4 May 2023
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch reviews a new history of rowing at Westminster School.
Westminster School’s website includes this succinct history:
Westminster is an ancient school, whose origins can be traced to a charity school established by the Benedictine monks of Westminster Abbey. Its continuous existence is certain from the early 14th century. Henry VIII personally ensured the School’s survival by statute and Elizabeth I, who confirmed royal patronage in 1560, is celebrated as the School’s founder. Westminster is rare amongst long-established schools in remaining on its original site in the centre of London. Its proximity to Parliament and Westminster Abbey, and the use of the Abbey for its chapel, together with the stimulating diversity of the South Bank and West End, account in part for its special atmosphere and outlook.
Compared to the 700-years of the school’s period of continuous existence, rowing for a mere 200 years may not seem too impressive, but, as leisure or sport rowing by amateurs is itself little more than two centuries old, Westminster can claim to have been there at the beginning.
In his introduction to In the Pink, Seward writes:
The last history of rowing at Westminster was published in 1890 so it is high time to update the story, especially considering the unique place the School holds in the early history of amateur competitive rowing on the Thames.
Seward claims that what is now Westminster School Boat Club is “the oldest Amateur rowing club in the world”, citing written records dating back to 1813 but also noting that the boys rowed long before this. Whether amateur rowing at Eton and/or Oxford predates or postdates that at Westminster is perhaps an almost unanswerable question that, correctly, the book does not try to resolve.
In The Pink is a chronological account, Seward explaining: “Because school rowing is so closely linked to the academic year, it seemed best to present the history in that way, rather than relating it to ongoing crews, as might be appropriate elsewhere”.
The book could be divided into three: Chapters 1 to 4 cover origins to the First World War; Chapters 5 to 7 look at the inter-war period and the Second World War; Chapters 8 to 11 are concerned with the post-1945 period up to 2020.
Seward gives some indication of how long the Westminster boys may have been rowing before the beginning of the written records in the school “Water Ledger” in 1813 by reference to the biographies of former pupils. William Markham (at school, 1733 – 1738) and Granville Levson-Gower (1731 – 1740) are noted as having been “good oars” though, unfortunately, no more is known. 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. Seward notes:
In the early days the boys learned their skills from professional oarsmen, while the support from the School for rowing varied depending on the views of the Head Master at the time.
Supported by the School authorities or not, the boys seemed pretty free agents. As an example, William de Ros, who rowed in 1813 in the boat Fly, kept fighting cocks under the floor of his school dormitory, apparently without interference from teachers or matrons.
There was not much opportunity for racing in these early years, hence the practice of long outings, often involving stopping for a meal on the way. However, rowing those heavy fixed-seat boats for long distances must have been quite a challenge and shows how fit the boys must have been.
As an extreme example, in 1824 a new eight oar, Challenge, rowed from Westminster to Windsor and back in 21 hours at an average speed of eight miles per hour. This is impressive even though I presume that they caught the tide both ways.
The first race recorded by the Water Ledger was in 1816-17 against the Temple Club in six-oared boats. More important however was the challenge to Eton in 1818-19 to race eleven miles from Westminster to Kew against the tide. This was forbidden by the Head Master on the grounds that it would encourage “unhealthy publicity and indiscriminate beer drinking” and the contest was constantly forbidden until 1829. After that time, it was the Eton match, though held irregularly, that really galvanised rowing at Westminster:
Six weeks before the Eton match (the Eight) went into heavy training twice daily, often paced by a select crew of watermen. Paddy Norton, previously a sculler and now builder of racing boats, was the chief coach.
Diet was carefully controlled, with neither fruit nor dainties of any kind allowed. Chops and steaks, stale bread, a fixed quantity of bitter beer and weak tea were in place of any luxuries…
That the Eton – Westminster match was ever competitive is remarkable when Seward reveals that, in the late 1840s for example, Eton housed 700 boys while Westminster took in a mere 80. Perhaps this forced innovation onto the London school, such as in the 1845 match when they used one of the first eights with outriggers and consequently won with a lighter crew.
The year of the first Eton – Westminster match, 1829, was also the year of the first Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race and Seward notes that many Old Westminsters (OWs) went onto play important parts in getting rowing established at the two universities – including the above mentioned William de Ros who went onto Oxford. In more recent times, the School also produced the great Oxford oarsmen and coaches, Jumbo Edwards and Daniel Topolski. Further, it was an OW, Henry Colsell Wingfield, who in 1830 established the Wingfield Sculls, the amateur sculling championship that exists to this day.
In 1884, for reasons never clearly established, the Westminster Head Master stopped rowing at the School. After a thirty-year hiatus, it restarted on a small scale in 1914 by renting changing rooms and boats at Putney. By 1922, the School had acquired the old Clasper building on Putney Embankment, the first boathouse it ever owned and still home to Westminster rowing today. Hopefully, however, the electric lighting has been upgraded since 1931 when the Head of Water, John “Con” Cherry, was allowed to install this modern convenience in the changing rooms himself. Cherry went onto row in three Boat Races and the 1936 Olympic Eight and was killed in action in 1943.
The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 meant that rowing ceased, causing the Head of Water, Richard Wakeford, to remark that he had no water to be head of. In 1944, Wakeford won the Victoria Cross. Another OW oarsman turned war hero was one of the Dam Busters, Melvin “Dinghy” Young.
Post-war, in the section on the 1953-54 season Seward admits to “the lack of significant successes over the previous years” but may give a clue as to why when he reveals that the 1956-57 season “saw a return to swivel rowlocks from fixed pins for the first two eights.”
In covering the perhaps better documented post-war period, Seward encounters a common problem for the historian; often too little information exists on the distant past but, conversely, too much exists on the recent past. For the latter, it is often difficult to avoid going long on lists but short on analysis. To be fair, this is almost unavoidable. It is said that “History is what one generation finds interesting about another” but when you are too close to a particular generation or era, it is difficult to decide what its most interesting aspects are and in what historical context to look at it.
Whatever the difficulties of context, it can be certain that history was made in 1980 when the first girl “took up Water” at Westminster as the cox of the Senior Four. Further, in 1996 there was a major rebuild of the boathouse behind the listed “Clasper” facade. A large part of this work was funded by the profits from the school’s sale of its share of the copyright of the Winnie-the-Pooh books, the legacy of AA Milne to his old school. CDM Riches (“CD”), the longtime and current Master-in-Charge of Water, suggested that the result was “the boathouse that Pooh built.”
From the mid-1980s, there has been a slow if inconsistent increase in Westminster rowing success though, sadly, the Water Ledger was no longer updated after the 1996-97 season, having lasted 184 years.
This gradual improvement culminated in victory in the Fawley Challenge Cup (Junior Boys Quadruple Sculls) at Henley Royal Regatta in 2009, coached by Bill Mason. Remarkably for a school that had been rowing for over two hundred years, this was Westminster’s first Henley win.
In The Pink finishes with the 2019-20 season, the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic. For HTBS Types, of particular note at this time was the Wingfield Sculls win of Sam Meijer, only the second OW to be “Champion of the Thames” since the first in 1837. In many ways, this is symbolic of Westminster’s erratic rowing history. For many periods during its long existence, it has not been in the top flight of rowing schools, but there have been many times when it has successfully punched above its weight.
While it is absolutely right that the whole two hundred plus years of Westminster rowing is recorded by In The Pink, different parts of this history will appeal to different readers. For those who have been actively involved in the club, the Old Westminsters (OWs), it is possible that the period within living memory will be of most interest. However, general readers and HTBS Types will probably be more concerned with the earlier material, particularly in how it relates to the wider history of the sport. Either way, both groups should have this important history on their shelves and copies can be bought via this link.