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Victorian rowing trophy offers glimpse of lost Boat Club history

  • 27 April 2017

A 135-year-old engraved silver rowing trophy belonging to a family in New Orleans is shedding fascinating new light on the illustrious history of Caius Boat Club.

The trophy, passed down the generations by a member of a victorious 1882 Caius crew, has come to light just as the Boat Club celebrates its 190th anniversary, on 28 April 2017. Its reappearance, thanks to a surprise contact from the great-grandson of oarsman Herbert Rayner, has added an extra historical dimension to a celebration already being marked with a reunion of the first Caius headship crew of modern times (1987).

The substantial cup, still in immaculate condition, was awarded to the winning crew in a so-called “fixed seat eights” competition (details of all those named on the trophy can be found below). Fixed seat rowing, in which rowers do not slide forward as they prepare to take a stroke, was already old-fashioned in 1882. Sliding seats – so familiar today as crews power up and down the Tideway or Olympic courses  – were first used in the Boat Race in 1873, and caught on rapidly because, by utilising more leg power and a longer stroke, they offered significantly increased boat speed (provided the crews developed the more difficult technique required).

The cup, however, reveals that fixed seat rowing was still taking place on the Cam well after the development of the new boat design. Caius Boat Club Senior Treasurer Dr Jimmy Altham, delving into the History of Caius Boat Club 1827-1927 and other sources in the light of the new evidence, notes that the first boat on the Cam with a sliding seat was a scull, in 1871.

“While sliding seats in general swiftly became popular, boats with fixed seats continued to be used, partly because they were still serviceable, and partly because the technique of rowing with a fixed seat is easier to acquire,” he adds.

“Whereas by 1882 the College’s first eight would have a sliding seat, the second and lower boats would still have fixed ones, so it’s not so surprising that there should have been a trophy for a fixed seat eight in 1882. Fixed seat eights were phased out later that decade.”

There is no mention in the History of the trophy nor of any race for which it may have been awarded, and nor does the College Archive contain pictures or details of the race, but the cup’s existence reflects the overlap between different rowing techniques. There was even a “third way” between fixed and sliding seats, Jimmy’s researches have revealed – though this phase was (perhaps fortunately) short-lived. “An early experiment was to have a long fixed seat, but gain the effect of a sliding one by having the oarsmen slide on the seat. This required them to grease their backsides, which was messy, and still left them prone to buttock blisters.”

News of the trophy’s existence came to Caius via Jeffrey Fields, whose great-grandfather Herbert Henry Rayner rowed in the seven seat in the winning fixed eights crew. Born 13 December 1860, the son of a Malvern doctor, Herbert attended boarding school in Germany before coming up to Caius in 1880, aged 19.

After two years at the College, he left to seek his fortune in America, taking with him – at the request of his crew-mates – the silver cup they had recently won as a reminder of friends and success on the river.

Jeffrey has generously provided Caius with a short biography of his ancestor – available in full at the bottom of this article. It reveals a man of great energy and many interests, who travelled widely in America before settling in New Orleans and writing for the local paper. An amateur singer and opera enthusiast, Herbert passed on his love of the art-form to his son Sydney, who went on to become a world-famous tenor, performing in some of the great opera houses of Europe and with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Sydney handed on the rowing cup inherited from his father to his daughter Merle, who in turn passed it to her son, Jeffrey. While Herbert never fulfilled his wish to return to England some day, Jeffrey writes, “his two most recent years of fond English memories were filled with the Gonville & Caius memories. His team’s silver cup had served its purpose and now has passed from Herbert, to Sydney, to Merle and now to me. It is still here in New Orleans, and it has a very good story to tell.”

Meanwhile at Caius, the 190th year since the 1827 foundation of Caius Boat Club has been an eventful one. Jimmy Altham writes: “We have seen the opening of the new boathouse, which is proving an outstanding success, and which was celebrated by a big party on 20 November 2016 attended by 200, very many of whom had given most generously to enable its construction.

“Our new facilities have been good for recruitment. A considerable number of strong novices joined, which promises well for the future. But it’s been a year of rebuilding, as so many of our top rowers went down in 2016, and performance on the Cam has not so far matched recent years. The men lost the Lents Headship to Maggie.

“On the other hand, there are the contests against Oxford to consider. Caians were in five University crews against the Dark Blues: the women’s Blue Boat, Blondie, the women’s spares race, the lightweight women, and the men’s lightweight second crew. Every one of these beat their Oxford counterparts.

 “A significant anniversary is a time for looking back as well as forward. My personal selection of the greatest recent achievements is as follows:

* 1998:  Caius men won the Mays Headship, and six crews won blades

* 2000:  first ever men’s and women’s Double Headship by any College in the Mays

* 2002:  second Double Mays Headship. Women Head for third consecutive year

* 2010-11:  M1 unbeaten on the Cam throughout the entire year, and made four bumps in the Lents to win the Headship (first time achieved in the Lents since before WW II)  

"There are ten years and forty Headships until the 200th Anniversary. How many can Caius add to its already impressive tally?

"Headships are important, but they are not all that makes a great club.  There is the spirit of endeavour, the mutual support, the enduring friendships made, the contribution to success in later life, and the happiness derived from engaging in a beloved sport.  In all these respects, Caius Boat Club excels, and long may it remain so.”

Read an account of the life of Herbert Rayner, a member of the Caius cup-winning crew.

* Thanks go to the College Archivist, James Cox, and his assistant Emily Patterson for their work in researching the members of the 1882 fixed seat crew, and in unearthing photographs from the era. While we don’t have any images of the trophy-winning crew, others provide a feel for how the river looked at the time, and show a sliding seat crew in action.

The 1882 Caius ‘Fixed Seat Eights’ Crew[1]

S Single (Bow): Stanley Single – son of Thomas Single, of Wimbledon, Surrey. Born at Peckham, on 5th April, 1863. School, Christ’s College, Finchley. Admitted on 1st October, 1881. Resided nine terms. Farmer and landowner. Address (1898), Woodcote, Dorking. Brother of Frederick, p.439.

C G Stuart (2 seat): Charles Gordon Stuart – son of James Meliss Stuart, merchant, of Victoria Street, London. Born at Napier, New Zealand. Educated privately. Age 18. Admitted to Caius on 1st October, 1881. Resided five terms.

R Titley (3 seat): Richard Titley – son of Rev. Richard Titley, rector of Barwell, Hinckley. Born at Liverpool. School, Rugby; and private tuition. Age 18. Admitted to Caius on the 1st October, 1880. B.A. 1884; M.A. 1888; Math Tripos, 1883 (jun. op.) Ordained deacon (Salisb.) 1886; priest (do.) 1887. Curacies in England, 1886-1891. Railway chaplain at Lahore, 1891-2: died there, of cholera, on 8th August, 1892.

D C Trott (4 seat): Dudley Cox Trott – son of Harley Trott, merchant of Bermuda. Born there. School, Dulwich House, Gipsy Hill, London. Age 22. Admitted to Caius on 1st October, 1881. B.A. 1884; M.B. 1885; B.C. 1886. L.R.C.P. 1884. Nat. Sci Tripos, 1884, P.I, cl. II. In practice at Chicago, U.S. (1897).

T H Dickson (5 seat): Thomas Hugh Dickson – son of Walter Dickson, M.D., medical inspector of H.M. Customs. Born at Tower Hill, 4th December, 1863. School: Merchant Taylors’. Admitted to Caius on 1st October, 1881. Achieved his B.A. in 1884; M.A. 1890; M.B. and B.C. 1890. L.R.C.P. 1889. Surgeon-captain, 12th Middx. Volunteers. Medical Inspector, Board of Customs, etc. (1898).

T(F?) W Scott (6 seat): Thomas Wilfred Scott – son of Rev. John Scott, vicar of Wisbech, formerly of the College. Born in Cambridge on 30th October, 1861. School: Repton. Admitted on 1st October, 1880. B.A. in 1884; M.B and B.C. in 1892. M.R.C.S. 1888. L.R.C.P. 1888.  In practice at Winchester (1898). Brother of John, p. 418.

H H Rayner* (7 seat and owner of the cup): Henry Herbert Rayner – son of Thomas Rayner, M.D. of Malvern. Born there. Age 19. Educated abroad; and private tuition. Admitted to Caius on 1st October, 1880 and resided two years.

C H Haig (Stroke): Cecil Henry Haig: son of George Augustus Haig, of Newtown, Montgom. (and Pen. Ithon, Radnorshire; v. Walford). Born at Campden Hill, Kensington, on 16th March, 1862. School: Clifton College; and private tuition. Admitted to Caius on 1st October, 1881. Resided two years. Partner in Haig and Co., wine merchants Argyll St., London. Brother of Alexander, p.413.

F B Lindsey (cox): Francis Birdwood Lindsey – son of J.G. Lindsey, Colonel R.E.. Born at Madras on 17th April, 1862. School: Wellington College, and private tuition. Admitted to Caius on 1st October, 1881. Resided one year; afterwards a student at Bartholomew’s Hospital.

[1] Source: The Biographical History of Gonville and Caius College, Volume II

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