Photograph: Werner Schmidt

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Lies, Damned Lies and the 1877 Boat Race

An artist’s view of the finish of the 1877 Oxford - Cambridge Boat Race.

Tim Koch writes:

Those of us who grandly award ourselves the title of ‘historian’ like to think that we are in constant pursuit of  ‘the truth’ as if were some piece of buried treasure waiting to be dug up. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Perhaps the best known idea on the unreliability of ‘historical truth’ is that ‘history is written by the victors’. In a similar vein, Sir Winston Churchill held that ‘history will be kind to me – for I intend to write it’. Historical truth changes over time as, at best, it can only reflect the present or the dominant consensus. However, while truth may be difficult to establish, lies are (arguably) slightly easier to expose. I have spent the last few months working on a rebuttal of a very big and very entrenched lie in rowing history, that concerning the 1877 ‘Dead Heat’ Oxford - Cambridge Boat Race. Instead of producing a written piece, my intention was to make a video documentary for the internet. This I have done and the result may be viewed below. As I was nearing the end of the video production, I was very flattered to be asked to write a piece on the 1877 Race for the Official Boat Race Programme, the text of which is also below. I was restricted to a short piece of 700 words and I wrote it for a more general audience than HTBS readers, but I hope that it serves as an introduction to the 30-minute film.

From the 2014 Boat Race Programme:

1877: Oxford Won, Cambridge Too.

Tim Koch of the rowing history blog, ‘Hear The Boat Sing’, argues that the popular view of the ‘dead heat’  race of 1877 is a continuing injustice to the finish judge, Honest John Phelps.

In 2003, a thrilling Boat Race resulted in a win for Oxford by just one foot. During the post-race television analysis it was confidently stated that this was the closest of all the 149 races as the ‘dead heat’ of 1877 was, in reality, a six-foot victory for the Dark Blues. The viewing millions were told that this 126 year old travesty occurred because ‘the finish judge had been in the pub’.

That apparently inebriated official was a waterman, ‘Honest’ John Phelps, a descendant of this year’s race umpire, Richard Phelps. Through the years, many other seemingly reliable sources have repeated and embellished different versions of this tale, usually adding that John was ‘asleep under a bush’ at the finish, only awakening to drunkenly slur ‘Dead heat…’ while adding under his breath, ‘…to Oxford by six feet’. Tellingly, different sources have Phelps giving almost any distance between four feet and ten yards.

‘Honest John’ became a music hall joke (‘Oxford won, Cambridge too!’) and ‘1877’ cast a long shadow over a proud Putney family that had served rowing well for generations. The tragedy is that the popular stories concerning John’s conduct were simply not true and, in the words of the Boat Race Official Centenary History, ‘ good grounds have been shown for doubting the rightness of John Phelps’s decision’. Maurice Phelps, the family historian, adds that ‘...the (dead heat) decision was not only brave but almost stoic’.

An unflattering studio portrait of Honest John Phelps.

None of the lurid tales about Phelps seem to appear in contemporary accounts, they ‘emerge’ at some later point. According to rowing historian Chris Dodd, it was only after the Blues had returned to Oxford, that they and the town ‘.... daily became more imbued with the idea that (they) had won’.

While no one suggests that there was a formal conspiracy, the idea that a working class professional could not be relied upon came at a very convenient time for those who were busy formalising rules to make amateur rowing the sole preserve of gentlemen and to rid it of ‘mechanics, artisans and labourers’.

Some sections of the press had made fools of themselves by prematurely declaring that Oxford had won. Reporters were not on the finish line but on a steamer behind the crews, an impossible position from which to judge a close race. Perhaps to save face, they produced stories that proved that they were not wrong, it was the finish judge that was incompetent or drunk or blind or not at his post. An ordinary working man had little chance to refute these accusations.

Investigation into John’s character shows that he was not a stereotypical coarse and roguish waterman and that the epithet ‘Honest’ was not an ironic one. According to Maurice Phelps, even in old age his articulate and physically fit ancestor ‘had a sound reputation in Thames rowing circles’. Further, he ‘collected works of art, commented on social conditions and ...... condemned animal cruelty’. Moreover, he did not smoke and drank only beer – but never at 8.50 in the morning, the time that the race finished!

Amazingly, finish posts were not thought of as necessary because, in the 33 races that had taken place since 1829, the closest verdict had been half a length. Phelps later told the umpire that the boats were essentially level with each one going slightly ahead – or falling slightly back – depending on their place in the stroke cycle. Without exactly aligned markers, it could not be judged whose boat surged ahead at the critical second to win. Thus, ‘a dead heat’ was the only legitimate verdict that could have been given.

Phelps did not take the easy and popular option of declaring for Oxford, the favourites, and for this he paid a high price. While it is more amusing to tell the ‘drunk under a bush’ story than to tell the truth, after 137 years it is time that Honest John Phelps received due recognition for his fair and courageous verdict.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

New Editions of ‘The Boys’

Greg Denieffe writes:

Regular readers of HTBS will know that Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat is held in high esteem in both the USA and in Britain. This month (April 2014) sees the release of the latest edition of the book – in French. The cover is similar to that of the UK hardcover (published by Macmillan, 6 June 2012). I like the colour of this new edition, the picture is clearer and the gathering clouds behind the crew hint at the menace of the war – the gathering storm – that was only three years away.

The French title Ils Etaient un Seul Homme translates word-for-word as They were One Man. Admittedly, it loses something in translation, but rowing people will certainly know what the publisher is saying. When Brown was interviewing Joe Rantz about his experiences at the Berlin Olympics and seeking his consent to tell his story, Rantz insisted that the book should be about ‘the boys in the boat’. For sure he was no ordinary Joe.

The sub-title L'historie vraie de l'equipe d'aviron qui humilia Hitler translates as The True Story of the Rowing Crew that Humiliated Hitler. Of course, this is an attempt to convey the sentiment of the English sub-title, An Epic Journey to the Heart of Hitler’s Berlin, which is a little more subtle. Published in paperback on 5 April by La Librairie Vouibert, you can buy a copy here.

This is not the first foreign language edition of Brown’s book. Last year (25 July 2013), a Dutch edition was published in paperback. Translated by Joost Mulder, it is called De Jungens in de Boot – De Legendarische Acht Van 1936. Typically Dutch, it is understated and straight to the point, The Boys/Guys in the Boat – The Legendary Eight 1936.

The cover is very simple in design; the photograph of the crew on the dock is timeless and the addition of the eagle flying overhead is the only hint of Nazism on display. If a new rowing book in Dutch is your ‘kopje thee’, you can buy a copy here.

A British paperback edition of the book was published by Pan on 2 January 2014. This is a slightly revised to include a few corrections as suggested by the HTBS team. It also includes an additional photo of the Huskies in 1929 sawing a giant log as part of their training. This was spotted by Brown when he read last August’s book review by HTBS editor Göran Buckhorn. The first thing you notice with this edition is the wonderful velvety feel of the cover. The picture of the boys on the dock has been darkened; the blood red sky and the inclusion of the Brandenburg Gate draped in Nazi flags should broaden the appeal of the book to those with a general interest in the Second World War.

Photograph courtesy of Thomas E. Weil.

The American paperback is due to be published on 27 May by Penguin Books. At this stage it looks like it will have the same cover as the American hardcover published by Viking (4 June 2013). The photograph used on these editions is in stark contrast to the European ones. The crew is rowing, in warm-up routine, but there is no connection with Berlin or the Olympics.

If you’re still reading, you must be a real bibliophile! So for you, here are a few other editions to look out for:

UK Hardcover - Macmillan (6 June 2013).

UK Large print - W. F. Howes Ltd (1 July 2013).

Audiobook - Penguin (4 June 2013).
Whichever edition you decide to opt for, remember this great book is a success story not only for Daniel James Brown but for OUR sport, whatever you call it!  #Aviron #Canottaggio #Rámhaíochta #Remo #Rodd #Roeien #Rowing #Rudern

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Rowing Beneath a Lowering Sky

Rowing Beneath a Lowering Sky

Thick light made viscous
by the river
coated his oars
in the overcast
morning, the river
syrupy to which
to which the light adhered.

He pulled skowly
the oars through the syrupy
river, the light
thickening as he went.
The overcast morning pressed
against him, oppressed any attempt
at his rowing further.

His oars dripped syrup
as he lifted them
to lay them to rest
on his shell.  He would float
where he would until
the oppressive overcast
cleared, the sky

so low he could reach
and touch the substance of it.

Philip Kuepper
22 March 2014

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Blue Window and the Blues

Tim Koch writes: On the return launch trip from the Boat Race finish at Mortlake to the start at Putney, I saw this banner hung from a riverside building, just below Chiswick Eyot. Assuming that it was attempting to make a serious statement, several points arise.

Tim Koch writes:

Sadly, I suppose we should be grateful that someone who uses the Boat Race to make some political or philosophical point does so in a way that does not actually interfere with the race or which risks having their head removed from their neck.

One definition of ‘privilege’ is ‘an opportunity to do something regarded as a special honour’. An example of this would to be accepted as a student by Oxford or Cambridge Universities. I understand this is based on merit and examinations. Another example would be to get a place in a Blue Boat. I believe this is done by open competition – apparently quite fierce. It is true that the boats do contain a disproportionate number of people with a private education but, if this is a bad thing, it is symptom, not a cause. Also, it is reflection of the fact that, for purely practical reasons, access to rowing in state schools (U.S.: public schools) is limited.

Assuming that the banner was displayed either by, or with the permission of, the owner of the property, the said person clearly lacks a sense of irony. He or she owns a building worth in excess of a million pounds. It may look a little ramshackle but it is an artist’s studio/residence with substantial provenance in a desirable and sought after riverside location. Neighbouring (though admittedly more substantial) properties have sold for four million pounds. Perhaps it could be argued that the protester was a ‘privileged person’?

Returning to more traditional HTBS ground, the building in question actually has a significance to rowing.

The building on Durham Wharf, Chiswick Mall (minus the banner) showing the ‘blue window’.

The ‘blue window’ is regarded as the halfway point of the Championship Course, Putney to Mortlake (or visa versa). For over fifty years, until his death in 1988, it was the studio and home of the British poet and surrealist painter Julian Trevelyan and his wife Mary Fedden, also a highly regarded artist. Trevelyan’s view of the inside of his studio looking out is on the Tate Gallery website. A painting showing his studio home and Chiswick Eyot is here. The River and Rowing Museum has displayed some of Trevelyan’s works though I am not sure that it should have anything to do with someone who depicts oars like this. According to the Daily Telegraph of 18 May 2013:

For the Trevelyans (Durham Wharf) was home and studio, and the centre of a lively social life – the high point of which was their annual Boat Race party. All sorts of friends and acquaintances were invited to this ‘beer and buns’ jamboree over the years. Dylan Thomas, Stanley Spencer, Cyril Connolly and A.P. Herbert all attended....

In 1938, the studio was the venue for a famous ‘send off’ party for novelist Christopher Isherwood and poet W. H. Auden before their unlikely trip to China to observe the Sino-Japanese War. Evening dress was ‘optional’ and Benjamin Britten performed some of his and Auden’s cabaret songs. Attendees included many ‘Bright Young Things’, E. M. Forster and, according The Sunday Times, ‘some of the ghosts of old Bloomsbury’. Trevelyan recalled that it ended in ‘a bit of a rough house’ when poet Brian Howard and ‘bohemian socialite’, The Honourable Eddie Gathorne-Hardy started a brawl. Luckily, no one had to be at work the next day.

It seems that in the past, the studio saw ‘privileged people’ on both sides of the blue window. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Different Strokes For Different Folks

Tim Koch writes:

The cartoon of 1881 that prefaced my piece on the University Boat Race yesterday (‘Different Views of the Event’) did not reproduce very well. Here it is again, with the captions reproduced and the picture in two parts to make it clearer.

The American: ‘I guess you British know nothin’ about rowing nohow’.
The Rowing Man: ‘Too much feather about the slide – Ah’.
The Idle Fellow: ‘What! Work like that ‘ere an’ get nothink for it? Well I'm blowed’.

The Frenchman: ‘Mon Dieu! They shall all catch their death of colds’.
The Little Man: ‘Glorious sport - just the thing I should enjoy myself’.
The Schoolboys: ‘Are you for Cambridge? Yes I am. Why’are yer? How should I know stupid’.
The Angry Man: ‘Glorious sport? Indeed – glorious tomfoolery I call it’.

Allowing for period humour, out of date stereotypes and possibly mild racism, these views of the race probably still exist in some form today. It is an event on which everyone seems to have an opinion.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Images of the 160th Boat Race Part 2: The Race

‘The Event From Different Views’, The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 9 April 1881.

Tim Koch writes:

I discovered long ago that, when following a rowing race in a launch, you can either take notes and produce a written report or you can take photographs, but not both. I took the photo option and have used the results to illustrate selections from Peter McConnell’s excellent Official Race Report (here in italics) published on the Boat Race website.

On an overcast day prone to squalls and with a strong south west wind blowing this was always going to be a test of technique as well as stamina.

On the start, the coxs’ hands raised to show that they are not ready. This picture shows the problem of parallax in photographing a side-by-side race – be assured that the boats were started level!

Oxford won the toss and chose the Surrey station which would give them the advantage of the big Surrey bend a third of the way into the Race. Therefore it was Cambridge who would have the early advantage around the Middlesex bend after the end of the Fulham Wall. Off the start both crews sprinted off in the mid 40’s, Oxford taking an early lead.

Seventy five seconds into the race, Oxford lead. The long lens probably exaggerates the closeness of the Oxford ‘7’ blade and that of the Cambridge ‘2’, but the illusion turned real just under four minutes later.

As expected the crews were very close to each other with Cambridge warned by first time Boat Race Umpire Richard Phelps. The Light Blues used the bend to their advantage reeling in Oxford’s lead, hence as they passed the Town Buoy the crews were level.

At Craven Cottage (aka Fulham Football ground) just before Cambridge’s bend advantage ran out.

With both crews at 35 Oxford began to exert their power, pulling out to a 1/3 length lead along the Crabtree Reach.

Approaching the Mile Post.

The crews pictured seconds before ‘the race decider’.

... shortly after the Mile Post, 5 minutes in to the Race, came the moment that effectively settled the result. Phelps had warned Oxford who now had a 3/4 length lead, they responded but Cambridge moved with them and as the Umpire issued a warning to Cambridge the blades of Light Blue 2 man Luke Juckett came into contact with that of Sam O’Connor the Kiwi in the Oxford 7 seat. Juckett was knocked out of his stride, crabbed and was nearly thrown from the boat. Oxford seizing the moment powered away as Cambridge floundered, missing five effective strokes. Worse, Juckett’s rigger was bent meaning his pitch was completely wrong so he could only make a negligible contribution to the speed of his crew.

Juckett’s head goes under.

Juckett emerges from the deep.

Juckett recovers his seat. Bowman Thorpe recovers Juckett’s blade.

Juckett resumes rowing with a gate off pitch and no backstay.

There is ‘only’ fourteen seconds between this picture and the first of this group but this was more than enough time to decide that the race was effectively over.

At Hammersmith Bridge Oxford had an 8 second lead meaning they could choose their own water. They continued to pile on the pressure at a steady 33 strokes a minute and continued to move away from a demoralised Light Blue crew. Even with a strong headwind and rough conditions after Chiswick Eyot, Oxford’s progress was relentless.

At Hammersmith Bridge.

At Chiswick Eyot, approaching Chiswick Steps.

At Chiswick Steps the Oxford lead was 16 seconds over 5 lengths, at Barnes Bridge 28 seconds and at the finish a massive 32 seconds.

Going through Barnes Railway Bridge.

Approaching Mortlake Brewery.

The finish at Chiswick Bridge.

Cambridge cox Ian Middleton raised his hand in protest after the finish but to no avail. Richard Phelps later explained, “I was concerned where Oxford were, so I warned Oxford and they moved immediately. A second later I was happy where the crews were but I then saw the Cambridge bow just twitch-in towards Oxford, so I warned Cambridge. The next thing there was a slight contact but the impact was great.” Talking about the Cambridge appeal he said that “Cambridge’s view was that when the foul occurred Oxford were not on their station. From my perspective Oxford were on their proper station; quite clearly. Contact could only have been in neutral water or at the worst Cambridge were off their station. I advised Cambridge I was overruling their appeal.”

Cox Middleton appeals to Umpire Phelps at the finish.

The luckless Juckett. His broken backstay is clearly evident.

The damage in close up. The pin appears to be upright but it is impossible to tell how much the pitch was out, especially when pressure was applied.

The winning president Malcolm Howard thanked his crew and coach Sean Bowden for an amazing year. He felt the clash but “I don’t think it affected the outcome, we were moving really well, we’d withstood their big push early on and had started to take seats. We were moving on them and would have kept moving.”

Oxford ‘3’ man, Karl Hudspith (right) commiserates with Cambridge bowman, Michael Thorpe (left).

A jubilant Hudspith lifts the Boat Race Trophy. The score now stands at Oxford 78, Cambridge 81 with one dead heat.

On the way back to Putney, a reminder adorning Tideway Scullers’ Boathouse that next year change will come to the 161st Boat Race. In my opinion, this radical move should go further as proper equality will only occur when the men’s reserve race (Isis - Goldie) is moved from the Tideway to the Oxford - Cambridge Henley Boat Races (where the lightweights and remaining women compete) leaving Boat Race Day to the fastest men and the fastest women, full stop. Should anyone complain about ‘a break with tradition’ I would suggest that they fail to understand the paradox that ‘tradition’ can only survive by evolving, not by standing still.  

The race is now on YouTube as is the last Women’s Boat Race to be held at Henley.

Photography © Tim Koch

See also "Images of the 160th Boat Race Part 1: The Prelude".

Friday, April 11, 2014

After the Thaw

After the Thaw

All the way down
from the country
he rode hopeful
past the cold
clear rills, past
creeks afroth with run-off,

toward the bay--
would it be asweep with light,
as he imagined it--
where he would meet the crew
with whom he would become
one of.

With them he would be
the rower he always was,
only more so, once he was
pulling oar in rhythm with them.
If asked, it was this
he would define as love.

Philip Kuepper
(18 March 2014)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Images of the 160th Boat Race Part 1: The Prelude

‘Humours of the Boat Race’, 1879. Clearly, humour does not age well.

Tim Koch writes:

Other reports on the 2014 Boat Race were rather conventional in that they all came out within hours of the event. Here at HTBS, we like to be different and so have waited several days before putting our take on the day online (nothing to do with me starting a new job). Part 2 will show the race, pictured from my very privileged position in the photographers’ launch.

Putney Embankment, 14.00 (2 p.m.), four hours before the 18.00 (6 p.m.) start. The Putney ‘Hard’ is fenced off to the public.

‘National Treasure’, BBC presenter Claire Balding, manages to get slight smiles out of the normally recalcitrant coaches, Steve Trapmore of Cambridge...

...and Sean Bowden of Oxford.

Oxford’s balcony scene at 15.45 (3:45 p.m.), two and a quarter hours to go.

A young Old Blue (Dark).

Two Old Blues (Light).

Six future Old Blues? Girls from London Youth Rowing sell home made cakes to raise money for new equipment.

The coin toss for stations. Umpire Richard Phelps holds the gold sovereign minted in 1829 (the year of the first race), which was presented to the Boat Race by the late John Snagge.

OUBC President Malcolm Howard flips the coin, CUBC President Steve Dudek calls.

17.05 (5:05 p.m.), Oxford takes to the water.

The Oxford bow man Storm Uru in a reflective mood. The first New Zealand Maori to row in a Boat Race, it is also unusual to find a sculler and a lightweight in the event.

Oxford ‘2’ man Tom Watson, one of many Boat Race oarsman that have originated out of the University of Victoria, British Columbia.

17.14 (5:14 p.m.): The final words of wisdom from coach Bowden are absorbed by cox Harvey and stroke Louloudis. I presume that the reflective band around the cox’s wrist is so that, if he raises his hand on the start to indicate that he is not ready, the umpire will not miss it. While this may not actually be necessary, it is a great attention to detail.

17.15 (5:15 p.m.): Oxford leave for their warm up.

17.15 (5:15 p.m.): Cambridge leave for their warm up.

The view from the photographers’ launch. Leaving the crowds on the Embankment. Old hands said that it was better before the television helicopter hovered noisily overhead when the only noise was the excited murmur of the crowd.

Going through Putney Bridge, away from the start, to await the crews going onto the stake boats.

Ten minutes before the race. Having completed their warm ups, the crews wait downriver, alone with their thoughts.

Six minutes to go. Bowden’s boys pass him on the way to the start.

Cambridge on the stake boat. Only President Dudek (4) finds humour in the situation.

17.57 (5:57 p.m.): On the start. The culmination of 1,200 hours of training. One chance. No second place. 

Photography © Tim Koch

Coming up next – ‘Images of the 160th Boat Race Part 2: The Race’.