The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Smith WFD

Smith, William Frederick Danvers (Viscount Hambleden)Edit

“Head of the greatest publishing house in Christendom” (Spy), December 8, 1904Edit

Many years ago, when newspapers were few, when advertisements were taxed, and when the telegraph carried no daily tale of diplomacy or horror from the outside world, a newsman set up in business in Duke Street, off Grosvenor Square. His name was Smith. The little shop grew and prospered so fast that a branch office was opened in the Strand. Also he married; and from that union was born a Cabinet Minister.

He was not always a Cabinet Minister, though he was never a newsboy, as his enemies loved to have it. But he grew in stature, wealth and wisdom until he became a very John Bull in person, with an organising imagination such as was even rarer in those days than now. He obtained control of the railway bookstalls. He learnt the tastes of the counties -- that Yorkshire does not buy poetry nor Manchester expensive books. As education increased subscribers so did his business swell. Lending libraries, railway advertising contracts -- in such new branches did he expand himself. Finally he died, leaving something over two millions and the name of a shrewd and honest politician who had deserved well of his country. His widow was granted the title of Viscountess Hambleden.

He left one son, the Honourable William Frederick Danvers Smith, who inherited much of his father’s wealth, and is heir to his mother’s title. Freddie Smith was a pleasant-mannered Etonian, who found a place in his school eight, but was not allowed by the Oxford doctors to win the blue that would have otherwise been his. However, he rowed at Henley for Leander in 1888, when D.H. McLean was captain, and Muttlebury was another member of the crew. Through an effort to row about fifty to the minute they were beaten by Thames. He also stroked the New College boat in 1889 when they hunted B.N.C. for the Headship of the river.

He learnt the details of his business, but since he became a Member of Parliament has practically given up any active participation therein. But the work is in good hands.

The masses of high-piled literature on every bookstall at this festive season brings home the realisation that the firm of which he is titular head is, without doubt, the greatest publishing house in Christendom. It stands between the British public and the British Press like a conduit, silently and evenly supplying its rivers of information. In spite of all temptations and some abuse, it has held to cleanliness in print and picture, with one exception in a licensed jester that blushes to hear itself named.

Freddie Smith hunts a little and shoots a great deal. He married a daughter of the Earl of Arran. Lady Esther is a wise and charming hostess. Her week-end parties at Greenlands by Henley, and her dinners, whether political or purely social, in London have a pleasant reputation.

Freddie is a quiet fellow, with a pleasant manner and a kind heart. His conduct has never given gossip or criticism a chance.

“The paper duty is gone. For the full results of its removal men must wait until we of the nineteenth century are no more,” Gladstone wrote in 1861 on the repeal of the last of the “taxes on knowledge,” a measure sponsored by T.G. Bowles’ father, Milner Gibson.[1] Wentworth Dilke, grandfather of the eponymous rower of Vanity Fair and proprietor of the Atheneum literary magazine, had also opposed the paper duty and by helping end it fostered the expansion of the popular press. This proved a mixed blessing for his grandson, who used it to propogate his political views in the 1870s and early 1880s but was pilloried in print during and after the 1885-86 Crawford divorce case. But another rower of Vanity Fair, William Frederick Danvers Smith (1868-1928), could view the removal of the paper duty as having perhaps secured his future, for his grandfather and father, William and William Henry Smith, who had previously had the foresight and good luck to obtain long-term contracts for bookselling and advertising at a large number of railway stations, created a publishing empire that funded his entrée to Eton and Oxford.

At school and university, Freddie went went winless in four Henley appearances: with Guy Nickalls and Lord Ampthill for Eton in the 1886 Ladies’, for Leander in the 1888 Grand (as Vanity Fair noted), and for New College in the Grand in 1889 and 1890. But on leaving Oxford with a third class in modern history, Smith became a popular host to generations of university oarsmen at Greenlands, his expansive home just below the start of the Henley course. His 1890 coming of age party set the tone. “I never kept a game book nor jotted down anything in the nature of a shooting diary,” Nickalls recalled, “but our five days must have accounted for 2,000 pheasants and a number of partridges and hares. All very pleasant.”[2]

In 1891 Smith inherited from his father not only Greenlands but also the family firm and a Conservative seat in the House of Commons, although the latter required ratification by the electorate at the October general election. Smith kept his seat until resigning in 1910, and joined the Lords in 1913 when his mother died and he became Viscount Hambleden. In neither place “did he make much figure as a politician,”[3] unlike his father who held cabinet posts in the Disraeli and Salisbury governments. But like his father, the younger Smith was a lifelong churchman and philanthropist, especially benefitting various London hospitals. During the 1914-18 war, Smith served in Gallipoli and Egypt as Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal First Devon Yeomanry. Vanity Fair featured him a year before his company lost two key contracts for railway bookstalls, which precipitated in 1906 the launching of 200 new bookstores, the predecessors of today’s ubiquitous WHSmith shops.

Problems in PairsEdit

En route to winning the 1888 University Pairs, Nickalls and Smith had a hiccough in training. “Three days before the trial heat Freddie and I were rowing a course, and at the finish got too far over towards the Oxford bank,” Nickalls wrote. “Fred’s oar caught a boat and it lifted him clean overboard. We stopped dead. I looked round to see what damage had been done, and saw Fred swimming towards the Brasenose raft, and I got ashore on the Varsity raft without upsetting.”[4] R.H. Forster celebrated such problems in pairs in this 1893 verse:

Stroke --

Why did I row in a pair?
Why wasn’t I sooner beheaded?
Why is Bow’s oar in the air,
While mine in the mud is embedded?
Why is his language so rank?
Bargees might hear it and quiver.
Why must he make for the bank?
Why can’t he stick to the river?

Bow --

Difficult ‘tis to discern
Why o’er the stretcher Stroke lingers.
Why does he bury the stern,
And bark on the gunwale my fingers?
Why made that coach such a row? --
His cox at the game isn’t handy:
Why am I now at the “Plough,”
Drinking hot water and brandy?

The Impartial Observer --

Here’s an infallible tip
For all who would go a-light-pairing:--
Smartness and watermanship
Move a boat faster than swearing.
Whether at stroke or at bow,
Drop all that snapping and sneering;
And don’t think your mate such a cow,
Because you mismanage the steering.^


  1. ^ W.E. Gladstone, quoted in T.H.S. Escott, Masters of English Journalism: A Study of Personal Forces, p. 266; B. Denvir, “The Loaded Image,” Art & Artists (Sept. 1976), pp. 36-37.
  2. ^ G. Nickalls, Life’s a Pudding, pp. 217-18.
  3. ^ Dictionary of National Biography.
  4. ^ G. Nickalls, pp. 67-68.
  5. ^ R.H. Forster, “Camus et Camenae,” The Eagle, December 1893.