Last modified on 27 July 2009, at 19:07

The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Muttlebury SD

Muttlebury, Stanley DuffEdit

“One of the Presidents” (Spy), March 22, 1890Edit

Muttlebury SD Vanity Fair 1890-03-22.jpg

Born three-and-twenty years ago he became a “new boy” at Eton in the Easter Term of 1880; where, although he only took “Lower Middle,” he determined to make himself conspicuous. So, being a big boy for his age, he donned “tails” and “shiny buttons,” and presently showed much promise as a “wet bob”; which he has since redeemed. For, having successively won the Lower Boys Sculls and Pairs, he proceeded to develop into a rowing machine; and in that capacity he has since worked with fair regularity, breaking down much less often than the machinery of any of Her Majesty’s ships has been known to break down in any equal space of time. He won the School Sculls at his second attempt, and he helped to win the Ladies’ Plate in 1885; after which he was reasonably welcomed to Cambridge, where rowing men were smarting under pretty frequent defeat on the tideway; and where he is now worshipped for four successive victories which he has helped achieve over Oxford. He has won the Cambridge Pairs thrice, the Fours and the Sculls once, and last year he rowed in the Head Boat; while at Henley he has won the Goblets thrice and the Visitors’ once. He still lives in hope of winning the “Grand,” as well as a fifth victory over the Isis men. Yet he is not so good an oar as he was two years ago.

Like most machines he is adapted for one purpose only, and consequently he is not a brilliant scholar; yet he has a head which, it is currently reported, can stand more than that of any other man. He is a fine swimmer, who has scored nearly as many pots in the water as he has on it; and he has upon occasion run at a good rate and played football with fitting violence. He always likes to get a good start in a race, and rows better when he does so; yet he has never started before the word “Go” has been uttered. He takes delight in tearing either side off a boat, for he can row on stroke or bow side. He is a brilliant conversationalist, for in himself he has a never failing subject of conversation in which he is well posted; and he is the strongest man on earth (in a boat) as well as the most ugly.

He knows more of life in London than most men of double his age know, and he weighs fifteen stone when untrained. He can tell stories, and he is supposed to be the most successful pot-hunter in England.

He personifies the triumph of matter over mind.

“[U]ndoubtedly the greatest oar ever produced by Cambridge” and the first Cantab to win the Boat Race four times, Stanley Duff Muttlebury (1866-1933) appeared in Vanity Fair at the end of his third year as C.U.B.C. President and at the apex of his career, having captained Leander in 1889. (He was the only VANITY FAIR rower to be shown in a boat -- with fixed pins, as swivels had not yet been accepted -- which he facilitated by letting Leslie Ward watch him practice rowing on the floor of his college room.)[1] Muttlebury’s success came in part, as R.C. Lehmann wrote, from sheer strength: “His blade sweeps through the water, as he swings his 13.10 / And pulls it all, and more than all, that brawny king of men.” But success also came from effective use of a long slide, a refinement Muttlebury developed in the mid-1880s at Trinity College while Reginald McKenna was doing the same next door at Trinity Hall, both with the help of Steve Fairbairn. In the resulting debate between “orthodoxy” and “Fairbairnism,” which flared again fifty years later in The Times, R.P.P. Rowe, the younger brother of Vanity Fair’s G.D. Rowe, pointed to “Muttle” as the exemplar of both styles:

Muttlebury had a natural aptitude which amounted to genius for rowing, and, as he was not only massively large and full of courage but herculean in muscular strength, it was inevitable that he should be an outstanding exponent of oarsmanship. Added to this, he came to his prime when rowing was in a transitional stage, when the old methods of the straight back and the body catch, suited to the fixed seat and the short slide, had necessarily to be superseded by methods required by the long slide. I consider that long-slide rowing sprang suddenly to perfection in Muttlebury, that on him this new (or partially new) art was built, and that if he could be rowing at his best today there would be an end of any conflict of styles. At any rate, every one would agree “this is how to row, if one can somehow learn it”; the only question left would be how best to learn it. Personally I claim his rowing to have been orthodoxy at its best; I have never in the last 40 years thought of orthodoxy in any other sense.[2]

To Muttlebury’s strength and style might be added his sang froid, which one of his Third Trinity teammates recalled from the 1888 University Fours:

In the University Fours in November, 1888, Third Trinity was drawn with Emmanuel. Both crews had done fast times in practice, and in the race they were level at Ditton. Here, rounding the corner, the Third Trinity boat gave a lurch, and Muttlebury, who rowed three and steered, found to his consternation that his sliding seat was jammed and was absolutely immovable. Quick as thought he tucked the loom of his oar under his left arm, turned half round, and after two attempts wrenched the seat off the slides and threw it overboard. The other three oars, not knowing exactly what was wrong, continued to paddle on briskly. “Muttle,” now seated low down on the slideway, started to row again, but at the second stroke, owing to the strain caused when he pulled out the seat, the steering lacing gave way at his foot. Calling out “Paddle on, you chaps,” he calmly stopped rowing, leant forward, and carefully secured the steering lace. Then, after dipping his right hand in the water overside, he cried out, “Now come on,” and, to the encouraging sound of great cheering from the banks, started to pick up the stroke, Bevan, who rowed stroke, having to keep time as best he could by watching three’s blade out of the corner of his eye.

Emmanuel, who were in second station, had been coming up fast, and were now only about 50 yards off. By common consent the race was practically over. Not so to “Muttle.” It was said that the water washed out of the Cam by “Muttle’s” blade rolled in huge waves to the tow path. At the Railway Bridge the crews were level again, but it seemed to most people that Third could not continue with their heavy 13st. 10lb. man bumping about on the metal slide-way and the three light men trying to keep time with him at over 40. However, “Muttle” called out for a “thick ‘un,” and on they went. From the Railway Bridge he put in a number of these “thick ‘uns” of his, until Third, rowing 44, and steered a perfect course by “Muttle,” got their gun and won the race by a second amid great excitement. There was a vast to-do among the timekeepers in comparing watches when it was discovered that the time was 10min. 26sec. -- 21sec. faster than the previous year’s record for the course.[3]

In 1890 Oxford won the first of its nine successive Boat Races and Muttlebury’s and Cambridge’s reign ended. He finished at university that year and went to London where he became a stockbroker and joined the Thames R.C., winning the Stewards’ in 1894 but never the Grand. For many years he helped coach Cambridge and was a steward of the Henley Regatta.

The 1890 Boat Race, Part I: “A Poorer Lot than Usual”Edit

In the correspondence between the University Boat Club Presidents to set the details for the 1890 race, the date became a sticking point, flashing over when Guy Nickalls wrote that Cambridge wanted to get the best of everything because they were “a poorer lot than usual.” Less than tactful stuff from a club that had lost four in a row. To celebrate this “Inter-University Incident,” Rudy Lehmann, who at various times coached both Nickalls and Muttlebury, penned thirty-two stanzas for Granta, the year-old Cambridge magazine that Lehmann edited and co-founded. (Muttle wrote its initial “Rowing Notes.”) First, for the February 1 issue, “The Quarrel: ‘A Poorer Lot than Usual’”:

Strew your heads with dust and ashes, O ye
sons of sedgy Cam;
Let your speech be meek and humble as the
baa of bleating lamb;
Let your bloods go robed in sackcloth and be
careless of their boots,--
You’re “a poorer lot than usual, – rather
lower than the brutes.
Nickalls photo ILN 1889.jpg
Fiery Nickalls wrote the latter, -- fiery
Nickalls, fine and large,--
And his frenzied eye flashed fury as he sat
within his barge.
Long enough have we submitted; now the time
has come to strike;
Shall “a poorer lot than usual” settle all
things as they like?

“I, the winner of the Wingfields, of the
Diamonds winner too,
Who at stroke, or six, or seven am the
mainstay of the crew;
I, whom friends call Guy or Luney,” -- it was
thus the chieftain spoke, --
“Of ‘a poorer lot than usual’ will not tamely
bear the yoke.

“Nay, my brothers of the Isis, let us write to
them and say
They shall trample us no longer in the old
familiar way;
And the banner of our Boat Club, as it flutters
in its pride,
By ‘a poorer lot than usual’ shall no longer be

So he wrote it, and he signed it in the
Presidential chair,
And he folded and addressed it, and he posted
it with care;
And the heedless postman bore it, little recking
of the frown
Of “a poorer lot than usual” who reside in
Cambridge town.
Muttlebury photo ILN 1889.jpg
. . . .

And they [the Cambridge boat club captains]
sat in solemn conclave, there within the
panelled hall,
Where the golden names of oarsmen gleam
and glitter on the wall;
Mighty Muttle read the letter, lord and master
of the crew,
In “a poorer lot than usual” of socks and
shorts and shoes.

Then they looked at one another as they heard
it with dismay,
And one said, “This is awful,” and another,
“Let us pray”;
Till at last one rose and murmured, and his
fingers, as he rose,
Were -- “a poorer lot than usual” – extended
from his nose.

“Thus,” he said, “I answer Nickalls of the
boast so loud and big;
Let him mount, and, if he likes it, ride to
Putney on a pig.
Let him go to Bath or blazes, go to Jericho and
Or -- “a poorer lot than usual” -- place his
head within a sack.

“But when next he writes to Cambridge let him
try another plan;
Manners cost no more than twopence, and ‘tis
manners makyth man.
And, O Muttle! if you meet him, tell him
plainly face to face
That ‘a poorer lot than usual’ mean to beat
him in the race.”

Then, for the February 15 issue,”The Reconciliation: Oxford in Cambridge,” as Nickalls and R.P.P. Rowe had come to Cambridge to make peace, cemented at a banquet in their honor:

Oh! sadly flows the Isis, full sadly go the
And the Blue-aspiring oarsmen all have
yielded to the blues,
Through hall and quad and college sweeps the
universal moan,--
“Give Guy and Reggie back to us; we cannot
row alone.”
Muttlebury coaching Cambridge, 1892
To Iffley drift the “toggers,” as slow as any
For while the men forget their form the coach
forgets to curse;
And bow, who screws most painfully, forgets to
murmur “Blank,”
As the cox forgets his rudder-strings and runs
into the bank.
. . . .
But Guy has hastened Camward; he leaves
them to their sighs,
And Reggie Rowe goes with him, curly Reggie
of the eyes--
Reggie the slim and supple, the pride of all the
Who never left his bed too soon, and never yet
rowed late.

See how our Muttle greets them; his childlike
smile is bland,
That heathen Cantab, Muttle, -- as he shakes
them by the hand:
“Now, welcome both to Cambridge; first lunch
and then away
To watch ‘the poorer-----’ Hem! I mean the
crew at work to-day.”
. . . .
Muttle at six is “stylish,” so at least the Field
No man has ever worn, I trow, so short a pair
of shorts.
His blade sweeps through the water, as he
swings his 13.10,
And pulls it all, and more than all, that brawny
king of men.
. . . .
And, now the work is over, the rival chieftains
And talk of friendly nothings in their
armchairs at the Pitt;
And yet methought I marked a shade of
sadness on the face
Of Nickalls, as he thought upon the coming
Putney race.

But oh! that merry evening -- the clash of
knives and forks,
The sparkle of the wineglass, and the popping
of the corks;
And the walls and rafters echoed and re-
echoed to our cry,
As we drained our brimming bumpers to
Reggie and to Guy.

So here’s a health to Oxford men; there came
a storm of late,
But our sturdy friendship weathered it, nor
foundered on a date;
And, when the furious race is past, again we’ll
meet and dine,
And drink a cup of kindness yet for days of
auld lang syne.[4]


  1. ^ L. Ward, Forty Years of Spy, p. 232.
  2. ^ The Times, May 6, 1933, p. 14d.
  3. ^ H. Warington Smyth, quoted in The Times, May 10, 1933, p. 10d.
  4. ^ R.C. Lehmann, “An Inter-University Incident,” Granta, Feb. 1 and 15, 1890, reprinted in F. Rice, The Granta and Its Contributors, 1889-1914, pp. 162-66.