Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Victorian rowing etiquette

We tend to think of the Victorians as punctillious gentlemen but the early years of competitive rowing were anything but. Anything went, it seems.
When Cambridge rowed against Leander in London in 1838, Leander claimed victory but Cambridge demanded a rematch on the grounds that Leander's conswain had unfairly blocked them.
At that time, coxswains were professional watermen, Parish for Leander and Noulton for Cambridge.
After the race, Cambridge man WB Brett (later Master of the Rolls Lord Esher) wrote to the Leander captain as follows:

Upon starting for the match we were at first, as in the former year, left behind; but on coming up to you at the Horseferry we most unexpectedly found ourselves against a barge on one side and your boat on the other, fully proving that Parish had closed upon us, and not left us room to proceed on our proper course. Noulton, upon this, was anxious to proceed also to waterman’s practice, and so endeavour to break the rudder of your boat. We, however, thinking that there might have been some accident in the case, insisted upon backing water, and yielding the Middlesex side of the river to you. This we did, gave you a considerable start, pulled up to you on the Surrey side, and were again crossed. We still insisted upon Noulton yielding to you; but at the Red House, finding all hope of being allowed to pass useless, and convinced that you were sanctioning your steerer’s conduct, we told him to run into you, and there broke your oar, etc. We now asked the Umpire whether the race was fair or foul, and upon his answering that it was foul we put up our oars to claim the match.
Our own boat was, at this time, half full of water; but seeing that you had procured a new oar, and had rowed away about 200 yards, we again started after you, and pulled up to you in less than half a mile. After Chelsea Bridge we again left you, and actually crossed and recrossed the river, to try whether or not you would allow us to pass. Being again crossed within ten yards of Wandsworth Meadows, the wrong side of the river, we gave you a last start, and ran into you as you passed through Putney Bridge.
  Imagine what commentators would say if one Boat Race crew deliberately tried to run the other against a barge and the other responded by ramming them. It would be seen as the beginning of the apocalypse.

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