SHOWING YOUR METTLE
A long form story from the Fitzwilliam Museum and Cambridge University Boat Club.
This story weaves a tale about The Boat Race trophies.
On display in the Fitzwilliam Museum
Tuesday 9 November 2021 to Sunday 27 March 2022
Researched and narrated by Dr Victoria Avery.
Code, design and layout by Prof Daniel Pett using Mural.
Trophies photography by Mike Jones.
Image rights obtained by Lynda Clark.
Showing your Mettle
The Boat Race trophies go on public display for the first time at the Fitzwilliam Museum
Realising that the trophies are significant but under-appreciated examples of contemporary British silver, as well as being of great interest to rowing enthusiasts, I argued for putting them out in the galleries.
This year’s double Cambridge victory gives us a unique opportunity to display both trophies side by side. I wanted our visitors to see for themselves just how beautiful these iconic trophies are, and appreciate all the skill that has gone into their design and making.
And it’s especially fitting that both trophies are on display in Cambridge given that the 2021 Boat Race actually took place on the River Great Ouse in nearby Ely (rather than on its traditional venue on the River Thames in South-West London).
Making a Splash
Getting the trophies ready for display
We took receipt of both trophies in late April 2021, shortly after The Boat Race had taken place at Ely. But we didn’t want to put them on display immediately because their engraved records were not up to date, missing the results from 2019 (when Cambridge won both races), 2020 (when there was no race due to Covid) and 2021 (when Cambridge again won both races).
So, with help from the Boat Race Company Ltd (BRCL), both trophies were sent offsite to be engraved. When they were returned and properly examined, it became clear that both trophies were not up to museum-standard cleanliness and needed some extra TLC before going on display. Their surfaces showed signs of post-Race celebrations, which from the Boat Race coverage I’ve seen was probably a combination of accumulated sweaty handprints and even the residue of sparkling wine spray, with the Light Blues especially responsible for the most recent of these undesirable accretions!
Cleaning the Trophies
So I asked Lily Griffin, one of our fantastic Graduate Conservation Masters students, to thoroughly degrease and clean them. She spent hours on this labour of love (thank heavens she’s a keen rower!) painstakingly cleaning every inch of the complex silver surfaces, inside and out. Mike Jones, our brilliant Head of Photography, then took a set of stunning new post-cleaning photos for this story and for the historic record.
Researching the Trophies
While researching prior to display, I realised that very little was known about when, why and how The Boat Race trophies were made, and the knowledge that did exist was dispersed among some of the more senior members of The Boat Race Committee, former sponsors and the various makers.
So, I tracked down as many people as I could who were directly involved in the commissioning and making process, and this Boatie Story is a record of those conversations, and a celebration of combined vision, creativity and teamwork.
But in order to understand fully the brilliance of the design of both trophies and the significance of their various decorative elements, you have to understand what The Boat Race is all about, so I’m starting off with some facts, history and stats.
The Boat Race Today
‘The Boat Race’ is the collective name now used to describe six rowing races that take place each year between the University boat clubs of Cambridge and Oxford, over the same Championship Course on The Tideway.
The Men’s Boat Race and The Women’s Boat Race are for the top crews, which are also referred to as The Blue Boats. The Men’s Reserve Race and The Women’s Reserve Race are for the second boats. The Cambridge Men’s Reserve Crew is called Goldie after rower and Boat Club President John Goldie (1849–1896) while the Oxford Men's Reserve Crew is called Isis after the section of the Thames that runs through Oxford, on which they train. The Cambridge Women’s Reserve Crew is called Blondie (after the famous band); Oxford’s is Osiris; both playful responses to the male names. All four are ‘open weight’ races. These four races are rowed on the same day, starting 20 minutes apart, and currently raced in this order:
- Women’s Blue Boat
- Women’s Reserve Crew
- Men’s Reserve Crew
- Men’s Blue Boat.
We are delighted to be able to include in The Boat Race Trophies Display at the Fitz, the two trophies awarded to the winning Men’s and Women’s Reserve Crews.
The Lightweight Men’s Boat Race and The Lightweight Women’s Boat Race are ‘weight-restricted’, with the maximum body weight for any Men’s crew member being 72.5 kg, with a crew average of 70 kg; and with the maximum body weight for any Women’s crew member being 59 kg, with a crew average of 57 kg. These races take place in advance of the open-weight races.
All six races are rowed in eight-oared boats, with eight rowers seated behind each other, and a cox in the stern (the back of the boat). All six crews are selected from current students who are required to train as elite athletes alongside their full-time academic courses, and many have gone on to row internationally and some have become famous Olympians. Other Blues rowers are better remembered for careers off the river, including Hugh Laurie (Cambridge Blue Boat, 1980), and Dan Snow (Oxford Blue Boat in 1999, 2000 and 2001).
The Origins of The Boat Race
Or a conversation between two Charlies
The Men’s Boat Race came about nearly 200 years ago after discussions between two Charlies: the sport-mad friends Charles Merivale of St John’s College, Cambridge and Charles Wordsworth (nephew of poet William) of Christ Church, Oxford. Having met during the vacation and gone for a row on the River Cam, the young sportsmen decided to set up a challenge. On 10 February 1829, Cambridge University Boat Club (CUBC) requested that its Captain, Mr W. Snow of St John’s College, Cambridge, write immediately to his OUBC counterpart, Mr T. Staniforth of Christ Church, Oxford, stating that:
the University of Cambridge hereby challenge the University of Oxford to row a match at or near London, each in an eight-oared boat during the ensuing Easter vacation.
The First Boat Race in 1829
This led to the first Men’s Boat Race taking place on 10 June 1829 at Henley-on-Thames. Billed as the ‘Grand rowing match between the Oxonians and Cantabs’, Cambridge rowed in a brand new boat called the ‘Cam’, which Snow had expressly commissioned from Searle’s of Lambeth, with funds from the Lady Margaret Boat Club, because the fledgling CUBC had no funds or boats of its own. Following usual practice of painting the boat in its owner’s colours, the ‘Cam’ sported the bright pink of LMBC’s pink and white rowing jerseys of the time.
Contemporary accounts described the flamboyant pink ‘Cam’ as ‘good to look at but bad to go’ and ‘far inferior in the water’ to Oxford’s boat, the ‘Old Balliol’, a more sober green vessel that had been built by the great Oxford boat builder, Stephen Davies. Oxford won ‘easily’, and you can see the winning craft on display in Henley’s River and Rowing Museum.
The Birth of the Light Blues and Dark Blues
The second University Boat Race did not take place until 1836, when it was rowed on the Thames in London. It was this race that really established the crew colours: Oxford again wore white and dark blue striped jerseys, and Cambridge wore white, but – at the very last minute – attached an Eton Blue ribbon as a talisman to their bows (their Captain was an Etonian). Cambridge went on to win in spectacular fashion by 20 lengths and nearly a minute ahead of Oxford in the 36-minute epic row from Westminster to Putney.
Little wonder that Cambridge decided to adopt this victorious blue colour, and by the third Boat Race (1839), they had added light blue stripes to their white jerseys. Later on, the white stripe was dropped in favour of solid blue for the racing jerseys. This is what gave the name to the ‘Blue’ title awarded to competitors by their respective University, and why sportsmen and sportswomen who represent Cambridge University are referred to as the Light Blues; and Oxford as the Dark Blues.
The Championship Course and the Coin Toss
The Men’s Boat Race was only held intermittently from 1829 until 1856, when it became an annual fixture, and it’s been rowed every year since then, except in 1915–1919 (due to the First World War), 1940–1945 (due to the Second World War) and 2020, when it was cancelled due to the Covid pandemic. The teams row side-by-side on the Championship Course, a winding stretch of the River Thames’ Tideway measuring 4 miles and 374 yards long (6.8 km) between Putney and Mortlake, and which takes the rowers under the bridges at Hammersmith and Barnes.
The Coin Toss determines on which side (‘station’) of the Thames the crews will race, either ‘Middlesex’ (northern side) or ‘Surrey’ (southern side). The Men’s teams toss a gold sovereign dated 1829 (the date of the first Men’s Boat Race) while the Women’s teams use a 1927 gold sovereign (the date of the first Women’s Boat Race), acquired by Gold Medal Olympic rower Sir Matthew Pinsent for the ground-breaking 2015 race. Each station has its pros and cons, relating to how the river bends, and on wind direction and currents on Race Day.
Health and Safety Concerns Move The Boat Race to The Fens
Only twice in Boat Race history has the course been moved from the Thames. In 1944, during the Second World War, it was felt too dangerous to have large crowds gathering along the banks of the Thames, and so the contest was moved to the more rural fens, and rowed on the Great Ouse in Ely. Oxford won but as this was an unofficial race it was not recorded on the Men’s trophy.
In 2021, due to a combination of Hammersmith Bridge remaining closed for structural repairs and concerns about large crowds mingling during the Covid pandemic, The Boat Race returned to the River Great Ouse, but without any spectators permitted on the river banks.
The First Women’s Boat Race
The first Women’s Boat Race took place in 1927 on the Isis in Oxford. Consisting of six women from St Hilda’s, two from Oxford Home-Students, and one from Somerville, the Oxford Women’s crew wore the white jerseys and dark blue shorts of the recently founded Oxford University Women’s Boat Club (OUWBC; May 1926).
Since Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club (CUWBC) was not founded by Newnham and Girton until 1941, and Girton did not permit its students to row in eights, the Cambridge crew was made up entirely of members of the Newnham College Boat Club (NCBC). This explains why they wore brown shorts with their white jerseys: NCBC’s colours were dark brown with gold trim, popularly referred to as ‘mud and mustard’!
And it also explains why many – including Cambridge rowing historians Carol Williams and Jane Kingsbury who co-authored Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club 1941–2014, The Struggle against Inequality – prefer to regard 1941 as the first true Women’s Boat Race, when the newly-founded CUWBC raced OUBC for the first time.
As Carol told me,
According to Cambridge views, the 1927–1939 women's races were not true Boat Races since at Cambridge only Newnham raised a crew and hence it was a race of a single Cambridge college versus OUBC (founded in 1926). I explained this to Claire Balding before the 2015 Boat Race but the BBC have insisted on using 1927 as the date of the first Boat Race. You will see that this makes quite a large difference in the overall statistics. If you start from 1941, then Cambridge has won the Women’s Boat Race 43 time to Oxford’s 23.
Frustratingly for Carol and Jane, Cambridge University Boat Club considers 1927 to be the date of the first Women’s Boat Race which is why the records start with this on the base of the Newton Women’s Trophy.
It is frequently stated that The Times recorded how ‘large and hostile crowds gathered on the towpath’. But this is an urban myth as rowing historian Tim Koch’s blog makes clear. According to The Western Morning News, the Oxford University authorities did try to discourage male students gathering in large numbers to spectate:
The authorities at Oxford do not like the idea of a large crowd of men students being present in a spirit of idle curiosity, so the race will start at 1:15 p.m., in the hope that the conflict with the lunch hour will keep spectators away.
This failed miserably. Indeed, according to the report of The Sheffield Independent,
There was an enormous crowd on the towpath, and enthusiastic undergraduates flung confetti and streamers over the river and blew toy trumpets along the towpath. In the general melee one of the judges twice fell off his bicycle.
Ridiculous as it sounds now, the two female crews were not permitted on the river at the same time, so rather than having a side-by-side contest like their male counterparts, the race was to be decided on points awarded by the two coaches for ‘speed’ and ‘style’ (the latter defined as ‘steadiness, finish, rhythm and other matters of style’) with each crew rowing down-stream for style and back again for speed. Since the coaches couldn’t agree on the matter of style, the competition was settled purely on speed with Oxford winning, having rowed the course in 3 minutes 26 seconds, 14 seconds faster than Cambridge.
An Ongoing Struggle for Sporting Equality
The next seven Women’s (or NCBC v OUWBC) Boat Races occurred intermittently between 1929 and 1939 and were rowed in various locations (Cam, Isis, Tideway, and Thames). In 1936, the contest became side-by side for the first time. As Carol Williams explained to me:
After 1941, which I consider the first true Women’s Boat Race, the contest was held in 1942 and then each year from 1944 until 1948. Then, due to an unfortunate accident of the Oxford women allowing one of their boats to go over a weir, the crew were banned from rowing on the Isis for a decade.
It was not until 1964 that the Women’s Boat Race became an annual event, and even then, the ‘Sweaty Betties’ (as the Cambridge women rowers were called) were not permitted to wear Light Blue. As Averil Wootton (who rowed for CUWBC from 1964–66) recalled,
We were not allowed to use Varsity blue; instead of that particular shade of duckegg/pale turquoise it had to be Sky blue, the standard light blue of the time. Moreover, I assume, just to make the point that we were nothing to do with the Blue Boat, we had a white stripe across the blade. To me, it suggested a Bar Sinister, with the suggestion of illegitimacy.
In 1977, the Women’s Boat Race moved to Henley (where the Men’s Lightweight Race was already established) and was conducted along a 1.2 mile (2 km) stretch of river, from the Henley Royal Regatta finish to Temple Island. In 1981, Sue Brown became the first woman to compete in the Men’s Boat Race, as the cox for Oxford, steering them to victory by 8 lengths. Carole Burton became the first woman to cox a Cambridge Men’s Boat in 1986, likewise steering her crew to victory, with a 7-length margin.
The Tide Turns in Favour of Sporting Parity
Calls for the Women’s Boat Race to be put on an equal footing with the Men’s grew ever louder. In 2014, the Women’s Boat Race was rowed at Henley for the last time, and it was to mark this occasion and the move to London, that Rod Kelly was commissioned by Newton to make a new Women’s Boat Race trophy. The critical role of Newton’s CEO, Helena Morrissey was clarified by Tim Koch in his insightful Boat Race sponsorship blog post of January 2016:
As has often been the case with such deals, there is one remarkable individual that is the driving force behind the massive support that Newton has given to the women. In this case it is Newton’s CEO, Helena Morrissey, one of the founders of the 30 Per Cent Club, which is committed to bringing more women on to UK corporate boards. […] From the start her logic was simple: if the men were to be sponsored, the women would be as well – and would receive equal funding. From this, it was only natural that all the Blue Boats should all race on the same day on the same course, something that eventually happened in 2015.
In 2015, the Women’s Boat Race moved permanently to the Tideway, and has been rowed ever since on the same Championship Course and on the same day as the Men’s; the Women’s Reserve Race also joined the Tideway races in 2015 (but was rowed the day before) being moved to the same day in 2016, when Boat Race parity was finally achieved. In 2020, the Cambridge University Boat Club was re-formed as a single club for men and women, but in Oxford the clubs are still separate entities. In 2021, Sarah Winckless MBE became the first woman to umpire the Men’s Boat Race.
Boat Race: Facts & Stats
Talking of umpires, in 1877, The Boat Race was declared a ‘dead heat’, the only time this has ever happened. According to another urban rowing legend, the Umpire ‘Honest John’ Phelps, was asleep under a bush as the race ended, leading him to announce the result as a “dead heat to Oxford by four feet”.
In defence of her forebear, British rowing legend Annamarie Phelps CBE told me,
I would suggest that the result wasn’t questionable, the race was just so close that without the aid of an aligned marker and modern technology, it simply couldn’t be called.
And this view is borne out by contemporary accounts, with The Times reporting how:
Oxford, partially disabled, were making effort after effort to hold their rapidly waning lead, while Cambridge, who, curiously enough, had settled together again, and were rowing almost as one man, were putting on a magnificent spurt at 40 strokes to the minute, with a view of catching their opponents before reaching the winning-post.
Thus struggling over the remaining portion of the course, the two eights raced past the flag alongside one another, and the gun fired amid a scene of excitement rarely equalled and never exceeded. Cheers for one crew were succeeded by counter-cheers for the other, and it was impossible to tell what the result was until the Press boat backed down to the Judge and inquired the issue. John Phelps, the waterman, who officiated, replied that the noses of the boats passed the post strictly level, and that the result was a dead heat.
Cambridge has won the last four Women’s Boat Races and the last three Men’s Boat Races, and it’s also won more Boat Races overall: Cambridge women have won 45 (to Oxford’s 30) and Cambridge men have won 85 (to Oxford’s 80).
Excluding the ‘dead heat’ of 1877, the closest ever Men’s Boat Race was in 2003, when Oxford won by just a foot, and the fastest ever Men’s Boat Race was in 1998, when Cambridge won by 3 lengths in the record-breaking time of 16 minutes and 19 seconds. The Cambridge Women’s Crew also currently holds the record for the fastest Championship Course time, with a time of 18 minutes and 33 seconds set in 2017.
Boat Race Popularity and Cockney Slang
The popularity of The Boat Race is underlined by the enormous crowds that turn up without fail every year to watch, despite often dreadful weather. Indeed, so close is it to the hearts of East Enders that it has entered Cockney Rhyming Slang with ‘Boat Race’ (abbreviated to ‘Boat’) meaning ‘face’. So do take it as a compliment if a Cockney tells you “you’ve got a nice boat”!
Better Boats but Not Necessarily Better Results
The rowing boats (‘eights’) and oars (‘blades’) have been modified and improved over time but interestingly enough the University responsible for bringing in the innovations did not necessarily win: outriggers were used by both crews for the first time in 1846 (Cambridge won); sliding seats by both crews in 1873 (Cambridge won); ‘swivel’ rowlocks by Oxford in 1902 (Cambridge won); plastic boats by Oxford in 1977 (Oxford won); and ‘hatchet’ blades by Cambridge in 1993 (Cambridge won).
There have been some famous Boat Race disasters.
In 1912, due to appalling weather conditions, there was a famous ‘double ducking’ with both boats becoming water-logged and the crews having to abandon ship, resulting in a second race being held the following day, which Oxford won by 6 lengths. Even more catastrophically, in 1984, the Cambridge boat collided with a barge on the way to the start, wrecking its boat, so the race had to be postponed until the following day when, to add insult to injury, Oxford won by 3¾ lengths.
The Boat Race Trophies on Display at The Fitz
Now that you’re all experts on The Boat Race, it’s time to tell you about the silver trophies on show at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. With thanks to Siobhan Cassidy, Donald Legget, the Boat Race Company Ltd and CUBC, five trophies connected with The Boat Race are now on extended public display. In pride of place on the top shelf are the current Men’s Boat Race Trophy (The Aberdeen ‘Quaich’) and the current Women’s Boat Race Trophy (The Newton Trophy), which have been presented to the winning Blue Boat crew since 2000 and 2014 respectively.
These are joined on the bottom shelf by three further trophies. On one side is The Francombe Cup, which as the first Women’s Boat Race trophy (presented from 1936 until some point before 1989) is discussed in greater detail below. On the other side is a pair of rarely seen and less high quality trophies. This comprises the Men’s Reserve Boat Race Trophy (The Isis-Goldie Cup) which, hallmarked in Birmingham in 1973, was first presented at the Silver Jubilee race in 1977; and the Women’s Reserve Boat Race Trophy (The Osiris-Blondie Cup) which was commissioned by the 1991 Blondie Crew.
My story focuses in particular on the commissioning and making of the two current Blue Boat trophies, as these really are works of art in their own right, showcasing great design and making skills. Interestingly, they also represent the two alternative ways of creating an artwork in silver: the Men’s trophy was designed and made by a number of different highly skilled silversmiths, working on separate aspects but ultimately together as a team (equivalent, in rowing terms, to an eight), while the Women’s trophy was entirely designed and made by a single highly skilled silversmith (equivalent, in rowing terms, to a single scull).
The Trophies for The Men’s Boat Race
The history of the Men’s Boat Race trophy in particular is tied up with the history of sponsorship, and as sponsors have changed, so too have the trophies.
I am reliably informed by Boat Race historian Tim Koch, that The Boat Race sponsors to date have been as follows:
- Ladbrokes (1976–1986)
- Beefeater (1987–1998)
- Aberdeen Asset Management (1999–2003)
- Xchanging (2004–2012)
- BNY Mellon (2013–2019)
- Newton Investment Management, a part of BNY Mellon (2014–2019)
- Gemini (2021–)
The idea of a trophy for The Boat Race only came in with sponsorship. Before that, each University gave each crew member a medal, though I’m not sure if you had to win to get one or if you just had to take part. However, the most valuable ‘trophy’ for the individual rower has, of course, always been the award of a ‘Blue’, and the right to wearing the blazer, cap, scarf, socks and tie that come with it.
As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, the current Men’s trophy is the third to have been awarded.
The First Men’s Boat Race Trophy
The Ladbroke Trophy (awarded 1977–1986)
Information about the first trophy is patchy, but thankfully, David Searle (one-time Executive Director of The Boat Race Company Ltd) was able to fill me in a bit. David told me,
As far as I am aware, until 1977, there was no trophy for The Men’s Boat Race. There was no ceremony after the Race and the crews simply got out of the boats and a few individuals were interviewed. The first trophy was commissioned by the betting and leisure activities group Ladbrokes, the first Boat Race sponsors. They started their sponsorship in 1977, after giving the event £5,000 in 1976. For the 1977 Boat Race (their sponsorship had gone up to £10,000), they commissioned a trophy and medals for both the winners and the losers. I don’t know how long the Losers’ Medals lasted as they were deeply unpopular, mainly because Cambridge kept being awarded them, and the 1978 Cambridge crew even threw theirs into the Thames!
Nor have I been able to find out who designed and made the rather poignant silver relief of the exhausted rower shown post-Race, slumped over in the seat with head bowed and hands off the oar.
From old photographs, the inscription engraved on a silver plaque at the bottom can just be made out, which stated:
‘THE LADBROKE TROPHY / PRESENTED TO THE WINNERS OF THE / LADBROKE OXFORD & CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY BOAT RACE’.
The Ladbroke Trophy continued to be awarded until 1987, with Oxford winning it every year except for 1986, when Cambridge won by 7 lengths.
After Beefeater Gin took over sponsorship in 1987, the Ladbroke Trophy was decommissioned. Heaven knows where it is now. Oxford must have been the holders as they won every Race between 1976 and 1992, except for 1986.
So, please do get in touch with us if you know of its current whereabouts as we’d love to track it down!
The Second Men’s Boat Race Trophy
The Beefeater Trophy (awarded 1987–1998)
In 1987, sponsorship of the Men’s Boat Race was taken up by Beefeater Gin, whose chairman, Alan Burrough, had been a triple rowing Blue at Cambridge in the late 1930s. They provided a new trophy in the form a small silver Beefeater, but the name of the silversmith responsible is not recorded. This was awarded at The Boat Race every year from 1987 until 1998, after which it was decommissioned.
The Beefeater Trophy was known to be floating around Cambridge rowing circles until at least 2015, but its current whereabouts are unknown, so again please do own up if it’s gathering dust on your mantelpiece!
The Third (current) Men’s Boat Race Trophy
The Aberdeen ‘Quaich’ (awarded 2000-present)
In 1999, the international investment management group Aberdeen Asset Management took over as Boat Race sponsors and for obvious reasons felt that a Beefeater-shaped trophy was no longer appropriate. They had already worked with London-based silversmith Nicholas Winton, renowned for creating bespoke silver cups for major sporting events, and so they approached him to see if he would be interested in creating a new trophy for the Men’s Boat Race. When I contacted Nicholas and asked him about the design process he told me,
There wasn’t really a design brief but given the sponsor’s Scottish roots, the trophy was to be called ‘The Quaich’, and we were keen to try to incorporate the form of this traditional Gaelic two-handled drinking vessel with shallow bowl into the design. The only other stipulation was that the trophy had to be an eye-catching feature on the victor’s podium, and its base elements had to be large enough to incorporate all the winners’ records from 1829 until 1999, and with room for future records too.
Creating the design was very much a collaborative process between Aberdeen Asset Management, the Boat Race Committee (especially Duncan Clegg), Nicholas and his freelance designer, silversmith Rachel Hopkins (now Head Creative Designer at Theo Fennell Ltd).
On receiving the invitation to work on the trophy, Rachel told me:
I remember Nick Winton ringing me to say there was an opportunity to design the Boat Race trophy and wondered if I was interested as I had done some Formula One trophies previously! My answer? Hell yes! We jointly agreed that it needed to be inspired by the very fluid shape of the boats, oars and riggers.
My sister was rowing for Monmouth at the time so I met her on several occasions to get a better understanding of what’s involved in rowing and to study the shape of the boats and blades. I wanted the trophy to be tall and sleek with an overall design that is elegant and stream-lined. This led to the Quaich’s two handles being inspired by the riggers, and the supports being made in the form of oars.
In order to visibly herald the winner, I devised two different and easy-to-attach finials for the lid of the Quaich, in the shape of a heraldic animal associated with the respective Universities and their boat clubs: a lion for Cambridge and an ox for Oxford. If Cambridge wins, the lion finial is quickly screwed in place, but if Oxford wins, then it is replaced with the ox.
By holding the finial, you can remove the lid to reveal the interior of the Quaich. Following a suggestion of Mr Clegg from the Boat Race Committee, the inside was engraved with a map recording the Championship Course. It’s great fun to see people’s faces when they take the lid off and they discover this unexpected element hidden inside.
Designing and Making the Trophy
In terms of how she actually made the design, Rachel told me,
I initially sketched shapes and ideas and then drew it up on the computer. I then hand-painted the final drawings and presented full-scale ideas to Aberdeen Asset Management. I think I gave them four options in total. They liked all of them but in the end chose the one they preferred.
Converting the two-dimensional design into a three-dimensional object involved many other skilled silversmiths, as Rachel revealed:
Once the final design had been agreed on, I prepared scaled-up technical drawings for Nicholas Winton and his team to work to. I had no part in converting these into the silver cup: that was left to his silversmiths who used the whole range of silversmithing techniques – spinning, smithing, forming, and scoring, engraving and polishing. It was really lovely that they also included my name in tiny letters at the bottom, as it was such an honour to be able to work on the trophy for this iconic rowing race, which I’ve loved watching since I was a kid.
I quizzed Nicholas Winton about the materials and techniques used. Nick recalled how:
The trophy was made from sterling silver with the Quaich and sheet areas being spun, and the finials and the oars cast. The spinnings and castings were combined with the smithing to create the Quaich, and then the cup was carefully engraved with all the historic records from 1829 until 1999. Each record had to include the date, the name of the winning crew, and the winning margin. Before final polishing, we added the obligatory hallmarks: my maker’s mark (my initials ‘NW’); the lion passant (indicating that the material used is sterling silver), the number ‘925’ (the modern convention mark for sterling silver); the leopard’s head (indicating that the place of production was London) and the letter ‘a’ (the date letter for 2000, the year of manufacture).
The whole process, from start to finish, took about 18 weeks. It was a pleasure to be involved in such a high-profile commission, and wonderful to be invited to the 2000 Boat Race by the sponsors, when the Quaich was inaugurated. Although Aberdeen is no longer the sponsor, with Xchanging, BNY Mellon and now Gemini getting involved, the cup they commissioned is still being awarded, which is wonderful, and it’s a thrill to see it being presented year in, year out.
The Women’s Silver Trophies
As far as can be ascertained, there have also been three different trophies for the Women’s Boat Race, but this was due to temporary misplacement rather than changes in sponsorship. We are delighted that the first ever Women’s trophy, The Francombe Cup, is on display below the current Newton Trophy.
The First Women’s Boat Race Trophy
The Francombe Cup (awarded 1936–unknown date, before 1989)
The Francombe Cup (awarded 1936–unknown date, before 1989)
Details about the first Women’s Boat Race trophy are sparse but as Annamarie Phelps told me,
It was called the Francombe Cup after its donor, Miss F.E. (Betty) Francombe, who was Stroke of the Oxford Crew in 1929 and OUWBC Coach from 1931 until 1936. She donated it the year she retired as Coach. It was lost for many years, and so a replacement trophy in the form of a shield was commissioned by Dr John Marks, a great champion of women’s rowing at Cambridge. The Francombe Cup was later found, and has been re-purposed as the Victor Ludorum Cup for the most successful university at the Henley Boat Races.
The Francombe Cup has now been lovingly cleaned by Conservation Masters student Lily Griffin and its hallmarks deciphered, revealing it to have been made by William Neale & Sons Ltd in Birmingham in 1934. It is proudly inscribed on the front, ‘OXFORD AND CAMBRIDGE / WOMENS BOAT CLUBS / CHALLENGE CUP / PRESENTED BY / MISS F.E. FRANCOMBE / 1936 / OXFORD STROKE 1929 / OXFORD COACH 1931–1936’.
The Second Women’s Boat Race Trophy
The Marks Shield (awarded 1989–2013)
By way of replacement, Dr John Marks (Senior Treasurer of CUWBC) donated a wooden shield adorned with mini silver crests. These were engraved each year with the year of the Boat Race, the winning side, and the winning margin. It was used from 1989 until 2013. Rather lacking from an aesthetic point of view, The Marks Shield clearly made a minimal impression on the victors. When I asked Olympic rower Catherine Bishop, who was part of the winning Cambridge Women’s crew in 1993, for her reflections on the Boat Race and the trophy, she confessed:
For me, it was never about the trophy, which in my day was a shield. It was more about what the trophy represented that I still treasure: shared experiences, lifelong friendships, an exploration of my physical and mental capabilities, belonging to a unique team who have been through incredible highs and lows together, in order to prepare to be our best when we lined up to race the Boat Race.
The Third (current) Women’s Boat Race trophy
The Newton Trophy (awarded 2014–present)
Newton Investment Management took over sponsorship of the Women’s Boat Race in 2011, and heavily invested in new equipment as well as branded kit, whilst keeping the old Marks Shield. In 2014, Newton commissioned a new silver trophy ‘to mark a new era of sporting equality’ ahead of the historic venue move from Henley to London in 2015. It was presented for the first time by Olympic Gold medallist Sophie Hosking at the 2014 Women’s Boat Race in Henley ‘as a symbolic link between the two Race locations.’
At the unveiling ceremony held a few weeks before the race, Helena Morrissey, CEO of Newton Investment Management commented:
This magnificent trophy means that there is now a prize that truly reflects all of the commitment made by the scholar athletes to their sport and is another step towards parity between the Men’s and Women’s Boat Races. We are delighted to have been able to facilitate the development of such a key piece of art and to be able to contribute so fully to the longevity of the Race.
Commissioning, Designing and Making
Rod Kelly reveals all
The Women’s Boat Race trophy was commissioned from Norfolk-based Rod Kelly, one of the UK’s leading silversmiths. In reply to my question about the commissioning process and the role of the sponsors, Rod told me:
Newton initially looked at several folios of work by several artists and I was very fortunate to be chosen. We then had lengthy discussions about a design brief. I had previously designed and made several horse-racing trophies and had the confidence that the design would be a great success. I was given plenty of time to develop ideas and finally made a presentation to the small committee that had been formed to oversee the Women’s Boat Race Trophy. This comprised of Annamarie Phelps on behalf of CUWBC, Annabel Eyres on behalf of OUWBC and Clare Blackmore on behalf of Newton.
Happily, they all loved the designs I had come up with, so we agreed a timetable and a budget, and I started work on the trophy. Newton were very supportive all the way along the journey from conception to completion as they really understood what designing and making a trophy involves. They were a wonderful company to work with, and sent me a lovely warm rowing fleece and chocolates to keep me going in the workshop during the cold winter months, and they even commissioned a Lego model of my design as a surprise!
The design process for the Women’s trophy was another highly successful collaboration between the sponsors, the two University Boat Clubs and the silversmith, with everyone having the chance to input ideas over the 18-month period it took to make the cup. Rod recalls how,
The Universities were asked for their comments, and feedback was given to Newton who then relayed the observations to me. I wanted to get a feel for rowing and the boats, and so I met with the two Captains, and I was invited to join a Light Blue training session. Despite it being at 6am on a very cold autumn morning, it was an amazing experience, and I realised just what sacrifices they made to rowing. They caught the first train to Ely, jogged to the Rowing Club hut, used dire changing facilities to change, took to the river with their expensive hulls, and worked out on the water with the coach in the freezing cold. They then had a quick change, no shower and were back on the train for a 9am lecture. That was real commitment, and three times a week. Understanding all of this, just added to the privilege of being asked to make a Trophy that would be awarded each year to the winning crew, and act as a focus for their celebrations.
In terms of the materials, form and iconographic elements used in the trophy, Rod told me,
I’ve always used sterling silver. It’s nice and hard and responsive, and lovely to chase. I deliberately chose a square shape for the trophy, rather than a more traditional round one, because from whichever angle you view it from, it always catches the light. Each square side panel was formed and hammered by hand with a slight curve in it. Rising from the bottom of each is a thin pointed shape recalling the bow of a rowing boat, surrounded by swirling lines, chased in to represent the flow of water as the hull cuts through. The four ebony columns represent the oars.
The base is chased with symbols representing the parties involved. On one side is the Lion of what was then Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club surrounded by water and the side directly opposite has the Crown of Oxford University Women’s Boat Club also surrounded by waves. The other two sides are decorated with two apples and weighing scales which both represents the sponsors Newton as Investment Bankers and is a tongue in cheek reference to Isaac Newton. As with many pieces of silver I have made, the inside has a gilt finish, which makes it look very rich and elegant.
The construction was evidently tricky and time-consuming with Rod confiding,
The square body was made in four sections and soldered together. All of the component parts were made from flat sheet 1.1 mm thick, folded, hammered and soldered to produce the required shapes. As I have made many pieces before and had spent several hours working out exactly how it would be made it was really just a case of following a plan and executing each piece perfectly. If it does not work first time you have to take it apart and get it right! I had previously made a model in paper card and wood. The base is also made from 1.1 mm sheet, shaped and soldered together. Having worked for over 30 years you rely on your experience and skill. There is no substitute for experience.
Recording the Winners
As with the Men’s Trophy, it was felt important to record all historic winners. The earliest records, from 1927 to 2013, were engraved on a silver plaque positioned underneath the base of the trophy. The winning crews from 2014, when the Newton trophy was first awarded, were recorded on the rim around the top of the cup, with lots of room left for the names of future winners.
I asked Rod for his final reflections and he told me,
I attended both the unveiling ceremony for the trophy and the Women’s Boat Race in 2014, when it was first presented, both hosted by Newton as sponsors. I was lucky enough to meet Sir Steve Redgrave as well as the winning Oxford crew, and I had a thoroughly enjoyable day. I still very much enjoy watching the crews race each year at this unique event, and it fills me with pride to see my trophy being presented. I’m thrilled to hear that the trophy’s going on display in the Fitzwilliam, so it can be seen and admired by many more people, rowers and non-rowers alike.
Curator's Closing Thoughts
Like Rod Kelly, Nick Winton and Rachel Hopkins, I’m delighted that The Boat Race Trophies display will be on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum from Tuesday 9 November 2021 as this is a great way to celebrate sporting prowess and artistic achievement.
The start of The Boat Race Trophies Display at the Fitz deliberately coincides with two key dates in the open weight 2022 Boat Race timeline. On Saturday 13 November 2021, the new Cambridge and Oxford crews will be racing against each other for the first time in ‘The Fours Head’ on The Tideway; and on Thursday 18 November, the Presidents’ Challenge will take place in London, when the Oxford OUBC and OUWBC Presidents (as the losers of the 2021 Boat Race) officially challenge the CUBC’s Men’s President and Women’s President (as winners) to the 2022 Boat Race.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this Boatie Blog and that you will be inspired to see the Boat Race Trophies for yourself? If so, be sure to visit the Fitz before Monday 28 March 2022, when they leave Cambridge and head over to the Thames for Boat Race Day 2022 (Sunday 3 April), as depending on who wins, we may only be getting one trophy back, or none at all!
And if you want to know what the rowers think of the trophies, check out: 'Trophy Talk: Rowers Reflections on The Boat Race Trophies'.
Huge thanks to everyone who helped me in the preparation of this digital long form story especially silversmiths Rachel Hopkins, Rod Kelly and Nicholas Winton and the sporting contingent:
Nick Brooking (Director of Sport, University of Cambridge Sports Centre) and Siobhan Cassidy as well as Robert Gillespie and David Searle (Boat Race Company Ltd) and Donald Legget (CUBC) as well as other former Blues rowers and Boat Race experts: Göran Buckhorn, Len Dunne, Tina Goode, Jane Kingsbury, Tim Koch, Annamarie Phelps, Alister Taylor, Carol Williams and Jon O’Donoghue (River & Rowing Museum, Henley).
And many thanks to all my wonderful colleagues at the Fitz for their help with the display and its promotion: Lynda Clark, Jo Dillon, Lily Griffin, Tracy Harding, Mike Jones, My Linh Le, Andrew Maloney, Tim Matthews, Dan Pett, Helena Rodwell, Sophie Rowe, Elena Saggers, Emma Shaw, Neal Spencer, Luke Syson, Phil Wheeler and Liz Woods.
Further Reading and Links
For The Boat Race and its history: The Boat Race and Wikipedia
For Jane Kingsbury and Carol Williams, Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club 1941–2014, The Struggle against Inequality
For the first men’s Boat Race of 1829 and Cambridge’s Pink Boat
For the time trials of 2021
For the next Boat Race on Sunday 3 April 2022
For Cambridge University Boat Club (formed in 2020)
For Oxford University Boat Club (men only)
For Oxford University Women’s Boat Club
For a list of the men’s Cambridge University Boat Race Crews
For a list of the Cambridge University Women’s Boat Race Crews
For a list of Oxford University Boat Race Crews
For a history of sponsorship of The Boat Race