this central to a painting?

Another copy (squashed or squared off compared with any other) in the River and Rowing Museum at Henley, donated by collector Tom Weil, is even more serendipitous in its colouring. The horses of the equestrians on the towpath are, dear God, orange. The two leading crews are both in blue and the foreground crew in pale yellow, the flag this time blue, not red. You pay your penny and you take your choice.

The pundits were not only right about the colourists. They might have added that some of those early college crews had a penchant for changing their colours like chameleons. Queens’ we have just said has always been associated with the colour green, yet their crew changed the colour of their shirts in 1833 from lilac and white to dark blue striped. Even when colleges didn’t change their strips, descriptive writers, if they noticed the colours at all, might describe them differently.

The colour of the St John’s shirts and then jerseys is described variously as being both pink and red by the authoritative Charles Merivale while early paintings show them in white with narrow (their third boat, broad) red horizontal stripes (having a pink effect). This, before St John’s adopted the fiery scarlet that is said to have given blazers their name.

The virtue – or vice – of Sam’s copy was that the hews of the crews allowed, even called for a story to be made out of them. Moreover, in seeking, however belatedly, to stand up this story, I had two early successes. First Trinity did use a horizontal Britannia stripe on their rowing jerseys as shown on the leading crew and, while I could find no record of the background colour, yellow or old gold (used by them since) seemed likely enough for the Trinity.

Better still, when I got Sam’s picture in my hands, I could see the aquatintist had coloured the back of the bow oarsman in the third boat just coming into the picture the light blue of Caius, gifted (according to Caius) to the University Boat in 1836.

William Bernard Cooke, engraver, aquatint, The Boat Race (detail), 1838.

This new find fitted my story perfectly since the Caius was the third boat competing for Head of the River in the spring of 1838. The colourists of the (full) Marks and the Weil copies were clearly not as serious as Sam’s: they hadn’t bothered to give bow in the third boat any sort of colour at all.

But just when my story looked strong enough to hold its place, it got well and truly bumped. It turned out that this scene of rowing on the Cam was not, as is often suggested, 1838 but 1837.

The original drawing for the engraving was done in 1837. King’s did not have a boat on the river before February, 1838. Moreover, neither in the spring of 1837 nor throughout 1838 was the Trinity ever leading on the river. My story stood exposed as a fairy story.

The Cambridge Portfolio

Happily, the story that bumped my story was an even more intriguing one, detective rather than fairy story. The drawing turned up in an album of materials, many never published, assembled for a lavish volume, the Cambridge Portfolio of 1840, edited by the Rev. John James Smith, full of illustrations and articles in celebration of the university past and present.  

The volume deserves the attention of all rowing buffs interested in the emergence of collegiate rowing. It includes only two illustrated articles on sport, significantly enough both on rowing, with none on the cricket that had preceded rowing as a collegiate and Inter-Varsity sport a decade previously.

The two articles provide perspectives that are in stark contrast to each other, and the illustrations are equally in contrast to the articles they are supposed to accompany. They give us four distinct views of the river to which the city owes its name.

The Cam

William Shoubridge, water colour, The Cam, 1837.
Detail from the above water colour by William Shoubridge.

The Cam is the name of a rather striking aerial view of the river taken from what passes as a hill in flat Cambridge, Castle Hill. The river stretches away northward towards Fen Ditton, incidentally, covering the Old (1827-1834) Course for the Bumps and part of the present course used since 1835 (see Tim Koch, “Things That Go Bump in the Day”, HTBS 3 January 2022).

The engraving is based on a pleasant water-colour of a placid rural scene done by an amateur artist from Caius College, William Shoubridge. There is not a single boat on the winding river.

The article of the same name offers an altogether different view of the Cam. It is a graphic account of rowing in a steered or coxed four against a fierce headwind during a snowstorm one March. The four rows some fifty miles through bleak, unwelcoming Fens from Cambridge to the sea at King’s Lynn, actually blown back into Ely at one point, and then rows fifty icy miles back.

In a preamble to his article, George Stovin Venables, a Fellow of Jesus who once broke the novelist Thackeray’s nose, suggests few other contributors to the volume will have condescended to the exercise of such “rude and corporeal energies”.

While Venables is initially prepared to except from his strictures the other writer on rowing in the volume he is clearly disdainful of the limited exercise provided by collegiate competition, whatever its derived “polish and brilliancy”. The Bumps course, after all, extends for no more than a mile and a furlong (1796 paces as measured out in 1840).

The Boat Race

The other writer on rowing referred to is Charles Merivale, of St John’s College, later Dean of Ely, one of the initiators of the first Inter-Varsity Boat Race in 1829, himself rowing at #4 in the Cambridge boat.

Merivale gives a brief history of the emergence of the collegiate Bumps with its medley of competing ten, eight and six-oar boats (one of the latter belonging to “impertinent” Caius). This is followed by a vivid account of the excitement experienced by the crowd on the towpath and the crews on the river as the First Trinity boat overlaps but just fails to bump the St John’s on Ditton Corner and so has to be content with finishing well ahead of the Caius in third place.

This is evidently an account of the intense racing that took place between these three crews during one of the last seven races over a hectic fortnight in May 1838. The three competed for Head without ever changing the order (a missing Johnian Minutes Book, always full of pertinent details, preventing us from telling exactly which race it was).

In the illustration of the same name, The Boat Race, already familiar as the main object of our speculations, the onlooker is firmly situated on the Ditton bank where are stationed, as Merivale says, “ladies and the less enthusiastic admirers of the sport”. Given that this engraving downplays the actual racing that so absorbs Merivale hopping imaginatively in and out of boats along the Chesterton bank, its perspective is as eccentric as his is central.

For all that, the picture is as lively in its own way as Merivale’s article and perhaps Merivale was responsible for its inclusion as the frontispiece of a booklet published fifty years later following a dinner he himself attended, the sole Cantab, to commemorate the first Inter-Varsity Boat Race.

The Drawing

It is to the drawing on which this widely-known and frequently reproduced engraving is based that we may turn if we wish to explore the origin of its somewhat disconcerting composition.

At the bottom of the engraving by William Bernard Cooke, who also engraved the water-colour The Cam, the drawing is attributed to W.F.D. Christian. This name is nowhere to be found in the annals of artists – or the records of anybody at all.

Fortunately, a number of sketches he did for the Portfolio reveal Christian’s real name to be William Frederick Douglas, the fifth son of the redoubtable Sir Howard Douglas, whose survival of a winter on the Labrador coast following a shipwreck makes the exploits of even a Venables seem tame.

The trouble with young Douglas was that, although like Shoubridge a keen amateur collegian artist, he lacked gravitas. A tendency to levity is evident in several scenes he does of Cambridge life, hardly suitable for a volume designed to soberly delineate the architectural and scenic beauties of the university city.  This comes to the fore when he resorts to the river for the May Bumps.

Of two cartoons Douglas does of the scene, one shows a horse demonstrating to his rider the truth of the proverb that he can be taken to water but not made to drink, while a frog hopping away in alarm remains unconvinced of this. The other cartoon shows a monocled equestrian follower of Third Trinity (a distinct boat club made up exclusively of people from privileged Eton and Westminster schools) trampling on the pedestrian hoi polloi on the towpath and scattering them into the river. [Third Trinity finished 4th in 1837, captained by a man named Drew – no relation or resemblance].

William Frederick Douglas, pen and wash sketch, “Well pulled indeed, 3rd Trin”, 1837 [being translated, Well rowed indeed, 3rd Trinity Boat Club].

Even the two of Douglas’s sketches that are salvaged for the Portfolio have to be amended in the transition to engraving. It pleases him to adorn the first milestone out of Cambridge with mortarboard and gown worn in ways indicative of youthful arrival and portly departure, perhaps intending that these two might bookend the volume. The first was used as frontispiece but not before, among other details tidied up, the jaunty angle of the mortarboard had been set straight.

As for his drawing of “The Boat Race”, the only substantial submission to be taken (at 15 guineas) for an engraving in the Portfolio, the bow of a superfluous boat coming into the picture looking as if it might bump and overset the unsuspecting crew of the other foreground boat is quietly expunged. More importantly, on the horizon, a marginalized and lumpen King’s College Chapel has to be rescued, moved closer in to the centre and given a frame by the addition of a church spire to match the mill chimney on the other side of it.

While these minor changes may satisfy those who know nothing of rowing, there remains something disconcerting about that prominent boat in the foreground, lying idle off the Plough Inn and awkwardly athwart the river (even if we allow for #5 to be holding #6’s oar). What is the boat doing there? Why should it obscure the more important boats contesting for Head of the River?

The boat is too centrally positioned in the picture to be just any old boat: not only are most college boats busy contesting the race but the flag of this one is raised in triumph as if it has just made the bump it cannot possibly have done since those at the Head are in process of passing by. While some may go so far as to conclude the boat is too odd to be believed, a figment of the artist’s imagination, the truth may be more nuanced.

Perhaps we should first try to answer the riddle of the artist’s pseudonym? Why should Douglas insist that the engraving made on the basis of his drawing credit him under the name of W.F.D. Christian? Yes, Douglas was a Christian, he would actually be ordained a priest in two years’ time, but a volume as portentous as the Portfolio is no place for trivial jokes. It is not Le Charivari.

One immediate explanation is that Douglas was an alumnus of Christ’s College, hence (jokily) Christian. Again, this is hardly the place for a little pun of this kind. What the devil is going on? Is the devil, being in the jocular Douglas, in the detail? Is his peculiar signature a unique clue to an understanding of a peculiar picture?

It couldn’t possibly be, could it, that the mystery boat in the foreground of his drawing is part of the joke: that it is the Christ’s College boat? Surely not? Christ’s had briefly gone Head on the Old Course in 1833 but were lying twelfth coming into the Mays in 1837. They would be somewhere in the pursuing pack but quite out of this particular picture? 

Well, actually, no. In both the University and the St John’s Boat Clubs’ Minutes Books of the time there is a separate note recording that the Christ’s did not race on the first day of the so-called Mays (April 19th). The reason for their not doing so is not given but they remained out of the racing for two further race days before coming back into competition, forfeiting a place each day.

This withdrawal could have been the result of a grievance Christ’s had with the governing University Boat Club. The Club had refused to reimburse them the entrance and subscription fees for a new second boat that failed to arrive in time to race in the Lents. If this were the case, the Christ’s would be free, if they so wished, to lie idle off the Plough, their steerer perhaps emboldened to hold their flag aloft like an ensign challenging the combined ranks of the Boat Club as they sweep past in battle array?

If this was the actual situation he encountered on the river it was the perfect opportunity for a mischievous alumnus of Christ’s College commissioned to catch the atmosphere of the Bumps not only to show loyalty to his (free-spirited, notionally non-compliant) college by highlighting their boat in this way but to leave us a playful clue as to how to read his subversive picture.

To turn to the more easily ascertainable reality of those keen crews fighting out the lead in the picture, of less importance to the artist but not to be missed, whose boats are these? The Bumps charts and records provide an answer. It was the St John’s all the way, the then fastest boat ever on the river (timed at a 7 ¼ minute course record on May 8th), not at all pressed in any of the three races when we are presuming Douglas to have drawn his picture.

In the second race of the Mays, on Saturday April 22nd, the St John’s is actually reported as taking it easy after the Plough, something that would account for the otherwise cavalier behaviour of the steerer in the drawing waving airily to the crowds of Johnian supporters on the towpath.

That the boat just coming into the picture, actually the Trinity, looks to be on the point of catching the Corpus ahead also fits the facts. The anticipated bump was in fact long delayed by the good steering of the Corpus combined with bad steering by the Trinity. It was eventually made far down the Long Reach by the last of the willows just before the stile.

It is hard to resist the idea that it is the excitement of this day that the drawing reflects. The first race, another possibility, passed off without a bump or other reported incident. The third race seems to be out of the reckoning since in it the Caius bumped the Corpus to go third just before the Plough and this would have created a quite different scene.

One thing we can be certain of is that the stripes on the leading crew in the drawing are intended to be not, as I had originally surmised, the black stripes of the Trinity but the red stripes of the St John’s. The Johnians were to remain at the Head, unbumped during the rest of 1837 and all the way through 1838, in fact until February 1839…

Hold on a minute. Easy oars. February 1839, did I just say…?

Surprise Reprise

Good sporting stories don’t have to be true any more than do good fairy stories. That said, one is always reluctant to concede that a story posing as history is totally wrong. One mistake I made in first looking at Sam’s picture was to fail to divide its lineage, like Caesar’s Gaul, into three separate parts: the drawing, the engraving, the aquatinting. 1837, the drawing, yes. 1838, the engraving, yes. 1839…? Tempting, isn’t it, to try and complete a simple sequence?

Let us imagine ourselves to be Kingsmen (no women in college then), perhaps even oarsmen in 1838. Contrary to my original insouciant speculations, King’s, after launching their pretty boat on the river at the Lent Bumps, bumped their way up from their starting position of 23rd to 10th during the eleven races held that year. While this progress was through the lower orders it was no mean feat: something to celebrate.

Two months later, on August 1st, the engraving The Boat Race was published separately by John William Parker, an enterprising London publisher who, appointed University Printer, was in the process of transforming the moribund University Press, about to introduce steam to the great alarm of the divines.

Parker was not a man to wait for the Portfolio to come out first if he had a saleable commodity on his hands. The wide re-publication later of “The Boat Race” may reflect a popularity it enjoyed among the rowing fraternity right from the very start.

Suppose us to be among those who, flushed by the success of our King’s College boat, purchase a copy. Of course, the engraving is uncoloured and we are free to have the prominent boat in the foreground coloured with our own college colour. In the background we can colour in whatever boats we like. Why not have those racing at the Head at this time of our continuing success?

When the next bumping season opens in February 1839, we go down to the river and station ourselves, as Douglas had done, on the lawn of the inviting Plough Inn. During the first race of the Lent Bumps, on the 20th, the river at the Plough presents quite a different picture since it is precisely there that the Trinity bumps the St John’s and, as the Trinity President puts it, regains its “own place” at the Head of the River.

At the next race, on the first Saturday, the 23rd, however, what do we see in the Plough Reach in front of us but First Trinity (who are now as unassailable as the Johnians had been the previous year) leading the St John’s with the Caius in such close pursuit they are poised to bump the Johnians, as they will, at Ditton Corner.

The Trinity well ahead of the St John’s with the Caius a very close third. This situation of the racing crews is exactly that I assigned to them in Sam’s meticulously coloured print of the scene, though it is now 1839, not 1838, and the foliage of the trees in February is not as fulsome as that displayed in the template of the engraving we must use to colour in.

As for the King’s, whether or not they ever reserved for themselves the place outside the Plough ostensibly occupied by the Christ’s two years earlier, in their case in celebration rather than as consolation, it was not during the racing. They were too busy trying to make an impression on the upper echelons of the Cambridge rowing world. In the Lents they did edge up to 8th but then in the Mays subsided.

The King’s would rarely, if ever, again have cause to celebrate such a rapid rise through the ranks on the river. If they – or their followers – wished to commemorate this annus mirabilis they had no better medium for it, photography not quite yet being in existence, than the template provided by the engraving made from Douglas’s drawing. The more so since on it the individual faces, anathema to the esprit de corps of an eight, are turned away in the other direction. For the King’s there was the added bonus that their college chapel stood on the horizon.  


Adams (?), engraver & printer, The Meeting on the Cam of the Cambridge Boat Club, n.d., 1837 or 38?

While lost among memorabilia of the Cam in the 1830s, it would be a pity not to mention an engraving included among the material assembled for the Portfolio: The Meeting on the Cam of the Cambridge Boat Club. This shows a great flotilla of boats ceremoniously lined up side by side across the river watched by crowds gathered on the lawn in front of King’s College Chapel.

In 1835, the first year of the Bumps on the New Course, a ritual began after the final race of having all the competing boats process in order along the Backs [of the Colleges] from Town Lock to Newnham Mill. If this engraving is not filed out of place, it shows the scene two or three years later, perhaps in 1837, when many more boats, 23 altogether, had come on to the river.

The leading two boats at the Head are making their way back down the river under Clare Bridge after being cheered and serenaded, as each boat will be in turn, by the crews of all the others standing up, oars and flags held aloft.

The engraving was not used in the Portfolio, apparently rejected in favour of a more decorous one by Joseph Murray Ince from the same vantage point of the King’s bridge. The unsavoury reputation the rowing ritual had quickly acquired for drunken revelry may also have made it an inappropriate subject to have associated with King’s College Chapel.

King’s College Chapel manages to make its way into a number of illustrations used in the Portfolio. Icon of Cambridge. But it hasn’t always been there. Do I hear a voice, and could it be that of the Rev. Douglas, whispering in my ear that the space now occupied by the King’s Chapel once belonged to Christ’s? Same thing, I seem to hear him say, as with the King’s Boat in Sam’s picture.    

William Frederick Douglas, sketch, The First Milestone, 1837.

Note by the article writer: Researchers are frequently indebted to archivists who say: I have something more that might interest you. My debt for the discovery to me of the prospective Portfolio material – and much else – is to Diana Smith, Trinity College archivist. Other college archivists who sifted through old rowing records while I was wool-gathering on the cricket fields of Cambridge include those of Girton, St John’s and Christ’s, while those of King’s, Queens’ and Jesus also fielded enquiries, as did the River and Rowing Museum at Henley, the Cambs Archives, Mrs Jenny Marks, Jesuan Ben Strong and Caian Dr Michael Wood. A tip of the floppy to them all. Grateful acknowledgement for the reproduction of images is due to the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Sam Strong.

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