The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Searle HE


Searle, Henry ErnestEdit

“H. Searle/ Professional Champion Sculler of the World” (Spy), September 7, 1889Edit

When Beach, who was perhaps the finest sculler ever seen, had beaten Hanlan often enough to satisfy his ambition, he retired, and the Professional Sculling Championship of the World was claimed by Kemp, who in his turn twice defeated the once unbeaten Hanlan. Then there arose a new sculler, a young Australian named Searle, and he having beaten Kemp, the World gained yet another Champion, whose Championship, together with some money, is staked upon the race which he will row with a Canadian named O’Connor on Monday.

Searle has a fine chest, but he sculls with a round back. His form is not good, but his pace is remarkable. He is a very decent young fellow of three-and-twenty years.

English professional rowing grew out of wager matches sponsored by amateur gentlemen in the 1830s. Though professionals both rowed and sculled, the greater prize money, and therefore fame, went to individual scullers whose past performance and present form were easier to handicap for gambling. The necessary mix of money, talent, and interest was particularly strong in London, where the success of ad hoc wager matches and Doggett’s Coat and Badge led to the creation of a Championship of England sculling race in 1831, a year after the Wingfield Sculls were founded there for amateurs. For many years only Londoners contested the Championship, its winners being taken into the service of the Royal Barge, but eventually it attracted local champions from Australia and North America and was renamed the Championship of the World. Indeed, Australians held the title for twenty-two of the thirty-one years ending in 1907, starting with Edward Trickett in 1876. Professional sculling peaked in England in the 1870s, while the young Thomas Eakins was painting the local champions of his native Philadelphia, but was still popular in 1889 when Vanity Fair featured Henry Ernest Searle (1866-89).

As a professional and Australian, Searle stands apart from the other Vanity Fair rowers, to a man all Oxbridge or London amateurs. Growing up on Esk Island in the Clarence River in New South Wales, the young Searle learned to row of necessity. In addition to semiannual three-day journeys with his father to Grafton for supplies, Searle rowed seven miles a day to take himself, his brother, and sister to school -- early training a biographer later celebrated in verse:

:Years rolled over all too placid,

When in boyhood calm and shy
To the village schoolhouse lowly
Passed each morning wet or dry.

Not as we have passed that journey,
Lagging every foot the way,
But with feathered oar advancing
Back and forward twice a day.[1]

“[N]o doubt that laid the foundation for his pre-eminent position in the rowing world,” countryman Steve Fairbairn wrote to illustrate his axiom “Mileage makes champions.”[2] While Muttlebury and Nickalls were racing for Eton in 1884-85, Searle, who was a few months younger than “Muttle” and a few older than Guy, was taking on all comers on the Clarence.

By 1888, the time had come to try Sydney, which offered the best money, competition, and coaching in the land. Backed by John and Thomas Spencer, Sydney brothers who a decade earlier had backed Ned Trickett, Searle began his Parramatta campaign in a match against one Julius Woolf:

Woolf had been defeated by Stanbury a fortnight earlier, so he was not much in favour with the betting public, and it looked as if Searle’s backers would have to be content with the bare prize-money. John Spencer refrained from betting at all before the start of the race, and instructed Searle to hang back and “feel” Woolf in the early stages, and, as soon as he was sure of his man, to shake his head from side to side, but not to go in front until he got a sign from Spencer, who was in a boat following the race.

The race had barely started when Searle’s head was seen to wobble violently. This caused loud laughter among those who had never seen Searle race before. They chaffed Spencer so unmercifully that he assumed a deliberately anxious look. Meanwhile, his commissioners were snapping up every bet offered, with Woolf still leading and going great guns. Suddenly Spencer waved a red handkerchief and in a hundred yards Searle was a length ahead, and the issue beyond doubt.[3]

In October the same year, Searle beat Peter Kemp, the then-reigning world champion, who the preceding month had defended the title against a former holder, the renowned Edward Hanlan of Canada. Searle’s victory set him up to visit England in 1889 to face off against William O’Connor of Toronto, the North American champion, for the unprecedented purse of £1000.

Nickalls, en route to his third victory in the amateur Wingfield Sculls, met and trained with Searle that summer. “We had many a long scull together on the tideway,” Nickalls recalled. “An extremely nice man he was, too. Powerful and rather on the heavy side, as he would be at that period of his practice, for it was two months before his race. I . . . admired his sculling immensely, quite a different thing from the showing made by our other English professionals at that date.”[4] The chasm between amateur and professional perhaps fostered friendlier relations than they might have had, had there been any prospect of their competing in the same race.

Searle beat O’Connor handily but died less than three months later, having contracted typhoid fever on the ship returning to Melbourne. “It was suspected that the heavy wagering on the race -- about £80,000 is said to have changed hands -- caused him to become the victim of foul play.”[5] When his remains arrived in Sydney the whole city went into mourning, the crowd estimated at between one and two hundred thousand.[6] The local Sunday Times, in six long and dense columns describing the scene, declared that when “the white-winged spirit of the Champion floated upward towards the golden gates of the Jasper City,” the community felt that “a national loss had been sustained and that a calamity had overtaken our country.”[7] A column in Searle’s memory erected in 1891 stands at the finish of the Parramatta course.


Professional ScullingEdit

English professional sculling began to ebb in the 1870s, due partly to the greater prize money available in Australia and North America, but largely to its own “bad odor,” as decried in Vanity Fair (Feb. 18, 1888):

Wallace Ross, 1884

Though Monday last was an unpleasant day for the river, a huge crowd turned out to see the great Championship Professional Sculling race between Wallace Ross and Bubear. Thousands, in their simplicity, expected to see a fine race. The Englishman was said to be “fitter” than ever he had been before, and long odds were laid on him for the event, until just before the start, when the betting veered around to 5 to 4 on Ross. For myself, I hoped against hope to see a race, but my prophetic soul told me I should not. My prophetic soul was, as usual, right. I saw a fiasco, as people who go nowadays to see races of this kind so often do.

Ross rowed right away from Bubear. He started at forty to the minute. When he had got a lead, he dropped into a paddle of twenty-six. Bubear may have tried; but, if so, his trying is not worth much. He was never in it after the first few yards, and Ross paddled home on a good tide, in shockingly bad time, as easy a winner as one could wish to see in any duffer’s race.

The disappointed public were very angry, and said many nasty things. Journalists are, for particular reasons, less free-spoken; but though they may not say much, they think a good deal. English professional sculling received a great blow on Monday last, from which it will not easily recover. It has been in bad odour from some time past; and it will now be hard to re-excite interest in what is almost a ruined branch of sport; and I for one am not sorry for it. I am sick of professional sculling; and it is certain that no one will be one whit the worse for its extinction, if it is to continue in its present circumstances.

Just over a year later, with the prospect of Searle and O’Connor facing off in a “square” match, Vanity Fair (Sept. 7, 1889) took hope for professional sculling:

Searle and O’Connor are to race over the tideway course on Monday, and all the sporting world will go out to see them. The match is a remarkable one, if only by reason of the wonderful records that the competitors bring to these shores with them, Searle being the admitted successor to the once great Beach, and O’Connor having beaten every man of note in America. It is also remarkable for its apparent genuineness. Rightly or wrongly, every waterman and every follower of aquatics believes that the match will be “square,” and this is in itself enough to account for the large share of public interest that has centred upon the meeting. To speak of the respective chances of the scullers is a little difficult, as we know so little of them when actually racing; and many a man who practises well has not the head or the heart to carry him through a big race. In style -- and especially for a short distance -- O’Connor has the advantage; being a most pretty workman, save for the bad fault of letting his shoulders stand out at the finish. The present champion, Searle, has a long, dragging stroke, holding his slide well with his legs, and maintaining the power well past the rowlock -- a style which is most telling over a long course. Besides, he is a better built, and, I should say, a stronger, man than his opponent. While, then, it must not be forgotten that O’Connor is a tremendous spurter, and is possessed of some amount of staying power, I am inclined to think that Searle will win, if the water be at all rough. But it should be a close and exciting race.

Professional sculling did continue into the twentieth century but had almost disappeared by the 1914-18 war.


  1. ^ S. Bennett, The Clarence Comet: The Career of Henry Searle, 1866-89, p. 18.
  2. ^ S. Fairbairn, Chats on Rowing, p. 24.
  3. ^ K. Webb, quoted in H. Cleaver, A History of Rowing, pp. 43-44.
  4. ^ G. Nickalls, Life’s a Pudding, pp. 206-07.
  5. ^ V. Mansell, “Professional Oarsmanship,” in British Sports and Sportsmen: Yachting and Rowing p. 427.
  6. ^ S. Bennett, p. 13.
  7. ^ The Sunday Times (Sydney), Dec. 15, 1889, quoted in the Australian Encyclopedia, p. 58 (3d ed. rev. 1979).