‘The Boat Race is one of the few races – on horseback, on foot, or in a boat – of which it can be said that no sordid motive enters into it, that every man is doing his utmost, and that no suspicion of unsportsmanlike gambling has touched it’.
Wadham Peacock, The Story of the Inter-University Boat Race (1900).

For a non-rowing School, it is perhaps surprising to discover that seven Shirburnians and one future Headmaster of Sherborne School have taken part in twelve Oxford and Cambridge Boat Races.  Shirburnians have been members of winning crews six times (four for Cambridge and two for Oxford), with three Shirburnians having competed twice with winning crews (C.G. Hill with Cambridge in 1845 and 1846, E.F. Henley with Oxford in 1865 and 1866, and H.M. Goldsmith with Cambridge in 1906 and 1907).

The first Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge took place at Henley-on-Thames in 1829.  It was instigated by two men: Charles Merivale of St John’s College, Cambridge and his great friend Charles Wordsworth (1806-1892) of Christ Church, Oxford.  Charles Wordsworth’s grandson, Charles William Wordsworth (1880-1959), would later join the teaching staff at Sherborne School (1922-1935) where he taught French to, amongst others, Alan Turing.

A second Boat Race was held in 1836, the first to be held in London, and a third was held three years later on 3 April 1839.   The 1839 race was notable for the fact that it is the only time that a Shirburnian has competed in the Boat Race against a future Headmaster of Sherborne School.

The scene of the third Boat Race was described in Bell’s Life:

‘The Oxonians rowed down to the bridge in their pea coats, and therefore did not afford a very good opportunity for quietly observing their muscular powers, but they looked a powerful set of young men, and all of the right breed.  The Cantabs went down, ready for work, in their short sleeved Guernsey, and a finer boat’s crew could not, we think, be selected, and we are of opinion that they over weighed their opponents.  They wore white Guernsey’s and white straw hats, with light Blue ribbons, the steerer having a rosette of the same colour on his breast.  The Oxford gents wore dark Blue Guernsey’s with white stripes and dark straw hats, with dark Blue ribbons.’

Charles Penrose, Cambridge crew, 1839 Boat Race.

The ensuing race was fast with Cambridge winning by 35 lengths in a time of 31 minutes, the largest winning margin in the history of the event.  Amongst the winning Cambridge crew was Charles Thomas Penrose (1816-1868) of Trinity College, Cambridge.  Charles Penrose was one of the two heaviest members of the Cambridge crew, weighing in at 12st.  His uncle was Dr Thomas Arnold, the Headmaster of Rugby School, where Charles had been educated.  In 1845, Charles was appointed Headmaster of Sherborne School but he was not by then a well man and was forced to resign after just 5 years in post, although in the meantime he did make one major contribution to the School – the introduction of Rugby-style football.

A member of the losing Oxford crew that year was Woodforde Ffooks (1816-1896), the son of a Sherborne solicitor.  Woodforde had attended Sherborne School from 1825 to 1834 and had gone on to study at Exeter College, Oxford.  In 1839, he was cox for the Oxford boat, weighing in at 10st 2lb.  His brother, William Ffooks, was a Governor of Sherborne School when Charles Penrose was appointed Headmaster and it would be interesting to know whether they ever discussed the outcome of the 1839 Boat Race.  It was from Woodforde and William Ffooks’s descendants that the Governors of Sherborne School later purchased Greenhill House (now The Green).

In 1845 and 1846, Charles Gray Hill (1823-1894) was the stroke of the winning Cambridge crews.  Charles Hill had left Sherborne in 1841 and was then an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge.  Wadham Peacock in The Story of the Inter-University Boat Race (1900) described the 1845 Cambridge crew as being ‘perfectly together and in thorough training’, whereas Oxford were in poor condition.  Despite the race being rowed at 6 pm in the evening on a bitterly cold day, at the half-mile Cambridge drew away and won easily by ten lengths in a winning time of 23 minutes 30 seconds.  Alongside Charles Hill in the winning Cambridge crew was Walter Scott Lockhart, the grandson of Sir Walter Scott, whose father complained that he was ‘a human financial sieve’ who had done little at Cambridge ‘but row on the Cam’.

The heavier Cambridge crew again triumphed in 1846, winning by three lengths in a time of 21 minutes and 5 seconds, with Charles Hill as stroke weighing in at 11st 1lb. This race was noteworthy for two reasons, not only was it rowed down river from Mortlake to Putney on the ebb, but also outriggers were used for the first time by both crews.

Edward Henley, Oxford crew, 1865 & 1866 Boat Races.

In 1865 and 1866, Oxford Shirburnian Edward Francis Henley (1844-1921) was a member of both the winning Oxford crews.  Edward Henley had attended Sherborne School from 1853 to 1863 and was a member of the School 1st XI cricket team for three years and team captain in 1863.

A fellow member of the School 1st XI described Edward Henley as ‘a big, strong-made man, with a splendid back and legs… A good sound bat, and steady bowler, he might have ranked high in the Cricket world, but found his proper vocation at Oxford by rowing in the University eight.  His great natural powers here found full development, as he turned out one of the finest heavy weights that ever rowed in the University Boat Race.’

An undergraduate of Oriel College, Oxford Edward Henley was no.3 oar in the 1865 Oxford crew, weighing in at 12st 13lb.  Described as ‘one of the most sensational races’, Oxford won by four lengths in a time of 21 minutes 24 seconds – the first time that a crew had won having been behind at Hammersmith Bridge.  In 1866, Edward Henley was again in the winning Oxford crew, this time as no.5 oar and weighting in at 13st.  The race was again won by Oxford, this time by three lengths in a time of 25 minutes and 35 seconds, one of the slowest times in the history of the event.

Edward Malan, Oxford crew, 1871 & 1872 Boat Races.

At the 1871 and 1872 Boat Races, Edward Charles Malan (1848-1921) was a member of both losing Oxford crews.  Edward Malan had attended Sherborne School (School House) from 1859 to 1868 where he was a member of the 1st XI cricket team in 1867 and 1868 and of the 1st XV rugby team in 1867.  He went on to study at Worcester College, Oxford and in 1871 was no.4 oar in the Oxford crew, weighing in at 13st 1lb, and in 1872 he was no.5 oar, weighing in at 13st.

In 1886, Edward Malan returned to Sherborne to join the teaching staff.  His physical prowess and strength were still evident, with one former pupil describing him as ‘an enormous man with a bull-like neck, reputed to wear 23 inch collars’.  However, he also had a fiery temper and in 1888 he clashed with Headmaster E.M. Young over disciplining a boy and was dismissed.  Young defended his dismissal of Edward Malan to the teaching staff, referring to him in terms which might be construed as libellous.  Edward Malan issued a libel action against Young and the resulting court case temporarily damaged the reputation of the School and pupil numbers plummeted.  Edward Malan retired to Bournemouth, living with his mother at West Cliff Hall, where he died in 1921.

Henry Goldsmith, Cambridge crew, 1906 & 1907 Boat Races.

It was not until 1906 that another Shirburnian took part in the Boat Race.  That year Henry Mills Goldsmith (1885-1915), a former School House boy and then an undergraduate at Jesus College, Cambridge and President of the CUBC, rowed at no.3 oar in the winning Cambridge crew.  The race took place on 7 April 1906 in conditions that were ‘very fast, a strong tide and no wind’. and Cambridge won by three and a half lengths in a time of 19 minutes 25 seconds.

Henry Goldsmith was again a member of the winning Cambridge crew in 1907, and again at no.3 oar, when Cambridge won by 4 ½ lengths in a time of 20 minutes 26 seconds.  In 1908, Henry became an Olympian, taking no.5 oar in the Cambridge Olympic boat that won a bronze medal at the Summer Olympics, and in 1911 he was Captain of the Jesus College boat that beat the Club Nautique de Gand at the International race at Terdonck Regatta in Belgium.

However, as with many young men of his generation, Henry Goldsmith became a casualty of the First World War and was killed in action, aged 29, on 9 May 1915 at the Battle of Aubers, leaving a wife and an unborn baby daughter.  He is remembered in Sherborne School’s Roll of Honour.

The Dean of Jesus College wrote in Henry Goldsmith’s obituary:
‘Tall and apparently slightly built he was an oarsman of unusual power, not only because of his easy and graceful movements, but on account of the immense strength he put into every stroke. Absolutely unaffected and modest in everything, he is a type of man whose loss makes us feel more poignantly the sacrifices that our struggle with Germany demands’.

Michael Kirke, cox of the Oxford boat, 1936 Boat Race.

It was, however, another 29 years before a Shirburnian again took part in the Boat Race, when in 1936 the cox of the Oxford boat was Michael Austen Kirke (1914-2007).  Michael Kirke had attended Sherborne School (day boy and Harper House) from 1928 to 1933 where, despite his slight stature, he was a member of the School’s 2nd XI (1931-1933) and a Lance Corporal in the OTC.  He went on to study at Keble College, Oxford, and served in the Second World War with the RAFVR.

A contemporary of Michael’s at Sherborne School was Alan Turing, who would later make his name as a mathematician and Bletchley Park code-breaker.  Alan Turing had left Sherborne in 1931 having won an Open Scholarship in Mathematics to King’s College Cambridge where, in 1935, he was elected a Fellow.  While at Cambridge, Alan became an accomplished oarsman, rowing in 1933 in the King’s College Boat Club Trial Eights and in the 1935 May Bumps in the King’s College Second Boat.  Although in 1936, Alan had been appointed a Visiting Fellow to Princeton University, he did not leave Cambridge until the autumn and must have had divided loyalties watching the Boat Race that year knowing that a fellow Shirburnian was in the Oxford crew.

Alan Turing’s K.C.B.C. 1933 Trial Eights tankard and 1935 King’s College 2nd Boat shield.

In 1936, for the first time in the Boat Race’s history, the Cambridge crew weighed more than an average 13st – the heaviest crew ever at the time.  Amongst the lighter Oxford crew, Michael Kirke as cox weighed in at 8st 7lb.  Unfortunately for Michael, Cambridge went on to win the 88th Boat Race for the thirteenth consecutive year, winning by five lengths in a time of 21 minutes 6 seconds.

Footage of the 1936 Boat Race, with Michael Kirke as Oxford’s cox, can be viewed online at Reuters – Gaumont British Newsreel

There was another long interval before another Shirburnian again competed in the Boat Race – 51 years to be precise.  The 133rd Boat Race was held on 29 March 1987 and amongst the Cambridge crew was Shirburnian Richard Spink.

A former Head of School and Head of School House, Richard Spink was a great all-rounder. An Exhibitioner, in 1983 he won the Morcom Chemistry prize and was a member of the School’s 1st XI cricket team.  A School chaplain later described Richard Spink and fellow Head of School Angus Small as ‘two of the most impressive young men I have ever met and when a school is able to cultivate such as these, it must have a great deal in its favour.’

Richard Spink, Cambridge crew, 1987 & 1988 Boat Races.

On leaving Sherborne, Richard Spink went up to Downing College, Cambridge to study law and whilst there he took up rowing.  In 1987, Richard was selected to row no.2 oar in the Cambridge boat.

The 1987 Boat Race was notable for a number of reasons, not only did the statistics of both crews make Boat Race history, with the tallest and heaviest (Oxford stroke Gavin Stewart weighed in at 16st 7lb), youngest (18 year old Cambridge Matthew Brittin) and oldest (31 year old Oxford president Donald Macdonald) crew members to date, but also a disagreement between the Oxford crew and their coach had resulted in several of the American rowers and cox being replaced at short notice.  The story of the 1987 Boat Race inspired the film True Blue.

It is hardly surprising that the Cambridge crew entered the 1987 Boat Race as favourites.  However, Oxford won the toss and elected to start from the Middlesex station and, despite the stormy weather, Oxford went on to win the race by four lengths in a time of 19 minutes 59 seconds.

In 1988, Richard Spink was again part of the Cambridge crew (no.4 oar) in the 134th Boat Race.  The Oxford crew that year were the heaviest in the history of the Boat Race, weighing on average 14st 11.5lb.  Oxford again won the toss and elected to start from the Surrey station.  Despite Cambridge taking a slight lead, Oxford soon drew level and went on to win by 5½ lengths in a time of 18 minutes 27 seconds.

In the 190 years since the first Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race was held, seven Shirburnians and one future Headmaster of Sherborne School have represented their respective universities at the Boat Race.  Who amongst our current Shirburnians will be crew members of the future?

Rachel Hassall
School Archivist
4 April 2019

See also:
Shirburnians who have taken part in the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race
List of Oxford University Boat Race crews
List of Cambridge University Boat Race crews
Sports & Games in the Sherborne School Archives

For further information please contact the School Archivist

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