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The Dangerously Neglected Legacy of Rowing

by Thomas E. Weil

[This article was originally published in a slightly different version in the June, Season 2000-2001 Rowing Victoria Magazine (Vol. 2 Edition 3). Thanks to Bill Miller for the insights which improved this revision.]

On the water, rowers face where they have just come from, but most are indifferent to the near invisible path that marks their trail. Their goal waits beyond them, and receives their unwavering attention. What lies unseen ahead is of much greater interest to them than what went before. This same attitude characterizes the substantial unawareness or disinterest of the great majority of the rowing community in the history, art, literature and memorabilia of their sport. This lack of engagement is paradoxical: why are the best educated and most passionately engaged athletes on earth so indifferent to a history that has one of the oldest and most important legacies in organized sport?

Why care? Firstly, every rower's appreciation of an activity that is not rich in other rewards would be enhanced by better understanding it's special importance and legacy. Secondly, the preservation of this legacy requires the active support of the rowing community, and much has already been lost for lack thereof. Finally, rowing faces challenges in the international sport community, and the better its proponents understand the unique characteristics of this sport, the better able they will be to make the special case for rowing.

The Legacy

Rowing's unique legacy as a team sport stems from its origins in antiquity in commerce, transport and war. It was raised to an art form by the galleys - Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Turkish and Venetian that ruled the Mediterranean for close to two millennia. From ancient times well into the Industrial Age, rowing provided a vital means of moving goods and people along and across rivers, lakes, harbors, bays, inlets and seas, and a laborious livelihood for a large albeit anonymous class of watermen (the chauffeurs and truckers of the pre-vehicle days). Rowing also provided opportunities for pageantry and sport, as Venice developed the "regatta" to celebrate its aquatic setting, and London guilds and English nobles built spectacular barges manned by liveried oarsmen to participate in water festivals and processions.

Organized sport rowing began with a contest awarding a "Coat and Badge" for first-year London watermen which was established in 1715 by an Irish actor and playwright named Thomas Doggett. Held annually for almost three centuries, the race is one of the oldest continuing sporting events in existence.

The critical catalyst for the development and institutionalization of amateur rowing was its appeal to the students of exclusive Eton College, located on the Thames west of London. The unsupervised water play and rivalries between boys from various houses evolved at the end of the eighteenth century into a combination of display ritual and rowing sport. Eton graduates carried these activities to Oxford and Cambridge where, centered around residential college boat clubs, they developed into organized competitive activity by the 1820's. The end of that decade saw an explosion of interest in extramural contests, as Eton and Westminster School commenced a great schoolboy rivalry in boating (and cricket) and Oxford and Cambridge followed suit at the university level, holding the inaugural Boat Race (as well as the inaugural cricket match) in 1829.

As the century unfolded, a combination of increased leisure time among the middle and upper classes, an opportunity for modest fortune for champion boatmen and a fascination with wagering on sporting events had led to the spread of boat-racing activities wherever the Union Jack waved, with clubs following on the heels of Empire in Australia, Burma, Canada, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa. The appeal of both professional and amateur events gave impetus to merchants situated on rivers with good racing water (and to the railroads serving those locales) to sponsor regattas to draw spectators/consumers to their towns. Henley-on-Thames, well located near metropolitan London and the rowing centres of Oxford, Cambridge and Eton, instituted a regatta in 1839 that was long regarded as the most important rowing event in the world, and which remains near the apex of rowing competition today. By the end of the Victorian era, amateur English rowing was enjoying its Golden Age - its heroes were not just the icons of Henley and Leander, but the cream of British sporting gentility and "muscular Christianity."

Organized amateur rowing emigrated to America, where a number of boat clubs were established in Boston, Detroit, New York and Philadelphia in the 1830's, and at Harvard and Yale in the 1840's. The Harvard-Yale boat race in 1852 was the first U.S. intercollegiate athletic event. From the 1830's for the next half century, no team sport attracted more attention or spectators in America. Rowing received a great boost in 1869, when a Harvard four traveled to England to race Oxford on the Thames. No team sport event had ever received the breadth of publicity accorded this contest, which was won by Oxford in an exciting race. In 1869, there were approximately 90 American boat clubs - two years later, there were about 230 clubs. American rowing popularity was near its apex at the Centennial celebration activities in Philadelphia in 1876. It was one of only three sports included on the agenda, the others being riflery and yachting, and gave rise to fierce international competition on the Schuylkill, involving many of the best amateur oarsmen in the world.

But the professionals, who also raced at the 1876 Centennial, were grabbing a greater share of the limelight. It was primarily individual professional scullers - Americans, Australians, English and Canadians who dominated the news in the 1880's and 1890's. In England, as the amateurs moved to distance themselves from the non-amateurs, the conflict between the two groups took on the aspect of a class battle. This exacerbated the slide of rowing's hold on public affections. And America, the involvement of gamblers, the accusations of fixed races, poisoned meals and sabotaged boats, and the related scandals associated with professional contests and oarsmen, all combined with the ugly rift between the amateur rowing establishment and the professional rowing community to discredit the professionals in the public eye, and effectively relegated rowing to what would now be perceived as an exclusive and amateur activity to be enjoyed only by college boys and wealthy men.

Meantime, in Europe, the end of the 19th century brought about two major developments. A number of rowing associations gathered in 1892 to form the Federation International des Societes d'Aviron, one of the first world sport governing bodies, and a Frenchman, Baron de Coubertin, proposed a quadrennial sports festival drawing together the youth of all nations for peaceful and healthy competition, which resulted in the first modern Olympiad in Athens in 1896. De Coubertin was a great supporter of rowing, and rowing was scheduled for the Athens games but cancelled due to poor weather. Rowing has been part of every Olympic Games since - no team sport has a longer history of inclusion in the Olympics.

While the twentieth century has seen rowing overshadowed on the world stage by a host of other sports, including the team "game" sports which made profitable adult businesses out of child's play, rowing has attracted the national and international spotlight on several occasions. The story of world sculling champion Jack Kelly's exclusion from Henley competition in the 1920's, and his son's victory in the Diamonds in the 1940's, with the future Princess Grace of Monaco watching from the banks of the Thames, was the stuff of legend. Joe Burk's Diamonds victory a decade earlier, coupled with his winning the Sullivan trophy, gave him recognition as the finest amateur athlete in the U.S. Steve Redgrave's extraordinary Olympic achievements, culminating in his fifth consecutive gold medal Olympiad in Sydney in 2000, has been likewise applauded around the world. Meantime, the great traditional institutions of rowing are strong, rowing has embraced diversity at the national and international levels, and participation in competitive and recreational rowing is growing. But the relative popular appeal of rowing remains low, and the preservation of the legacy is dangerously neglected.

The Record

Early rowing writing reflected the growth of the sport. The results of the Doggett's contests were published in English newspapers beginning in the 1720's. For several decades, the dominant sports imagery in the illustrated news magazines that appeared in America and England beginning in the 1840's and 1850's, including the important cover and double page centrefold positions, was that of rowing.

The first book to treat rowing at any length as a sport or exercise activity (Walker's MANLY EXERCISES) appeared in London in 1834 and in Philadelphia two years later, and remained in print for over two decades. Probably the first boatings records published in book form were those set forth in the Eton graduates register of 1850 (which was attempting to fill a gap of almost half a century). Most of the early rowing texts tended to focus on training and technique, to supply what was then (and, apparently, is still) the priority of the community: information on how to row, rather than rowing results. Nevertheless, rowing histories began to appear with increasing frequency in England starting in the 1870's, with records of Henley Royal Regatta and the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, and then of the OxCam college boat clubs, and, by the end of the 1880's, the omnibus rowing tome, which included "how to" and history within the same binding. One of the first commemorative rowing history texts (published four years after the fact, in 1883) celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race.

American rowing historians, with 10-20 less years of boat-racing to catch up on, began writing about the same time as their English counterparts. Putnam's ROWER'S MANUAL (1858) contains a good deal of U.S. rowing history, as does Robert B. Johnson's A HISTORY OF ROWING IN AMERICA (1871) and Waters and Balch's monumental ANNUAL ILLUSTRATED CATALOGUE AND OARSMAN'S MANUAL (1871). The first great American text devoted primarily to sporting history, Charles Peverelly's AMERICAN PASTIMES, published in 1866, covered four sports: baseball (186 pages), which was unquestionably to become the "national pastime" by the end of the century; cricket (36 pages), which was nearing the end of its popularity in the United States, largely because of the rise of baseball; rowing (221 pages), the focus of the author's book dedication, and running 35 pages longer than the baseball section; and yachting (104 pages).

As the 19th century drew to a close, the number of rowing books increased. The late Victorian period marked the high point of general interest rowing publications, reflecting, perhaps, a combination of general (albeit waning) public interest in the sport, a sufficiently lengthy time span of competition to provide adequate material to record, and the growing recognition of sport as a profitable subject for books. The authors of British rowing histories tended to be old oars, some of them writers by profession, and most of them old Blues.

The first three decades of the new century also saw a surge in the publication of rowing histories, as if to celebrate the maturity of the sport. U.S. rowing history was captured by Crowther and Ruhl (1905), Glendon and Glendon (1923) and Kelly (1932), while OxCam college boat club records would fill a bookshelf. The spread and grip of rowing throughout the empire was memorialized by histories from Canada (1933), Shanghai China (1938), Calcutta India (1932), Ireland (1937), Table Bay South Africa (1912) and Victoria Australia (1919). Just as the number of publications at the end of the nineteenth century reflected the lingering popularity of a sport that was already in relative decline in terms of public affection, these works were the natural product of clubs and regattas with histories that were ripe for memorialisation, in many cases by elders who had raced in the days when rowing had less competition for the public's eye and allegiance.

The Problem

The flow of rowing histories of general interest gradually tapered off during the 20th century. More significantly, press coverage of rowing, which provides both raw material for research and a measure of relative popular interest in the sport, has gone from the front page to little or no coverage in national or major metropolitan media, and there is no indication of a recovery. Most major rowing communities today don't seem to care much about following, preserving or supporting rowing history, and the sport seems not to have attracted enough attention or interest among the traditional sports history or memorabilia collecting communities to produce a dedicated cadre of rowing sports scholars. Only one general history of U.S. rowing (Tom Mendenhall's A SHORT HISTORY OF AMERICAN ROWING ([1980])) has been published in the last 70 years, there has never been a general history of Australian rowing, the last major history of rowing in Victoria was published over eighty years ago, there has been no general history of Canadian rowing for three quarters of a century, and no general history of New Zealand rowing has ever been written.

There is no lack of rowing data to assemble or memorabilia to collect to stimulate interest in the story of rowing. There are plenty of old oars with heroic tales to tell, as well as an enormous body of newspaper articles, race programs and other primary research and reference material to refer to; further, the appearance of rowing news gathering websites such as row2k offers an unprecedented opportunity to the potential historian to "take notes" as rowing history is being made. Rowing has spawned a unique, but substantially neglected, body of art and memorabilia that pre-dates Greek and Roman times, and rowing as a sport has generated an extraordinary variety and mass of materials over the last 150 years. The earliest memorabilia of sport rowing pre-date the memorabilia of every other team sport but one (a trophy coin silver pitcher in my collection which was awarded to a New York crew in 1837 may be the oldest team trophy in American sport), and present an astonishing array of beauty, diversity and attractions, most of it available at stunningly modest prices.

If antiquity appeals, one can find coins showing galleys and dating to the period before Christ, newspaper articles from the early 18th century, and trophies and medals from the 1830's and 1840's. The first set of sports tobacco premium cards, issued in 1887, includes baseball cards, which sell for hundreds of dollars apiece, and rower's cards, which can be had for $10 each. Beautiful wood engravings of rowing imagery from 19th century illustrated news magazines are available for less than $15. Where eBay bears mute witness to the collectability and saleability of every genre of trash, many rowing collectibles sell for peppercorns on the Internet.

There is barely the beginnings of a useful infrastructure of rowing art, literature or memorabilia dealers and auction houses. Only one or two print dealers are particularly knowledgeable on the subject of rowing art, only one old and rare book dealer really knows rowing literature, and only one auction house holds an annual sale which features rowing memorabilia. Beyond the American Friends of Rowing History (founded in 1992, and the host of an annual rowing history symposium at Mystic Seaport since 2003), there is no collectors' society, association or newsletter devoted to rowing history.

The future holds promise. Several events of the last decade or so reflect a rising interest in rowing history. The circulation among the National Gallery of Art, the Yale Art Gallery and the Cleveland Museum of Art from 1995-1996 of an exhibition of Thomas Eakins' rowing pictures, accompanied by an informed catalogue, and the publication of a handful of scholarly rowing histories, have all contributed to the credibility of rowing history, art and literature as an area of academic interest. No substantial basic rowing research archive yet rests in any museum, but several institutions are developing useful resources. The Pocock Foundation and the University of Washington have assembled a collection of some size. Mystic Seaport has a number of significant prints and books from the Mendenhall collection, as well as the George Moody rowing book collection. The Seaport has mounted a number of rowing-related exhibitions, and, together with the National Rowing Foundation, which is actively soliciting donations of historical rowing materials, is exploring the possibility of adding rowing to its core collections charter.

The most important event in the field of rowing history was the establishment of the River and Rowing Museum on the banks of the Thames at Henley in 1998, which boasts a rowing curator, a large permanent display in an award-winning building, and the largest collection of rowing-related materials of any museum in the world. But the emergence of the Museum has highlighted the dark side of the indifference of most of the rowing community to the subject. The greater part of the Henley Museum's funding has not come from the rowing community, and, during Regatta weeks, the Museum does not receive as much traffic from visiting oarsmen and their supporters as would be expected or natural. This may be the most telling and damning statistic of all - that rowers and enthusiasts already in Henley could not be bothered to walk a couple hundred yards from the contest venue to this unique shrine of rowing history.

Rowing is the greatest training and developmental sport in the world, but it is spectator-challenged, and that puts it at risk for those sponsors who see sport as a bread and circuses proposition whose success is measured purely by its crowd appeal and revenue potential. This is why Steve Redgrave and others are working to create rowing events that are more entertaining. To preserve rowing's place in the international arena, it is critical for the rowing community to understand rowing's unique history: why it had the popular spectator appeal it did when it did, why it doesn't now, why it may be necessary to consider changes to increase popularity, and why in any case rowing demands recognition and acceptance for what it does better than any other sport, and for what, as the first modern sport, it has contributed to the history and development of sport over the last two centuries.

This awareness is also critical to movements to establish and sustain successful rowing programs (the stunning growth of women's collegiate rowing programs, which owes more to federal legislation for gender equality than any other factor, should not be misread as evidencing a surge of popular opinion in favor of rowing), and, more important, to maintain them in the face of initiatives to close or cut back rowing programs. No one currently swept up in the federally-driven growth of the sport should lose sight of the fact that, in the dollar-driven world of sports and entertainment, rowing remains a chronically endangered species. For the individual, an appreciation of rowing's legacy will add to any rower's enjoyment of rowing; for the community, an understanding of rowing's history is critical to the protection and advancement of the sport.

Paths Forward

Rowers and those who love them must recognize the significance of preserving and celebrating the unique history of the sport, and, if not directly involved in advancing this goal, at least support and assist those who are. Visit and support rowing-related exhibitions and museums. Give interviews or assist in contributing race data and recollections when asked. Pitch in for the club secretary's request for funding to preserve club records, or print a commemorative program. And consider taking on the task of writing rowing history, or contributing to rowing history web sites.

Coaches must keep records of race day boatings and results, and see that they reach whatever archive is designated for them. Club and regatta secretaries must take responsibility for being archivists and historians if no one else wants the job. Club and regatta chairmen and presidents must see that someone is appointed or elected to fill these roles, and also that club race records and memorabilia are properly catalogued and cared for. Local and national rowing organizations must, at a minimum, seek and encourage volunteer responsibility for maintaining and updating historical records, and should make an effort to facilitate the publication of organizational histories on significant anniversaries. And those undertaking to publicize rowing should first familiarize themselves with those aspects of its history that are special to the sport. Two centuries of evidence speak to the unique benefits provided by rowing as an alternative to the spectator-, spectacle- and revenue-driven games that dominate today's sports entertainment landscape.

There are many temptations in life, and few enough rewards for writing rowing history. It may require "unnatural" motivation, but if a few zealots who have more than a passing interest in rowing's past and future were to take up the pen and stay the course, the most significant gaps in the records could be covered, and the basis for more detailed histories, or more regular and continuing histories, would have been established. The negligence of those who went before, and failed to contribute, has created voids that will only grow broader and deeper without action. Nothing as beautiful as rowing, the records of how we have used it to test ourselves and each other, and the reasons it should be preserved for future generations, should be so neglected, so forgotten, or so unsung.

Copyright 2004 by Thomas E. Weil

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