The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Cotton HB
Cotton, Hugh Benjamin
“Benjie” (Spy), March 15, 1894
The youngest son of the late Lord Justice Cotton, he was born two-and-twenty years ago, went to “Badger” Hale’s House at Eton, and began his aquatic career by steering an Eton Trial Eight to victory. Then he got promoted to an oar, and rowed in a winning Trial; yet did not row in the Eton Eight. Three and a-half years ago he went to Magdalen, Oxford; and being an Eton boy who was found able to pull a lively oar, he became bow of the Dark Blue Eight two years ago. He kept that place last year, and he will again fill it on Saturday; having in the meantime been improved into the smallest President of a University Boat Club on record. For his College he has twice rowed Head of the River. He has also won the University Fours and the University Pairs; while at Henley he has helped a Leander crew to win the Grand Challenge, and his College to win the Stewards’ Cup.
He is a very muscular, good-looking little fellow of five and a-half feet in height, whose proper weight is ten stone. He is a rather retiring, yet quite independent, amiable boy who can say nasty things when he likes with effect; and he is strong in his antipathies. He is reading law for his Final School, and he reads it at odd times; yet he loves his Shakespeare and is a hardened theatre-goer. He is President of Vincent’s.
They call him “Ben” and “Benjie”; and they say that he confidently expects to show Cambridge the way to Mortlake on Saturday.
For a five-and-half footer to become a winning oarsman is unusual; to win the Boat Race four times and the Grand twice, remarkable. Hugh Benjamin Cotton (1872-95) did so, albeit with help from crews that outweighed him at least two stone a man (other than the cox, of course). Another of Nickall’s “absolute classics” -- at bow, where he always rowed -- Cotton was the only man in the winning 1895 Oxford boat not to get influenza during race week. But soon thereafter a “severe attack of inflammation of the lungs” kept him out of Henley and the Oxford summer races, and that fall he succumbed to consumption from a chill caught at Oxford while coaching in the floods, and passed away on October 22. In response to his death and those of two other Oxford oarsmen a year and a half later, their coach, Rudie Lehmann, mustered the evidence to show that rowing per se was not the culprit. More sympathetically and for Cotton alone, Lehmann also penned an elegy, “Frater Ave Atque Vale,” concluding:
- Though lost and dead, you die not here;
- And, wheresoever men may range
- Who once at Oxford held you dear
- And called you friend, you know no change:
- Still shall we see you stride along,
- Smiling and resolute and strong.
- We shall grow old, but you abide
- In all our hearts as staunch and true
- And young as when on Thames’s tide
- You gripped your oar and won your Blue --
- But hush! I hear the passing bell,
- Oh dearest friend, farewell, farewell
The 1893 Boat Race: Oxford’s Health
For the 1893 Boat Race, O.U.B.C. President W.A.L. Fletcher needed a No. 7. He gave one man a long trial, only to find him physically unfit and forbidden to row by the doctors. When he filled the hole with C.M. Pitman, his preferred stroke, new medical problems sprouted: Vivian Nickalls went ill and Fletcher himself got a strain. Training suffered, which showed in the race as W.B. Woodgate noted in Vanity Fair (March 25, 1893):
The rowing of Oxford was very good in style. The men did not seem to last so well as their style would presuppose. Some of them had been seedy, and work had been shut off; no long rows for fourteen days. The effect of this was that some of them, especially those who had not been invalids, were decidedly gross and overweight, making them short of wind. Nos. 3 and 4, for instance, had put on flesh like prize cattle, and seemed to be blowing badly. No blame to them; healthy men naturally put on flesh when work is light, and in an eight some often get too little work, while others get too much.
- ^ G. Nickalls, Life’s a Pudding, p. 211.
- ^ R.C. Lehmann, “Frater Ave Atque Vale,” in Anni Fugaces: A Book of Verse with Cambridge Interludes, p. 20. The elegy’s title -- “Brother Hail and Farewell” -- comes from the final lines of poem 101 of Catullus, to his dead brother.
Magdalen Boat Club, Oxford oil painting of H.B. Cotton