Eton Boys and the River

Published in Windlesora 01 (1982)


Eton College has been a boys’ school since the middle of the fifteenth century, with the Thames its near neighbour – sometimes too near for comfort when the frequent floods of an uncontrolled river swept round and even through it; and where boys and water exist side by side there will be swimming, and boating of some sort. But any organisation of either activity by the College authorities is, historically speaking, fairly recent.

The first Eton boy whose name is known in connection with the river is Robert Sacheveral, a King’s Scholar (scholarship boy) who in 1549 “while swimming with other boys, was carried into a whirlpole and sunk“. The current was much faster then with only a few “flash” locks to control it, which when opened let through the waiting barges on a great body of water which rushed down the next stretch of the river. Though the records are silent on drownings for a long time thereafter similar tragedies must have happened at intervals, as the situation was serious enough by about 1765 for even the sluggish College authorities to rule that bathing was to be only at seven approved places, ranging probably from “Athens‘” to Upper Club, where there would be manned boats to help in cases of difficulty. Only the most senior boys might swim off Romney Island, to which they were ferried over from the College bank. Around 1800 the boatmen realised that there was extra money to be made and charged the enormous sum of a guinea for teaching a boy to swim.

By then boating too was becoming popular with the boys; and more weirs and locks, including that at Romney (built in 1797), controlled the stream, making it less dangerous. A boatbuilder on part of the present site of Rafts hired out various craft, though the College authorities for many years looked on rowing, especially races against other schools, with schoolmasterly disfavour, while not actually forbidding it. On Election Saturday in July, when certain senior King’s Scholars were elected to scholarships at King’s College Cambridge, it became an unofficial part of the celebrations for boats manned by Etonians to row up to Surley Hall, on the Clewer bank, for a splendid evening of strawberries and spiced wine, returning on the current to a show of fireworks on Windsor Bridge; but the wretched King’s Scholars themselves were not allowed to take part in the fun since they were all locked up at half-past eight each night, and could only listen wistfully to the sounds of merriment blown up on the breeze.

Boats were already built for eight oarsmen, and some for six, as well as smaller craft; the large ones were given names, some of which still survive: Monarch, for ten oarsmen, is recorded as early as 1811 and Dreadnought shortly after. A race between Eton and Westminster School was allowed for the first time in 1829, after long opposition by the authorities at both places, and became an almost annual fixture; in its early days, it did not take place at Windsor nor, for more obvious reasons, at Westminster, but at Putney, Staines, or elsewhere. In 1836 both crews rather confusingly turned out in blue and white, so the next year Westminster changed its colour to pink and has stuck to it ever since, just as Eton has to pale blue. 1837 was also the first year that a boy rather than a waterman coxed the Eton boat.

The building of Boveney Lock in 1838 further improved conditions on the river, and by 1840 the College belatedly recognised that boating was here to stay; with a master in charge, it could be put on a proper footing including a compulsory swimming test before a boy was allowed to row. A boy is still a “non-nant” until he can swim seventy-five yards in clothes, tread water and go in head-first.

Boats were still hired out by private firms with premises at Rafts: Tolladay’s, of the earlier part of the century, passed through the hands of Salter and of Searle to Sambo Parkins, who catered for senior boys from about 1870 until 1890, while Goodman hired out to junior boys.

But in 1885 G.F. Winter from Cambridge took over the latter firm, and by building faster boats and being a better businessman prospered more than old Sambo, and wanted to take over his firm when he died; but some College masters, realising the dangers of a monopoly in Winter’s hands, raised enough money among Old Etonians to buy Sambo’s business, henceforth to be called the Brocas Boat House Company. It was run by the masters, but they were unaccustomed to the rigours of the marketplace, and the company lurched from crisis to crisis until re-formed in 1908 as the Eton College Boat House, on a sounder basis, and with a splendid character called “Bill Windsor” (his real name was William Odell) as manager. The fine tradition of boat-building continued under the Clarets, father and son, until the 1970s; and today, with the Company reconstituted yet again, John Cork and his team build racing shells of incredible delicacy and beauty not only for Etonians but for sale worldwide.

Different types of races have developed over the years: Etonian eights now row in regattas against other schools and colleges, fours in house competitions, while pairs and sculls (singles) are mostly for pleasure boating. The last week in May sees the Bumping Fours, with one boat from each of the twenty-six houses, divided into two leagues, dashing downstream in line ahead from Elizabeth Bridge to Windsor Bridge. The “aim’ is – in spite of the name – not actually to hit the boat in front but to get the bows just beyond level with its stern when its cox will regretfully raise his arm in acknowledgement of defeat; and the next evening the two boats will change places in the ‘order. But the great day for oarsmen is the Fourth of June when ten boats, one of them the only known ten-oared craft of this type, are:rowed in procession from Romney Weir with the crews, dressed in clothes of a hundred years ago, standing up perilously as they pass the admiring crowds on Fellows’ Eyot and shaking the blossoms decorating their boaters onto the water.

In 1956 the College built a swimming pool, so the river has now been abandoned by the boys for swimming, except involuntarily. But in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Cuckoo Weir Stream was where the younger boys bathed, with Athens the principal place for older ones and a few of the most senior allowed in the river below Boveney Lock. Objections from those, especially ladies (or those claiming to speak for them) who saw, from railway carriages on the Windsor to Slough line, naked youth disporting itself, led to ineffective screens being put up and finally, about 1890, the introduction of bathing drawers. In 1900 the upper part of Cuckoo Weir stream, given the unexplained but delightful name of Jelly’s Folly, was vastly improved to allow more of the senior boys to swim at one time.

An integral part of Eton College is the Boating Song. Its author, William Johnson, alias Cory, was a master, and a man who could in fact write good verse, but his best stanzas (in his own estimation) are almost unknown, and those that are sung so vigorously on Eton occasions have no great claims to literary excellence. The splendid tune was composed by Captain Algernon Drummond in 1865 when he was stationed in the Punjab, and written down by a musical friend. Those of us who by reason of sex or other disqualification will never be able to swing together and swear by the best of schools may still, with luck, be able to swirl around a dance floor and waltz to the best of tunes.

Selina Ballance