The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Northcote SH

Northcote, Stafford Henry (Earl of Iddesleigh)Edit

“He Does His Duty to His Party, and Is Fortunate if It Happens to Be Also His Duty to His Country” (Ape), October 8, 1870Edit

Sir Stafford Northcote is a somewhat colourless politician, of whom all that there is to be said is that he does his duty to his party, and is fortunate if it happens to be also his duty to his country. He is among the favoured ones who have been called to the blessed regions of the Ministry, and thereby has acquired a title to be taken into them again if ever these are again opened to the Conservative party, of whom he is a respectable and reputable member. Diligent especially, and not unsuccessful in the making of local speeches on abstruse subjects during the slack season of the year, he perseveringly keeps before the public the fact that there are still a collection of opinions capable of being called Conservative, and still statesmen capable of seriously adopting and recommending them.

Stafford Henry Northcote (1818-87) went up to Eton in 1831 where “he was somewhat idle, and, according to his tutor, ‘had a disposition too inclined to sacrifice itself to the solicitations of others,’ until a strong remonstrance produced steadiness of purpose.”[1] He rowed in the Adelaide (one of the Upper Boats) in 1834-35 and bow in the 1835 Eight. He then went up to Balliol College, Oxford, earning a first in classics in 1839 and rowing No. 2 for the Oxford Etonians the same year at the first Henley Regatta.

After qualifying as a barrister, Northcote became private secretary to W.E. Gladstone, the then Tory president of the Board of Trade. From Gladstone’s slipstream, Northcote moved up the party ranks, serving as secretary to the Great Exhibition of 1851, co-authoring a report on civil service reform, and ultimately building a leadership role as an M.P. for various constituencies more or less from 1855 onward. In 1859 Gladstone left the Conservatives to co-found the Liberal Party. Northcote remained Conservative. Thus when the 1880 election returned a Liberal majority and installed Gladstone as Prime Minister, Northcote became a leader of the opposition tasked with keeping his former mentor in check. This proved difficult, and he was unable to prevent some of his more strident colleagues from forming a de facto “Fourth Party.” VANITY FAIR bewailed their inability to unite, laying blame in the July 5, 1881 Summer Number double print, entitled “Birth, Behavior and Business,” with the Conservative front bench and with Northcote, Lord John Manners, and Sir Richard Cross in particular:

Her Majesty’s Opposition in the House of Commons fails only in two respects: in want of leaders and want of followers. There are leaders, but they scarcely lead; there are followers, but they barely follow; and this lamentable result ensues, that a revolutionary Government is left to work its wicked will without being contained or controlled, or even being adequately criticised, by those whose business it is to keep such a Government in order.

Yet on the front Opposition Bench there are men of mark. They are not however men of energy, and they disclose a marked want of appreciation of the new order of things, and a profound disinclination to adopt new methods of dealing with it. An overweening caution and an exaggerated respect for the rules of the game are their chief characteristics; and one of their chief troubles is the audacity of some of their followers below the gangway, who are so much more offensive to them than their opponents, that it will be one of their difficulties in returning to office to consider what will be done with Sir Drummond Wolf and Lord Randolph Churchill.

. . . .

Sir Stafford Northcote is a man of deportment. He is of good family and of good name -- eminently reputable and very diligent. But he had the misfortune to begin life as a permanent official, and his mind has remained permanent and official ever since. Moreover, he started in politics as Private Secretary to Mr. Gladstone when that gentleman was President of the Board of Trade in the Tory Government. This has been the great disturbing element of Sir Stafford’s life. He has never recovered from the personal awe he then contracted for Mr. Gladstone, or for the hierarchical respect for Ministers and heads of departments, and he has never yet been able to conceive that he himself is their equal. This, added to the inherent good nature which belongs to him, has always made him take an exaggerated view of the decorum which should mark the proceedings of the house of Commons. The result is, that he often offends his followers by official deference to the Government, and generally seems to direct his conduct rather to obtain the approbation of permanent officials than the hearty support of Conservative Members. Recently, indeed, he has roused himself to an intermittent sense of his position; but this awakening, having come late in life, is apt to show itself at the wrong times; so that he is often brisk when he should be quiet, and quiet when he should be brisk. Nevertheless he is a man of integrity, of sixty-three years of age, and of very considerable information. In the result he obtains cheers from his opponents, which seem to please him more than those of his own Party. He has a certain vigour and much dexterity. He is very well-read; but, though a fluent and easy speaker, he is not gifted with any oratorical power.

When Gladstone’s government collapsed in 1885 and were replaced by the Conservatives, Northcote became First Lord of the Treasury and was raised to the peerage as Earl of Iddesleigh and Viscount St. Cyres. He died in 1887, in the ante-room of the Prime Minister’s house in Downing Street. “He seemed,” recalled Gladstone, “to be a man incapable of resenting an injury: a man in whom it was the fixed habit of thought to put himself wholly out of view when he had before him the attainment of great public objects.”[2] But Viscount Wolseley (“the very model of a modern Major-General” to Gilbert & Sullivan), on reviewing Northcote’s posthumous biography, declared he “was so essentially my opposite (so much about him of the tomcat that cared neither to fight nor make love) that I never met him without thanking God, like the Pharisee, I was not as he was. He would have made an admirable chief clerk in a bank.”[3]

The 1836 Eton v. Westminster Boat RaceEdit

S.H. Northcote never rowed for Eton against Westminster. In his day, the races between the schools were few and far between, and 1835, when he rowed bow in the Eton eight, was an off year. Just as well for him perhaps, for the professional watermen who steered the crews took full advantage of the permissive rules on “fouling” to transform those early races, into no-holds naval battles. Here is an account of the 1836 contest:

Eton v. Westminster, Staines Bridge, May 12, 1836

This race took place at Staines on Thursday, May 12. The distance rowed was from Staines Bridge to Penton Hook and back -- about four miles altogether. Lord Orford and Captain Ackers, of the Blues, were appointed Umpires. About four o’clock the Etonians appeared in rowing trim in the Victory, a new boat built by Archer, of Bishop’s Walk, Lambeth. The young gentlemen of Westminster came to Staines in a new eight, called the Fairy Queen, built of fir, expressly for the occasion, by Noulton and Maynard, the well-known watermen, the former taking the lines for his patrons. It was evident, even at a cursory glance, that the Etonians had the decided superiority in weight and strength, and betting was in their favour. Westminster won the choice of station, and they took the south pier of Staines Bridge. Previous to starting, it was agreed upon that no fouling should take place until half a mile of the distance had been rowed. On going away from the bridge the Westminsters went in advance, which position they kept for about a quarter of a mile, Eton pressing them closely. Noulton had by this time steered the Fairy Queen over to the course the Etonians were pursuing, and he bored them so closely in shore that they were obliged either to foul the Westminsters or go into the bank. A foul consequently took place, which lasted five or six minutes, ending in the discomfiture of the Fairy Queen, who had her rudder struck off, an oar broken, and was turned completely around. The Etonians went away with a cheer, but the Umpires, considering that an infringement of the agreement had taken place, called them back to a fresh start, which they immediately complied with. At six o’clock they started from the bridge a second time, with an understanding that each boat should keep its own side of the water for half a mile. The Fairy Queen again took the lead, which she held for about three-quarters of a mile, when the Etonians came upon them, and some smart fouling was the result. Eton at length cleared, and showed the way down the stream. In rounding the distance boat they were close together, and immediately after doubling the station punt the Westminsters caught them on the starboard quarter, which nearly put the Victory into the bank stern up. The Etonians, however, shortly cleared themselves from this awkward situation, and once more went in advance; and notwithstanding they were occasionally bumped by the Fairy Queen in working up against the stream, they maintained the lead, ultimately winning by several boat’s lengths. The match proved a treat throughout, by the spirited and gallant manner in which it was contested by both parties.


  1. ^ Dictionary of National Biography.
  2. ^ W.E. Gladstone, quoted in Dictionary of National Biography.
  3. ^ Viscount Wolseley (Nov. 11, 1890, reviewing A. Lang, Life, Letters, and Diaries of Sir Stafford Northcote, First Earl of Iddesleigh (William Blackwood & Sons 1890)), quoted in G.E. Cokayne, The Complete Peerage (G.H. White ed. 1949).