The Rowers of Vanity Fair/McLean DH

McLean, Douglas HamiltonEdit

“Ducker” (Spy), April 8, 1897Edit

A few years after his birth -- which happened some seven-and-thirty years ago in Australia -- he came to England to learn; but being an insubordinate little fellow he disagreed with seven or eight Head Masters before he was disciplined by the strong right arm of the Lower Master at Eton. So soon as he could swim he took to the river and studied the theory of rowing with a strength and solemn industry that presently made him so proficient on it that he rowed in three Eton eights. Then he went to New College, and continued to row so well on the higher reaches of the Thames that he was sent to Putney to row against Cambridge. This happened five times; and he is said to have once lost the race by breaking his oar at a critical moment. Since then, as coach, he has made many other oars; and it is not too much to say that the last five Dark Blue victories are more or less due to his knowledge of the art of rowing and his facile readiness to impart that knowledge to others.

His chief occupation is coaching: but when he is otherwise employed he lives in Somersetshire; where it is hard to communicate with him because he is remarkably averse from opening his letters. He has, however, played cricket for his county, and he has shown himself a smart wicket-keeper. He is also a fair shot, a very painstaking billiard-player, and a dignified person, who is equally imperturbable whether he is sitting as a Justice of the Peace or watching a close boat race.

He has been seen smoking a cigarette.

Douglas Hamilton McLean (1863-1901) rowed for Eton, New College, Oxford, Oxford Etonians, and Leander over a ten-year career before becoming a highly-regarded coach. (For Vanity Fair to tease that coaching was “his chief occupation” suggests its familiarity with the ARA’s restrictive definition of amateur, which excluded anyone “employed in or about boats.”) McLean’s success was not a foregone conclusion, for although he “had shown considerable promise in Lower Fours and Lower Eights [and] sat up well in a boat,” recalled G.C. Bourne of his Eton days, McLean “was astonishingly clumsy in wrist and shoulder action. For a long time I thought that he never would make an oarsman . . . .”[1] By the end of the 1882 season, McLean had won the Trial Eights once (at 12 stone 8, with R.S. de Havilland exactly two stone lighter), the House Fours and School Pulling twice, the Upper Eights three times, and was second Captain of Boats.

Cigar box with rowing motifs, c. 1890

At Oxford McLean won the University Pairs for New College in 1885 and 1886, the same years he was O.U.B.C. President, and went head of the river in 1887. He was Captain of Leander in 1888. He rowed in five Boat Races, winning in 1883 and 1885. Although Cambridge won in 1884 by three lengths, Vanity Fair (April 12, 1884) found McLean “by far the best oar of the sixteen engaged, and is the best that has rowed in this race -- always excepting West -- for three years.” Yet McLean never had much success at Henley. He won the Ladies’ in 1882 with Eton and the Goblets in 1885 with his brother, Hector, but came up emptyhanded for the Grand despite six attempts. T.A. Cook recalled one moment of off-the-water drama involving McLean at Oxford in 1885:

Benson had brought one of his companies down, at that time, to act Othello in the old theatre; and Miss Featherston-haugh as Desdemona was so ravishingly beautiful that when she was smothered in her night-gown an audible shudder went through all the spectators, and a tall man in front of me stood up and suddenly fainted. It was D.H. McLean, then President of the O.U.B.C., as I recognised when he was being taken out in the fresh air and a small undergraduate followed the procession carrying his gold spectacles. I hope the curtain had by then descended, for I am sure nobody looked at anything except “Dukker.”[2]

Following his appearance in Vanity Fair , McLean went over to Cambridge at the request of W. Dudley-Ward to help turn around their program in 1898 and 1899. In the South African war he commanded the 69th Sussex Company Imperial Yeomanry, and died of colitis in Johannesburg on February 8, 1901, becoming the only rower of Vanity Fair to die in that conflict.

The 1887 Boat Race: McLean’s Broken OarEdit

McLean was in India during the early Oxford trials. On returning he, “god-like, severed the nodus Dei vindice dignus[3] by ousting Williams from No. 7 almost at the eleventh hour,” reported Vanity Fair (March 19, 1887), predicting an Oxford victory. “[He] is a born oar, and seems to row as well after his voyage from India as though he had been in the boat from the beginning.” In the event, Oxford lost because McLean cracked his oar, which led to Ayling’s invention of the patented brass button to reduce strain on the shaft.[4] Vanity Fair’s account (April 2, 1887):

Until the accident to Maclean’s oar crippled the Oxford Eight just after Barnes Bridge, we thought that our forecast of the Boat Race was going to be precisely fulfilled: and had it not been for that cruel mishap, we firmly believe that Oxford would have reached the Ship before Cambridge. So we believed from the start. It seems a little ungracious thus to detract from the glory of the Light Blue victory but it is only justice to the vanquished. Look at the race. The Cantabs started off at two strokes to the minute more than Oxford; they had the better station; they had, as the event well showed, the better coxswain. Of course they took the lead. But they did so to a great extent on sufferance, and certainly we have never seen a long stern race rowed with fewer symptoms of raggedness or flurry than this one was rowed by the Oxford crew. For a quarter of an hour the leaders kept their lead, rowing the faster stroke all the time. Then the pace began to tell, the boat travelled more slowly, and the oar-blades began to strike irregularly. All this time their rivals were rowing steadily through the worst of the weather, and at Thorneycroft’s they were naturally two clear lengths to the bad. Then Titherington quickened slightly, and his men keeping well together, the gap began to decrease, until at Barnes Bridge there were not five yards of daylight between the two boats. Now came the favouring bend of the river, and Oxford gained faster. Just as their nose levelled with the other boat’s rudder came the crack. Maclean’s (No. 7’s) oar floated away in two pieces, and the race was over. Had it not been for this, Oxford must, we think, have passed their opponents, had not the latter been able to spurt strongly; and this we do not believe they could have done. As it was, they did their best, and were quite unable to finish strongly, gaining only a length and a-half in the last 500 yards from their crippled rivals.

Now, the Oxford stroke meant to make this effort after Barnes Bridge. Oxford knew that they would then have the bend in their favour, as well as comparative shelter from the wind; and they knew they had the advantages of weight and better condition. The last five minutes of the race must have been a grand spectacle, at any rate; and the Oxford Eight, “fresh as daisies,” were rowing so well, with such uniform swing and time, that no oarsman could have thought them beaten, when an unkind fate suddenly extinguished their chance. There was, in fact, every chance of their rivalling the Cambridge win of last year, when the victors were led through Barnes Bridge to overhaul their leaders in the last quarter of a mile, if only Titherington had spurted. Why did he not do so before? Had he really quickened at any time after Hammersmith, Cambridge must have been beaten. Neither of the crews were first-rate in quality; but Oxford were an average crew with a headless stroke, and he lost the race. To ourselves it seemed that Maclean’s temper got the better of him because stroke would not quicken, and that a vicious tug at his oar caused its collapse; and there was good excuse for temper in a fresh crew, trying to row their rivals down, but kept from doing so by the slow stroke of the man upon whom they could not quicken. This is not the first time an “accident” of this kind has happened to an Oxford Eight. In 1877 the Dark Blues were winning easily, when, just at the same spot, Cowles’s oar snapped. The result then was the famous dead-heat. On each occasion Oxford has lost a victory by the breaking of an oar. But on this occasion Oxford would have led, if their stroke had quickened, long before Barnes Bridge.

"Casting aside the broken oar, Frank plunged overboard to lighten the Yale boat."

Hint to the respective Presidents of the University Boat Clubs: -- Don’t in the future row with new oars, which have only been tried during the last two days of practice, when no hard work is done. Better an old and well-tried blade than a good-looking new one. Oar-blades and sword-blades alike need strong tests before they can be relied upon, as recent events have more than proved of both.

Guy Nickalls’ account from No. 2 in the Oxford crew:

There was no doubt over the whole course that we were the faster crew, but Frank Wethered damned the whole outfit. An hour before the race we rowed two minutes at 40 from the start. Dissatisfied with the row, which was certainly scrambled, we were taken back to the start and made to row as hard as we could back to the Mile Post. When we started the race an hour later I was dead to the world and stale, as were all the new blues. Cambridge led us a length under Barnes Bridge and Titherington was holding his spurt. We were on Middlesex shore, and, out of the corner of my eye, I could see the Cambridge cox bobbing back to us at every stroke. Titherington began his spurt; back they came to us. I was opposite their stroke; we knew the race must be ours and Holland yelled: “It’s all right, we’ve got ‘em!” Then, “Ducker” McLean broke his oar off short at the button. With the station in our favour and him out of the boat we could have won even then, but “Ducker” funked the oncoming penny steamers and, instead of jumping overboard as he should have done, we had to lug his now useless body along, to lose the finish. That was disappointing. Titherington was a fine stroke.[5]


  1. ^ G.C. Bourne, Memories of an Eton Wet-Bob of the Seventies, pp. 87-88.
  2. ^ T. A. Cook, The Sunlit Hours, p. 44.
  3. ^ “Severed the nodus Dei vindice dignus”: severed the knot of God worthy for a champion.
  4. ^ G.C. Drinkwater, “Rowing,” in Fifty Years of Sport: Oxford and Cambridge, pp. 222-23.
  5. ^ G. Nickalls, Life’s a Pudding, pp. 60-61.