The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Peel AW

Peel, Arthur Wellesley (Viscount Peel)Edit

“The Speaker” (Spy), July 2, 1887Edit


It is nearly eight[1] years since the celebrated Tory who emancipated the Roman Catholics, passed the Bank Charter Act, repealed the Corn Laws, and gave a name to a Party, first entered Parliament; and the name of Peel is still illustrious. For the celebrated statesman’s eldest son is Sir Robert Peel, and his youngest son is Speaker of the House of Commons.

Mr. Peel was born eight-and-fifty years ago, went to Eton and to Oxford, married and had many children, and, announcing himself, according to the amended family traditions of that time, as Liberal, he, at the age of four-and-thirty, stood for Coventry, where he was defeated. But at six-and-thirty he was returned for Warwick, for which he has since sat; and in February, 1884, he was elected Speaker of the House of Commons, an office which he still holds.

Although Mr. Speaker Peel cannot be considered so conspicuous a success as Lord Eversley or some others who have filled the Chair, he is a very good and, in some respects, a very admirable Speaker. He speaks himself perhaps too often, too readily, and too much at length; but he has a high sense of what is due to the House; and if his tone and manner are sometimes a shade too peremptory, and his weight too invariably thrown on the side of the Government of the day, of whatever Party that Government might be, it must be remembered that an entirely new position of dictatorship over the House and of protectorate over the Ministry has within the last few years been created for the Speaker; and that he who was once the Servant of the House has now been made its Master -- under the Ministerial Concert. Moreover, it is also to be remembered that the older and sounder traditions of the House of Commons were founded upon the assumption that it was an assembly of gentlemen, and that in these days the Speaker has to deal with men who are in no sense gentle, and that he often has to wrestle with vulgarity and defiance.

Mr. Speaker Peel is scrupulously, even nervously, impartial, even towards those Irish Members who regard and treat him as their natural enemy. He is very, very dignified; he has a most imposing and austere presence; and he possesses a sonorous voice and a Jove-like aspect. With the officials of the House he is popular, and in private life is a most amiable, high-minded, honourable gentleman, with all the sound tastes and honest learning of a highly-cultivated country squire.

His legs are beautiful; and it is suspected that he would, without serious displeasure, see Mr. Tim Healy hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Arthur Wellesley Peel (1829-1912) took the Eton and Balliol path of Northcote, Hornby, and Chitty, but his sole rowing accomplishment was to row for his college in the Visitors’ in 1851. His crew apparently would have rowed in the Stewards’ as well, but had to scratch because the Master of Balliol detained them too long to make the race. In this respect Peel was unfortunate to have preceded Edmond Warre at Balliol by half a dozen years, for Warre, who compiled a stunning record in both academics and rowing, cleared the path for future river aspirants by convincing Benjamin Jowett, the new Master, of the social and moral value of rowing in college life.[2]

Peel’s appearance in Vanity Fair followed three months’ performance of a delicate political balance rooted in the question of Irish home rule. Leslie Ward’s caricature captures the essence: gravity and power in the aquiline profile, the massive wig, and the long dark robe, upturned to suggest some unseen minion carrying the trailing edge, but with a daintiness of touch, the fine hands fingering white gloves and the slender feet tip-toeing as if on hot coals. In 1882 the House of Commons gave the Speaker the power to determine when closure should be applied, in response to the obstructionist tactics of the growing number of Irish members. In 1885 Peel became the first to use it. The power was adjusted in 1887 to provide a more even distribution between the speaker and members, but in practice Peel remained responsible for driving day to day business. On retiring in 1895, he was created Viscount Peel of Sandy, chaired a royal commission on liquor licensing (pro-temperance, but not teetotaling), and was a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery and British Museum, among other charitable work.

University Sports, Part I: Brutal Athletes and Effeminate FopsEdit

“Sport is being made too much of with men rowing until there comes upon us a fear that they are killing themselves or they are nothing,” wrote Anthony Trollope in 1868.[3] Vanity Fair's opinion (October 18, 1873) may well have come from W.B. Woodgate, ever the sympathetic recruiter, but this cannot be confirmed:

At this season men returning to Oxford or Cambridge are thinking of the race which is to come off next Easter at Putney, and are electing the Presidents of their respective boat-clubs, on whom no small share of the responsibility for victory or defeat next Easter will fall. The ardent freshman is embarking upon his aquatic career in blissful ignorance of the pains that are before him, while Paterfamilias is chuckling at the thought of the honours young hopeful is to achieve in the Schools or Tripos. Of late years rowing has been made very much of both at the Universities and elsewhere. So violently has it been paraded before the eyes of Paterfamilias, who sends his sons to the University to develop their intellect and not their muscle, that he has begun to think that all this is too much of a good thing, and that young men are being taught to take the shadow for the reality. Hence arises much misunderstanding, and good men are lost to the University boat in consequence.

In the first place a word on the question of health. Dr. Skey says that constitutions are ruined by rowing. Some have been no doubt, but very few. Excessive rowing will doubtless strain the strongest frame; and there are many constitutions whose owners ought to know better than to strain them at all. But those who have personal experience are almost unanimous in saying that a man of fair average strength may row the hardest race and the longest course that has ever been rowed without the smallest injury to health or constitution. And in a book lately published by Dr. Morgan, himself a physician and an “oar,” it is proved to demonstration that a vast deal of actual good is done to men at Oxford and Cambridge by the rowing they do there. As things go at present boys at school row as hard and as much as men at college, and seem none the worse for it. Whether it is prudent to distress boys to the extreme limit appears to be doubtful. At all events it is a point on which those who have charge of boys ought to be quite decided.

Of all the amusements of University men rowing is the one most calculated to affect a man’s character. Not that sitting at the end of an oar is likely to do so, but the life and habits which are inseparable from rowing are worth considering. At the University the life of a rowing man is different to that of other men. Besides keeping different hours, eating different food, and such small matters, he is to some extent shut out from the society of his own choice, and tied down to that of eight men whom he may know or not, like or not, and who are chosen haphazard, at all events as to their social capacities. And to these men he is tied sometimes for weeks, and is continually with them. He can no more get away from them than a passenger on board an Australian clipper can get away from his fellow-passengers. It is in his relations with these compulsory messmates that his character may be improved or otherwise.

The undergraduates at Oxford have been said by high authority to consist of brutal athletes and effeminate fops -- a saying worthy of Mr. Disraeli; but surely it is not true. Is it supposed that mind and body cannot be developed at the same time -- that while the intellectual forcing process is going on the physical energies must be suppressed? It was Plato who started this theory; but training in his days was a very different matter to ours. After sitting there is a relief in standing, so after reading sharp physical exertion is refreshing.

Now there are rowing men and rowing men. There are some -- they are few -- who make rowing the sole end and aim of their University career: there are others, and they are many, to whom rowing is at once exercise and relaxation. Of those who row and do nothing else not much need be said: at all events we may be sure of this much, that if they did not row they would be at something worse.

The effeminate fop element is a much more dangerous one, and includes a vast number of those called “loafers.” Surely it were better to row than to loaf?

There is a process much associated with rowing called “going out of training,” and it is one which has done much to bring the rowing man’s life into disrepute. It seems to be supposed that a month or two’s training produces a violent thirst after dissipation, and that the moment of a boat’s passing the winning-post is the signal for a violent reaction from the constraint of training and a strange desire to do everything that training forbids. Now there is no connection in the nature of things between going out of training and making a beast of oneself. Nor is there any mysterious power in beefsteaks to demoralise a man or produce the effects popularly ascribed to them. On the contrary, “bump suppers” and the festivities consequent upon a race are celebrated chiefly by that numerous and festive community who never miss an opportunity for the consumption of vast quantities of bad champagne. At such times rowing men are not better and no worse than others -- the festive soul is festive and the sober man is sober then. As a rule the organised debauch which goes by the name of a bump supper is more of a bore to the rowing man than to anyone else, for the reason that his lungs and digestion are not yet acclimatised to an atmosphere of smoke and an alderman’s dinner. On such occasions he has even been known to sigh for his accustomed chop and glass of port.

. . . .

It is too well-known a fact to require more than a passing notice that many of the most distinguished oars of the present and past times are men who have taken the highest honours. Of such Warre of Balliol is perhaps the best known type; of the aquatic world he is now facile princeps.[4] It would be an endless and invidious task to count up all such men; in the Oxford crews alone of the last ten years about one-quarter are honour-men. Intellectual ability will always obtain its proper share of respect among men -- sometimes it is worshipped to an extravagant extent; but among boys the case is different. More reason why any occupation which throws Past and Class men together must be for the advantage of both. The benefit is mutual. The reading men would miss half the point of University life without rowing or some such common ground of interest and association with their fellows, and rowing would most assuredly suffer from the absence of the intellectual element in their crews, and that in more ways than one. The late successes of Oxford were to be directly traced to the times when she had men for presidents of her boat-club who were of the sort who take high honours in the schools. The presidencies of such men leave their mark and bear fruit for years.

Muscular Christianity may be cried down, and brutal athletes may be abused; but this much is certain, that it will be an evil day for the Universities and for the rowing men who go there when rowing is no more. Only let there be reason and moderation; keep out the penny-a-liners if possible, and don’t let us hear so much of “aquatic Derbies” and such claptrap. There is an unnatural, exaggerated tone about the Putney race which looks dangerous. The British public goes mad sometimes; unfortunately for the objects of its madness, they are always the first to suffer. Albert the Good, exhibitions, volunteers, the ring, and now it seems the turf, have all been victims. Let us take care that rowing keeps clear of the infection. “Sit modus in rebus,”[5] and don’t let us have our hobby overridden. The fuss that is made every year about the sixteen young men who row against each other at Putney is enough to turn their heads. There has been a vast deal more talk than necessary about University races of later years; you would think the very cab-drivers were Oxford or Cambridge men from the amount of blue ribbon they brandish about on the day of the race. What do the cabbies care about rowing? For the matter of that, what do the half-million people who line the river banks from Putney to Mortlake care about the race? They scarcely know one boat from the other, if they see them at all; many never do see them at all, and perhaps don’t care to. We had rather see a score or two of old University men cheering on their crews than half-a-million of the British public screaming at the boats. Well is it for rowing that the Putney race comes but once a-year. Once let the thing be overdone, a reaction will set in, public opinion will go round with a swing, and then good-bye to rowing and all the good it does.


  1. ^ Sic. Eighty.
  2. ^ C.R.L. Fletcher, Edmond Warre, p. 37.
  3. ^ A. Trollope, British Sports and Pastimes, quoted in N. Wigglesworth, A Social History of English Rowing, p. 111.
  4. ^ “Facile princeps”: easily the chief.
  5. ^ “Sit modus in rebus”: Let there be a limit. (From Horace.)