Photograph: Werner Schmidt

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Way of the Man with the last Wooden Spoon

Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse, oarsman of Lady Margaret Boat Club and student of St John’s College, Cambridge, with his mock prize, the ‘Wooden Spoon’, which showed everyone that he was the last one on the 1909 honours list at the Mathematics Tripos. On Holthouse's left is a shield with St John’s College Coat of Arms.

The story of the ‘Wooden Spoon’ and the last man who received this award at Cambridge University, Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse, has been told many times by bloggers all around the web. Most of these bloggers have got the information, it seems, from the Wikipedia entry called “Wooden Spoon”. However, as many HTBS readers would agree, especially after having taken a look at the picture of Holthouse above, this kind of ‘story ‘is just what you would expect to find on HTBS. I am afraid that I have not a lot to add about Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse and his Spoon, but this is how the story goes:

Ever since man came up with sport competitions, the winner, an individual or a team, has received a grand prize. The ones coming in second and third have sometimes also got prizes, though of less value than the victor. Nowadays, gold, silver and bronze medals are handed out in most sports, but in a few sport events, for example Henley Royal Regatta, only the champion crew receives a winning cup.

Some sports have gone further and not only awarded prizes to the winner and the second- and third-placed persons or teams, but also the dead-last person/team has received a so-called booby prize. In the first fictional boat race report, in Book V in The Aeneid of Virgil, Aeneas presents Sergestus, who has steered his vessel too close to some rocks whereupon the oars wreck and leave Sergestus and his crew last of the competitors:

Aeneas presents Sergestus with the reward he promised,
happy that the ship is saved, and the crew rescued.
He is granted a Cretan born slave-girl, Pholoe, not unskilled
in the arts of Minerva, nursing twin boys at her breast.
(translated by A. S. Kline, 2002)

The first time the mock prize ‘Wooden Spoon’ was recorded was in 1793 (though, Wikipedia says in 1803), but as an academic ‘award’, not as a sport prize. Two years earlier, in 1791, the ‘Senior Wrangler’, the top student on the honours list, or the ‘academic success’, was first mentioned. ‘Spoon’, as in the slang word ‘spoony’(foolish), found its way into the academic world of Cambridge during the 1700s.

This one-metre long spoon is one of two (!) that were handed out by friends to two students of Selwyn College in 1906 (both ended up at the bottom of the degree list). This spoon now hangs on the staircase of the Selwyn College library, Cambridge.

In 1823, the poem “The Wooden Spoon” was published in The Cambridge Tart. One stanza reads:

And while he lives, he wields the boasted prize
Whose value all can feel, the weak, the wise;
Displays in triumph his distinguish’d boon,
The solid honours of the Wooden Spoon.

The year after this mock poem was published, the Cambridge student Hensleigh Wedgewood, who later would become a barrister and an etymologist, was handed a special prize as the Classics student at Cambridge who came dead last on the degree list. As it was a custom for examiners in the Mathematics Tripos to award prizes to top students and give the student who just managed to scrape by a wooden spoon, the examiners in Classics decided to award prizes to all their students, and as Wedgewood was last, they gave him a wooden wedge, a jest on his own name. In the 1860s, Wedgewood’s son, Ernest, kept up the good family tradition by becoming ‘The Spoon’.

The ‘Wooden Spoon’ also spread to other English-speaking countries. In 1847, it appeared at Yale University and, in 1861, at University of Pennsylvania. However, in America the ‘Wooden Spoon’ shifted from being a mock award to a honour award, so at Yale the most popular student was given the spoon.

The Wedge and the Spoon, from The Slang Dictionary (1913; published by Chatto & Windus, London).

At Cambridge, it was, however, the spoon handed out at the Mathematics Tripos that was most famous, or maybe it is more correct to say, ‘infamous’. The attitude towards ‘The Spoon’ also changed through the years, from being an embarrassment to receive to an attracted prize to walk away with. Reports tell that the student who was presented with ‘The Spoon’ in the Senate House, where the honours were handed out, was greeted with the same enthusiasm as the ‘Senior Wrangler’, at least amongst the students. At times, this occasion did turn out to be a disorderly event, as in June 1882, which came to be known as ‘The Battle of the Spoon’.

An unhappy student receives the ‘Wooden Spoon’. Detail from Robert B. Farren’s painting Degree Day (1863). See the full painting here.

While ‘The Spoon’ became quite notorious, it grew larger and larger, from a small wooden spoon to the last wooden spoon, which was 1,5 metre long and was handed out in 1909 to the student Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse (1887-1967). Maybe it was because Holthouse was an oarsman at Lady Margaret Boat Club of St. John’s College that the spoon took the shape of an oar?

According to the Wikipedia entry “Wooden Spoon”, there is an inscription in Greek on this oar/spoon, which may be translated to something like this:

‘In Honours Mathematical
This is the very last of all
The Wooden Spoon which you see here
O you who see it, shed a tear

Alternatively: This wooden object is the last souvenir of the competitive examinations in mathematics. Look upon it, and weep.’

Looking at the photograph of Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse, he does not look that displeased. We must remember that it was not that uncommon to receive a third degree. On this matter, HTBS’s Tim Koch has written ‘a Third was [an] entirely appropriate [degree]. It was known as “A Gentleman’s Degree” or “An Oarsman’s Degree”’, so it was very suitable for young Holthouse to be on the receiving end. We also have to remember that a good number of students placed below the ‘Wooden Spoon’ by getting an Ordinary degree. ‘In the 1860s about three-quarters of the roughly 400 candidates did not score enough to be awarded honours, and were known as poll men’, it says in “Wooden Spoon” on Wikipedia.

When Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse – don’t you think that it’s such a appropriate name for the last holder of the ‘Wooden Spoon’? – left Cambridge, he, of course, brought his award with him. Holthouse became a clergyman and was appointed an army chaplain during the First World War, in France in 1918. Before he went to Canada in the 1930s, he lent the ‘Wooden Spoon’ to St John’s, so the college could put it on display. When Holthouse came back to England, the ‘Wooden Spoon’ was returned to him.

In the essay “The Wooden Spoon. Rank (dis)order in Cambridge 1753-1909” (2012), Christopher Stray writes:

It subsequently returned to the college in a very curious way. In the 1960s Holthouse put his house in Winchester up for sale so that he could move into a retirement home. One of those who came to inspect the house was another St. John’s oarsman, Guthie Easten, who on looking through the window immediately recognized the spoon. The upshot was that Easten drove the spoon to Cambridge in his small car, with one end sticking out of a window covered in a plastic bag.

When the tripos system changed after 1909, students were grouped into classes that made it impossible to tell who was the lowest place, so the practice ceased. Nevertheless, today Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse and his ‘Wooden Spoon’ live on; in our social media era, there is of course a Twitter account named @lastwoodenspoon.

A Lady's Ticket for the Wooden Spoon Exhibition at Yale in 1869, depicting a six-oared shell. From Yale University Library.

Today, ‘Wooden Spoons’ are held in the colletions of Cambridge colleges St John’s, Selwyn, Emmanuel and Corpus Christi, and at Yale University, University of Pennsylvania and Oberlin College (Ohio). At the latter college, a wooden spoon was handed out to an 'ugly person'. There are also five known wooden spoons in private collections.

To come back to where I started this blog entry: wooden spoons came to be known in certain sports like tennis and rugby. Below is a short video clip from 1931 showing a rugby match between England and France where, figuratively speaking, England receives the wooden spoon.


See also: Tim Koch writing on Rudie Lehmann's "The Necessity of Having a Butt" in Lehmann Online.


  1. I was a rower at Corpus, Cambridge and 'spoons' cropped up in bumps terminology. A crew received spoons if they were bumped down on every day of bumps as opposed to a crew receiving 'blades' for bumping up everyday. I remember our 2nd VIII getting spoons one year - their cox bought wooden cooking spoons and painted them in boat club colours to hand out as a prize at boat club dinner.

  2. LOL. I rowed in the May Bumps at Cambridge too, for Queens' in one of the lower divisions in 1968. None of us in our crew had ever rowed before. We narrowly escaped winning our "spoons" with one row-over and three bumps down. More details at My Rowing Career.