Boats on the Cam

Cambridge District Scout Archive

Cambridge sits on the Cam, a navigable river with a history of both industrial and pleasure use.  If not on the sea we have Sea Scouts and a fair history of boating for a modest water.

1st Class test 1908       Make a journey alone of not less than fifteen miles from point to point by walking, riding, boat, or bicycle.

The River

For clarity – the original name of the river was the Granta.  The new name Cam was not universally applied and the upper stretch of the river continues to be known as the Granta.  The Rhee tributary was also formally known as the Cam, and the Granta has a tributary on its upper stretch also known as the Granta.   The river is rarely confused with any other.

In 1930, at a land based demonstration of skills, the 1st Cambridge Sea Scouts are described as ‘Usually they have to work on fresh (if rather dirty) water.’ The Cam had stopped being part of the local sewage system in 1894.

Classification of local waters  1977

  • Jesus Green lock to Clayhithe Bridge             C
  • All other waters in East Cambridge District   B1
  • ‘In this county the two principle hazards are winds greater than Beaufort Scale 5 and floods… in these conditions all C and B1 waters should be treated as B2

Whilst generally not wild water the Cam has its dangers, witness the Certificate of Merit given to Troop Leader F Newman of the 1st Cambridge Sea Scouts for rendering valuable assistance to a boating party whose boat was run down by a motor launch.  The flatness of the countryside north of Cambridge renders the wind both disagreeable and dangerous.  Three national awards have been given to local Scouts for saving people in the Granta/ Cam.  For many years the regulation of sluices and weirs provided the only appropriate conditions to develop canoe skills.  These were variable and potentially dangerous.

Cambridge Archives


Between 1921 and 1943 some Census returns asked for the number of boats.

No. of boatsTroopsPatrolsNo. of Sea Scouts
1925 – 7not asked1
19344119 + 5
19351 – + 7
19361 – + 7
1937not asked1115 + 2
1943 7 3 1 40 + 1

In 1938 the 1st Cambridge and the 31st Cambridge (University Rovers) owned one boat apiece.

The picture above is from Ivor Meadow’s collection (largely 44th) and whilst unlabeled is likely to be from his time with the 1st Cambridge Sea Scouts. The setting is in the street outside the Green Dragon, Chesterton and records the refurbishment of the craft c. late 1940’s.

The 12th Cambridge wee owners of two dinghies at 12′ and 14′ alongside at least two canoes which they took with a third, borrowed dinghy, on the Adventurer cruises.

Little detail has surfaced about these early boats.  During and after the Second World War these figures were not requested in the Census returns. 

  • 1964 12th lists 8 boats but no others were presented to SM Mackrow for inspection
  • 1969                       7th, 17th, 14th VSU, 5th, 1st  The Boating Committee report suggests they had boats

Cambridge Boating Committee

1933 The local Scout Boating Committee published regulations with regard to equipment and the occasions when Summer Rig (as defined in POR) could be worn – but not on the public highway. This replaced the Sea Scout jersey with badges with a white cricket shirt. It was a requirement to be able to swim 50 yards.

Boating license           Through the Cambridge Scout Gazette (before the move to Perne Road the Grafton Street Gazette) the Boating Committee put out annual reminders that all boats on the river for Scout activities must have a boating license. 

Boat Certificates: Charge Certificate (Type A)          These were issued to individuals giving permission to be in charge of a boat. Thus PL C L Smaile ‘has practical knowledge of the method of rescue from drowning and is competent to take charge of boats under oars, under sail under power* where used by Scouts’.   (*amend as necessary) i.e. cross out.  In 1954 60th Cambridge The Leys had one Troop Leader, two Assistant Scouters and two Patrol Leaders with Boat Certificates.  This thin folder held no other Certificates and the certificates are not directly related to boat ownership.

1947    Concern was raised at the breaches in Boating rules.  District Minutes

Cutters, eights, dinghies, punts and landing craft

Sea Scouts

The 1st Cambridge formed in 1908 became Sea Scouts in 1913.  A boat called the Ripple is recalled by George Black who joined in 1912.  The crew was known as the Cripples.  On 6th June 1913 they launched their new boat named ‘The Albert’ (a cutter) built of pine and elm with six oars and a mast, capable of carrying 10 boys. They purchased the Alert for £50 (with mast and sail) and having been delivered by train was dragged from the station with the band leading the way.  It was launched by Mrs Howard Marsh (see below).  Another boat was donated in 1917 by Dr and Mrs. Griffith. In 1921 they launched The Sentinel.  In the 1920’s two boats were kept under the Scout hut.

Cambridgeshire Chronicle 21st September 1921

1917 Dr. and Mrs. Griffith (donors), Mr. and Mrs. Scales local brewers and publicans.

Immediately after WW2 a District w/e camp was arranged at Trumpington. The 1st Sea Scouts arrived by boat.

Punts were readily available to hire, although the 12th Cambridge are recorded as owning one after WW2. The reclined pose is standard.


The Cambridge Scout Boat Club

This Rowing Club was started in 1923 and ran through to the late 1970’s.  It raced up to four ‘eights’ in the local town competitions and is recorded as rowing 8’s, sculls, light pairs, junior scull, junior 4, challenge 4’ in 1948.  The club did not own its own boat house and was largely dependent on sharing buildings and borrowed equipment; for many years from Kings College Boat Club.  This was particularly so after the restart of rowing in 1946/48.  The Cambridge Scout Boat Club had considerable success and influence on the river.

Before amalgamation the club owned a shell and two clinker built ‘eights’, and the crew won their oars in 1977 (?78), racing as the Gang Show, all the oarsmen being Gang Show team members.

The Scout Boat club participated in the Boston Rowing Marathon, 31 miles from Lincoln to Boston.

The boats in the census returns do not appear to include any boats from the Boat Club which was a body distinct from the ‘District’.

See Activities/Cambridge Boat Club

31st Cambridge University Rovers / Cambridge University Scout and Guide Club

The University based Scouts and later Scouts and Guides have had access to or owned punts for most of their history.  Aside from the established pleasures of time on the water and picnics along the Cam they have been used for punt jousting, a formal competition for the skilled, mirroring the not infrequent ducking of novice watermen.


The largest boat that has come to notice is that of the 12th Cambridge

12th Cambridge Scout Group, Sea Scouts from the mid 1940’s, bought a landing craft in 1946.  It cost ₤60 without engine or gear.  ‘Under the direction of their Scoutmaster, Mr W.A. Mackrow, they set to work with a will to convert it for troop use. On Saturday the result of their hard work and skill – a trim looking and extremely comfortable seaworthy craft was named the “Adventurer”. Founder of the troop in 1911, its first Scoutmaster – and a staunch supporter ever since – Mr J. Murrish performed the ceremony, which took place at Peterhouse boat yard. In just under twelve months the group have transformed the hull and converted it into its present form, complete with bridge, containing full navigation equipment and remote engine controls etc. It has a ward room which sleeps 12, and a galley which would delight the heart of many a housewife.          8th April 1947                   From Mike Petty

The 12th also housed punts and canoes in their riverside boathouse.

The Scouter, September and October 1948, have a report by W A Mackrow of the 12th on the Adventurer.

A report of a second Houseboat, the Elros, donated to a Sea Scout group in the 1950’s are awaiting further details. It is said to have sunk in the Wash a few tears later.

1936    ‘Some Harston scouts had a canoeing camp at Easter.’        County Gazette

1942    ‘Mrs Hammill has presented a metal boat to the Association.  It had been given to the 1st Cambridge for the time being.’     District Minutes

1945    Motor boat offered but declined … in bad condition, can’t be floated and we can’t get spares or repairs.                        District Minutes

1948    The 60th named two boats Ripple I and Ripple II         Scouter of July 1948.

1951    The 12th also owned a 12’ sailing dinghy the Silver Crescent and the Wild Duck a 16’ sailing dinghy with outboard motor, and two kayaks.

1951    5th Cambridge             ‘the Sea Scout Troop plan to go sailing on the Cam’ ‘ navigated long stretches of our home waters.’ ‘this a very successful expedition indeed.’

1952    the Sea Scouts whose well-equipped motor boat ‘The Adventurer’ is a well-known feature of the Cam.  CDN c 10.4.1952.  It was sold in 1956 to become a house boat on the Thames.

Outboard, old even in 1959

1959    The 5th Cambridge Sea Scouts ‘acquired a boat of their own’.

1963 The 12th purchased a 14′ dinghy for £89/4/9

1967 A Strong push on the use of life jackets (Messers Banham sold out)

1978    The 1st had 2 dinghy’s and 6 canoes (but no riverside meeting place)

Canoes, rafts, and other craft

Many groups own or have owned canoes.  They were not accounted then or now.  The availability of fiberglass moulds in the 1960’s and 1970’s extended the availability of canoes although HQ felt the need to alert Scouts to the danger of glass fiber catalyst in the eye.

1947/8    ’It is not easy to buy enough wood for more kayaks so we acquired at low cost a number of auxiliary petrol tanks used on aircraft during the war.  Very reliable rafts can be easily constructed to take 4 or 6 scouts each   ‘.            60th Cambridge The Scouter July The 60th had done so in 1947.

1947 12th Cambridge record being passed on a canoe/ hike by ‘the Dutchess…laden with Wolf Cubs and Mistresses’. Excursions along the river or to a spot were an adventure occasionally but poorly detailed in the records.

1952    5th Cambridge                         ‘ and the Sea Scouts constructed a Kin Tiki raft.’

1963    54th participating in Bedford Canoe Race

1970’s  Grantchester to Waterbeach long distance (kayak) races were held.  Punts were the principle hazard ‘although judging from the report that a punt was sunk by one of our competing doubles ‘hazard’ may not be the correct word to use’. 

1960s   Senior Scouts from the 54th canoed from Trier to Koblenz along the River Mosel.  This group designed canoe storage when totally rebuilding their headquarters twenty years later although this was not completed.

1964    54th      Wood for five double canoes ₤42/0/4

1967    54th      Fiberglass for canoe   ₤5

1968    Morley Trophy  Coracle race

1970    VSUs    Raft Regatta

1979    East/ West Cambridge Canoe regatta held canoe, raft, sprint and long distance races

1979    28th Cambridge used a small inflatable to build a rope bridge across the Avon

1981    Sir John Cockcroft Venture Scout Unit paddled a bath from Byron’s Pool to Bottisham and raised £170 for charity

During the evacuation from Dunkirk G F N Reddaway, SM of the 42nd, was sunk. He attributed his survival in the water overnight to his ability to construct a raft from debris – a skill that he credits to his time in the Scouts.


1956                Queens Scouts and Jamboree participants of the 5th J Boocock and D Greenwood built a diving bell and stayed submerged beneath the Cam; an act for which they won the Adventures Trophy.


Gino Watkins’ canoe One of the ‘names’ given to Senior Scout patrols he was an arctic explorer.  Members of his parties learnt to roll their canoes in the Cam in the 1930’s.  This was ‘a very difficult skill, previously known only to the Eskimos’.  If not the first European to master this skill he was one of the first.

Super Shrimpy Shane Acton an ex member of the 4th Cambridge, later a Royal Marine, circumnavigated the globe in an 18’ boat, the smallest to do so at that time.  He sailed from Cambridge in 1972, returning in 1980 where he spoke to Scouts at the 4th on his experiences. Shane said that scouting had played a very great part in his venture also his love of the outdoors.

James Caird A copy of Shackleton’s lifeboat sits in the Scott Polar Institute.  It was used to replicate his 1916 journey from the Antarctic pack ice to Elephant Island then South Georgia.  Shackleton later selected two Scouts to join him on the 1921 Shackleton – Rowlett Expedition.

Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge The Inuit kayak on display sadly does not display clear examples of the ‘Eskimo bowline’ a knot first identified on a kayak in the Museum of Mankind, London, by Geoffrey Budworth in the 1985.

Boats elsewhere

1942 War Service Scouts Camp The participants cycled from Grafton Street to Hemingford Grey Vicarage then rowed to the island camp.  The next day they had a boat race, four at single oars, one Cox, two passengers.

MTB 102 This MTB 102 served in the Second World War.  During the evacuation from Dunkirk, she crossed the channel eight times.   In 1973 she was acquired by the Norwich Sea Scouts, in whose care she remained until 1995.  Cambridge Venture Scouts used this vessel in Norfolk during the 1970’s.  It regularly participates in the Dunkirk memorial runs. Entitled to fly the Dunkirk pennant she has been known to give and receive a dipped flag from RN vessels.

c 1993 -95 with 28th Cambridge on board

MTB 777 After the war the Admiralty gave the Peterborough Sea Scouts MTB777, a Fairmile D built in Bangor in 1944. (From Rivers to the Fens, Robert Simper)

Quest I          13th Ipswich Sea Scouts.  Quest I was a retired Thames Barge used as a guard ship. 

Quest II A converted Motor Torpedo Boat on a 99 year loan from the Admiralty. The 1st, 12th and 60th Cambridge Scouts visited it in the 1947. It was kept on the Orwell near Ipswich.

Radio Dolphin During the 1951 National Radio Show (possibly part of the Festival of Britain) six sea scouts from the 12th Cambridge were asked by Pye Ltd. to man the Radio Dolphin a RAF seaplane tender.

Mersea Scout Boats  Ramrod 34 and Mersea Rival were for hire run by Colchester Divisional Scout Sail Training Scheme.  Adverts are found in the Archives and in 1977 the 11th/9th were onboard, possibly as part of the District wide booking.

RRS Discovery From 1931 – 1979 the Royal research Ship Discovery (of Scott fame) was a training vessel for the Sea Scouts and RN Reserve.  From a census of camps the 1st Cambridge Sea Scouts were aboard in 1946.  1951 Cambridge District Assistant Secretary Mr. Martin became ‘Writer to the RSS Discovery.’

JWR Archivist Feb 2019