As some of you may know, Imperial was founded when three different college’s joined together back in 1907; the Royal College of Science (RCS), the Royal School of Mines (RSM) and the City and Guilds College (C&G). There was a sense of belonging, a sense of identity to the constituent College’s and rivalry that puts the current IC vs Medics one to shame. This rivalry, much like the Varsity matches of today, was focused around sports, however it was not exclusively left to the sports field, the rivalry also extended to the mascotry, but that’s another story for another time.
This sporting rivalry was personified not on the fields of Harlington, but the muddy waters of the Thames; Morphy Day was, first and foremost, a boat race (yes probably both definitions). The day itself comprised of two races, the Lowry Cup was effectively the seconds crew, whilst the Morphy Cup was for the best rowers in the College.
Looking through the felix archive, I eventually came to a description of the very first race, written by David Hopkins in 1975. “On the 21st March 1920, an RSM rowing eight beat C&G over a one mile course; this was the first time the colleges had raced since the revival of their individual rowing clubs after the 1st World War. Mr Arthur Morphy, father of the Guilds’ stroke, Donald W Morphy, presented a cup which he had donated for the occasion.”
D.W. Morphy was an Electrical Engineering student at the College and became a keen Old Centralian after he left the College, even when his company, Morphy Richards (you might of heard of them), became big.
There have been many recollections of the day in the felix and College archives, including video footage of the race in 1929 and this one on the IC Boat Clubs website by E. J. Cove, a Mechanical Engineering student between 1942-45.
“Apart from being Secretary of ICBC I was Captain of the C&GBC which really had no separate existence apart from the Morphy race which Guilds won both times I rowed in it. However we were awarded full C&G colours for the event. There was always a large turnout of supporters from all three colleges on the towpath for this race and a fair scuffle normally developed to secure possession of the other colleges trophies and protect the Guild’s trophy spanner!”
In one clean swoop, we see the day bring together the sporting rivalry as well as the mascotry. To begin with, the day was all about the race itself, the sporting rivalry, but as the years went on, the riverside antics increased and the Cup changed into a Day where they fought for the Morphy Oar. That’s not to say that the race itself was not interesting, take the account of the race in the very first issue of felix back in 1949, where they had to restart the race several times because the boats kept crashing into each other. The result of that race was a Guilds win, even though none of the boats actually reached the finish line after 80 minutes!
The race itself grew in importance over the years, with coaches being brought in to help the different boat clubs for the big day and more races introduced, including a women’s race and a Rugby Race. The event was even used to unveil a new boat in 1971, when the then Rector, Lord Penny, and his wife came down to watch the races. By the late 1950s, it was considered a great honour to be part of the Morphy Crew and, more importantly, the number of spectators on the banks of the Thames increased, both student and local resident! As the 1960s came about, the focus of the event, however, began to shift more towards the towpath instead of the river. As the years went on, more and more of an effort was made by the Unions to organise something special and the event became a bigger RAG event year after year. Here we have the recollections from the Guilds President in 1963-64, and current Professor at the College, Prof. Bob Schroter.
“Morphy Day traditionally consisted of the constituent colleges, particularly the RCS and the Guilds, having a bit of a flour and tomato fight on the towpath. I always remember that there was a young policeman on one of those Noddy early motorcycle bike things, and that he thought he was going to stop this rampaging on the towpath, so he very foolishly rode his motorcycle into the middle of the foray and got totally, but totally, plastered in tomatoes and flour.”
Don’t worry though, it turns out that the supervisor of the Policeman was also there, so President Schroter went to apologise and offer to pay for the dry cleaning, but the Police Officer’s response was simply that “Well, I think he has learnt to deal with crowd control”. Even the then Rector, Patrick Linstead, who was hugely popular with the students and got involved with numerous student activities - mainly because he was a student at the University himself - told the Faculty President’s not to worry and that everything will be fine.
Flicking through the felix archive, I find that Morphy Day was always a social highlight of any student’s calendar, becoming an integral part of RAG Week, as can be seen in the felix issue 402 which was a RAG special in 1975. This tradition of Morphy Day and RAG continued throughout the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, when all of a sudden, it just seemed to vanish in the late 1980s.
What effectively seemed to happen, as the years went on, was that two separate Morphy Days developed, a Boat Club one and a RAG one. It is the RAG one that seemed to get worse as the years went on. The first time Morphy Day was cancelled was in 1971, when a paper was presented to the Union Council suggesting that it was “inconsistent for students who wanted to show that they were responsible adults to disrupt traffic and generally behave in an anti-social manner.” It was eventually brought back in 1973, although the races carried on through this ban. 12 years later, the event was banned again after it was deemed that the battles were again getting a bit out of hand, considering they were using “ buckets of rotting fish and refuse” instead of the flour and tomatoes of previous years, it is not a suprise.
They tried to change the format but as a result the day lost its potency and eventually dropped all together as a RAG event in 1988 after it was deemed unpopular. Despite the antics on the towpath, the outcome of the races was fiercely cheered even up until its end, yet once the event was dropped, so did the crowds attending and it seems that race itself died out. There just seems to be no reference of the Cup from the 1990s onwards.
22 years on, and what has happened to this once historic event? No one seems to know of it anymore, yet out of the College’s 103 year history, Morphy Day was the highlight for 68 years.
When E.J. Cove came back to Imperial for a visit, he said that he was shocked that no one knew about the race and how it died out. The whereabouts of the Cup itself is a mystery, but the Morphy Oar, or at least part of it, which everyone fought over on the towpath can be found residing in the Guilds Office.
But it seems that not all is lost. A couple of years ago the Imperial Boat Club ran a series of races in which the students were split into their Faculties, and they even included the Medical School. The same was done the following year. The Morphy Cup, it seems, has made a very quiet comeback.
Back in the day, almost a third of the students at the University would descend upon the Thames to watch the race and take part in some light-hearted entertainment. Would the same happen again? Well getting a third of the University would be very impressive, it would match the crowds for the Oxford vs Cambridge Boat Race. Personally, I can’t see that many people bothering to make the trip to the Thames on a cold winters day, but then again, that’s how Morphy Day started in the first place. Who knows, 20 years down the line the columns of felix might be covering the phenomena that is Morphy Day. Or then again it might be covering the event that was Morphy Day. Only time can tell.