20 April 2023

Image for the news item 'The First College Boat' on 20 Apr 2023
This 1860 photograph of the Emma Boat Club is the first to show members in rowing kit

The early years of the Emmanuel Boat Club are largely undocumented, as its minute books only survive from 1843. When Geoffrey Wynne Thomas (EBC captain, 1927) wrote a history of the boat club in 1977, marking its presumed 150th anniversary, he was forced to rely on other sources for the first fifteen years of its existence. Unfortunately, they provided little more than brief details of the inter-collegiate bumping competitions, which were first held in Lent Term 1827. Given the boat club’s important place in Emmanuel’s history (it is our oldest student society), it is pleasing to report that some additional information about its earliest days has recently been noted in the college archives. The parlour wager books, which begin in 1769, record not only bets made between senior members and their guests, but also significant college events. The volume covering 1827 contains no mention of the inaugural Lent bumps, in which an Emmanuel crew competed using a borrowed boat, but the Mays were a different matter.

On 5 May 1827, an entry notes that ‘Holder’ had contributed a bottle of claret to the parlour ‘to celebrate the launching of the Emmanuel Boat “The Sir Walter Mildmay”’. Fourteen other members also donated a bottle or two, and there was keen anticipation of the new boat’s success. John Griffith (Fellow and Tutor) offered ‘2 bottles of Claret if the Sir Walter Mildmay beats all the six-oared boats’. A note on the facing page records that ‘The Sir W Mildmay beat each boat successively & continued first six-oar until the last day when owing to a change in the crew it lost one place, but afterwards with its original crew it retrieved its honour by beating the Challenger of the whole river’. This annotation was made at Holder’s behest, as noted on 19 May: ‘Holder (The Lord High Admiral of the Emmanuel boat club) gives a bottle for the insertion of the note in the preceding page’.

These short entries yield several valuable nuggets of information. They confirm that the boat club had been formally instituted by May 1827, at the latest. As well as providing the name of the first college boat, its complement, and details of its encouraging inaugural performance, they also name the first EBC captain: William Charles Holder, a fellow commoner who had been admitted to Emmanuel in March 1826.

For a few years, the boat races continued to be the subject of wagers. In March 1828, for example, Holder bet John Barr, another fellow commoner, that ‘Provided the Caius Boat Club starts an eight-oar, the Emmanuel Boat will bump it, if it is, on any two days during the next Term, immediately behind it’. The outcome of this wager was not recorded. On 12 May 1829, William Colbeck (scholar, later Fellow) placed a losing bet with Richard Foley (Fellow) that the Jesus boat would bump the Emmanuel boat that evening. After the 1830 Lents, however, regular betting on the races ceased. The novelty had evidently worn off, and the Emmanuel boat was not achieving enough success to sustain the parlour’s interest.

‘Lord High Admiral’ William Charles Holder became a clergyman after graduating. In 1829 he was nominated stipendiary curate of Taynton, Oxfordshire, the village in which his family had been settled since the 1650s, and where he had already inherited property from an uncle. He did not enjoy his good fortune for very long, however, for he was destined to die in 1838. Appointed vicar of Cam, Gloucestershire, in 1834, it was to another Cam, perhaps, that Holder’s thoughts sometimes strayed on balmy spring days.

Amanda Goode, College Archivist

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