Pic: David Young via Arthur Thorning
Following my post from last month, I was recently sent a new picture, shown above, of the real oar used by Melvin (“Dinghy”) Young in the University Boat Race in 1938. The oar belongs to a member of the Young family who lives in California. Shown in the same picture is another souvenir oar used by Melvin when he rowed for his college, Trinity, in 1936. The picture was supplied by Arthur Thorning, Young’s biographer.
There are a number of differences between this oar and the mystery oar shown on the BBC Antiques Roadshow on 6 January, as can be seen when you look at the two side by side.
1. The shafts are on different sides: Young oar (YO) on the right, Antique Roadshow oar (ARO) on the left.
2. The colours are different. YO is dark (Oxford) blue, ARO is grey-blue (a colour that doesn’t belong to either Oxford or Cambridge).
3. YO has the full initials for H.A.W. Forbes, F.A.L. Waldron and G.J.P. Merifield, ARO has shortened these to H.A. Forbes, F.A. Waldron and J.P. Merifield.
4. YO has the President’s name on the right, ARO on the left (not seen in picture above but visible earlier in the video.)
However, there are some similarities between the two, which makes me think that the ARO may have been copied from the YO, or perhaps from a photograph (as Young’s oar was almost certainly already in the USA when the film was made.) These are principally in the abbreviations used and the style of the lettering. The college abbreviations are exactly the same (Magd., B.N.C., St. Ed. Hall) and the crew weights are also identical. A ‘blackletter’ (sometimes wrongly called Old English) font has been used for the heading and a serif font (in both roman and italic styles) for the remainder.
Comparison of the ARO with a still from the 1955 film The Dam Busters has convinced me that it is either a prop from the film, or a copy based on the film (although the whole oar is never shown in the film). The lettering looks identical, and as the film was shot in black and white, it would not have mattered that it was not an exact Oxford blue.
After the original Antiques Roadshow programme was transmitted, I contacted the production team and was sent a copy of a response by Paul Atterbury, the expert who assessed the oar:
Our recent Dambusters item has provoked a large response, which doesn’t surprise me. What does is the variety of responses, ideas and information we have received, implying a certain lack of agreement about this story. As a regular Roadshow specialist working in the miscellaneous section, I have to deal quickly, and as accurately as I can, with a wide and very unpredictable range of things brought in by the public. We have no advance knowledge of what is going to come in on the day, and only very limited time to carry out any research before something is filmed. We have to assume that the background information supplied by the owners is straightforward. In the case of the oar, it seemed to me a genuine blade, rather than something constructed as a film prop. Over the years I have seen plenty of them. The colours, and style of painting implied the right period, and the condition the right patina of age. Obviously, the names could have been added later to an existing blade, but it would seem an unnecessarily complicated, obscure and not particularly valuable copy or fake. Equally, the film company could have painted an existing oar, but that again seems an elaborate and expensive process for a few seconds of filming in black and white. As I said in the item, there was no guarantee this was Young’s blade, as there would have been seven others at the time, and it could have come from any of those families.
Any further information would be gratefully received!