The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Johnstone BC

Johnstone, Banner Carruthers Edit

“Bush” (Spy), July 3, 1907 Edit


Mr. Banner Carruthers Johnstone was born on the 10th of November, 1882. In 1898 Eton saw him for the first time as a slim lad. In his last year at the great school he rowed in the eight, and in his last term was Captain of the Boats.

In 1904 Mr. Johnstone appeared at Cambridge as a freshman of Trinity, and immediately continued his successful rowing career: he rowed in the head of the boat [sic] four times; won the pairs, fours, and double sculls; he was also in the winning Leander crew for the Grand which beat the Belgians in the final heat. He was twice elected Secretary, and once President of the C.U.B.C.

Mr. Johnstone rowed seven in the Cambridge crew that beat Harvard, and has rowed in the University boat race four times, being in the winning crew thrice. This year he was elected Captain of Leander, perhaps the highest honour that can be paid to an oarsman, and is captaining the crew which everyone hopes will beat the Belgians in the final heat. Besides all his successes at school and college, he distinguished himself at Henley, having won the Goblets, the Visitors’, and the Grand.

Not only is Mr. Johnstone an enthusiastic oar, he is also a keen soldier, having belonged for years to the Black Watch Militia. His friends say that it was because of the requirements of military service that he commenced to grow a moustache, the result being his nickname of “Bush.” The only other soubriquet by which he was known was “Syphon,” due, it is said, to his peculiar manner of laughing.

But Mr. Johnstone is something more than a mere athlete; in his last year at Trinity he won a second class in Political Economy, so that he may be taken to have a mind of his own and brains as well as muscle.

Altogether Mr. Johnstone is a fine type of a Scot, a man who can always be depended upon in a tight corner; brimful of pluck in a boat, rowing to his last ounce in a quiet determined way. A friend and fellow oar, and good judge says of him, “He is modest and kindly -- one of the finest fellows I ever met in my life.”

Banner Carruthers Johnstone (1882-1964) spent the better part of a decade battling Belgians for the Grand Challenge Cup. On the first occasion, in 1905, he met and beat Sport Nautique de Gand in the final with Leander, marking the club’s twelfth Grand in fifteen years. But the next year Leander fielded no entry for the event, Captain R.B. Etherington-Smith explaining that he had been unable to form a crew “capable of worthily representing the rowing of the Leander Club.”[1] Johnstone thus rowed for Third Trinity, which lost to Club Nautique de Gand by two lengths in the semi-finals, and watched them defeat Duggie Stuart’s Trinity Hall by a third of a length to became the first foreign crew to win the Grand. In 1907 both Johnstone and Stuart signed on at Leander, “the crew which everyone hopes will beat the Belgians in the final heat” (as Vanity Fair put it). They lost in the semis to Steve Fairbairn’s hot crew from Jesus College, Cambridge, whom the Belgians then beat in the final. At the 1908 London Olympics, the Belgians earned their way to the final by defeating Stuart’s Cambridge crew but lost to Leander, the other British eight, with Johnstone, Nickalls, and Etherington-Smith. Finally, in 1909 the now-Royal Club Nautique de Gand evened the Belgian/British score to 2-2, beating Johnstone’s Leander in his last Henley appearance.

Johnstone set down his oars in 1909 to join the Ceylon Government Surveys and in 1913 joined the Colonial Civil Service in Zanzibar. He spent the early years of the 1914-18 war in the Transport Corps in East Africa, and went to France in 1917 with the 1st Black Watch and 1st Infantry Brigade. For many years he was the rowing correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.

Henley 1906: The Debate on Foreign Entries Edit

Just before the Belgian victory, Vanity Fair (July 4, 1906) supported keeping Henley confined to English “amateurs”:

The proposal made by Mr. W.A.L. Fletcher that American entries should be barred from Henley in the future is certain to arouse hostility and irritation in the United States. The occasion of Mr. Fletcher’s action is regrettable, coming, as it does, on the top of a newspaper discussion in America over the treatment accorded to visiting crews at the regatta. Absurd charges were levied against the Henley officials, charges which no right-minded sportsman in America believed, but which nevertheless, stirred up much ill-feeling in that country. We can imagine what form of newspaper comment will appear on receipt of the latest piece of intelligence.

It is desirable, therefore to place the English view of the question fairly before the American public, and the following article, from the pen of one of the best-known and most representative of English oarsmen, has been written with that intention:

“The recent disclosures concerning the status of the Vesper crew bring into prominence the fact that the amateur, in an English sense, is hard to find outside the British Isles. As far as America is concerned, the amateur status is non-existent -- at any rate, outside one or two universities, such as Harvard and Yale; and even in those seats of learning we may be pardoned if we regard some of their members as professional athletes. We hear talk of men of prowess being sought for and maintained at the common expense in order that they may become useful representatives of their university in various branches of sport.
“The Stewards of Henley Regatta have shown themselves to some extent timid, and to some extent supine, in dealing with foreign and colonial entries. To what extent are they really acting for the good of Henley Regatta as a distinctive English institution in allowing outsiders to compete at all? In making Henley an international regatta they are sacrificing the true amateur spirit to a desire of self-advertisement and to business instincts, which are thinly disguised under a veil of national representation.
“Hitherto rowing has been the most pure, as well as the most unselfish of sports. But year by year Henley is becoming a serious business. The American fashion is to make any competition one of dollars, pure and simple; and though other countries may not be shameless in dealing in sport on monetary lines, it is not too much to say that all foreign and colonial crews come over here in a grim spirit of business which is at variance with our ideas of friendly and pleasant rivalry.
“But even supposing that they do come over here to compete from sheer love of the game, is not Henley Regatta spoilt in many ways?
“The International side of the competition is boomed by the Press, and the races which do not partake of an International character are considered of no interest. Among rowing men there is quite enough interest to be found in the contests between college and college, or university and university, or between the ‘Varsities and the Metropolitan clubs; but the presence of some foreign competitor gives an air of seriousness to the regatta, and adds some bitterness to the struggle. These things, to my mind, spoil much of the pleasure and entirely alter the tone of the regatta.
“The regatta authorities need not concern themselves with the question as to whether International contests attract greater crowds. The only people who are benefited by crowds are the railway companies. The town of Henley itself gains no benefit from the thousands who pour down on to the course at midday and pour out of town at sundown. The catering is all done elsewhere. The very cabs come from Reading or London.
“Henley Regatta is more or less a society function, and it owes much of its status to the fact that it is a meeting-place of the two great English Universities -- Oxford and Cambridge -- and of Eton. Take the ‘Varsities and Eton away, and it becomes of no more account than any of the weekly up-river regattas on the Thames. To let in a number of semi-professionals just because they hail from some foreign country is a sure way to spoil the Regatta.
“Our English amateur seldom cares to make too much toil of a pleasure. In every English sport we see the professional element gradually ousting the amateur, and the only pure sport now remaining is rowing. The amateur first-class cricketer is almost a professional. How otherwise can we regard the Australian teams which come over here? The Henley Regatta Stewards have at least made a big fight to preserve rowing from the same contamination.
“It is plain that all American entries ought to be refused -- at any rate for a year or two -- and there can be little doubt that in allowing Colonial entries so late as the end of May the Stewards are asking to be fooled as to the amateur status of the entrants, just as they have been fooled before. If this International business is to go on the Stewards should at least see that proper safeguards are forthcoming to ensure that foreign and Colonial crews shall come up to the English standard of amateur oarsmen, and not to the standard of foreign or Colonial amateurs. If Henley Regatta is to maintain its place as a social function and the Queen of Regattas, the Stewards would do well to confine it as far as possible to the gentleman amateur -- a breed not often to be met with outside the United Kingdom.
“This, of course, sounds very snobbish, but in Henley Regatta we have a purely English institution, at which we see clubs represented, who were represented any time from a quarter to three-quarters of a century ago. Is not there some reason for protecting an institution of this historic character against the onslaught of modern professionalism, even if snobbishness is the principal weapon of defence?
“Now is the opportunity for the Stewards to take action. The miserable shortcomings of the N.A.A.O. of America in regard to their guarantee of the Vesper Crew’s amateur status should be utilised by the Stewards as a reason for revising the rules which at present govern foreign entries, and no assurances or guarantees should be accepted except from persons or Associations who have proved that they are willing and able to regard amateur rowing from the same standpoint as our true English amateur, for whom, and by whom, Henley was founded and exists.”

The next week in Vanity Fair (July 11, 1906), after the race, Woodgate pointed to the segmented British club system as the cause of Trinity Hall’s defeat:

There has been some sense and a good proportion of rubbish talked over the victory of the Belgians in the Grand Challenge Cup. Let us consider the facts of the case. The crew were not members of a single rowing club, but the pick of the best amateur oarsmen in Belgium -- a sort of Leander Club, in fact. They had worked themselves up to a machine-like perfection in their own peculiar style. As regards that style it is not the first time that it has been seen at Henley. It is based on the principle that the long English swing and the application of strength necessitated in a sharp beginning exhaust a crew. The professional English sculler rows with a close similarity to the Belgian style.

Against the visitors was a fine array of College crews. I use the word “fine” to describe their numbers and comparative excellence rather than their great individual merit. Leander had not brought out its usual formidable combination drawn from the pick of past and present oarsmen from both Universities. The result was that the Belgians and Canadians were confronted by crews each picked and trained from a separate body of, at most, sixty or seventy young men -- for the greater proportion of men in a college do not row, or even try their luck in a tub.

Trinity Hall were rowed out against the Canadians on the Wednesday. One of their men subsequently fainted, and I hear of a Belgian attempt -- done, no doubt, in all good spirit -- to snapshot him while in that condition. They were brought back to life by good cheer on Wednesday night, but on Thursday they were stale, flat, and unprofitable, as the handsome beating the Belgians gave them proved.

I do not perceive any proof of the degeneracy of British rowing in this defeat. Nor is there any evidence to be drawn therefrom on the advantage of the Belgian style. What I believe, and I think that most oarsmen will agree with me, is the Belgian style would probably push a bad crew faster through the water than any other; but that the English style will send along a first-class crew faster than they would travel if rowing on Belgian lines.

Last week the question of foreign entries at Henley was discussed in this paper. It is a curious fact that the emotional critics who from time to time condemn the entry of Leander as crushing out competition for the Grand from London, Thames, and the universities are the first to urge that foreign entries should be admitted. Their argument is plainly illogical. If such a combination of clubs as the Belgian crew is to row for the Cup, we must have a combination of clubs to meet it.

How are we to find a way out of this illogical situation? I would suggest

1. That while the Grand Challenge Cup remains open to British amateurs, an International Cup be founded for which foreign and British crews might compete. The Grand Challenge should thus remain as an incentive to College, school, and metropolitan rowing.
2. Or, That the date of entry be so arranged that a foreign crew must give a sufficient notice of entry to allow Leander to produce a representative British crew if there is no college or metropolitan crew strong enough to have a reasonable chance of victory. I think this an inferior suggestion to the first; but it has been mentioned to me.

Those who talk about making cricket brighter must keep their hands off rowing. There is no “gate” at Henley; nor are there professionals in the crews. The meeting is for the encouragement of British oarsmanship, not for the amusement of the public. Any action that the Committee take on these lines deserves, and will receive, support.

References Edit

  1. ^ Burnell & G. Page, The Brilliants: A History of the Leander Club, p. 86.