Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 26 - 1861 (continued) - Scull and Oar

[... back to menu for this book]



1861 (continued) - SCULL AND OAR

Regattas - George Everson - Bob Chambers - Harry Kelly - A popular win - A dark horse in light blue - Sport at Horsleydown - Something like  an umpire - Living to fight another day.

ONE of the local matters that soon engaged my youthful attention was the regattas, of which I found there were three at Greenwich every year. They all consisted of sculling competitions in out-rigger racing skiffs with covered-in ends, locally called wager-boats - there were no sliding seats then - between six local men of three different categories: landsmen, for a silver cup; apprentice watermen, for a coat-and-badge and freedom of the Waterman's Guild; and licensed watermen for a brand-new boat or wherry. Several weeks intervened between each regatta, so that rowing interest was sustained during the greater part of the summer and autumn. The competitors wore calico blouses gaudily coloured in red, pink, yellow, green, and dark and light blue, so that they could readily be identified at any part of the course.
    There were two trial heats, three men each, during the forenoon; about dinner-time the four losers - known as "the worst four "- met and two were permanently ruled out. In the afternoon the four winners - "the best four "- rowed, and in the evening the two survivors came together for the final heat, or "best two." Men being at work, women cooking, and boys at school, the preliminary heats were not very largely attended, but many spectators mustered for the best four, and in the evening for the grand heat - my word! - what a crowd, what a concourse! The river was covered with boats, and every point ashore was a packed mass of humanity, women almost as numerous as men. [-211-] The Hospital grounds were thrown open; the pier enclosure was crammed at ld. per head; the wharves, and vessels that happened to lie alongside them (including the rigging if the skippers were propitious); the hotel and tavern windows and balconies; the Harbour Master's pretty paddle-wheel yacht, usually moored off the Trafalgar, and especially the pathway in front of the Hospital and its central landing-steps, - all, all, packed to suffocation. Strange to say, I never knew a regatta to be spoiled by bad weather.
    It must be recollected that in those days rowing was a much more popular sport than it is now, and to Greenwich belonged Georgie Everson, an aspirant for championship honours. It was the day of English pre-eminence in rowing. Bob Chambers, who long preserved the blue ribbon for his native river the Tyne, and with whose name I had been familiar from earliest boyhood, was still to the fore, but whose death-it occurred in 1868 - was not so very far off. He was only thirty-eight when he died, through, it was alleged, the effects of over-training. He was honest and simpleminded, and so greatly respected that some 60,000 people attended his funeral at Newcastle-a mass meeting likewise eloquent of the popularity of the sport. He had latterly lost the chief honours to Harry Kelly, who, in after-years, kept a tavern on the banks of the river, at Putney I think, where I once, when out rowing in one of my club boats, put in for a rest and had the gratification of consuming a glass of "bitter drawn from the beer-engine by that champion's own sinewy hands.
    Rowing in the early sixties was considered, like boxing and cricket, a peculiarly British sport, although pretenders from afar were already shoving in their oars. Green from Australia and Hammill from America came on laurels intent, but found nothing better than cypress to carry home.
    The regatta course was a long one, commencing, according to the tide, at East or West Greenwich. In the former case the competitors rowed the whole length of the town in mid-stream, round the Dreadnought; against the tide, near in to the Kentish shore so as to pass close in front of [-212-] the Hospital and its massed spectators, round a moored boat, up-stream again, round the Dreadnought a second time, to finish at the Hospital landing-steps, where the umpire fired a pistol as the leader passed his boat, and a band crowded into a wherry struck up See, the Conquering Hero Comes! At the regatta for a new boat that craft, all gaudy in fresh paint and varnish, was waiting at the winning point of the final heat, and the winner would get into it from his racing skill and so take possession of the prize without any ceremonious delay. But sometimes he was too exhausted to do so.
    The enthusiasm at this stage was delirious, especially if the winner happened to be a favourite. This occurred notably one year, 1861 or 1862 I think, when a mature waterman named Cook was left in the final with Charlie Everson, younger brother of George Everson, the Championship candidate, not long out of his time. Cook's wherry, the means of livelihood of his numerous family, was known to be old and shabby, and the popular will was all for his success against a member of a comparatively opulent family, to whom a new boat, apart from the honour of winning it, was of no great account.
    The struggle proved an exciting one. They passed in front of the Hospital, stem and stem, each followed by an eight-oared cutter with a pilot kneeling in the bows conning and encouraging his man, and were lost to view behind the Dreadnought. When sight was regained it was evident that Cook~-yellow-was leading with Everson-pink- very close up. Against the tide they pulled and it was seen that in rounding the Hospital ship they had come close together and Cook was now rowing with his left scull over the fore part of Everson's skiff so that it was impossible for the latter to pass without sheering out and losing ground. They were pulling desperately, although I think that Cook would have been wiser to have taken things easily and left developments to his rival.
    Very markedly different were their styles. Cook's was not pretty-he seemed to finish every stroke with a short, hesitating catch or jerk, while Everson had a long, clear, [-213-] steady reach which struck one as obviously superior. But the rule about pudding-eating applies likewise to rowing. Going up-stream on the second turn Yellow led by a length, probably sacrificed by Pink in getting free from his opponent's scull. Coming round the Dreadnought he made up, but Cook finally won by half a length or so, in the midst of storms of cheering, "Bravo, old 'un!" "Well done, old man!" and the frantic waving of handkerchiefs. Poor chap! As soon as the pistol fired his sculls stopped, his head sank on his chest and he bad to be helped into the prize wherry by the crew of his conning cutter. But no evil effects followed, for a few days later I saw him rowing his new boat opposite the Hospital with a woman with a parasol and several children in the stern-sheets. Doubtlessly Mrs. C. and family enjoying together the combined sunshine of summer and of fame.
    But the regatta I remember best, for it took place during the holidays and I followed it heat by heat, was a special one due to the enterprise of a tavern-keeper, landlord of the Three Crowns - a hostelry no longer extant in 1924 - at which "house" coal-heavers working at wharves in East Greenwich were wont to congregate. He offered a new suit of clothes and a purse of gold to be rowed for by six landsmen in the usual regatta style. So many coal-heavers (most men at Greenwich in those days knew something about rowing) entered that the ballot had to be resorted to. The suit of clothes and purse of gold were on view in a glass case in the bar of the Three Crowns for a. month or so before the match and, depend upon it, well was that taverner repaid for his enterprise by the crowds that went to inspect them, and to look at the champions at their nightly training - which consisted chiefly, I imagine, of beer and skittles. Of course, I never got a sight of the prizes, pubs, on any pretence whatever, being absolutely taboo, but the probable amount of gold in the purse exercised my wit not a little. Whatever it was, Mr. Barleycorn doubtlessly extracted many purses of many times its value from his customers from first to last. The race conditions were exactly as in the usual regattas, except that [-214-] open in-rigged skiffs were used, the canvas-covered out-rigged wager-boats being too tricky, perhaps, for the unaccustomed coaly sons of toil.
    The first trial heat was noteworthy for the bad form exhibited by Light Blue, a gigantic heaver, who paddled in last, a long way last, very last, after catching several crabs, amidst the derision of the spectators. People wondered how such a ninny could have had the temerity - cheek they called it - to enter himself for the race. I thought that perhaps he had not quite recovered from his training of the night before. When the "worst four" came to be rowed Light Blue did better, for he finished second, a long way behind the winner, it is true, and only just in front of No. 3 - but second. That entitled him to row in the "best four," of course, and row he did, although certain spectators advised him to go home and wash the kids - not to speak of his own face, which certainly revealed traces of the honest labour by which his bread and butter were ordinarily won.
    There was a lively tussle, with varying fortune, but in the end Light Blue again came in second-not a good second - but still second. People marvelled. It was funny such a duffer should have managed to get into the grand heat after all. He seemed to have forgotten how to catch crabs, but then the other fellow would be sure to give him a good. licking. Evening came and with it the usual crowds. Off went the "best two. On the first round Light Blue was behind, as, of course, everybody knew he would be. Not much behind certainly-but behind. Round the Dreadnought they went and the trying bit, against the tide, close to the foreshore and packed spectators, was negotiated. Light Blue came behind the leader, labouring and panting, but catching no crabs. Round the moored boat and up-. stream again, Light Blue still behind - but close. They disappeared behind the huge bulk of the Dreadnought for several minutes when-what's that shout? "Light Blue in front?" No, it can't be! But it was. Past the steamboat pier the procession came, past the Bellot monument, past the Hospital steps (for the winning point this time had been fixed at the Trafalgar, behind which, at the distance [-215-] of a short street, lay the generous publican's own hostelry), Light Blue leading, Green overlapping his stern. And so they kept till the pistol spoke and Light Blue became the legal owner of the raiment and its auriferous accompaniment.
    Towards the finish Green, also a big man, in the midst of a continuous inarticulate roar from the multitude, made a plucky and sustained effort to pass his adversary, but Light Blue, although he likewise had to work hard, never gave him a chance and I wondered how the - as I had thought silly - man I had seen in the trial heat in the morning could become so transformed by the evening. It was not for years afterwards, when the ways of racing men had become more familiar, that I realised what the game had probably been and how cleverly it had been played. Givers of odds against Light Blue, and they were no doubt numerous, went to bed that night unhappier if wiser men. I heard that several pugilistic encounters occurred amongst the coal-heavers over the race, and that Light Blue had to demonstrate his superiority on that side of his sporting nature more than once before the purse of gold was spent and certainly before the new suit wore out - John Barleycorn obligingly acting as stakeholder. Vive le Sport!
During the course of my regatta enthusiasm I by chance learnt that one was to be held at Horsleydown in which, instead of the Greenwich light and dark blue, one of the competitors was to be Blue and another Stripes. I thought I would like to see that variation, and after many enquiries succeeded in finding the hitherto unknown precincts of Horsleydown, an indescribably mean locality as it proved. The regatta was in progress, but spectators were few and, in fact, I could find only one point of vantage - a wharf of forlorn aspect-from which the race could possibly be viewed, the rest of the river front being occupied by warehouses or wharves from which the unprivlleged public was excluded. There was not one decently clad person on this wharf, and my arrival immediately attracted the attention of some young ragamuffins playing on and about a deserted coal-van. Alter consultation one, two or three years my [-216-] senior, approached and said, "Guv'nor, I'll fight yer for yer cap," while his companions formed a ring close around, one trying to snatch my cap, shouting, "I'll hold it for yer." But that did not meet my views. I had made this excursion on my own responsibility, and a nice youth I should have looked had I gone home with a tale of having lost my cap in an encounter with the junior chivalry of Horsleydown. So I held on to my tester firmly, and saying, "I came to see the race," began to edge past the coal-van toward the gate. The crowd followed, and my challenger said, "This gentleman will see all fair," indicating a poor beery wretch leaning against the van shafts - a pasty-faced, sore-eyed, ragged, under-sized, absolutely broken-down wreck of a man, trembling in all his limbs and twitching in his face-such a one as would be expected to answer instinctively to the initials D.T. Hearing himself referred to, this sporting specimen said, "Yes, I'll see it's all fair. Don't be a Bernard Shaw cur; fight the young gentlemun!" Instead, I put up my left arm as a guard, broke the ring, and escaped through the gate into the-probably High Street. A chase immediately commenced, but the sight of a top-hatted policeman not far off acted as a sore discouragement, and, retreating in good order, I got back safely to Greenwich.