B. H. Howell: The Diamonds Winner in 1898 and 1899

Benjamin Hunting Howell, a Yank in the colours of Thames Rowing Club, 1899.

6 March 2023

By Göran R Buckhorn

Göran Buckhorn counts some U.S. scullers winning the Diamond Challenge Sculls at Henley Royal Regatta.

I know that many HTBS readers, just like me, enjoy Tim Koch’s series of Fred May’s caricatures of rowers at Henley Royal Regatta in the 1920s.

Last Friday, 3 March, Tim gave American sculler Walter Hoover a Fred May article of his own. Hoover raced in the Diamond Challenge Sculls in 1922, beating Jack Beresford in the final. In 1923, the American was back at Henley but then Donald Gollan overpowered him in his first heat; and in 1925, Beresford got his revenge on Hoover by beating him to reach the final, where he “easily” won over Gollan.

In Tim’s article, there is a great photo from 1922 with Jack Beresford congratulating Walter Hoover on his win in the Diamonds.

The two best scullers in the world in 1922? (Jack Kelly might not have agreed.)

The caption of the image in Tim’s article read: “Beresford (left) and Hoover (right) at Henley in 1922. This was only the second time that the Diamonds had gone to the US, the first was in 1897 with a win by EH Ten Eyck.”

While this is technically accurate, I cannot help myself pointing out a small mistake. Hoover was the second American to “take home” the Pineapple Cup to the USA, but he was actually the third American to win the Cup. The second one was Benjamin Hunting Howell, who studied at Cambridge and later lived in England.

But before we go any further, let us look at the first American winner of the Diamonds, Edward “Ned” Hanlan Ten Eyck, who was named after his godfather, the Canadian world professional sculling champion, Edward “Ned” Hanlan.

Ned Ten Eyck had been allowed to enter the 1897 Diamonds despite the fact that the Henley Stewards suspected him of being a professional. This assumption was mainly based on his coach, his father James Ten Eyck, who had been a well-known professional oarsman who had turned to coaching.

Ned Ten Eyck in 1897.

In the 1897 final for the Pineapple Cup, in a new record time, 8 minutes 35 seconds, 17-year-old Ten Eyck easily defeated Harry Blackstaffe of Vesta Rowing Club, who sculled in his first final of the Diamonds. Even Blackstaffe, whose friends called him “Blackie”, had difficulty being regarded as an amateur in the beginning of his rowing career, as he was working in the meat trade. Before the winning ceremony, some of Blackie’s friends urged him to protest the result as Ten Eyck, in their eyes, was a professional. However, Blackstaffe refused, as he saw a protest as an unsportsmanlike gesture.

Artist Henry Charles Seppings Wright gave this view from the Grosvenor Club Enclosure (later to be The Remenham Club) of the final of the 1897 Diamond Challenge Sculls between Harry Blackstaffe (on the Bucks side) and Ned Hanlan Ten Eyck (on the Berks side) in The Illustrated London News, 24 July 1897. St Mary’s Church is a well-recognised land mark in the background. Like many other images on rowing and boat racing, this features the spectators and the liveliness on the riverbank, while the race is a secondary event in the background.

To celebrate his victory, poor Ned Ten Eyck did everything wrong, at least in the eyes of the English rowing press. He and his father “attended a dinner given in honour of himself and his father at the Half Moon at Putney by all the best known English professionals”, Geoffrey Page writes in his Hear the Boat Sing: The History of Thames Rowing Club and Tideway Rowing (1991), and continues “This surely was an open confession of guilt”.

In the 1898 issue of the Rowing Almanack and Oarsman’s Companion, its editor Edwin D. Brickwood, signature “Argonaut” (Diamonds winner in 1859 and 1862 and champion of the Wingfield Sculls in 1861), reflected on the passed rowing season, when he wrote about Ned Ten Eyck: “The very strong presumption from his parentage, his associations, and his appearance, that he was by no means of the British type of amateur, still less a gentleman amateur”. In his article Brickwood mentioned all the professionals who were present at Ten Eyck’s celebration banquet at the Half Moon, the boat builders John H. Clasper, George Sims and W. Winship, and the famous oarsmen Tom Sullivan, Bill Barry, Charles ‘Wag’ Harding, Bill East and twenty others. Brickwood sourly rounded it up with a Latin phrase: Noscilu e sociis – “It is known from its associates”.

For the 1898 Henley Regatta, the Stewards turned down Ten Eyck’s application to defend his title in the Diamonds.

It was not easy to be an American competing at Henley at this time. In 1895, Cornell created a scandal in the Grand Challenge Cup. The first of Cornell’s “mistakes” was that the crew came with their professional coach, Charles Courtney, one of the USA’s best professional oarsmen at the end of the 1870s and beginning of the 1880s. The most severe mishap happened when the American crew was to race in their first heat in the Grand. Their opponents were the favourites to win the Grand that year, Leander. Leander’s stroke, Charles W. Kent, had stroked the club’s eight to four previous wins in the Grand, and now he was expected to lead the Leander crew to its fifth victory.

This is how I tell the story in A Yank at Cambridge – B.H. Howell: The Forgotten Champion  (2015):

In the third heat [of the Grand] Leander was to row against Cornell. At the start, the Leander crew looked comfortable at the stake boat on the Berks (Berkshire) side. There was a wind blowing off the Bucks (Buckinghamshire) side and when the umpire, Colonel Frank Willan, called out: “Are you ready”, some members of the English crew called: “No!” Colonel Willan seemed not to have heard this and sent the crews off. The Americans started immediately, while a few oarsmen in the Leander crew took a stroke or two, and then stopped, expecting the umpire to call back Cornell for a restart. Willan, however, thought that Leander had made a bad start and did not call back the Americans, who at one point eased off on their strokes to see if Willan would stop the race. But he waved at the Americans to continue, which they did. The umpire launch followed Cornell over the course and gave them the victory when they crossed the finish line, with Leander still sitting at the stake boat at the start.

It became a big scandal at Henley and in the English press that the young oarsmen from Cornell had not stopped rowing and return to the start. Their coach Courtney had taken ill that day and was not in the umpire’s launch with Colonel Willan and the American Ambassador Thomas F. Bayard. As Willan had waved at the Americans to continue to row and unexperienced as they were, being out of the USA for the first time, they continued to row to the finish line.

In the semifinal, Cornell met a good crew from Trinity Hall, Cambridge, who rowed the Americans to “disarray and exhaustion” at Phyllis Court. Later, the Hall crew beat New College to take the Grand.

The defeat of Cornell University in the fifth heat for the 1895 Grand Challenge Cup according to the artist Sydney P. Hall in The Graphic, 20 July 1895. About this race, the paper wrote: “At first the Americans led by a few feet, and at the half-mile mark were half a length in front; but soon after that the Cambridge began to overhaul them. The fast stroke of the Cornell crew had told heavily on the men, and Trinity Hall went in front at the mile post. Opposite the Ishmian Club the Americans were being rapidly left behind, and at the Grand Stand were so exhausted as to be scarcely able to pull their oars through the water.”

In the Cambridge crew was a man from Brooklyn, New York, Benjamin Hunting Howell, who had arrived at the Hall to study in the autumn of 1894. He had never rowed but took to the oar on the River Cam, and he was now rowing for the Hall at Henley.

In 1897, Howell was rowing in the single sculls and was beaten by Ned Ten Eyck in the semifinal when he was on his way to take the Pineapple Cup that year. There was also a third American sculler in the Diamonds in 1897, W. S. McDowell. He managed to easily defeat the two previous years’ winner, Rupert Guinness, but he lost against Blackie Blackstaffe.

At the 1898 Henley Regatta, Howell, rowing for Trinity Hall, won the Diamonds by beating Blackstaffe. Later that July month, Howell defeated Blackstaffe, who was the holder, in the Wingfield Sculls.

The great Vesta RC’s rower, Harry “Blackie” Blackstaffe, here at the 1908 Olympic rowing in Henley. Blackstaffe became Olympic champion in the single sculls two days after he had turned 40.

The irritation that was to be found among certain men in the English rowing establishment about the American oarsmen seemed not to affect or relate to Hunting Howell. In his case it was different, as he was racing in the black and white colours of a well-respected Cambridge college. Furthermore, he had taken up the oar first when he began studying at Trinity Hall. Howell was thereby molded in the proper English way and from him no American and professional oarsman’s “dirty tricks” were to be expected.

In 1899, Howell, now rowing for Thames Rowing Club, overpowered Blackstaffe in both the Diamonds and the Wingfields. The next year, Howell again raced both in the Diamonds and the Wingfields, but he was ill with malaria fever and was beaten in both events. He never took up the oars again.

During his rather short rowing career, Hunting Howell was known in the English rowing sphere, and after he became double Diamond winner, the U.S. newspapers wrote about the American “world champion”. However, it seems only a few friends of Howell’s during his later lifetime knew that he had rowed in England after he returned to the U.S. in August 1907.

It was in 1938, in the 2 July issue of The New Yorker, the magazine published an article on Hunting Howell. Under the title “Forgotten Champion”, the magazine wrote:

When speaking of the famous regatta at Henley-on-Thames, England, which has its hundredth birthday this week, it’s customary for sportswriters to mention that only two Americans have ever won the Diamond Sculls, a singles event over the mile-and five-six-tenths (Henley) course. They are, the papers would have you know, Edward Ten Eyck (1897), member of a family distinguished in crew history, and Walter Hoover (1922), whose family has no particular historical connections.

The American sculler who won the trophy of the Diamond Challenge Sculls in between Ned Hanlan Ten Eyck and Walter Hoover, the article stated, was “B. Hunting Howell, who not only deserves to be listed with Ten Eyck and Hoover but moreover outranks them both by virtue of having won the coveted trophy twice. It was in 1898 and 1899, to be exact”.

Writing about Hunting Howell’s victories in the Diamonds, The New Yorker article finished by saying:

Mr. Howell today is the head of the Garfield Manufacturing Company of Garfield, New Jersey, makers of electrical parts. He is still the same twelve stone eight. As of lack of recognition, he told us that at his age it doesn’t make much difference. He lives a life of pleasant oblivion on Fifty-second Street and at Tuxedo Park, his summer home, where his racing trophies are stored. Only a few cronies know about his past. He hasn’t been to a single rowing event since 1908, principally because none of his friends are crew fans. “It isn’t fun to go alone,” he says, with a faraway look in his eye.

Hunting Howell’s prizes. Photo courtesy of the National Rowing Foundation.

On the same day that the article “Forgotten Champion” was published in The New Yorker, 2 July 1938, Joe Burk of the Penn Athletic Club, Philadelphia, won the Diamond Challenge Sculls in the new excellent record time, 8 minutes 2 seconds, taking eight seconds off Frederick S. Kelly’s time from 1905. Burk was the fourth American to take the Diamonds, and he would repeat his victory the following year, 1939, being the last winner of the Diamonds before the Second World War put a six-year hold on the regatta.

I published a “rowing biography” on Benjamin Hunting Howell in 2015, A Yank at Cambridge – B.H. Howell: The Forgotten Champion, which not only tells the story of Howell’s rowing career but also depicts many of his contemporary oarsmen, legendary rowing coaches and rowing writers. This article is based on that book.

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