The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Shearman M

Shearman, MontagueEdit

“A.A.A.” (WAG), July 4, 1895Edit

Though he looks older, he was born only eight-and-thirty years ago to an athletic solicitor of the Adelphi; who once helped to win the Steward’s Cup at Henley. At Merchant Taylor’s School he won prizes for Hebrew and most other subjects; but being a fat, overgrown boy he showed no athletic prowess -- beyond captaining the school football team -- until he got to Oxford: which he did with a scholarship that entitled him to run for something else. Accordingly he was well beaten in the Freshmen’s Sports; after which he suddenly developed into a sprinter, and in his second term beat all Cambridge comers in the Hundred Yards and won the English Amateur Championship over that distance. Then he got his Rugby football Blue; and proceeded to represent Oxford against Cambridge in three different events at one meeting -- namely, the Hundred Yards, the Quarter Mile, and the Putting of the Weight: which is a record performance for any single man. After this he ran second to his brother, John Shearman, in the Championship Quarter Mile; notwithstanding which brotherly love continued, and a year later he won that event also. In the meantime he had, for variety’s sake, rowed in the St. John’s Eight, played La Crosse for England against Scotland, and, by way of relief, scored two First Classes in the schools -- one in Classical Moderations, the second in Greats; so that he may be fairly regarded as a mental and physical athlete of degree. Having thus done a good deal to improve sport by example, he began precept and became one of that triumvirate who founded the Amateur Athletic Association which holds its sixteenth Championship Meeting at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, when he will for the twelfth revolving year act as referee. His, indeed, is the chief credit for the building up of this Association; of which he has been Honorary Secretary or Vice-President all its life.

Having just avoided being sent down from Oxford (for too much noise made at an old-fashioned Commemoration), he got called to the Bar fourteen years ago; and though he now enjoys a good and substantial Common Law practice, he has not yet taken silk, nor has he stood for Parliament, nor achieved any other extra-legal performance save writing the Badminton book on Athletics. Yet is he commonly alleged to be a very reliable advocate, a most conscientious man, and shrewd person who never gives an opinion without knowledge. Those who know him vow that he is also a good friend and a safe man; and withal he is so modest that it is believed that his only enemies are the jealous. He is a sedate fellow with a sense of humour; who is respected even by bookmakers. He once took great part in a Town and Gown row: whence he carries the impression of a brickbat on his forehead to this day.

He is a man of much virtue; and he is cleverer than he looks. He is known to his friends as “Tont.”

Montague Shearman (1857-1930) rowed in the 1882 Thames Cup for the Thames Rowing Club. Like fellow rower and O.U.A.C. President W.H. Grenfell, Shearman once swam Niagara below the falls. He became president of the Amateur Athletic Association in 1915, succeeding Lord Alverstone (who as Richard Webster, Q.C., had defended fellow Cambridge athletics star C.B. Lawes in the Belt case).

Professionally, Shearman became a King’s Counsel in 1903. It was prescient of VANITY FAIR to have depicted him as a finish line judge at the tape, for he was elevated to the King’s Bench in 1914 to fill one of several vacant judgeships, one made so by the retirement of Mr. Justice Channell. In that role Shearman presided over some of the famous murder cases of the day. “Although he never pretended to be a profound jurist, he was not afraid of grappling with legal problems or of making up his mind.”[1] Yet, despite all these favourable comments, reality was very different. Shearman’s mind was preset, overriding even his judicial duties, as became most obvious in the Thompson-Bywaters trial in 1922 (described in detail in Criminal Justice by René Weis and other accounts). His shameless abuse of authority in support of the prosecution case provoked a sense of outrage, the Observer noted. Shearman even called on the jurors, shrewdly but unmistakedly, to share his prejudice against the prisoners: “I think you will feel disgust .. but your feelings of disgust will not run away with you” the New York Times quoted him reminding the jury just before their verdict. How could a judge ever make such an implying statement at this decisive moment of a trial, one must ask, if not to make the jurors aware that they are, and if not, better be disgusted. So advised by Justice Shearman, aged 65 at the time and an impressive figure, the jury had no choice other than the verdicts of guilty, also on Edith Thompson whose hand had never been involved in the crime. For the tragic hanging of the innocent young woman Shearman bears the full blame, he committed this judicial murder in cold blood. “The Court is not a theatre” he once said, but what he did himself was far worse: he made the Court a deadly playground for his very personal moral beliefs. He should have been put on trial for it himself, and hanged rather than knighted, many felt. - A 1927 operation arising from an old rugby injury impaired his speech, and he retired in 1929.

The 1878 Boat Race: Oxford SlidingEdit

Oxford won the 1878 Boat Race by about 300 yards, or forty seconds. W.B. Woodgate, recalling in 1909 the Boat Race eights he’d observed for over half a century, chose this Oxford crew and the Cambridge crews of 1899 and 1900 as his favorites. “There have been divers other smart crews, as also sundry feeble ones; but I think that the three which I have named are entitled to preference; and if again one of the trio is to be selected, I incline to the 1878 crew, if only in view of the undeniable quality of the team which they ran clear away from.” Vanity Fair (April 20, 1878) was likewise impressed:

The experts in rowing who went to see the contest of 1878, if they did not see a good race, saw some remarkably good rowing. The winning boat was a good one, and the like of the two after “oars” in it are not often to be seen. The Cambridge men were overmatched both in strength and style. There was a noticeable difference between their manner of getting their oars through the water and that of the Oxford crew. Apart from the question of strength, the Oxford style was better and more effective than that of their opponents. It is not fair to criticise a losing boat, for a losing crew never row their best; but Cambridge rowed a better stern chase than some University crews we have seen.

Woodgate recalled the 1877 and 1878 Oxford crews in his comments on the 1897 Boat Race for Vanity Fair (April 8, 1896):

Oxford, though on paper very much the same crew as last year, were some lengths faster than their 1896 crew. Improved sliding was the main cause of this. There was a similar instance in the 1877 and 1878 Oxford crews. The material in the latter was rather weaker than in the former (the dead-heat crew); but the 1878 crew was some hundred yards faster through improvement in sliding since the preceding year.

R.C. Lehmann, who never rowed a Boat Race but coached many crews for both sides, noted in his Complete Oarsman (1908), that Oxford won the 1878 race almost entirely with body swing, hardly using their legs. It took S.D. Muttlebury coming along several years later to drive out that old orthodoxy (fixed-seat body swing) and bring in the new (leg drive and swing):

The fault of using nearly the whole of the body-swing without the help of leg-power is never inculcated now, for there is universal agreement in regard to the principles of the matter. It has, however, in times past, had its advocates and exponents, chiefly, I think, at Oxford. The late Mr. D.H. McLean, in his luminous and concise article on Rowing in the Encyclopedia of Sport, refers to the Oxford crew of 1878. The crew was composed of first-rate material, and gave a splendid exhibition of power, body-form, uniformity and pace, but its sliding was, according to our existing ideas, absolutely unorthodox. Mr. McLean may have seen the crew as a small boy at Eton, for they practised there occasionally if my memory serves me. I saw them during their practice at Putney, and I remember being particularly struck by one feature of their rowing. Though they used their bodies at the beginning with immense dash and gusto, they used their legs scarcely at all. As they finished their stroke their knees were bent, and in this position they showed above the sax-boards of the boat. This meant that they relied practically entirely on their bodies, and treated the slide as a mere incident of the stroke, and an unimportant one at that. As they started from this as a principle, they were doubtless wise in not attempting to use their legs to any great extent. Had they done so they would inevitably have split their waterwork up into two separate parts, and their uniformity would have suffered. Some little time after this, as a result of four successive defeats at the hands of Cambridge, Oxford men recognised the true doctrine, and have ever since been among its most brilliant exponents.


  1. ^ Dictionary of National Biography.