'Oily Rags' row at Henley
1st July 2018
Stop Press: 'Oily Rags' row at Henley
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the first occasion that a crew from Cygnet rowed at Henley Royal Regatta (HRR). That said, though, Cygnet's name does not actually grace the pages of the regatta programmes because the club raced under the colours of the Civil Service Rowing Association (CSRA). Nonetheless, it was the first time that any Cygnet member had raced at HRR.
Our club chairman, Nick Wylie, is fond of referring to himself as an 'oily rag' in his industry. He would have been in good company on the day that Cygnet RC was formed on 12th February 1890. Post Office employees may not have been the lowest of the low, but nor were they gentlemen and in the eyes of the Amateur Rowing Association (forerunner of British Rowing) any form of remunerated manual labour warranted the bizarre label 'professional'. This label would besmirch Cygnet, among other clubs, for almost half a century, barring them from competing in ARA-run Tideway regattas and HRR.
By the 1920s, Cygnet had worn down officialdom, invoking the assistance of the Civil Service Sports Council and the Duke of York (future George Vl) along the way, and the club was begrudgingly granted affiliation to the ARA in 1923. While this was a major milestone in the club's evolution, HRR continued to abide by its own rules and the 'manual labour bar' remained firmly in place. But the times they were a-changing and at a juncture that could hardly have been more auspicious for the 'oily rags' at Cygnet.
In 1936 the Stewards of HRR stunned the rowing community when they invoked the 'manual labour bar' and rejected an entry for the Grand Challenge Cup from an Australian Olympic Vlll bound for Berlin, on the grounds that they were all policemen. The decision was widely viewed as indefensible and sounded the death knell of the distinction between amateur and professional.
Thus, in April 1937, the ARA resolved to review the Association's amateur definitions and at a special meeting in June all references to manual labourers and artisans were deleted. The ARA had never sought to assume jurisdiction over its older counterpart, the Stewards of HRR. Nonetheless, the Stewards could hardly demur from this ground-breaking development and Henley followed suit the next day thereby opening the way for clubs like Cygnet to enter the regatta for the first time in 1938. continued
Back on the Tideway at Chiswick, the stars were in alignment at Cygnet. Following a successful season in 1937, the first Vlll were ready to step up a gear to Thames Cup standard, the premier Vllls event of the day at Class A regattas. Months of training were rewarded with a strong performance in the Head of the River in March 1938: Cygnet l finished in the top ten, putting it among some of the fastest crews in the country. Early silverware followed with two 'Thames Cup' wins at Walton and Chiswick, laying the foundation for an entry at HRR.
Today, it is hard to appreciate the euphoria that surrounded this achievement, but the message at the time was clear - the 'oily rags' at Cygnet needed to be taken seriously. Still, before taking the plunge and entering a crew for HRR, the Captaincy sought a reality check and consulted rowing heavy weights like Jack Beresford for reassurance. Beresford averred that the time was right and an entry was duly submitted for Thames Cup.
Much to the consternation of older hands at Cygnet, this was made under the name of the CSRA, although the crew was composed entirely of Cygnet members. However, few could dispute the fact that Cygnet's success throughout the 1930s owed more than a little to the backing and financial resources of the Civil Service Sports Council. This coupled with the lure of special leave and expenses carried the day and allowed those 'oily rags' on night duties to rearrange these to suit training outings.
Cygnet made its first formal appearance under CSRA colours at Marlow Regatta on 18th June. Some idea of the intensity of the competition can be gained from the fact that there were 28 entries in the Marlow Eights (Thames Cup Class). The CSRA's performance was reportedly unremarkable and the coxswain, A Henry, offered his resignation, but this was rebuffed.
The crew moved to Henley on Sunday, 26th June and lodged with Mrs Forman at the Old White Hart, Hart Street, long since converted into shops and galleries, at a cost of three and a half guineas per person per week. Evidently, some members of the crew were more taken than others with the atmosphere: 'the Henley course is unique, but the atmosphere of the town is so relaxing that it takes some time to get acclimatised', bewailed the coach. Several members apparently had difficulty adhering to the training regimen* that had been devised for the week.continued
The CSRA had drawn Eton Excelsior and on the day of the race they took up their station on the Berks side. The London Times takes up the story: "Eton Excelsior rowed 41 (strokes) and Civil Service 38 in the first minute, Eton taking the lead and being clear at the top of the island. Eton Excelsior were a length and a half ahead at the Barrier in 2 min. 3 sec. and two lengths at Fawley in 3 min 33 sec. Civil Service were outpaced, but stuck to their task well and went up after passing the Mile Post". The final verdict was a win of one and a quarter lengths for Eton Excelsior in a time of 7 minutes 32 seconds, the second fastest time of the day.
The ensuing days brought with them the inevitable post mortem about how much better the crew should have been prepared, not to mention the observation that experts believed the Bucks station (drawn by Eton) to be worth an advantage of three quarters of a length. G P Jefferies' diary entry was rather scathing: "Our crew was the last to arrive at Henley. The time available was insufficient to become acclimatised or to get to know how to row the course or to settle down to serious training".
Nonetheless, it was a momentous occasion for Civil Service rowing and Cygnet had not disgraced itself. Yet the stigma of amateur versus professional refused to be silenced, as an indignant contributor to the Postal Telegraph recorded:
"A considerable amount of nonsense was published in the press about the Metropolitan Police rowing under the new A.R.A, amateur definition which now permits 'wage earners and artisans' to compete. A really objectionable comment appeared about W.E.C. Horwood, the N.A.R.A. sculling champion, who was described as a coach builder earning £4/10/- per week. The term 'Civil Servant' is conveniently vague. Perhaps we should have been more in the news as a crew of Post Office Sorters with our respective wages quoted. It is as well we were not."
By the time Nick Wylie and I joined the club in the early 1970s, of the original HRR crew only 'Joe' Lee and 'John' Bull (first reserve) were in evidence, along with the boatman 'Bob' Dowson. The first time Cygnet rowed under its own name at HRR was in 1973. Remarkably, Dowson coached a Cygnet Thames Cup entry at HRR in 1978 and Bull stepped up to the plate in 1992. The first time Cygnet won a heat(s) at HRR was in 1996 when a Wyfold lV won through two days to the quarter finals - times change and there were no 'oily rags' among them.