The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Smith EJH

Smith, Ernest John HerizEdit

“Pembroke” (Hay), January 28, 1888Edit

Pembroke College, Cambridge, was born some five-and-forty years ago under the name of Smith. In 1873 Smith took a Second Class in the Classical Tripos and a First Class in the Theological; and being a double honourman, was naturally elected a Fellow of Pembroke. Subsequently he achieved the Dean, had the Proctor thrust upon him, and developed into Pembroke College of which he is the soul. Sincere in his work, generous in his friendship, and the leading spirit among the undergraduates, both in the schools and on the river, he has combined, with a success hitherto unequalled, the characters of Dean, Proctor, and Mr. Smith, each one of which is more popular than the other two.

It is on the River that Mr. Smith has achieved his greatest glory. There is no figure better known between Jesus Lock and Baitsbite than that of the Dean in his light and dark blue blazer, animating the toils of the fifth boat. He teaches rowing also in his rooms, and has been known to encourage the oar men from the pulpit. He believes in Mesmerism. He is much admired by the fair Girtonites. He is a scholar, a Christian, and a gentleman.

Rev. Ernest John Heriz Smith (1851-1911) never rowed in the Boat Race or at Henley and thus appears here only on the strength of his Vanity Fair biography, the first in which rowing predominated. Through men like Smith “[t]he Christian ethic became very deeply imbued in the sport of rowing at the club level throughout the country,” wrote historian Neil Wigglesworth, “being disseminated and consolidated by seemingly endless supplies of ordained oarsmen coming down from Oxford and Cambridge colleges, settling into their new parishes and preaching a combination of rowing technique and religious virtue.”[1]

The son of a Fellow of Caius, Smith became “a Pembroke man to the backbone, and the friend and counsellor of all Pembroke men,”[2] retiring in 1896 to hold the college benefice at Tarrant Hinton in Dorset. At Pembroke he started a semi-religious society called the Companions of St. John, whose members wore a belt of sash under their clothes and thus were popularly known as “the belly-banders.” For this and his vocal support of the Church of England, the inaugural issue of The Pem in 1893 offered these “Reminiscences”:

Amidst his followers you see
The valiant leader stand:
The Smith, a mighty man is he,
With eager, restless hand,
Striving to find on every arm
The social leather band!

Each Sunday night, for two long hours,
You can hear the music flow;
You can hear him lead the frequent hymns
With solemn voice and slow,
Like a sexton tolling the funeral knell,
When his spirits are very low!

And men that on his staircase keep
Shout through the open door;
They loathe to see the gathering throng,
To hear the maddening roar:
And those below the ceiling thump,
And those above, the floor!

He leans against the doorpost, and
The singing he enjoys;
He hears the strains of hymn 18;
He hears his own sweet voice
Ring loudly o’er the others, and
It makes his heart rejoice.

The members of his social throng
Are with him hand and glove,
From willing feet, and willing hands,
To willing throat above!
Bound with the band of fellowship,
Bound with the ties of love!

Singing, -- reciting, -- chanting,
Onward through life he goes:
One day he poses as a coach,
Another day he rows.
With all his College work besides,
He earns his night’s repose. [3]

Sporting Heads of CollegesEdit

Victorian Oxbridge did not “recruit” athletes. Still, certain “sporting heads” of colleges were not indifferent to matriculating talented oarsmen. The Etonian flow to Oxford in the 1890s and to Cambridge in the following decade helped swing the Boat Race results those years. W.B. Woodgate opined in Vanity Fair (April 9, 1903), that “[i]t does a College more good socially to produce a Blue with a pass than to shelve him to make room for some obscure substitute who in the Long scraps through with a Third Class, and meantime is a necessity in all College athletic arenas.” His illustrations:

Dr. Warren, [President of Magdalen College, Oxford,] was offered in 1901 the services of the then Captain of Boats at Eton -- John Edwards-Moss (junior). He insisted on the youth passing Responsions before he would admit him. To do this would have entailed cramming all Long Vac., abandoning all sport at the sire’s Scottish shooting-box; and possible failure after all. So the boy elected, with paternal assent, to cast in his lot at Third Trinity, Cambridge, with other Eton aquatic pals who were simultaneously leaving. Result, a high-class oar lost to Oxford and gained for Cambridge; and undeniably a very important factor in the Putney to Mortlake defeats that befell Oxford in the years immediately following. But, I am glad to record, there still survive such commodities as sporting heads of Oxford colleges. In July 1905, I chanced to be in the waiting-room of Worcester G.W.R. station. A Right Rev. accosted me, and asked if I would mount guard over his chattels, while he went to get some food. On his return I ventured to ask him what his diocese was; he replied, “None. He was Bishop Michison, Master of Pembroke College.” Then I bethought me that an old Radley friend of mine was at the moment contemplating sending a son of his to that college, not so much for the sake of degree, as to give him chance of earning his blue on the river; and that he was somewhat apprehensive as to the boy’s classical attainments sufficing to pass him for matriculation. I volunteered to shove in my own oar at this juncture, and said: “There is a son of an old friend of mine, good oar, good character, but unfortunately not likely ever to set the Thames on fire with his classics. His father wants to send him to Pembroke. . . .” The Bishop cut me short. “Oh, I know whom you mean; young Illingworth. I know all about him; you need not be afraid that I shall let him slip; I hear he can row; I shall matriculate him whether he can spell or not.” (I wish we had had a few more Michisons at Alma Mater.)[4]

Charles Hunter Illingworth of Pembroke College, Oxford got his blue at No. 2 in the 1906 Boat Race, though Cambridge with Duggie Stuart won.


  1. ^ N. Wigglesworth, The Social History of English Rowing, p. 101.
  2. ^ The Pem, December 2, 1895.
  3. ^ The Pem, May 10, 1893.
  4. ^ W.B. Woodgate, Reminiscences of an Old Sportsman, pp. 131-32.