The coffee was about the substance of mud

Illustration by Howard Williams
Diary of a Rowing Tour from Oxford to London in 1875

On 31st July 1875, 21-year-old Howard Williams, his two brothers, and two of their friends embarked on a 454-mile rowing adventure that took them from Oxford to London. Over the course of three weeks, they navigated through 231 locks and 4 tunnels in a hired “light pine pair-oared gig” that boasted enough storage space in which to keep essential items such as maps, soap, tarpaulin, Dutch cheese, and champagne. Each night, with the boat moored, they stayed in a different inn or hotel—a welcome opportunity for the crew to rest their weary limbs and for Williams to record the day’s happenings in his extensive and often amusing diary. On 22nd August they rowed their last thirteen miles from Chertsey to Teddington. This was his final entry.

The Diary Entry

Sunday, August 22nd

I had an awfully bad night, kept waking up at all hours, thanks to Clarke who snored and ground his teeth like a maniac all the night. This was the first time I had slept in the same room with Clarke, and I was very glad it was the last.

We got up at 7, took towels, went across the bridge to the weir and bathed. It was very jolly, the river just there being very wide, and a tremendous rush of water from the weir. We went back to the Hotel and ordered breakfast, and after bullying the waiters and waiting nearly an hour, we got some. It was quite on a par with the supper we had the night before; everything very bad and served in a most uncomfortable style. The coffee was about the substance of mud, the bread was stale and the ham was very salty. The three egg-cups which we used appeared to be the only ones the establishment possessed, as some other fellows that were having their breakfast at another table in the coffee room, had their eggs brought in in wine glasses. We asked for a slop basin. The waiter looked as if he thought it quite an unnecessary luxury, and brought us a finger-glass, that, I suppose, being the nearest substitute he could find.

After breakfast, whilst the other two packed up and got the boat ready, I walked to the town with my can, and bought half a gallon of milk. Directly after I returned we started away at 10.30, and sculled to Shepperton Lock. I got out there, walked along the tow-path towards the village, was ferried across, and then walked to the station. Just as I was going in, I met a man I knew who was staying there for the summer. The train from town arrived soon after 11 with Tom and Ted. We walked to the river and found George and Clarke in the boat waiting in the shade under some trees. We all embarked and George and Tom sculled down the river to an island just above Sunbury Lock, which we reached about 12. We got out, tied the boat up, and prepared for lunch, which was on a rather more extensive scale than usual, as, besides our cake, beer and milk, Tom had brought with him in a bag, a lot of sandwiches, some apples, and a couple of bottles of champagne.

Before we commenced lunch, a strolling photographer appeared, and begged us to allow him to take a group. George, Clarke and Ted did not think it proper to be taken on Sunday, but Tom and I, overcoming our religious scruples, consented. The photographer, (who was a most curious looking individual, and who had an immense amount of small talk at his command), vanished among the trees, and shortly returned with a large box containing his apparatus, and his friend and partner, whom he introduced as “Mr. ‘Ill”. Tom and I arranged ourselves in a group, and we were taken in two positions. One was just about as bad as the other, but I had to buy one. I put this in my bag, and afterwards found that in consequence of my having put it there while it was still rather wet, Tom’s head had adhered to the cover of my notebook, and the picture was consequently rather spoilt by one of the figures being decapitated.

We lounged about on the island during the afternoon, smoking, talking, drinking and sleeping. It was a tremendously hot day, and we were glad to be in the shade during the hottest part of the afternoon. We stayed there until 4; then started off again, Tom and I sculling until we arrived at Moulsey Lock, when George and Clark relieved us, and they pulled to Teddington, which we reached about 6. Fred, the boatman, received us, and was rather astonished at our bronzed appearance. We changed our clothes, not liking to be seen on Sunday evening going home in our flannels. We left the cans, rollers, winches and flag (which looked rather grubby) in our locker. We went to the station, and caught the 6.57 train to town. We left Clarke at Richmond, changed on to the Hammersmith Line, and arrived home at 8.30.

Further Reading

Howard Williams left his diary to his niece, Phylis. In 1975 it reached her granddaughter, Felicity Catmur, who saw that it was published in 1982 by Alan Sutton. The resulting book, Diary of a Rowing Tour from Oxford to London in 1875, is refreshingly wholesome, incredibly charming, and frequently very funny.

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