The Rowers of Vanity Fair/1855-1871 Dr Warre and Fixed Seat Orthodoxy

1855 - 1871: Dr. Warre and Fixed-Seat OrthodoxyEdit

In 1855, the Royal Chester Rowing Club won the Wyfolds and Stewards’ in a “carvel” four – that is, a “shell” boat with a perfectly smooth hull and an interior keel, as opposed to a “clinker-built” of overlapping planks on an exterior keel. To put to rest any lingering doubts about the superiority of the new design, the next year they returned in a carvel eight to win the Grand and Ladies’. Carvel boats immediately became the standard for gentlemen amateurs, and a Balliol undergraduate named Edmond Warre became their archbishop in the new religion of how to row them. “Rowing” itself became an accepted term for the new “scientific oarsmanship,” having formerly been associated with “rowdy” but now used to distinguish racing from recreational branch of “aquatics,” which now went under the banner “boating.”[1]

The Royal Chester boat had roots in the modified fishing cobles or “gigs” in which Cornish pilots raced out to incoming ships. Though clinker-built, to withstand the surf and stony beaches, these gigs were relatively light with a high bow and low gunwales and stern. Exeter College, Oxford brought one from Plymouth for the 1824 university bumping races, and the Cornish influence spread to boatyards in London, Oxford, and Cambridge. Having no outrigger, an oarsman sat flush against the gunwale opposite his oar for maximum leverage, on a fixed seat, and used long “fish-tail” sweep oars with narrow blades. With this design, speed went to the crew with the strongest groin, back and arm muscles, who could best strike a rhythm of steep forward and backward “swing” from the waist to “catch” the greatest arc of water.

Scullers with outriggers, no sliding seats, 1851

These southern clinker-built boats of the early nineteenth century, while considerably heavier than modern shells, had a significant weight advantage over their northern counterparts that remained basically designed for trade. The northerners compensated by innovating with outriggers, oars, and eventually boat design as well. While the concept of outriggers – moving the fulcrum away from the gunwale to increase leverage -- had been known for years, it was not until 1828 that relatively sophisticated wooden ones were first fitted to a boat and, somewhat later, that an iron version was introduced, both by Tyneside boatbuilders. Since an outrigged boat provided better leverage than the off-set positions of an unrigged “cutter,” the northerners redesigned the boat itself to put the crew in line and thereby narrow and lighten it, adding length to provide the necessary “state room” for body swing and arm pull. Chitty’s crew rowed in this new “parallelogram” design in the early 1850s. In addition, Harry Clasper of Newcastle, the most famous of the Tyneside builders, developed the first modern oars with a shorter loom and wider blade than the fish-tail style, to provide a better grip on the water. With outrigged boats and “Clasper’s sculls,” crews so equipped adapted their technique to row a stroke “peculiar to themselves.”

Matt Taylor with the Royal Chester IV, 1855

Such was the southern judgment on the style of Clasper’s own crew at the 1844 Thames Regatta, an event that brought north and south together from 1843 to 1850. Losing in 1844 to Robert Coombes’ London crew which had the benefit of the Cornish tradition of lighter construction, Clasper returned to Newcastle determined to make his own boats ligher and faster yet. He ended up replacing the heavy, overlapping planking of clinker-built boats with lighter planks set side by side, moving the keel inside to make the hull perfectly smooth, and reducing the width from three and a half feet to two. With this new “carvel” design he returned to the Thames Regatta in 1845 and won convincingly. The Boat Race crews adopted outriggers the next year, and carvel-built boats became popular, though it was another nine years before the Royal Chester victories at Henley fully swayed the gentlemen amateur establishment. Royal Chester got their boat from Matthew Taylor, a professional shipwright from Ouseburn on Tyne. In 1857 Taylor supplied Oxford with a winning boat, twelve feet shorter and with the beam farther forward than a keeled parallelogram design. Edmond Warre, who rowed No. 6 for Oxford in 1857, was so impressed that a few years later he retained Taylor as boatbuilder for Eton. In 1901 Warre sought to emulate Taylor’s 1857 design in a boat he commissioned for the winning Oxford crew in which his son, F.W. Warre, was president.[2]

Great Western Railway schedule for the Henley Regatta, July 5, 1893

Apart from the advent of carvel boats, outriggers, and Clasper sculls, railways were another technical development that marked the rowing landscape from roughly 1850 onward, though with more subtle effect. Before railways, a club could compete against any of its neighbors within rowing distance but had hardly any contact with oarsmen elsewhere. As rail systems expanded throughout the country, starting in the 1840s and virtually complete thirty years later, oarsmen and spectators could travel farther afield. The Great Western Railway linked Paddington to Twyford in 1843 and added a branch line to Henley in 1857. The size and number of regattas increased noticeably during the 1870s. The Prince of Wales began to attend the Henley Regatta, drawing a whole social set along from London; in 1906, the G.W.R. carried 31,000 to the regatta. In addition, as railways fostered suburban development, they indirectly gave rise to new clubs that emerged to service the new communities, such as London R.C. at Putney (1856), Kingston R.C. (1858), Twickenham R.C. (1860), Molesey R.C. (1866), and Staines R.C. (1866).[3]


  1. ^ N. Wigglesworth, The Social History of English Rowing, p. 111.
  2. ^ N. Wigglesworth, pp. 69-70, 83, 85-86; C.R.L. Fletcher, Edmond Warre, pp. 293-95; H. Cleaver, A History of Rowing, pp. 96-97; T. Cook, Rowing at Henley, pp. 83-84.; C. Dodd, The Story of World Rowing, pp. 71-75.
  3. ^ R. Burnell, Henley Royal Regatta: A Celebration of 150 Years, pp. 40, 114; R. Burnell & G. Page, The Brilliants: A History of the Leander Club, p. 55; N. Wigglesworth, pp. 49, 52, 153-54.