The Rowers of Vanity Fair/1839-1854 New Traditions

1839 - 1854: New TraditionsEdit

By the yardstick of Boat Race or Henley Regatta participation, 1839 marks the earliest contest for the rowers of Vanity Fair for it was then that William Baliol Brett first rowed for the Cambridge in the Boat Race. (He rowed for the C.U.B.C. in 1837 and 1838 as well, but against Leander rather than Oxford as no university race took place those years.) To put him and the first few rowers of Vanity Fair in context, it helps to take a backward glance at “watermen” and “gentlemen.”

Thames waterman soliciting passers-by, c 1825

Water tradesmen carried people and goods in the days before motor vehicles and railways. They prospered in the Thames Valley and became so numerous that Henry VIII began regulating their fares in 1514 and Parliament incorporated their guild, the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, in 1555. Among the duties of the Company were, according to Guy Nickalls:

to draw up a scale of legal fares; to control in every manner the men who plied for hire on the river; to apprentice them; to see that they were capable of handling boats with safety to the passengers when they took up their freedom; to arm them, to ensure that their passengers were not murdered, assaulted or robbed; to issue licenses to lightermen; to renew licenses triennially to freemen; and generally to act the shepherd over a somewhat turbulent flock.[1]

Liddy, the Winner of Doggett's Coat and Badge, Illustrated London News, August 6, 1842

In short, watermen were the regulated taxi and lorry drivers of pre-industrial Britain, with certain tariff and police powers as well. It was among their ranks that the longest-running rowing event, Doggett’s Coat and Badge, was established in London. Named for the actor and the prize he bequeathed, the race first occurred on August 1, 1715, the anniversary of the accession of George I. (Handel’s Water Music dates to nearly the same time, composed at the request of George I for a concert on board barges rowed by watermen.)[2] Doggett’s Coat and Badge is still run annually from London Bridge to Chelsea, though the demise of professional watermen has necessitated some loosening of the entry criteria.[3]

Gentlemen employed watermen and owned most of the goods they carried. In eighteenth century London, the growth of commerce created new rich merchants and financiers and attracted some landed aristocracy to town from around the country. This broad class of wealthy gentlemen, who built the theatres, gardens, and clubs of Georgian society, loved to gamble and by sponsoring wager matches among local watermen both were entertained and had the opportunity for betting. Some took to the water themselves, rowing with watermen on a recreational basis and relying on them for boat rental, boat-building, accommodation, and instruction. Such recreational rowing gave rise to the first gentlemen’s boat clubs, the Monarch Boat Club founded at Eton College in 1793 and the Isis Club at Westminster School a few years later, both named for the boats involved. (The school clubs were not formed until 1816 and 1813, respectively.) At Westminster a succession of headmasters discouraged rowing as it had led to a number of drownings, and in 1788 the use of watermen in all schoolboy crews was ordered as a safeguard. By then, recreational rowing had taken hold at Oxford and Cambridge, particularly as six-oared picnic transport, introduced by Eton and Westminster alumni. But gentlemen did not race, with or without watermen, as it was thought manual and demeaning and, at Eton and Westminster, because of the close association of professional wager matches to gambling and drinking.[4]

In the early nineteenth century, gentlemen rowers began to distance themselves from watermen. The trend started at Eton, Westminster, and Oxbridge and spread gradually throughout the country. Eton dispensed with a waterman at coxswain starting in 1837; the Boat Race and Henley Regatta followed suit in 1839; and professional trainers and coaches were likewise marginalized over the next decade.[5] This weaning was not without occasional intellectual challenge: when Oxford bought a radically new boat for the 1857 Boat Race, designed and built by a professional, Matthew Taylor, the O.U.B.C. had him “steer[] us during our training, not to instruct Oxford in the art of rowing, but to show us the proper way to send his boat along as quickly as possible.”[6]

"Berkley's Black-Eyed Maid," 1827

Also in the early nineteenth century, gentlemen began to rethink their self-imposed ban on racing. At Oxbridge, picnickers returning from a day out began vying with one another to be first back to the boatyard, the competition eventually giving birth to the college “bumping” races at Oxford around 1815 and at Cambridge in 1827. Other gentlemen crews began competing in wager matches, such as the 1826 “Grand Amateur Rowing Match for 200 sovereigns, for gentlemen picked from the various crack clubs on the river” in London. This event encouraged the staging of the first “away” match by an Oxford crew, from Christ Church College, against a composite eight from the Leander and Arrow clubs for the same purse. The Londoners won, as they did in 1831 when an Oxford University crew challenged Leander, also for 200 sovereigns.[7]

Against this background Charles Wordsworth, nephew of the poet and son of the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, orchestrated the first Boat Race in 1829. He later recalled it as only one of many “trifling and insignificant” sporting events he had helped organise at college. Living in Cambridge and studying at Oxford, he used his Harrow contacts to promote an inter-university cricket match in 1827, the success of which prompted him to suggest to his Cambridge friends the possibility of a boat race. They challenged and Oxford accepted, with Henley-on-Thames the agreed venue. Neither the Cam nor the Isis were wide or straight enough and the tidal Thames in London was considered too choppy to provide fair racing conditions. Henley offered a one mile straight course, wide enough to allow side-by-side racing with no blade clashes or fouling. Oxford won. There was no purse for the contestants but undoubtedly plenty of gambling.[8]

In 1830 Cambridge challenged again, but the plans were dropped due to a cholera epidemic. The second match ultimately went off in 1836, this time in London from Westminster to Putney for a purse of four hundred pounds that Cambridge took home. The event became more or less annualized from 1839 onwards, without a purse, and in 1842 became designated a “race” rather than a “match” to reinforce the shift away from watermen, purses, and fouling.[9]

A similar shift occurred at the Henley Regatta, founded in 1839. Initially it consisted of just two events: a Town Challenge Cup for watermen, with a £30 purse, and a Grand Challenge Cup for amateur gentlemen, no purse. Admission to the “Grand” was limited to eight-oared crews from “the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, or London, the Schools of Eton and Westminster, the Officers of the two Brigades of Household Troops, or Members of a Club established at least one year previous to the time of entering” (i.e., Leander Club), with no watermen coxswains or fouling permitted. The regatta soon swelled with additional events for amateurs: the Stewards’ Challenge Cup for coxed fours (1841, it went coxless in 1873), the Diamond Challenge Sculls for single sculls (1844), the Silver Wherries for pair oars (1845, later renamed the Silver Goblets and Nickalls’ Challenge Cup), the Ladies’ Challenge Plate for eights (1845), the Visitors’ Challenge Cup for coxed fours (1847, it went coxless in 1874), the Wyfold Cup for coxed fours (1855, it too went coxless in 1874), and the Thames Challenge Cup for eights (1868). The regatta became Royal in 1851 under the patronage of Prince Albert. The one event for watermen, the Town Challenge Cup, was dropped in 1884.[10]


  1. ^ T.A. Cook & G. Nickalls, Thomas Doggett Deceased, p. 62.
  2. ^ C. Hogwood, Handel, pp. 71-72; R. Streatfeild, Handel, pp. 72-74. According to Friedrich Bonet, the Prussian Resident in London (quoted in C. Hogwood):
A few weeks ago the King expressed to Baron Kilmanseck His desire to have a concert on the river, by subscription, similar to the masquerades this winter which the King never failed to attend. . . . The necessary orders were given and the entertainment took place the day before yesterday [July 17, 1717]. About eight in the evening the King repaired to his barge, into which were admitted the Duchess of Bolton, Countess Godolphin, Mad. de Kilmanseck, Mrs. Were and the Earl of Orkney, the Gentleman of the Bedchamber in Waiting. Next to the King’s barge was that of the musicians, about 50 in number, who played on all kinds of instruments, to wit trumpets, horns, hautboys, bassoons, German flutes, French flutes, violins and basses; but there were no singers. The music had been composed specially by the famous Handel, a native of Halle, and His Majesty’s principal Court Composer. His Majesty approved of it so greatly that he caused it to be repeated three times in all, although each performance lasted an hour -- namely twice before and once after supper. The [weather in the] evening was all that could be desired for the festivity, the number of barges and above all of boats filled with people desirous of hearing was beyond counting. In order to make this entertainment the more exquisite, Mad. de Kilmanseck had arranged a choice supper in the late Lord Ranelagh’s villa at Chelsea on the river where the King went at one in the morning. He left at three o’clock and returned to St. James’ about half past four.
  1. ^ H. Cleaver, A History of Rowing, pp. 22-24; N. Wigglesworth, The Social History of English Rowing, p. 185.
  2. ^ N. Wigglesworth, pp. 42-43, 61-62, 92, 186.
  3. ^ N. Wigglesworth, pp. 62, 187.
  4. ^ O.U.B.C. record book, quoted in R.C. Lehmann, The Complete Oarsman, p. 16
  5. ^ G.C. Drinkwater & T.R.B. Sanders, The University Boat Race: Official Centenary History, pp. 8-9; N. Wigglesworth, pp. 44, 92; R. Burnell & G. Page, The Brilliants: A History of the Leander Club, pp. 23-25.
  6. ^ G.C. Drinkwater & T.R.B. Sanders, p. 9; N. Wigglesworth, pp. 46, 93.
  7. ^ N. Wigglesworth, p. 46; R. Burnell & G. Page, pp. 27-28.
  8. ^ C. Dodd, Henley Royal Regatta, p. 53; N. Wigglesworth, pp. 48, 121.

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