Wet Cats in the 1940s - Wreathed in Smiles

Why are some so feeble-brained they give up rugby & cricket at Varsity for rowing? Instead of two sets of friends (& glories) only one. As some TV commentators so presumptuously say: ‘Good Question’. There was no rowing water at my school. On leaving in 1943 the R.A.F. sent me on a 6-month University Short Course & I somehow, for some reason, wangled entry to Cats. With so brief a future there, why no try rowing? So there is no good answer to the ‘Good Question’ – but no regret ever arose from my choice of messing around in boats. The sheer magic of the wriggle and bounce of water; dazzling reflections the stage for the backdrop of dainty willows. Such scene must have an ogre – the Coach. Never mind that rude fellow! One’s good pals are all around in the same boat.
In those days the environs of Cambridge were stuffed with American servicemen who naturally stuffed the pavements, the riverine willows ad everything else you can think of. When a crew was drawn in to the river bank for Coach’s instruction it was more instructive pensively to view the multitudinous white unmentionables a-bobbing in the water. I simply report part of the history of the rowing scene. Much DNA of the USA washed away.
My demobilisation was delayed to 1947, and I managed to wangle Cats again, which was now bigger with the addition of Bull. I happily made 7 in the 2nd Fairbairn boat which rose three places to 19th. Funny how some crews mess of gel. Demoted to the 3rd boat for the Mays, that crew was a real cracker. We bumped Cauis III, Trinity V, Christs III, Dowing III and LMBC IV, I was still at 7; coach was a Cats man, AJ Glasspoole & I presume he was rewarded with a mounted prow because I certainly got my oar – still have it.
I think most sportsmen shake down into a sort of grouping of pals: a nucleus of ‘the buzz’ of the club. So, a few names of consequence grouped in the 1947-48 season & remained potent in the ensuing years. Undoubtedly the outstanding mover & shaker was an ex-army moustache which hid a quiet & modest peter Sutherland, oarsman of considerable experience from school days. It was whispered in hushed tones that his appalling pink scarf denoted membership of a distinguished club of supposedly geriatric oarsman. What was visible behind the moustache didn’t look that old. He certainly knew his way around the rowing scene – where to go, who to get to coach etc.
Spending the Long Vacation in South Africa, I returned with a great round of green ‘Roquefort’ cheese in the ship’s fridge plus a green canary from Las Palmas. The ‘family history’ records my writing ‘It sings beautifully’ – my great aunt recorded: ‘John writes from Cambridge the canary does not sing & he thinks the seller was a ventriloquist.’ The history recorded: ‘the Roquefort matured magnificently & became traditional breakfast for several of the rowing lads when he had to row in the black murk of early morning, that cold winter. They would gather in John’s rooms for a hasty breakfast of porridge, bread & Roquefort cheese. We swore we could see weevils dancing around the cheese. Oarsmen are tough – oarsmen are not afraid of weevils!’
Names & results are in archives, I presume, for anyone to see. Sadly I dumped all my lively dinner menus, so rudely inscribed, not long ago. However the 1948-49 years was undoubtedly very full. Was it then that PDBS talked us into rowing to – would you believe – Ely? Crazy! There was much talk in those days that ‘mileage makes champions’. We certainly went to race over the Boat Race course form Putney: self at 3 very worried there were no life belts along the boat’s side – the waves were fierce.
Busy as that second season was, there are no Cats trophies or emblazoned photos to remind me of successes. No doubt our efforts were bread (or Roquefort) on the waters for later times. However, a notable trophy I have which I record because I could have happened to anyone in the Club. Somehow I cam to be the ogre, The Coach, of Peterhuose II’s lent boat – another 5 bumper! Perhaps the 16mm cine film I Spent scarce money on helped my coaching. Anyway a prow adorns the handsome emblazoned Peterhouse shield on my wall (& I will report their boatman used better varnish than our Alf did with my oar).
Do boat clubs still engage in the ‘Cardinal’s Puff’ beer-drinking ritual that we did as the Club Dinner evening matured? Probably about this period it became quite the thing with us & we even had a special member’s tie made, a red cardinal’s hat on black. I was in fair drinking form: I account it a considerable feat at Cats to have been clocked at 3 seconds for ne pint (can only be done by leaving the gullet open & pouring like petrol into a can). This preamble is to report that about this time our Boat Club became very excited about launching a top class Ball, ‘The Cardinals’ Ball’. Big name bands, hired hall decorated with wiffs, sculls, oars, men’s dress to be dinner-formal with jacket replaced by sporting blazers.
Henley in 1950 has one or two crack American crews invading the hallowed parochial waters. I think Princeton was one. Splendid oarsman BUT when asked of their future, they said ‘Never again! No more rowing for us!’ Their training schedule had been so demanding that all joy was lost. We had fun – stayed wreathed in smiles.

John Morgans (1943)