College rowing is a minefield – or treasure trove – of arcane jargon. Here’s an explanation of one term: scratch boats (can be eights, fours or pairs):
A scratch eight was a boat made up of some college rowers and some non-rowers for a college regatta – that is, a single-college regatta, boats all made up only of Balliol men racing against each other. Judging from 19th and early 20th century Boat Club training records, scratch boats had a couple of training outings before the regatta, if that. There are no longer single-college regattas, but the name survives in the Christ Church Regatta, which is held in December for novice boats from all colleges, and the scratch boat tradition survives in what are now called beer boats, rugger boats or gentlemen’s boats at Summer Eights – that is, groups who get together with little or no training, to compete in the lower divisions of the intercollege competition, for fun.
Occasionally I am asked about pewter commemorative tankards, inscribed with the title of an event – ‘ Balliol College Scratch Fours 1902,’ for instance. These are indeed commemorative tankards and not trophies, not an award but a souvenir of the event, and probably each of the members of the boat had an identical one.
One illustrative example from the records: from the 1889 journal I gather that the Balliol College Regatta was quite large, and happened in early June, a few weeks after Summer Eights. It involved only Balliol men; the event in 1889 started with four heats of three coxed fours, followed by five scratch eights in two heats and 10 pairs in 3 heats.
composition of one of the 5 Eights:
Bow J.A. JOHNSTON (Balliol 1885, College 2nd Torpid)
2 D.J (not I). YOUNG (Balliol 1885, no College rowing)
3 H.J. O’BEIRNE (Balliol 1884, coxed College 2nd Torpid)
4 W.B. BROWN (Balliol 1883, no College rowing)
5 H.L. HERVEY (Balliol 1884, no College rowing)
6 D.W. MONTGOMERY (Balliol 1885, College 2nd Torpid)
7 F.W. GALPIN (Balliol 1884, College Torpid, Eight and OU Trials)
Stroke F.J. WYLIE (Balliol 1884, College Torpid & Eight)
Cox L. HARRIS (not Balliol)
Stroke pair were experienced rowers (they set the pace and rhythm for the whole boat, so must be the strongest and most skilled); Bow, 3 and 6 had done a little rowing but were only in their first year (Torpids boats trained very little before the March races in those days, and O’Beirne didn’t row but coxed) and 2, 4 and 5 had done no other rowing. Cox was borrowed from another college – with inexperienced rowers in the boats and several boats on the river, it was probably wise to have experienced coxes in all the boats! Scratch boats for 1889 are similarly balanced. Unfortunately, we have no photographs of the college regatta for any year.