The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Hornby JJ

Hornby, James John (Provost of Eton)Edit

“The Head” (Spy), January 31, 1901Edit

Third son of Admiral Sir Phipps Hornby and brother of the late Admiral Sir Geoffrey Hornby, he was born at Winwick four-and-seventy years ago; and he is still vigourous testimony to the wholesomeness of the English Public School. So well did Dr. Hawtrey lay in the foundation of his knowledge at Eton that he is now its Provost: after a course of Balliol, which made him a First Class-man. He played cricket and rowed in the ‘Varsity Eight with the late Lord Justice Chitty and with Bishop Patterson; and he is still a member of the Alpine Club. Having been elected a Fellow of B.N.C., he went to Durham as Principal of Bishop Cosin’s Hall: yet returned to B.N.C. to lecture the Classics into younger athletes; and was made Senior Proctor. Then he went to Winchester as Second Master; whence he was chosen Head Master of our biggest Public School just three-and-thirty years ago. Since then he has been improved into a Queen’s Chaplain, a Doctor of Civil Law, and (in the nature of things) into the Provost of Eton and Chairman of its Governing Body: whose health is so good as to preclude any idea of his retiring. Yet he is really a very retiring man who keeps himself very much to himself, although he has courteous manners and a charming smile.

He was always athletic, and even now he is an excellent dancer and a very fine skater, whose bag of skates is almost as well known as himself. He can preach an admirable sermon, and he is almost unrivalled in the art of after-dinner speaking: his oratory being no less witty than it is eloquent. He can also tell a good story; and it is told of himself that he has not unsympathetically urged a boy who was to undergo punishment to bear it. As a schoolmaster he was fortunate; for during his term of Head Mastership Eton flourished as exceedingly as even the inventor of its motto could have wished: the standard of work being higher than it had ever been before. Altogether he is identified with Eton as a good fellow no less than as a wholesome gentleman.

He taught Eton the art of self-government.

John James Hornby (1826-1909), unlike most of the other thirty-one Etonian rowers of Vanity Fair, did not row at school; he was a cricketer. But he picked it up well on arrival at Balliol in 1845, for he rowed bow for Oxford in the second Boat Race of 1849 (which Oxford won on a foul by bumping Cambridge when Cambridge were in Oxford’s water), and was No. 3 in the O.U.B.C. crews that won the Grand in 1850 and 1851, there being no tideway Boat Race either year. In 1850, having become a Fellow of Brasenose, he won the University Pairs and Fours, and the Goblets (with J.W. Chitty) at Henley. In 1851 he rowed again for B.N.C. in the Ladies’, Stewards’, and Visitors’, and went Head of the River at Oxford in 1852.

Hornby might not have become headmaster of Eton in 1868, at age forty-one, but for the work of S.H. Northcote. In 1862, Northcote joined the royal commission on the administration of the public schools. On release of the commission report in 1864, Northcote argued that Parliament could deal not with studies or management, but with endowments, the constitution of governing bodies, and the removal of restrictions, among them the generations-old tradition that the Eton headmaster hale from King’s College, Cambridge. By 1868, that restriction was gone and the headmastership increased in independent authority, which Hornby was the first to exercise: hence he “taught Eton the art of self-government.” He kept a progressive rather than radical hand on the reins, but did not shirk from corporal punishment. Guy Nickalls, at Eton in the early 1880s, recalled: “In spite of the swishings I got, I liked the headmaster, Hornby, the perfectly mannered and sonorously-voiced old English gentleman. Handsome, alert, witty, a great athlete in his day, a good judge of wine, and the finest after-dinner speaker I ever listened to, with a charm of manner I have never forgotten.”[1]

Hornby retired to the dignified and less arduous post of provost in 1884, succeeded by the more famous Etonian and Balliol oarsman, Edmond Warre. It was a tip to Hornby’s former responsibilities that Vanity Fair capitioned his 1901 lithograph, “The Head.” He remained provost until his death in 1909, to be succeeded again by Warre.

The War of the RibbonsEdit

As the first mass spectator sport, rowing became hard news.[2] By the 1860s newspapers followed the crews for weeks before the race, and the public showed its enthusiasm by thronging the banks to watch their favorite crew in practice and wear its color ribbon. In some places, such as the unnamed school Ralph Dundas attended, the light blue and dark mixed badly, oil and vinegar, as he recalled for Vanity Fair (March 24, 1910):

When I hear grown-up people discussing the University Boat Race I smile sadly and hold my peace. They may say what they like about the latest Oxford trial, or the average weight per man of the Cambridge crew, but deep in my heart there stays the conviction that they are making a ludicrous mistake in speaking about the Boat Race at all. Once I knew all about it, and even now I think I could put them right if I wished. But what is the use of arguing with persons who, under the absurd pretext of fairness, pretend to find praiseworthy features in both crews? Even the smallest boy knew better than that in the days when the Boat Race was really important. I will not say that there did not exist weaklings even then, who wobbled between Oxford and Cambridge in an endeavour to propitiate both factions. But they usually suffered the fate of wobblers by having to join one side or the other, while still incurring the scorn of both.

The Boat Race dawned upon us each year as a strange and bewildering element in our social relationships. We would part one night on normal terms, and the morrow would find us wearing strange favours, and regarding our friends of yesterday with open and passionate dislike. For the sake of a morsel of coloured ribbon old friendships would be shattered and brother would greet brother with ingenious expressions of contempt. There was no moderate course in the matter. A boy was either vehemently Cambridge or intolerably Oxford, and it would have been easier to account for the colour of his hair than to explain how he arrived at his choice of a University. Some blind instinct, some subtle influence felt, perhaps, in the dim far-off nursery days may have determined this weighty choice; but the whole problem was touched with the mystery that inspired the great classical and modern snowball fights, when little boys would pound each other almost into a state of unconsciousness for the sake of a theory of education. Our interest in the Boat Race as a boat race was small, and quite untroubled by any knowledge of the respective merits of the crews. But we wore their colours in our buttonholes, and the effect of these badges on our lives was anarchic. We saw blue.

It was my fate to drift, fatally and immutably Cambridge, into a school that had a crushing Oxford majority. In these circumstances, the light-blue ribbon became, for the small and devoted band that upheld the Cambridge tradition of valour, the cause of endless but never conclusive defeats, the symbol of a splendid martyrdom. Try as we might, we found ourselves always in a minority, and, to add to our bitterness, these years of luckless warfare coincided with a series of Cambridge defeats, and we knew ourselves the supporters of a forlorn and discredited cause. And yet, Fate having decreed that we should be Cambridge, we did not falter before our hopeless task of convincing the majority that it was made of baser stuff than we. We would arrive in the morning with our colours stitched to our coats, and when, overwhelmed by numbers, we lost our dear favours we would retire to a place apart, repair the loss from a secret store of ribbon, and dash once more into the fray. The others might be Oxford when they had a mind to, but we were Cambridge -- Cambridge all the time.

Our contests were always fierce, but only once so far as I remember did they become really venomous. Some ingenious Cambridge mind had hit on the idea of protecting his badge with a secret battery of pins, and there ensued a series of real and desperate fights that threatened our clan with physical extinction. The trouble passed as suddenly as it had arisen; a mysterious rumour went round the clans that pins were bad form; there was a lull while Cambridge treated their black eyes, and Oxford put sticking plaster on their torn fingers. Pleasanter to remember is the famous retort of L_____, an utterance so finely dramatic that even to-day I cannot recall it without a thrill. Caught apart from his comrades, he was surrounded by the Oxford rabble, and robbed of his colours. “You aren’t Cambridge now,” said one of his assailants, mockingly. “Ah, but the sky is Cambridge!” he replied, and indeed it was. We had our little victories to dull the edge of our defeats.

And yet, probably, we of Cambridge were not altogether sorry when the Boat Race was over, and the business might be forgotten for another eleven months, for we had but little rest while the war of the ribbons was in the air. If we sought to take quiet walk round the quad, the chance was that a boy, too small perhaps to keep a favour even for a minute, but with a light-blue heart, would run up with tidings of some comrade hardly beset in the cloisters, and the battle must be begun again. These contests were sometimes the cause of temporary friendships, for in the course of the tumult one would find oneself indebted to a year-long enemy for the timely discomfiture of one’s opponent, who in his turn might be, normally, one’s bosom companion. For no tie was sacred enough to overcome this vernal madness of the Blues. If a fellow was base enough to be Oxford his presence in the world was unnecessary, his society tabooed. And, as I have said, even brothers would bang each others’ heads for the beauty of the Idea.

Then came a day when age and responsibility changed our views on a good many things, and the Boat Race was not spared. Forgetful of the old triumphs and the old despairs, we preferred to treat ourselves and life in more sober terms, while smiling tolerantly at the little boys playing their rough games beneath our feet. Leaning forward with hands eager to clutch our manhood, we would not for worlds have compromised our new position by taking an interest in such childish trifles as coloured ribbons. So the game went on without us, and the measure of our loss is the measure of the loss of the earth when the spring melts into summer.

To-day I hear persons discussing the Boat Race in railway carriages, and in face of their dispassionate judgments I ask myself whether they can ever have sung for it and fought for it, and, let it be added, wept for it, as I have done. In truth, I suppose they have; for boys do not differ widely in these essential things. But these people do not fight; they do not even wear the ribbon! While it is open to a man to ignore the Boat Race altogether, I cannot understand his approaching the contest in so miserable a spirit.



  1. ^ G. Nickalls, Life’s a Pudding, p. 42.
  2. ^ N. Wigglesworth, Social History of English Rowing, p. 47.