12 March 2024

In the Pink book event

by Irene Hewlett, Leander Librarian

The first evening of the second series of Rowing Book Talks hosted by Leander Librarian Irene Hewlett was held on Thursday 7 March. This evening was about the history of rowing at Westminster School detailed in the meticulously researched book In the Pink, a History of the Water at Westminster School by Chris Seward. Having been inspired by the 200-year anniversary of the school boat club, Seward spent 7 years researching and writing. Despite breaking his wrist very recently, he was present and ready at Leander Club to tell us the ins and outs.

While the book is specifically about Westminster School Boat Club (WSBC), it is also about rowing history in general, as WSBC is the oldest recorded amateur rowing club in history. The first record of rowing at Westminster School dates back to 1813 when the Head of Water (Head of Rowing at Westminster) started the Water Ledger. It was written by the Head of Water for their eyes and those of their successors only, so not all the language in there was suitable for Seward’s publication! The Water Ledger was kept until 1997 when – probably due to the digital age – no new ledger was started when the old one was full.

The book details many early races, both within the school and against crews from other schools and clubs, including Leander Club. These accounts include descriptions of the boats that were used, which developed from large fixed-seat wooden boats to the introduction of leather seat padding, sliding seats and outriggers through the ages. 

The first “General Rules of Matches on the River Thames” was published in the Westminster Water Ledger in the 1840s. The rules detail that fouling (as in colliding) is allowed after the first half mile only (as opposed to rowing nowadays where this is certainly not allowed). In one of the early Eton-Westminster matches, Eton fouled Westminster at ¼ mile, which was not allowed, so the match was restarted. In the second chance, Eton had learnt their lesson and instead fouled Westminster at ¾ miles and went on to win by three lengths. Rowing was also subject to strict rules from the Headmaster at the time and on some occasions (e.g. smoking and drinking in the boat house), the rowers would not be allowed to go out and would be punished by having to write 200 lines of Homer daily for two weeks!

The second half of the book details results of more recent races and traces Westminster pupils through their rowing achievements beyond school. The style of the book makes it feel as if Seward is standing on the bank watching the rowing and giving us a running commentary. There were stories in the room from one of those present where it turned out that one of the Henley Royal Regatta races detailed in the book was the first day ever that she had ever attended HRR and the day she met her husband. The WSBC history continues until the start of COVID in 2020 and is truly fascinating! In the Pink is for sale at https://wsbc-in-the.pink/

The library at Leander Club is one of the most comprehensive collections of rowing books and documents in the world. It is owned by the Leander Trust, which is a registered charity (No. 284631) to advance the education of young people and their physical education by providing facilities – including grant awards – to enable and encourage rowing and sculling; and to help by providing facilities for recreation for those who need such facilities because of their youth, social or economic circumstances. The charity has created opportunities for young people who did not have access to rowing, but now have offers to study at American universities on full rowing scholarships! It is truly making a difference in the lives of young people.

The next Rowing Book Talk in Series 2 of the Leander Library Rowing Book Talks is on Thursday 16  May at 7pm with John Beresford, author of the biography An Olympian at War about his father, the eminent Olympic rower Jack Beresford. 

Tickets are available for sale here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/book-talk-john-beresford-an-olympian-at-war-tickets-788944001747

The Rowing Book Talks are open to all and run in aid of the Leander Trust and the ticket price includes a generous finger buffet in the beautiful dining room at Leander Club overlooking the River Thames.

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