The Early History of the Canbridgeshire Rowing Association from 1868 to 1931
This account includes material taken from: “Sixty Three Years on the Cam” by Mr. Briscoe Snelson a former Honorary Secretary of the CRA.
Rowing has been a popular pastime in Cambridge for many years and the river has been an irresistible and consistent appeal to sportsmen.
The facilities in the town are probably unrivalled anywhere in the country with the possible exception of Oxford. Many of the local clubs would not have survived without the generosity of the college clubs in lending rowing craft and although this still happens today most clubs do now own a large proportion of their own equipment.
As far back as the 1860s undergraduates were showing an interest in town rowing and on the occasion of the revival of the sport in 1868 students in fours, pairs and all manner of craft went down the river to give encouragement to the town clubs.
The town bumps are established.
The first town bumping races took place in 1868. The order of precedence was decided by draw and the boats started in the following order on the 27th July.
1st Church of England Y.M.S
1st United College Servants
1st Albert Institute
1st Cambridge Town Club
1st Young Men’s Christian Association
1st Pitt Press
2nd Albert Institute
3rd Cambridge Town Rowing Club
2nd Cambridge Town Rowing Club
2nd United College Servants.
At the end of the week 1st Cambridge Town Club finished Head of the River.
From that year the town bumps have continued apart from the war years. Many clubs in those early days came and went, such as Locomotive, Rodney, Junior Conservative, Workmen’s Hall, Christians and Argonauts.
And of course then and for many years to come rowing was strictly an activity for men only!
Decline of local Rowing
In the 1880s the river was in an atrocious state and cycling attracted large numbers of men who had formally devoted their attention almost exclusively to rowing and interest in the sport waned.
In the late eighties Town Races were again placed on a firm footing and in the Jubilee Year a handsome shield was presented for annual competition. Since then the names of all members of each Head Crew have been engraved on the plate or subsequently within the lid of its case.
1886 the Rob Roy Boat Club was formed.
In 1892, the races having been securely re-established, the Cambridge Rowing Association developed itself into a county organisation, amended its constitution, expunged some rules wholesale and tightened up some apparent slackness.
In 1894 it was decided to substitute time races for the bumps but the next year reverted back to Bumping Races.
In 1897 Rob Roy went head and retained this position for 14 years and for all this time were stroked by W H (“Billy”) Odams now recognised as one of the greatest oarsmen that the town has produced. “He never trained for any event and smoked his pipe up to the very start of the races”.
In 1898 the Cambridgeshire Rowing Association clearly defined its amateur status by expressing its decision that “professional watermen or any person engaged in or about the use of boats for a money wage should be excluded from participation in Association events”.
Head of the River Cap
In the same year the cap for the head of the river crew was designed. It was in Pembroke blue, piped in Leander colour, with crossed oars and the date of the headship in the same colour. Any man who had rowed in a head of the river crew and was still a member of a club affiliated to the Rowing Association, was entitled to wear the cap so long as he provided it at his own expense!
Birth of the ‘99's
As its name indicates, the ’99 Rowing Club was founded in 1899. This club was formed from a breakaway group of smokers from another town club that had disallowed them from continuing with this habit whilst in training.
And so by 1900 the three oldest surviving CRA clubs, Rob Roy, ’99 and Town – now City had been established.
Thirty Bob Commissioners
Rowing had not been without its difficulties during these years of racing. The weed nuisance had carried on more or less unabated and with the dawn of a new century a sub-committee of the Rowing Association was elected to take steps to prevent cut weed floating down the river during the races! In subsequent years the Floating Weeds Commission was empowered to spend sums not exceeding 30shillings to ensure success of their efforts in dealing with the river vegetation.
In 1902 the Rob Roy rowed over the course in 6 min 7 sec breaking their previous record.
It would be interesting to know how this time compares with present day crews.
Thanks to the Conservators
A boon was conferred on rowing in 1904, when the Conservators took steps to ensure that the level of the river should be kept up for bumping races. Cordial thanks were officially expressed to the navigation authority for this consideration and the Conservators of the day must have felt some amazement that for once in a while they had “received ha’pence instead of the customary kicks”.
Rob Roy Misdemeanor
On the second night in 1906 the leaders, Rob Roy, started before the discharge of the gun and were disqualified by the umpire. At a subsequent formal meeting it was acknowledged that the premature start was unintentional and the disqualification was thereupon mitigated to a fine of
1909 saw the birth of the CRA regatta.
Although in the past races had been organised over several nights for side by side racing of sculling boats, pairs and fours this was the first time the event had taken place in one afternoon.
The Great War
And then came the War! “Not one of our clubs is running this year” reported the Secretary in 1915, “but the Association is compelled to hold this annual meeting for the purpose of putting its house in order. It must be the duty of those officials who remain to keep the Association in as strong a position as possible, so that when peace is restored, the governing body of rowing in Cambridge can resume the work for which it was created”.
Although the clubs were unable to continue, as so many members were serving their country, Cadet battalions stationed in Cambridge took up the sport. It was considered an excellent exercise for young men and the military authorities encouraged the embryo officers in the sport.
There were several Cadet battalions and each one held its own regatta.
Post War Activities
At the end of the war the officials lost no time in endeavoring to re-start the Association. Out of the 9 CRA clubs only the Rob Roy and the Old Choristers became active. In April 1920 the Rob Roy Boat Club held its first post war annual dinner and made earnest appeals to get other clubs to restart. Before long the ’99, Town, Lilleys, Old Choristers and the Servants had reformed and as a result 14 crews took part in the Bumps that year.
In 1919 Mr. Briscoe Snelson became Honorary Secretary of the CRA a position he held for almost 50 years and it’s due to his enthusiasm and dedication that he brought the records of the early years of the Association together in a book entitled “Sixty Three Years on the Cam”.
Encouraged by the entries for the Bumping Races the officials decided to revive the Regatta. This was held on the first Thursday in September and proved a great success. The Regatta continued to be held annually and over the next few years a number of trophies were presented by notable people who had a keen interest in local rowing.
Many of these trophies are still in the possession of the CRA including the “The Cambridge Amateur Rowing Club Challenge Cup” which was presented in 1923 for the Challenge Fours. The Cambridge Amateur RC was wound up during the Great War owing to the lack of young members. It had been the idea of German member of the club that this cup be presented to the Cambridgeshire Rowing Association. The German died of wounds fighting for his country but in his will he left the cups he had won to the club and two others to the runners up he had beaten in the finals.
Subsequently, in 2002, “The Cambridge Amateur Rowing Club Challenge Cup” was adopted as “The John Jenner Trophy” in recognition of his 30 years as Bumps Secretary and is to be presented annually to the most successful club overall in the Bumps.
The most magnificent trophy in the collection is the Hardesty Cup.
It is made from gilded solid silver in similar in proportions to the FA Cup and was presented to the Royal Yacht Squadron Regatta, Cowes in 1894 by Her Majesty Queen Victoria.
How it came in possession of the CRA is unclear.
River Users Committee
1922 was the last year of the old Cam Conservancy Board and in the autumn the members of the CRA urged that:
“In view of the fact that the Town Council would shortly take over control of the River Cam, a strong and representative River Users’ Committee should be established to watch the interests of all who use the river and make suggestions to the new Conservancy Board, should it be desired.” The Association invited the members of the Cam Sailing Club and the Cambridgeshire Motor Boat Club to a joint meeting to discuss the matter and it was decided that a River Users’ Committee should be established. On this committee representatives of the University Boat Club, as well as the three bodies already mentioned, served. “It was a wise step and much good resulted, the Committee being frequently consulted by the Conservancy Board”.
Revised Head of the River Cap
Meanwhile, a change of a different nature was being considered. The members of the ’99 first eight, having reached head of the river, found themselves privileged to wear the “Head of the River Cap”. They did not however approve of the 30-year-old design of the cap with its Leander coloured piping and entreated the Association to make an alteration.
The Association, at the next annual general meting, thought that the time was ripe for a change and the design was altered to Pembroke Blue, light blue binding, light blue button and light blue crest consisting of crossed oars with the letters CRA and the year.
The Scouts’ Debut
In 1923 a new club, known as the Cambridge Scouts’ Boat Club, was formed and became affiliated to the Association. That year eighteen crews (the greatest number that can row in one race) were entered for the Bumping Races.
At about the same time the Association’s rules were amended and St Neots and St Ives joined the Association to enable them to row in the Regatta.
In 1924 nineteen crews were submitted for the Bumping Races thus for the first time a “Getting-on” race was necessary to reduce the crew entry to eighteen.
In 1926 the number of entries had reduced to 14 despite the Scouts’ entering 3 crews. The four nights produced only ten bumps and of these, the Scouts’ boats made six. The Scouts’ first eight rose from sixth to third position and remained there until going head in 1933. The Robs retained the headship.
If the number of crews competing in the bumping races were not so large as in the previous year the scales turned in the Association’s favour at the Regatta when a record number of entries were received. The 2nd of September 1926 became an unforgettable day for all those involved. Soon after the first race came a downpour that persisted all afternoon and evening, yet the full programme was completed, though the circumstances were far from comfortable. The boats had to be frequently emptied of water. It was not surprising that some of the officials pleaded engagements which would cause them to leave before the events were finished but such enthusiasts as Major Oliver Papworth, Major F. N. D. Digby, stayed on in the soaking rain to assist the Secretary with the heavy programme!
Birth of the Granta Works Club
In 1927 the Choristers Boat Club ceased to exist. This club had been actively connected with the Association since 1910. Some of the members migrated to other clubs E.C.Odams (son of “Billy” Odams) and H.A. Longley joining the Scouts.
A new club, formed by the employees of Messrs W.G Pye Ltd and known as Granta Works, was affiliated to the Association.
Victoria House Gain their Oars
The Association started the season of 1928 with a new treasurer and a new club.
Mr. “Wick” Alsop took up the position of treasurer.
The new arrivals were Victoria House. This club was formed by the employees of Messrs Robert Sayle and Co.
Again there were 15 crews at the bumping races. The Town RC, despite having two crews training up to the event, only entered one. It was, at the time, a matter of general regret to see the oldest club in the Association reduced to one eight.
First Trinity Honoured
Social functions are the exception rather than the rule with the Cambridgeshire Rowing Association but the committee felt that the great triumph of First Trinity representing Great Britain in winning the Light Fours at the Olympic Games should not be allowed to pass unnoticed. Accordingly the crew Messrs R. Beesly, M.H. Warriner, J.G.H. Lander and E.V. Bevan were entertained to a successful dinner at the Lion Hotel. Members of various college boat clubs as well as those of the CRA attended this pleasant function.
’99 fill the final place on the Head of the River Plate.
By 1929 only one space remained to be filled on the “Head of the River Plate. This trophy, which was acquired by subscription in 1888, had been competed for every year except 1894, when time racing took place instead of bumping races, and during the war years.
The’99 made the most of the incentive to become the last crew to have their names engraved on the trophy and bumped the Rob Roy to go head. Subsequently crew names are recorded on silver plates set in the lid of the carrying case.
1930 The CRA Time Race and Oarsman’s Service are established.
The members of the Cambridgeshire Rowing Association were somewhat startled at their annual meeting in 1930 to hear proposals concerning two innovations. Mr Albert Pamplin wanted the Association to organise a time-race on the Head of the River principle as carried out on the Thames and Mr. Briscoe Snelson suggested a rowing men’s service be held on the Sunday before the Bumping Races and that it be held at Ditton Church. Both of these suggestions “caught on” and were bought into effect.
The Time Race took place two weeks before the bumping races, twelve eights competing over a course from the Railway Bridge at Chesterton to Victoria Bridge, a distance of two miles.
Town 1 registered the fastest time in 10min. 21sec.
Fen Ditton Church was filled on the occasion of the Oarsmen’s Service on the Sunday morning previous to the races. The Rector, Canon Church, had readily assented to the Secretary’s suggestion that blazers and flannels be worn and consequently the scene inside the church was a colourful one.
Poor Quality of Umpires Horses
At the AGM in 1931 the Treasurer reported that he was withholding payment for the hiring of horses which were used by the umpires following the races. He was very unhappy with the local stable that had supplied animals in such a wretched state and well below the condition required for such a purpose. The CRA members supported his decision and recommended he negotiated a compromise.
The Cambridge Rowing Season
And so by 1931 the CRA was a self-contained organisation offering a variety of rowing events. In those days the clubs relied heavily on the colleges for equipment and therefore the season didn’t get under way until the second week in June after completion of the University May Races.
Oarsman would often pace the riverside in the early summer waiting for the moment they would be able to get afloat.
The Time Race, Bumping Races and Regatta offered a wide variation of events that filled the short rowing season.
A full history from 1931 to the present day will be available in due course.
Although the CRA minute books for the period above have been lost and are unlikely ever to be found the minute book from 1930 is in the Cambridge Collection and contains a comprehensive account of the later history.
Cambridgeshire Rowing Association
1 January 2003