Tickled Pink: A New Rowing History

In the Pink: A History of the Water at Westminster School by Christopher Seward is out now. To clarify the use of “the Water” in the title, in the argot of Westminster School, rowing is “the Water” and the Captain of Boats is the “Head of the Water.”

23 February 2023

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch previews his review.

Rowing historians have yet to agree on when and where rowing for sport and leisure by gentlemen amateurs started in Southern England. Admittedly, there is vague agreement on the “when” (sometime from the mid to the late eighteenth century) but the “where” has three camps: Oxford University, Eton School (strictly, “Eton College”) and Westminster School (I think that it is generally accepted that Cambridge University was late to the party, though untimely it was a very important attendee). 

I will avoid the temptation to put in a 10,000-word footnote summarising the case for each place and simply observe that it is strange that, until this year, there have been no modern histories of any of these incredibly important boat clubs.

At Oxford, various college boat clubs have published their histories at different times and there have been many books on the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race but the last university wide work was the Rev WE Sherwood’s snappily titled book of 1890, Oxford Rowing: A history of boat-racing at Oxford from the earliest times with a record of the races compiled principally from official sources

Downriver, the Eton Book of the River With Some Account of the Thames and the Evolution of Boat-Racing by Bryne and Churchill was first published in 1935 and the last edition came out in 1952.

Until this year, the most up-to-date account of the development of boat racing at Westminster was WKR Bedford’s Rowing at Westminster from 1813 to 1883 (1890).However, we now have Christopher Seward’s In the Pink: A History of the Water at Westminster School (2023). As Westminster School Boat Club makes the claim that it is “the oldest recorded amateur rowing club in the world” this is clearly a publication of importance.

Westminster boys boating from Lambeth in the 1850s. It is recorded that two boys drowned from a sailing boat in 1778, and in 1788 the Head Master ruled that boys renting boats had to be accompanied by a waterman.

Publicity material for the book states:

With written records of boating dating back to 1813, Westminster School can rightly claim to have been a prime originator of the sport of amateur rowing. Races between Westminster and Eton in the nineteenth century were sporting and social occasions that generated as great a following as the matches between Oxford and Cambridge, as well as controversy within the schools themselves.

But Westminster’s rowing history is a chequered one. Increasing urbanisation of Victorian London dislocated ‘Water’ from Lambeth Reach and forced several moves upriver. Pupil numbers slumped in the latter part of the nineteenth century. For two decades, rowing was even suspended by the Head Master.

In recent years, high-profile racing successes have again raised Westminster’s reputation on the water. This painstakingly researched history brings up to date the story of the boys, and girls, in pink, bringing to life the eventful narrative of the world’s oldest-recorded amateur boat club.

My review of In the Pink will follow on HTBS in due course but copies can be bought now via this link.

One comment

  1. Tim Koch is quite right to point out (In the Pink, HTBS 23 Feb) that no histories of Britain’s oldest and most venerable clubs have been published for many years. But when it comes to historical information, a number of volumes have covered much of their water. For example, club histories of London (Dodd), Thames (Page), Furnivall (Elizabeth Cooper) and Trinity College Dublin (Raymond Blake) contain much more about rowing and its ambience than the achievements or otherwise of their subjects. Maurice Phelps’s account of his family dynasty of watermen, professional scullers and builders of boats unveils a way of life that impacts upon the rowing life of your Etons, Westminsters and Oxbridges, as does Chris Dodd’s history of the Watermen’s Company, Unto the Tideway Born. All the above-mentioned were published in the 1980s or beyond, as was a book on Leander co-authored by Geoffrey Page and Richard Burnell, and the recent 200-year history of the Pink Palace edited by Andy Trotman. Dodd and Burnell also published books on Henley Regatta during this period, a rich institutional source of stories about the ancient and modern. And a work that incorporates quite a bit about funny foreigners who come to race at Henley is Dodd’s Story of World Rowing. Indeed, we can all find a bunch of stories in these tomes, whether affiliated or not to clubs who claim to have passed the starting post first.

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