The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Grenfell WH

Grenfell, William Henry (Lord Desborough)Edit

“Taplow Court” (Spy), December 20, 1890Edit

Born five-and-thirty years ago of a family of traditional Liberals, he soon showed himself the sturdy child who has since developed into the record-breaking athlete in whom matter has not, as usual, triumphed over mind. His life has been a compendium of athleticism varied with classical learning and political fighting. He began as proxime accessit for the entrance Scholarship at Harrow, where he won the Mile, and played twice in the Eleven against Eton. As a Balliol man, he ran three miles against Cambridge; helped to row a dead heat against Cambridge when only a broken oar saved the Light Blue crew from that beating which he easily helped to give them in the following year; and was made President of the University Athletic Club, and of the University Boat Club. He also hunted the Draghounds. Yet in spite of all this hard work he contrived to take a second-class in Moderations, which is an Honour Examination devoted to Classical Scholarship, and only failed to score more honour in “Greats” because he was temporarily disabled by illness. He has moreover thrice climbed the Matterhorn among many other mountains; he has twice swum Niagara; he has rowed across the English Channel in a clinker-built eight; he has sculled from Oxford to London in a day; he has made a couple of expeditions to the Rocky Mountains; and he has thrice been declared Punting Champion of the Thames.

Yet he has found time for other pursuits. He has been Private Secretary to a Chancellor of the Exchequer; he has been twice elected Member for Salisbury; and five years ago he saw fighting as special correspondent for the Daily Telegraph at Suakin. But three years back he settled down as the husband of a charming lady, and he now seems more or less contented in the hunting of the Harriers which originally belonged to the Prince Consort.

He is a Justice of the Peace for two counties, and Deputy-Lieutenant for the Tower Hamlets. He has two boys who promise to be worthy sons of their father. He is a good, strong fellow off whom no one is known to have scored save certain unknown burglars at Taplow Court; whom he has never been able to meet.

Grenfell in a racing punt, c. 1895

William Henry Grenfell (1855-1945) rowed for Oxford in the 1877 and 1878 Boat Races and in 1881, while a Liberal M.P. for Salisbury, rowed for Leander in the Grand. When Vanity Fair featured him in 1890 in riding garb, his competitive rowing years were over but he continued to fence, hunt, fish, and ride, altogether “show[ing] a versatility unmatched by any of his contemporaries.”[1] He had a cameo in Vanity Fair’s 1896 summer number by Hal Hurst, “Cycling in Hyde Park.” In 1906 (at age forty-three) Grenfell was a member of the English épée team at the Athens Intercalated Games, and by age sixty-four had bagged about 850 stags, a good number on behalf of “the Venison Committee” during the 1914-18 war. Before the war he coached a number of Oxford crews and hosted them at his house near Henley, Taplow Court.

Grenfell’s dual presidency of the O.U.B.C. and O.U.A.C. foreshadowed a lifetime of such stints at the head of sporting organizations, including the Amateur Fencing Association, Henley Regatta (steward), Lawn Tennis Association, the Marylebone Cricket Club, and the 1908 London Olympics. He rose to the top outside of sport as well, serving as president or chairman at various times of the London Chamber of Commerce, the Royal Agricultural Society, and the Thames Conservancy (of which he was chairman for thirty-two years), as well as various local government posts and any number of ad hoc committees from local to international. His obituarist concluded: “With his union of social gifts, personal charm, and administrative ability, he was known as a man who could get things done, and at one time he was actually serving on 115 committees. The multiplicity of his interests was indeed only matched by his industry and sense of duty.”[2]

Grenfell was made Baron Desborough in 1905 but the peerage became extinct in 1926 on the death of his third son in a motor accident, the older two having been killed in action in 1915.

The 1877 Boat Race: The Dead HeatEdit

In 1877 Oxford led after Barnes Bridge but stalled when their bow cracked his oar and foundered. Cambridge caught up and the finish judge, who had no posts to mark the line, declared the result a dead heat, the only one on record. Vanity Fair did not report on the Boat Race that year but R.C. Lehmann recalled it as follows:

The 1877 Boat Race at the finish

[Cambridge] had great trouble with regard to their boat. The craft that Swaddell and Winship built for them was too small, and was, moreover, so heavily cambered that she failed to maintain her course in a beam wind. On the morning of the race they attached a false keel to the stern half of their boat, but failed to add a corresponding piece to her rudder. Notwithstanding this device, their boat began, as soon as they got into the rough water above Hammersmith Bridge in the race, to pay off into the wind. While the Oxford boat was keeping a straight course, I saw Davis, the Cambridge coxswain, continually using his right hand rudder line, while his boat moved sideways as a St. Bernard dog does when he is running. At Barnes Bridge, Oxford had cleared their rivals and seemed certain of victory. Just beyond Barnes there was heavy swell caused by a tug or a launch that had just passed up the course. Suddenly we, who were on the steamer behind, perceived that Cowles, the Oxford bowman, was in trouble; he had apparently caught a crab, and his oar seemed to be damaged, for he did not use it for several strokes, and then, instead of rowing properly, he appeared to flap it about in the water and only occasionally attempted to row a stroke with it. Cambridge were rowing the Surrey station, that is on the outside of the last bend. They spurted with extraordinary pluck and determination at this point and began to gain rapidly on the leaders. Up and up they came, and at the end of the race it was impossible for any one behind to say which crew had won. The judge of the finish was an old waterman named John Phelps, “Honest” John Phelps, as he was always called. He was stationed in a moored boat at the finish, but there were then no posts on either bank by which he could take his line. He had to judge this as best he could. In the following year, the two Presidents had finishing posts fixed and there they remain to this day. After the race was over nobody know which crew had won. The Umpire, Mr. Justice Chitty, was waiting on the Umpire’s steamer, but as Phelps did not come aboard he had to hurry back to his duties in London, leaving word, that Phelps was to come and see him later on in his Court. When Phelps arrived there, he was immediately questioned as to the result of the race. For answer he placed the two palms of his hands together, and, moving them slightly backwards and forwards, said, “They were going like this, sir; I couldn’t separate them.” The result of the race, therefore, was given as a dead heat. Mr. Justice Chitty, himself, told me this part of the story some years afterwards.[3]

Phelps was in Robert Coombes’ four that beat Harry Clasper in the 1845 Thames Regatta. The 1877 race was his last to judge, and no waterman was ever permitted to do it again. Finish posts were installed for all future races.[4]


  1. ^ The Times, Jan. 10, 1945, p. 6e.
  2. ^ Ibid.
  3. ^ R.C. Lehmann, The Complete Oarsman, pp. 224-25.
  4. ^ T. Cook, Rowing at Henley, p. 93; N. Wigglesworth, The Social History of English Rowing, p. 122.