The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Brett WB

Brett, William Baliol (Lord Esher)Edit

“Popular Judgment” (Ape), January 1, 1876Edit

Eight and fifty years ago the Reverend Joseph Brett, of Chelsea, was blessed with a son, whom in due time he sent through Westminster and Oxford to Lincoln’s Inn. The young Barrister plodded with considerable success along the dustier ways of the Law. He did not make the reputation of a great light, neither did he display great powers of advocacy, but his opinion on matters relating to Maritime and Insurance Law was held to be worth having. If not marked as a rising man, he was accounted intelligent; moreover, he married and professed himself a Conservative; yet when, well over his fortieth year, he “took silk,” there seemed but little chance of great promotion for him. He addressed himself, however, to the political avenues, and twice failed to represent Rochdale, and that, of course, gave him a claim to the gratitude of his Party. In 1866, however, Helston returned him to Parliament, and although he achieved no great distinction there as a statesman, he attracted Mr. Disraeli’s attention, so that when eighteen months later much legal patronage fell in, and it became necessary to cast about for Conservative lawyers, he was made Solicitor-General. Six months after this he renounced the Parliamentary career by accepting a puisne judgeship, and he had barely settled himself in the seat of justice when from that serene haven he beheld the crushing defeat of his former Party at a general election.

As a Judge Sir William has shown himself strong, ready, and always able to take a firm grasp of any case before him in all of its aspects. He relies entirely upon himself, forms and adheres very strongly to his own opinion, and seeks always to be final, complete, and sufficient in the decision of the Court over which he presides. Yet he is not insensible to the spirit of the times, and his and the popular judgment of a case are often found to coincide. It will be remembered of him that he tried the gas stokers and sentenced Colonel Baker; but he is able, frank, urbane, good-natured, well with Society, and an intimate friend of the Chancellor; and under circumstances he may become Chief-Justice.

William Baliol Brett (1815-99) was indeed “sent through” Westminster and Lincoln’s Inn, but not Oxford. He was a Caius man, an accomplished boxer, known there as “Bella Brett” for his silk waistcoats. He rowed three years for the C.U.B.C: against Leander in 1837 and 1838, when that club was still based in London, and against Oxford in 1839 for the third Boat Race (the first for the newly-formed O.U.B.C.). He also won the Grand at Henley in 1841 as stroke for the “Cambridge Subscription Rooms,” a London-based private club for Cantabs.

Though Vanity Fair mistook Oxford for Cambridge in Brett’s background and omitted his rowing exploits entirely, it did fairly well project his later career. Within months of his 1876 appearance in Vanity Fair, Brett was elevated to the court of appeals (the Appellate Jurisdiction Act of 1876 having opened the slot at a convenient time) and in 1883 became Master of the Rolls. He became Baron Esher of Surrey in 1885 and on retirement in 1897 was made Viscount Esher, the highest dignity for judicial service since the time of Coke attained by any judge other than a chancellor. He died May 24, 1899, two months after his grandson and fellow rower of Vanity Fair, William Dudley-Ward, rowed No. 7 in the Cambridge crew that ended a nine-year run by Oxford in the Boat Race.

The 1838 Cambridge v. Leander Boat RaceEdit

Oxford won the first Boat Race, held at Henley in 1829. Cambridge won the second in 1836, from Westminster to Putney. In 1837, Oxford challenged designating Henley as the venue; Cambridge, with W.B. Brett in the crew, countered-offered London; but the parties were unable to agree and no race occurred. Cambridge then challenged Leander, at the time the leading London amateur club, to a Westminster to Putney race with “gentlemen” steerers and no fouling permitted. Leander accepted on condition they could use their favored waterman steerer, James Parish. Cambridge agreed and located a London waterman of their own, William Noulton, who had steered for Westminster in 1836. In the event Cambridge came from behind to win by seven seconds in a clean race. The next year, Leander challenged and the race went off on the same terms, but with much fouling on both sides and Leander first past the post. Bell's Life, the sporting paper, reported that “[t]he judgment displayed, more particularly by the Leander, in the art of fouling, and the science and tact show by both coxswains, were really beyond conception.” However, due to the fouling the umpire declared the race no contest, so Brett wrote on behalf of his crew to Leander requesting a re-row. Leander declined, stating they rejected the umpire’s decision and viewed themselves the winner. This launched a lively correspondence that led nowhere, other than that “this unfortunate result must have strengthened the University men in their determination to keep clear of professionals,” in R.C. Lehmann’s account.[1] Here is one of Brett’s entries, bringing his undergraduate legal acumen to bear:

Sir, -- In answer to your letter I can only state to you a few facts connected with the late race. Upon receipt of your challenge to “row the Cambridge crew upon as late a date as they could possibly name,” they appointed for that purpose the 14th June, which day was accepted by you. Upon their arrival in London, you stated that many of your crew wished to attend the Ascot races on that day; that you consequently could not row then, and would not row afterwards. They, considering this match not as one rowed for any large stakes, but merely entered into from a spirit of honorable competition, in which either party would rather give than accept an advantage, did, notwithstanding their great want of practice in London, yield in all things to your wishes.

Upon starting for the match we were at first, as in the former year, left behind; but on coming up to you at the Horseferry we most unexpectedly found ourselves against a barge on one side and your boat on the other, fully proving that Parish had closed upon us, and not left us room to proceed on our proper course. Noulton, upon this, was anxious to proceed also to waterman’s practice, and so endeavour to break the rudder of your boat. We, however, thinking that there might have been some accident in the case, insisted upon backing water, and yielding the Middlesex side of the river to you. This we did, gave you a considerable start, pulled up to you on the Surrey side, and were again crossed. We still insisted upon Noulton yielding to you; but at the Red House, finding all hope of being allowed to pass useless, and convinced that you were sanctioning your steerer’s conduct, we told him to run into you, and there broke your oar, etc. We now asked the Umpire whether the race was fair or foul, and upon his answering that it was foul we put up our oars to claim the match.

Our own boat was, at this time, half full of water; but seeing that you had procured a new oar, and had rowed away about 200 yards, we again started after you, and pulled up to you in less than half a mile. After Chelsea Bridge we again left you, and actually crossed and recrossed the river, to try whether or not you would allow us to pass. Being again crossed within ten yards of Wandsworth Meadows, the wrong side of the river, we gave you a last start, and ran into you as you passed through Putney Bridge.

Knowing all these circumstances in our own boat, and having felt the tremendous labour of starting a heavy eight-oared boat some seven or eight times in one day, which your crew had not to do, we cannot but feel greatly astonished at your claim to “have won the match,” or at your affecting to doubt which is the superior crew.

As far as the technical claim is concerned, we have never heard that an Umpire’s decision could be disputed; and knowing of no other authority to which two rival crews could refer their claims, we feel it, of course, perfectly useless to enter into any further correspondence.

I remain, Sir, your obedient servant (for the Cambridge crew), WM. BALIOL BRETT.[2]

In 1839, the newly-formed O.U.B.C. challenged the C.U.B.C. to a third University Boat Race. It was Westminster to Putney, in the Easter vacation, with gentleman steerers, no fouling permitted. “Cambridge still had the better organisation and more material from which to choose; besides, their style had been much improved during the past two years by their Leander matches, and by the coaching which they had in the meantime received from Noulton and other London watermen,” reported the 1929 Official Centenary History. “The race was as hollow as it well could be: from start to finish Oxford were never in it, and Cambridge won in a common canter by upwards of a minute and a half, in 31 min. 0 sec.”[3]


  1. ^ R.C. Lehmann, The Complete Oarsman, p. 13.
  2. ^ W.B. Brett, quoted in C.H. Dudley-Ward, A Romance of the Nineteenth Century, pp. 195-96.
  3. ^ G.C. Drinkwater & T.R.B. Sanders, The University Boat Race: Official Centenary History, p. 17.