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Pocketmags Digital Magazines
US
Pocketmags Digital Magazines

1869

Harvard v Oxford: The Grandest Boating Struggle Of Modern Time

One hundred and fifty years ago on 27 August, a coxed four from Harvard paddled to the stakeboat at Putney alongside a representative Oxford crew. More than half a million people went down to the Thames to watch the race on the hottest day on record, and reporters from both sides of the Atlantic prepared to fill their news pages with blistering prose. In this extract from his forthcoming novel, Chris Dodd reconstructs the day of the International Boat Race, the most widely-reported sporting event that the world had ever seen.

On Friday 27 August 1869, George Washburn, the eminent foreign correspondent for the New York Tribune, made his way to Temple pier in good time to catch the press boat, scheduled to depart at 1.30 pm. He clutched the precious ticket in his pocket; indeed, he had hardly let go of it since signing for it at the Bell’s Life office in the Strand two days before, where he had had a devil’s job persuading the officious Mr Wormald that the Tribune be accorded the same two-ticket status as the London daily and sporting papers. The authorities had relented, and Washburn gave his second ticket to the novelist Charles Reade who took a keen interest in Harvard and American affairs and whom he charged with writing an account of the race from the innocent bystander’s point of view. Reade’s an astute observer, thought Washburn, having exposed the abuses of lunatic asylums and the iniquities of ship knackers.

He had risen early, partaken of a good breakfast and taken a brisk walk along Fleet Street from his lodgings behind Twining’s tea emporium to his garret at the News office. The day dictated the lightest of vest, jacket and trousers, and the necessity of jumping on and off steamers called for his supplest pair of boots. His forage cap would protect him from the sun, and a large silk kerchief — a pink one so as to be neutral between the magenta and blue colours of the day — would serve both as neckwear and mop of brow. There was no hint of cloud, so a defence against rain was uncalled for. In the office he had meticulously lined up all his requirements for the day and packed them into his shoulder satchel — a notebook with details of the men, their boats and their training; a blank notebook; a document wallet containing Tribune notepaper for his dispatch, tucked into his portable desk which consisted of a thin piece of wood with a sturdy pocket at its foot fashioned from a piece of wallpaper (just like the envelopes improvised by the Confederate States Army for dispatches from the battle front during the Civil War); that day’s Field, Times and News, half a dozen pencils, field binoculars, a water bottle and a medicinal silver hip flask filled with the best brandy. For his pockets, there was a chronometer, more pencils, a spare notebook, a handkerchief and a purse of coins for train fares, sustenance, bribes or any other eventuality. Satisfied with his preparations, he scanned the papers thoroughly, marking passages of interest.

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