The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Gold HG

Gold, Harcourt Gilbey


“Tarka” (Spy), March 23, 1899


The President of the Oxford University Boat Club, who hopes to stroke his fourth ‘Varsity Eight to victory on Saturday, became the fourth (and last) son of Mr. Henry Gold, of Hedsor, in Bucks, three-and-twenty years ago. Having acquired the name of “Tarka” in the nursery when his own name was too big for him, he went to Eton; where he is still remembered in “Hoppy’s” House. He took to the oar so well that for three successive years he stroked the Eton Eight to victory in the Race for the Ladies’ Plate at Henley; and his memory is so strong that Eton has gone on winning that Plate ever since. So he was made Captain of the Boats -- after he had got his Field Colours for football; and, accordingly, like so many good Eton oars, went to Oxford, to provide Magdalene College with a credit to the Isis. He was made stroke of the ‘Varsity Eight right off; and in his first race he cut Cambridge down almost on the post, winning after a desperate struggle. In 1897 he stroked one of the best Oxford Eights ever sent out, and won again; and last year he was able to watch Cambridge rowing after him to the Ship. Besides this, he stroked Leander at Henley in 1896, when he won the Grand Challenge and defeated Yale; and, though New College just beat him the year after, he won the same race at last year’s Regatta; while in two of three years he also stroked the Leander Four to victory in the race for the Stewards’ Cup. Yet with all these and other triumphs he has never won a race at Eton or Oxford with the single exception of the ‘Varsity Pairs in 1897!

He is a sturdily-built young fellow, with extraordinary powers of endurance; who can probably get as much out of seven other men in a boat as any stroke living. He is a good fellow and an all-round sportsman; who, while he can ride well and shoot with promise, hates walking. Nevertheless, in pious imitation of his father (who thinks nothing of playing sixty holes a day on the Hedsor links), he has lately taken to golf. He has a dry humour that is quite his own; he can play the host; he can tell a story; but, unlike the rest of his family, he does not sing -- much. He has met the examiners on several occasions; and, though sometimes defeated, he has managed in the end to score.

He has wonderful knees; and his legs are always loudly appreciated by the crowd at Putney.

“The best stroke I have ever rowed behind was Harcourt [Gilbey] Gold” (1876-1952), wrote Guy Nickalls, who rowed No. 6 in Gold’s 1895 and 1896 Leander crews for the Grand (and later married his older sister).[1] Save for an 1897 appearance in the Goblets at bow, stroke was the only seat Gold ever rowed at Henley or in the Boat Race, winning ten of fourteen such events. The 1899 Boat Race was not among the victories, however, as Cambridge won by over three lengths to end Oxford’s nine-year run and keep Gold from becoming the first stroke to win four. He returned the favor a decade later, by coaching Bob Bourne’s Oxford crew to the first of his four straight wins and thereby holding Duggie Stuart of Cambridge to three. Gold coached eighteen Oxford crews in all, as well as Nickalls’ Leander VIII that won the 1908 Olympic regatta at Henley.

Gold was Captain of Leander from 1898 through 1900. He became a steward of the Henley Regatta in 1909 and joined its management committee in 1919, that year causing the creation of the stewards’ enclosure to give the regatta the financial sustenance of a regular subscriber base. (Woodgate opposed the move: he thought it would foster elitism.) Gold published The Common Sense of Coaching in 1920 for Oxford college coaches with little experience, encouraging “unlimited patience and good temper” and cautioning “[i]t is probable as many crews have been marred as have been made from the bank.”[2] In 1945, he succeeded C.M. Pitman, his fellow Etonian and immediate predecessor as Oxford’s stroke, as chairman of the regatta. In 1948 Gold became chairman of the Amateur Rowing Association, on which for many years he had represented the O.U.B.C., and the following year received the first knighthood for services to rowing. In the 1914-18 war, Gold joined the Royal Flying Corps and was discharged a Lieutenant Colonel. Professionally, like another Oxford Etonian G.D. Rowe, Gold had his own stockbrokerage, Harcourt Gold & Co.

Romance and Rowing


Guy Nickalls married H.G. Gold’s elder sister, and Nickalls’ son Gully married Gold’s daughter. Gold himself married a sister of G.S. Maclagan, who coxed his 1899 Oxford crew and the 1908 Leander Olympic eight that Gold coached and in which Nickalls rowed. The connection between romance and rowing drew the attention of Vanity Fair in an article by “A Bachelor” (June 28, 1873), who apparently had not himself so benefitted:

"Rowing man: 'Charming girl, your cousin, such Eton eyes; such Leander cheeks'"

The attendance at the Oxford and Cambridge match and at the Henley Regatta seems to show that athletics are not on the decline as an art for wooing Englishwomen. We recollect rowing in a public school crew at Henley and hearing two girls fairer than sunlight exclaim as we got into our boat and were adjusting the stretchers, “Oh, the darlings!” They were wearing our light blue colours, and it is a certainty that the blood of the whole eight of us tingled to our finger-tips, and that we rowed like desperation on the strength of being darlings. But a Trinity Cambridge crew pulled the Ladies’ Plate from us, and as we stepped out of the boat with our tongues lolling and our faces red as bricks these same water-nymphs cried indignantly in our hearing -- “Oh, the muffs!” The fact is they had bet gloves on our success, and the defeat we had suffered -- it was not an ignominious one, only half a boat’s length -- was too much for their nerves. They trampled our colours with scorn under their pretty boots, and would unquestionably have voted for our being pitched into the river had it been the custom to make an end of vanquished oarsmen as of worsted gladiators at Rome. It is a question whether in England it does not occasionally pay better to be a victorious athlete than a good scholar. . . . Cricketers, and oarsmen, too, play havoc in society as Detrimentals, and have a knack of carrying off heiresses in the teeth of circumstances and of richer gnashing suitors. At worst they win girls who have connections instead of money, and the connections, after growling a bit for the form of the thing, locate the man of muscle in some snug post of emolument provided for out of the Consolidated Fund. This comes of the difficulty of browbeating or despising a man who has his chambers full of prize-cups or presentation bats won by flood and field. . . .

At times the direct route to matrimony lay through the father of the bride, as recounted in Vanity Fair (March 27, 1875) following that year’s Boat Race:

A propos of the University boat-race, the Paris Figaro tells a story of a “Mr. James Oxen,” who made his fortune by steering the Oxford crew. It seems that fifteen years ago Mr. Oxen’s boat being behind that of Cambridge, a voice from the bank suddenly roared, “James, my boy, if you cut Cambridge in two my daughter is yours.” By “a vigorous pull at his rudder,” Mr. Oxen showed himself equal to the occasion. He did not strike Cambridge amidships, but he landed his own boat winner by half a length, and shortly afterwards married the heiress of a grateful parent “who had won a colossal sum in bets.”


  1. ^ G. Nickalls, Life’s a Pudding, p. 210.
  2. ^ H.G. Gold, The Common Sense of Coaching, p. 12.