180 Years of Sidney Sussex Boat Club

Rowing on the Cam blossomed into a competitive intercollegiate sport in the late 1820s, and Sidney Sussex Boat Club launched its first crew in 1837. Despite the small size of College, the Sidney First VIII placed third in the 1848 May races and later settled comfortably in the bottom of the first division. Largely owing to inconsistent training, variable levels of commitment, and poor management, racing in coxed IVs was prioritized over VIIIs. Sidney enjoyed success in small boat racing throughout the nineteenth century, particularly in the 1860s, when several crews earned trophies for the Scratch Fours and Carpenter Sculls, and in the 1890s, with repeated wins in the Guy Pym Challenge Fours at Bedford Regatta.

Boat Club membership in the early decades hovered around thirty-five for any given academic year, with about ten to fifteen freshmen elected to membership each Michaelmas Term. The Club was headed by an honorary Chairman, who was usually a fellow, a student President, a 1st Captain and, on occasion, his assistant, a 2nd Captain, whose collective tasks included convening the weekly Boat Club meetings over cigars and claret in the Taylor Lecture Room where jokes would be shared, bottles would be emptied, and if they got around to it, the following week’s training would be discussed. The Club’s small size meant that all members were involved in decision-making. It was not until 1881 when the Club was accused of misappropriating funds by the Nord-deutscher Regatta Verein in Hamburg that a Boat Club Committee was formed to investigate the claim. A Cambridge University Boat Club report revealed that a certain member of SSBC pocketed the crew’s race entry, and so a governing body consisting of a Captain, a Vice-Captain, a Secretary, a Treasurer “to safeguard the accounts,” and two ordinary members of the Club was created to write a constitution and oversee the running of the Boat Club – an arrangement which continues to this day.

Training became more regimented after the turn of the century, and the Sidney first boat climbed to 6th in the first division of May Bumps and the second boat won its oars repeatedly in the pre-war years. Sidney’s success was largely attributed to Trialist Hartley Travers Ferrar, who captained the 2nd VIII 1898-1901. He was the geologist on Scott’s 1901 Antarctic Expedition, having been offered the position while rowing at Henley, and returned to Sidney to coach.

2nd May Boat, 1901.  H.T. Ferrar stands with the white cap.

“For reasons largely attributed to Herr Hitler,” SSBC ran on a skeleton crew 1937-1945, and ceased to exist altogether in 1941. Because so many boys joined the service, Sidney created the Sidney Sussex Amalgamated Boat Club, which at any given time during the war included rowers from Clare, Corpus Christi, and Selwyn. Rowing at Sidney started to grow again as early as 1946 with Cambridge life returning to normal, but the men’s First VIII had settled in the middle of the second division for Mays. The postwar years saw growing interest in and College support for the Boat Club. Up until the Second World War, SSBC had rented its boats, as many other colleges did, from Cambridge-based boat fitters J. Foster and stored them at their expansive boathouse that stood on property immediately upstream of Goldie Boathouse. SSBC began purchasing its own equipment that would eventually be kept at a newly erected boathouse shared with Corpus Christi, which was designed by David Roberts in 1958. In 1976, the membership of SSBC was bolstered again with the admission of women to College and entering a women’s VIII in the 1977 Lent Bumps.

Membership continued to rise through the end of the twentieth century, and it was usually the case that for Mays, the men would race five crews and the women, three. In recent years, the Boat Club has routinely been College’s largest student organization, and takes great pride in being a welcoming group that offers rowing and coxing opportunities to students of any ability.

Tim Schmalz
July 2017