The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Denman G

Denman, GeorgeEdit

“He Was an Ornament on the Bench” (Stuff), November 19, 1892Edit

The fourth son of that able defender of Queen Caroline of Brunswick, who (after the King’s death) was rewarded by a Peerage and a chance of illuminating the King’s Bench which he availed himself of for nearly twenty years as its Chief Justice, he has owed much of his success to his father and to his father’s name, and something of it to himself. Born three-and-seventy years ago, he grew into an intellectually and physically well-favoured boy, who at Repton Grammar School and at Trinity, Cambridge, made friends, cultivated his mind, and won pots so thoroughly that half a century back he had figured as a Senior Classic and as a Cambridge University oar. Then his College improved him into a Fellow; and, soon after he was called to the Bar, his grateful University retained him as one of her Counsel, though she refused to be represented by him in Parliament, preferring a Tory. Handsome, persuasive, painstaking, and not without tact, he presently became quite a proper person for the conduct of arbitration cases; and having now become well known in the way that successful barristers get themselves known, he was chosen to share with Lord Palmerston the divided honour of representing Tiverton in the House of Commons. There he tended legislatively to assimilate civil with criminal evidence, and helped to abolish religious belief as a qualification for witnesses; which thing he did almost silently, for he was no great speaker in the House. But he voted always -- except once -- with his Party, until at last, twenty years ago, being the son of a great lawyer, a docile Liberal, and a cautious man, he voted himself onto the Bench, on which he was for so long an ornament.

For he made a dignified and imposing Judge, besides being the best-looking man on the Bench. Moreover, he worked hard, scarcely ever lost his temper, and was generally full of grace. Yet, if he be judged by the records of the Court of Appeal, he will not be looked back to as one of the greatest of English lawyers; for he was quite free from subtlety, so that it often took a long time to get the facts of any complicated case into his head. He has also shown himself as weak a Judge as he was an amiable; as when he over-indulged Mrs. Weldon at the time that lady was active upon the law-path. But he was a good Judge with a jury, whom he was well able at once to enlighten and to keep in hand; neither flying over their heads nor losing their respect. He has now retired full of years and full of honour; and the whole Bar wishes him well in the private obscurity to which he has just descended from the Bench.

He is known as a very honourable, courteous, and kindly-mannered man, who was generally popular with the Bar, although he sometimes allowed arguments before him to wax over-long. He always dressed carefully and suitably, but he did not like to see sketches done in Court even by briefless barristers who had time to spare for such lightsome work; and though he never caught Mr. Lockwood in the flagrant crime, his vials of judicial wrath were once grievously poured out upon the head of a less careful stuff-gownsman whom he detected in the act of transferring a witness’s features to paper. He plays upon the violin; he has translated Gray’s “Elegy” into Greek, and he has attempted to convert a book of the Iliad into Latin elegiacs.

He looked a model Judge. But he was never quite so good a Judge as he looked.

George Denman (1819-96) rowed No. 7 for Cambridge in the Boat Races of 1841 and 1842. He won the Colquhoun Sculls in 1842, stroked his college boat to the head of the Cam, and rowed in the Grand from 1840 to 1843 for Trinity, the Cambridge Subscription Rooms, C.U.B.C., and Trinity again. His 1843 Trinity crew lost to the full O.U.B.C. eight that went on to win the event by two lengths with only seven oarsmen, their stroke having gone ill and no substitutions permitted. In an 1886 profile, Vanity Fair wrote: “Even now his Lordship regards with affection various trophies carried off in his more youthful days from Henley; and all this added much to his popularity, as such things always do.”[1]

Regarding Denman’s professional life: he dedicated his 1871 translation of Gray’s “Elegy” into Greek to Sir Alexander Cockburn, the Lord Chief Justice -- and in the following year was appointed to the court of common pleas. In 1873 Denman dedicated his translation of Pope’s “Iliad” into Latin to W.E. Gladstone, the Prime Minister -- and in 1875 became a justice of the common pleas division of the high court. In 1881 he provided an English translation of H. Kynaston’s Latin hexameters for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boat Race -- and the same year became a judge on the queen’s bench division.

The 1841 Boat RaceEdit

The 1841 Boat Race

Denman’s own account:

The Oxford and Cambridge Boatrace was to come off on Easter Tuesday, and during the whole of the Lent Term a crew, of which I was seven, was in practice. The race in 1840 had been a very close affair, won by Cambridge after an apparently losing race up to Battersea Reach. Several old oars remained in each boat. The new ones in ours were, W. Croker, Caius (9th Wrangler in 1839), my brother Lewis, Magdalene (two), Ritchie, Trinity (three), Cobbold, Peterhouse (five) and myself (seven); our steerer, too, was new, J. Croker, brother of our bow and 8th Wrangler in 1840. Vialls, our stroke, and Somers-Cocks of Brasenose, the Oxford stroke, both Westminster men, had each rowed stroke in 1840. The coxswains were new to the river and it seemed a very open affair. The race in those days was from Westminster Bridge to Putney Bridge, 5¾ miles; about half an hour’s work with an average tide. There were no police arrangements for keeping the course clear and it was often a ticklish work for the coxswains to decide whether to go ahead or astern of a train of barges catering across the river. There was no practising at Ely in those days, nor any coaching from the banks, but, before coming to Town, the crew used to row at its best pace from the town-lock to Baitsbite, coached by the steerer, and the time occupied was, on an average, from nineteen to twenty-one minutes, according to the wind and stream prevailing at the time.

When the time came for moving to London, our captain, C.M. Vialls, the old Westminster, determined to drive us up to London. He was a capital whip who often drove the mail. A good drag was hired, and we had a fine day and enjoyed the drive immensely. Arrived in London, the majority of the crew took up its quarters at Ginger’s Hotel (which stood about where the booking-office of the District Railway for the Westminster Bridge Station now stands), but I and my brother ‘trained’ at home at my father’s house in Portland Place. Our training was probably less rigid than that of the present day; but it was pretty strict, and our kind mother made no difficulty about it as far as diet was concerned. The Broad Walk, which runs across the Regent’s Park above Portland Place towards the Zoological Gardens, was then just being made, and a part of our training was to run to the end of that walk and back before breakfast. Then, in the course of the day, sooner or later, according to the tide, we walked to Searle’s boathouse (where St. Thomas’s Hospital now stands) and prepared to race to Putney against a crew of Cambridge Subscription Rooms (sometimes supplemented by a waterman or two), and this we did daily with two days’ exception until the day before the race, giving the other crew a long start of 200 or 300 yards and judging of our performance by the distance we had covered before we passed them, which generally occurred before half the course had been chased.

The race, as I have said, was to be rowed on Easter Tuesday (April 13). On the Good Friday the crew did not row together; but my brother Lewis and I took a wherry and paddled up the river with the intention of rowing to Richmond and back for exercise. About 300 yards below Kew Bridge I, rowing bow and steering, or rather directing the steering (for we had no rudder), saw a boat ahead with a man’s face toward me about 100 yards off. I took this to be a boat rowing in the same direction as we were; but in a few seconds I was undeceived by a tremendous blow on the shoulder, and the sight of a wherry’s sharp-pointed bow appearing close to my left ear. The wherry was full of rough holiday-makers who rowed on triumphantly as our boat filled with water and gradually sank to the bottom not far from the shore, so that my brother got hold of the painter and pulled me and boat to the towing-path, and after he had bestowed his benediction on the enemy and emptied the boat, we again embarked and I tried to row. It was in vain. The pain was too great, and I felt quite sick from the attempt. Happily at that moment we spied a four-oar, manned by some others of our crew, and it was arranged that I should go back as steerer of that boat and one of them take my place; and so I got back, in time, to Portland Place. But what was to be done? We did not dare to send for the doctor from fear that he might forbid me to row on Tuesday. It was necessary to keep my mother and sisters in the dark for the same reason. Happily the junior footman (George Pearman) was a man who seemed to know everything. So we took him into counsel. He had been a barber, and we had a notion that he might therefore possess some knowledge of surgery. After gravely considering the case and inspecting the bruised shoulder, he advised us to allow him to fetch just one leech, which he very skillfully applied. It was about the size of the two lower joints of a little finger when it began its meal, and nearly as large as a lemon when it rolled off satisfied. George’s prescription was a complete success; for, though I was obliged to abstain from rowing on the next day and could not have practised on the following day, even if it had not been Sunday, I took my oar again on Monday, when we practised starts and had a few short rows, and on the following day was in my place, and felt no inconvenience from the accident, and we won the race by the unusually long interval of 1 minute and 5 seconds (about 360 yards).

I may as well add that in the following year (1842) after a hard race and with a decidedly inferior stroke and three changes, all for the worse, in the crew, we were beaten by 13 seconds. So that my career was a fair sample of the general result of the University match (six of one and half a dozen of the other).[2]


  1. ^ Vanity Fair, Nov. 20, 1886, p. 291.
  2. ^ G. Denman, quoted in G.C. Drinkwater & T.R.B. Sanders, The University Boat Race: Official Centenary History, pp. 19-21.