Uncle Sam v the Coalies, Wednesday 17 September 1884

Since their stay in our waters the men of the United States frigate Lancaster have given some remarkable exhibitions of their prowess as oarsmen, and in their smart little cutter “Uncle Sam” have carried averything before them at all the recent regattas, and it had become to be regarded as a noteworthy tradition on board the American flagship that thier crew had never experienced defeat.

Image USS Lancaster 4a04861r caption: USS Lancaster 1858-1913: from the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs

The Coal Porters challenged them to a match: the stakes were £30 a side, the Coal Porters subscribing £10 out of their own not very heavy-metalled pockets.

This challenge was looked upon as a bold stroke, and there was not wanting an army of croakers who, professing sympathy with the home crew, yet predicted the success of the Americans as a certainty – “science against strength” was the favourite motto.

The Lancaster crew , whose boat, the “Uncle Sam” is said to have been built exclusively for racing purposes at a cost of £200, pulled 14 oars and a coxswain.

The Coal Porters were placed at a disadvantage, because, unhappily, their club funds had not yet permitted the purchase of a boat of their own. Mr Harry Hall, of the Castle Tap, came to the rescue, and having purchased a disused service cutter for £4 from among the condemned stores at Portsmouth Dockyard, placed it at the disposal of the Coalies, who proudly christened their smart looking craft the “Black Diamond.” The “locals” were allowed 18 oars and a coxswain, as their boat was about twice the size of their rivals’ boat.

The course covered a distance of a little more than five nautical miles, extending from a couple of mark boats moored between the Royal Pier and HMS Trincomalee, down to a couple of American flag marks moored opposite the Netley Hospital shore.

The Yankees appeared by far the smartest and most “fit” of the two, and with their disciplined bearing, their neat uniforms and bandages hands, as well as their elegantly designed cutter, certainly looked most like winning.

The Coal Porters, though possessing everything that was requisite in the shape of muscular development and sheer physical endurance, created at first but an indifferent impression in consequence of the absurd inequalities of their boat as compared with that of their opponents.

Punctually at three o’clock the boats were got into line, when the starter – Mr Burbage – amid general silence gave the word “Are you ready? – Go!”

The Coalies, who upon stripping evidently meant business, took a decided advantage from the start, and struck out with a good, bold stroke at 39 to the minute, the Americans pulling at a steady, slogging pace of 38 strokes.

The whole of what followed may be accurately characterised as a procession of two boats, in which the local crew maintained and ultimately increased its lead to the close.

At the time of reaching of reaching the Itchen lightship, at the mouth of the Docks, the Coal Porters were pulling in really splendid condition, the men having by this time thoroughly settled down to their work.

The Diamonds, warming to the work, gained quite half a length more as Weston Church was breasted.

Down the river the scene was a very animated one. The ship’s company of the Lancaster had manned the yards, trucks, ladders, bow-sprit and jib-boom, but not a sound was heard as as the two boats pulled by.

The Coal Porters quietly gained a length, and after leaving the Lancaster flagship shot away under the bows of the Royal mail steamship Don, which was receiving her latest mails and passengers prior to leaving on a voyage to the West Indies, then struck out into the channel of the south shore. When it was seen that the Black Diamonds had such a handsome lead a lusty cheer went up from the ship.

Mr Pearce, the coxswain of the “Black Diamond,” upon reaching well up the Netley shore, stripped to the waist, his boat then leading by nearly a quarter of a mile. They went round their mark abeam of HMS Hector in exactly 25 minutes from the start, and about 47 seconds ahead of the Americans, who cut the turn very fine, and had to up their starboard oars to prevent a foul.

With a young flood in their favour the leading crew soon made apparent the advantage of being round first, and pulling steady stroke of 40 to the minute as far as the Platform – the Americans going up pulled an average of 38 – they increased this to 44, which they maintained to the finish.

Every coign of advantage from which the race could be seen being occupied, and as the Black Diamonds rowed proudly in to win, apparently as fresh as when they started, a perfect roar of cheering went up from thousands of throats, which was taken up by those on board the innumerable craft which crowded round the finishing point.

The Coal Porters won by two minutes, the time of the race being 42m 47s, and when the verdict was pronounced they hoisted from the stern sheets a handsome ensign, bearing a lion rampant, presented to them by Mr Wolff, of the High Street

from Hampshire Independent 20 Sept 1884, Southampton Times 20 Sept 1884

Coalies v Uncle Sam, Saturday 4 October 1884

The American officers were undesirous of of leaving British waters without affording their men the opportunity of recovering their lost laurels, and the Coal Porters Rowing Club of Southampton promptly accepted the challenge. They were confident of their ability to inflict upon the Americans another defeat, and in this they were not disappointed.

Upon the verbal start being given the Americans at once got away away at a swinging pace of 40 strokes a minute distancing their opponents by quite a length and a half, their endeavours being directed at keeping the Coal Porters in shore.

The Yankees maintained their lead, and even increased it it by half a length, until the limit of the dock extension was reached, when the Coalies seemed in imminent risk of being grounded on the mud banks which run down to the lightship, but by a clever bit of steering the Coal Porters deviated their course, and having swiftly crossed the stern of the American Boat, pulled up to a lead of a couple of lengths.

By a series of spurts the Americans pulled up and there was almost a beam and beam race.

Presently the Coalies went right across the bows of their opponents into their own water down to the Lancaster, where the scene of excitement reached its highest pitch.

The Coal Porters afterwards took quite an independent course, and by hugging the Netley shore somewhat diminished their lead; but the coxswain (Mr F Grace) evidently knew what he was about, and the race down to the mark was one of the finest exhibitions of oarsmanship ever witnessed in Southampton Water.

A few powerful strokes brought them first to the mark, and they rounded 10 seconds ahead of the Americans.

From this point, the race was practically at an end, as the Coal Porters, making good use of their superior strength, went away with a lead which left their opponents hopelessly in the rear.

The pull back was dead against the tide, and this evidently told against the Americans.

The Englishmen kept up the tremendous pace, and came in winners by about two cables length. The winning time was 42 mins, 24 secs.

Round after round of cheering was sent up from every quarter.

The Coal Porters had now shown the croakers the sort of stuff they were made of.

Hampshire Independent 8 October 1884, Southampton Times 11 October 1884

Coalporters Amateur Rowing Club was founded in 1875, and is now (2022) the oldest and most established rowing club within the City of Southampton.

The crew of the Black Diamond, 1884

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From the Southampton and District Pictorial, 30 April 1913

The scene at Town Quay

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From the Southampton and District Pictorial, 30 April 1913

USS Lancaster

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USS Lancaster 1858-1913: from the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs

Southampton Water

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Admiralty Chart, 1851 (before Netley Hospital was built)


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