The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Pitman CM

Pitman, Charles Murray edit

“O.U.B.C.” (Spy), March 28, 1895 edit


At Eton, once upon a time, a crew of eight Pitmans beat an eight of Mr. Cornish’s House in a boat race. Charles Murray is the seventh of eight brothers; who included F.I. Pitman, the famous Light Blue stroke of 1884, 1885, and 1886, and T.T. Pitman, of the Eton Eight, who won the Half Mile Championship. Born in Edinburgh three-and-twenty years ago, he began to acquire book-learning at Temple Grove, East Sheen; whence he went to Eton, rowed and became Captain of the Boats, sculled, played the Wall game, learned a little more, and did other wholesome things; after which he went to New College and stroked a first-rate Oxford eight in his first year. A year later he rowed No. 7, and last year he stroked another eight: an office that he is to repeat on Saturday, when he hopes to watch eight Cambridge galley-slaves toiling in his wake for most of the distance between Putney and Mortlake. His other rowing achievements include the Grand and the Visitors’ at Henley, and the Oxford University Sculls, Pairs and Fours. He is the newest President of the Oxford University Boat Club, and a typical young barbarian of the better sort.

He is a cheerful, wholesome boy, full of pluck. He is also stroke of much judgment and an oar who always pulls his weight. He therefore proposes presently to get called to the Bar. He can tell a good story with pleasing inaccuracy, and he is often accused of unpunctuality; yet no one dislikes him. He is inclined to be lazy outside a boat; he can shoot, and he has been seen trying to play golf.

He is the ruddy Secretary of Vincent’s; who is happily called “Cherry.”

Like H.B. Cotton, his predecessor as O.U.B.C. President, Charles Murray Pitman (1872-1948) won four successive Boat Races. In addition to the races listed in Vanity Fair, he rowed for New College in the Grand (1895-96), the Stewards’ (1895), and the Silver Goblets (1895-96) but took home no hardware on those occasions.

After taking his third class in law and history, Pitman became a barrister of the Inner Temple practising on the London and Southeast Circuit. During the 1914-18 war he served as assistant to the Judge Advocate of the Fleet, became Judge Advocate in 1924, and from 1933-45 was Official Referee of the Supreme Court. But he made time to co-author Rowing (with R.P.P. Rowe, 1898) and the Record of the University Boat Race (1909, and coach various crews on orthodox lines, including the 1920 Olympic eight. He was Captain of Leander in 1896, Secretary from 1905 to 1920, and President from 1942 to 1946.

By the way, “young barbarian,” a phrase Vanity Fair used with both Pitman and C.T. Fogg-Elliot, hales from Culture and Anarchy, an influential 1869 tract by Matthew Arnold of political and social criticism. Arnold segmented British society into the aristocracy, middle, and working classes in a chapter entitled “Barbarians, Philistines, Populace,” comparing Victorian aristocrats to the ancient Barbarians “to whom we all owe so much, and who reinvigorated and renewed our worn-out Europe”:

The Barbarians . . . had the passion for field-sports; and they have handed it on to our aristocratic class, who of this passion too, as of the passion for asserting one’s personal liberty, are the great natural stronghold. The care of the Barbarians for the body, and for all manly exercises; the vigour, good looks, and fine complexion which they acquired and perpetuated in their families by these means, -- all this may be observed still in our aristocratic class.[1]

The Silvery Thames edit

Pitman entertained rowing friends from around the world at Remenham Lodge, his “White House” overlooking the Henley course. Here is Vanity Fair’s nostalgic and Imperialist paean to the river (July 3, 1912), alluding to the Henley Regatta visit by King George V and Queen Mary, the first by a reigning monarch:

The presence of Henley Week, which this year will indeed be Royal in more senses than one, is but one more needed reminder that the River Thames does not, in fact, never has received the homage which it deserves. The lines of Sir Walter Raleigh cannot be equalled for a poetic epitome of the glories of the most famous of the world’s rivers: --

“There are two things scarce matched in the universe -- the sun in heaven and the Thames on earth.”

When one considers that the first University, the most famous of our public schools, to say nothing of the metropolis of the Empire, it is no matter of wonderment that the Imperialist is as proud of the Thames as any Oxonian or the Etonian who is privileged to claim that masterpiece of Henry of Wykeham as his Alma Mater. To the historian the places mentioned are but mere passing references to shrines of historic fact, to which must necessarily be added Windsor and Hampton Court. But it is to the lover of the beautiful that the Thames reveals its manifold charms. There may perhaps be more majestic charms in the grandeur of the Rhine or the St. Lawrence, or even in the wooded slopes of the Meuse or the Moselle, but to the lover of a silver stream set in a long, river valley, rich in English, beautiful, interchanging meadowland and forest, it is certain that the glorious Thames, to the artist, has charms that a brush delights to paint such vistas as the view of Windsor Castle from the river, or the quietude of a summer’s evening at Mapledurham Mill.

It is indeed a pity that society has hitherto despised the Thames, and neither would it be just to attribute such neglect to the much detracted English climate, for some of the best summers we have had have seen this curious cold shoulder turned on the river; and it is to be feared, with the exception of the Brigade of Guards Regatta and Henley, the Thames is a dead letter, and consequently has become deplorably bourgeois. The only saving feature of the situation is the steady, consistent lovers of the river, to whom its old abbeys, churches, and bridges with a storied past alternate with riverside houses, gardens, and houseboats. Here a stretch of dark, still water; there the splashing murmur of a tossing weir, and then a quiet, ancient village, which is so typical of the rural life which has been so characteristic of English country peace for so many centuries.

It is easy to understand how the River Thames has been identified so closely with English life and runs like a silver thread through the main events of our history. Its very situation has made it the natural centre of all the great events that have occurred in its vicinity. Not a century since the occupation by the Romans of London has the Thames valley been without the addition of some fresh monument of an historical character, and hardly a space has not some cherished memory. Oxford, Abingdon, Reading, Runnymede are but links in that chain of events that has made the reading of English history a delight of all literary students. It was my full intention, being Henley Week, to have devoted a large amount of space to the Thames I love so well, but I hope to return to the charge next week.

References edit

  1. ^ M. Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, p. 100.