Friday, 27 June 2008

Racing in the age of the gentleman

Frankly, I was shocked when I discovered a few months ago that racing used to be a rather brutal affair back in Victorian times, the golden age of gentlemenly conduct and fair play.
Tactics such as running your opponents up the bank or into a bridge pier were regarded as entirely legitimate by the enormous crowds that turned out to watch and bet heavily on the events.
This is a description of the Eton College against Westminster School race of 1836, rowed from Staines Bridge to Penton Hook and back, turning round a moored punt. The total distance was about four miles.
Both boats were new, the Victory for Eton and the Fairy Queen for Westminster.
The Eton squad was heavier and stronger, and started clear bookies' favourites. The umpires were Lord Orford and Captain Ackers, of that elite cavalry regiment, the Blues; a pair of such unimpeachable nobility it is not surprising that one of the notable features of the race was that both crews instantly complied with their every command.
Previous to starting, it was agreed upon that no fouling should take place until half a mile of the distance had been rowed.
On going away from the bridge the Westminsters went in advance, which position they kept for about a quarter of a mile, Eton pressing them closely. Noulton [Westminster's professional waterman] had by this time steered the Fairy Queen over to the course the Etonians were pursuing, and he bored them so closely in shore that they were obliged either to foul the Westminsters or go into the bank. A foul consequently took place, which lasted five or six minutes, ending in the discomfiture of the Fairy Queen, who had her rudder struck off, an oar broken, and was turned completely around. The Etonians went away with a cheer, but the Umpires, considering that an infringement of the agreement had taken place, called them back to a fresh start, which they immediately complied with. At six o’clock they started from the bridge a second time, with an understanding that each boat should keep its own side of the water for half a mile. The Fairy Queen again took the lead, which she held for about three-quarters of a mile, when the Etonians came upon them, and some smart fouling was the result. Eton at length cleared, and showed the way down the stream. In rounding the distance boat they were close together, and immediately after doubling the station punt the Westminsters caught them on the starboard quarter, which nearly put the Victory into the bank stern up. The Etonians, however, shortly cleared themselves from this awkward situation, and once more went in advance; and notwithstanding they were occasionally bumped by the Fairy Queen in working up against the stream, they maintained the lead, ultimately winning by several boat’s lengths. The match proved a treat throughout, by the spirited and gallant manner in which it was contested by both parties.

It is tempting to suggest that racing would be a lot more fun for both crews and spectators if fouling was brought back in, but I suppose that is unlikely in the rule-bound, risk-free, cushioned, bloodless, spiritless world we live in.
The account of the race appeared in Vanity Fair, and is reproduced in Wikipedia here. The picture shows the race at Staines Bridge.

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