Feats of skill: Eton’s trophy cups

On 26th and 27th June 2017, a unique event took place at Eton. For the first time over 400 of Eton’s silver trophy cups were gathered for inspection in one place. The resemblance to Aladdin’s cave was truly remarkable, with every table top in the Charteris Rooms covered in silver. I would like to thank all the house masters who (at a very busy time of year) willingly transported all their silver cups to the Charteris Rooms for inspection. The project has been driven by the fact that many of the cups bear the scars of having been presented to boys over the years, and the older cups (and hence the most prestigious) have become very frail.

Silver cup audit in the Charteris Rooms

Aladdin’s cave: the silver cups being audited in the Charteris Rooms at Eton

We had three aims: the first was to make an accurate record. Simon Dean has created a digital record containing information of location, a photograph of each cup, dimensions, weight, silver marks and a description of the condition. This is an ongoing process as the cups change hands from year to year.

The second aim was to start a rolling programme of restoration. David Cawte, silver expert with a lifetime of experience in mending silver, will take a selection of cups each year for restoration.

The third aim was to begin collecting for the Eton College Archives the records of sporting events held on these trophies. The immense scale of the information contained on both the cups themselves and the inscribed bases will be collected for the archives over the years to come.

The earliest dates recorded on these cups are from the late 1850s and early 1860s. Given that sport at Eton existed well before this it is clear that they represent a change in the way sport at Eton was being run. To have trophy cups being presented for house sport it is necessary to have a house system in place and this developed at Eton in a piecemeal fashion over the course of the 19th century as the school steadily bought out the dames who ran boarding houses and replaced them with assistant masters.

The cups record intensely fought sporting battles between houses. As an example, the senior cricket trophy was first presented in 1860. In 1861 it was won by the Rev. W. B. Marriott’s House captained by R.A.H. Mitchell, who was to become one of the most significant names in the history of Eton cricket. In 1866 he returned to Eton as an assistant master and his coaching resulted in his house winning the senior cricket successively from 1881 to 1887. The 1,500m trophy is a large, elaborate wine cooler originally presented in 1856.  It records both great sporting achievement and great heroism. G.K. Dunning won the cup outright in 1913 by winning the race three times. Also recorded on the base is a note to the effect that H.E. Maudslay, who also won the cup outright in 1940, later took part in the famous 1943 raid on the Eder dam where he was sadly killed.

The base of the Aquatics cup, with decorative details of rushes and waterlily leaves

The base of the Aquatics cup, with decorative details of rushes and waterlily leaves

Trophies were presented for many reasons and by different people. The lower boy cricket cup was donated to the school in 1866 by Oscar Browning, assistant master. In the same year his house, captained by W.H. Hay, is recorded as having won the cup. Therefore perhaps not such a disinterested gift!  After the First World War a number of cups were given as memorials to boys who died. A pair of challenge cups for the Junior 4s has a poignant memorial to ‘George William Taylor, Lieutenant Royal Field Artillery who died of wounds in Flanders on 11th November 1917. From his mother to the oarsmen on the river he loved so well.’

The majority of the cups are not particularly significant artistically. However, a few trophy cups are notable pieces of craftsmanship. The Aquatics cup is a great, urn-shaped vessel with continuous scenes of Eton rowing running round its sides surmounted by a lid with the image of Old Father Thames. Sadly, it has suffered badly by being over-cleaned and much of the sharp decorative detail has worn away. Another discovery was that both The Patagonian League cup (for junior football) and the trophy for the quickest 50 in an XI match have silver marks identifying them as being made by Omar Ramsden (a famous Arts and Crafts silver maker) in 1918 and 1935 respectively.

The Patagonian League trophy, showing its battle scars

The Patagonian League trophy, showing its battle scars

These cups are a significant resource. The information that they hold about the history of sport at Eton, its matches, feats of skill, famous sporting heroes and great achievements are a remarkable record of the development of sport at Eton over 150 years. A programme of restoration has begun and I hope that over the next few years the cups will begin to improve in appearance and therefore be held in the appreciation that they deserve.

By Shauna Gailey, Keeper of Silver