The Head of the Lake – boats, footballs and rusty deckchairs

Our current display at the Archives & Special Collections at the University of Surrey is showcasing all things sporty, from Surrey students’ accomplishments in the huge range of sports clubs to the links to the Olympic Movement in our E. H. Shepard and Rudolf Laban Collections.

However, sporting achievement surely found its pinnacle in the annual ‘Head of the Lake’ competition, held at our predecessor institution Battersea Polytechnic College of Technology in the 1950s through to the mid-1960s.

Photographs of the 1958 ‘Head of the Lake’ competition, Ref. ASD/18/1.
From the University of Surrey Archives & Special Collections.

In this aquatic challenge, held usually during Rag Week, students would aim to be the first team to retrieve a football thrown into the Battersea Park Boating Lake. The rules were simple – no team could use oars or paddles to propel their boats, and sinking of rival teams was expected and encouraged.

This competition was not for the faint-hearted – the water was filthy and the muddy bottom of the lake filled with dangerous objects such as rusty deckchairs, meaning tetanus shots were essential afterwards. However, the event was hugely popular both with participants and spectators, not least as the prize for the winning team was a barrel of beer.

Listen below to hear recollections of the Head of the Lake competition from former Battersea students, taken from our ‘Remembering Battersea’ oral history project archive.

“We had a strategy…”

Ian Bell describes his team’s tactical approach to the competition. (Audio except from RMB/4).

“But of course, we all sank…”

Fiona Try recounts the idiosyncratic rules and the need for tetanus shots afterwards. (Audio excerpt from RMB/63).

“The mud was awful!”

David Peacock’s recollections of the muddy lake. (Audio excerpt from RMB/40).

“All of your clothes were just ruined…”

More about the perils of the lake, this time from Fred Starr. (Audio excerpt from RMB/57).

Discover more about the Remembering Battersea Oral History Collection and our other collections on our website.