‘More like dying than doing’: Guy Nickalls and Henley 1895

Pic 1
Winners of the Stewards’ Challenge Cup, 1895. Left to right: Vivian Nickalls (3) H. Stout (2), A. Little (bow), Guy Nickalls (stroke).

Tim Koch writes:

Henley Royal Regatta had seen many great races in its long history (though it must be admitted that it has seen a greater number of mundane contests). In 1895, the Stewards’ Challenge Cup (coxless fours) produced a very memorable race, one that is commemorated by a splendid studio portrait of the crew from London Rowing Club who won the race and, eventually, the Cup. I only recently came across this photograph and was pleased to find that there was a good story behind it, giving me a good reason to reproduce it above.

For me, the picture works on several levels. First, it includes one of the greatest British oarsmen, Guy Nickalls, in his prime. When the photo was taken in 1895, he had fourteen Henley and three Wingfield Sculls victories. Still in the future, there were nine more HRR events and an Olympic Gold Medal to be won, the latter (at the age of 41) the culmination of a twenty-two year career at the top level of rowing.

Second, it shows a crew very much at ease with itself, their confidence shines through. At the start of a race you would not like to look over at the opposing boat and see these men ready to race against you.

Third, the clothes are splendid, confident and individual. There is none of the safe reliance on uniformity that we have today, an age where most people seem to have little confidence in their own ability to judge style and taste and instead submit to the vested interests of those who dictate fashion.

Two of the more lovable members of London Rowing Club.
Two of the more lovable members of London Rowing Club.

Finally, the picture shows two delightful little dogs, resplendent in London Rowing Club collars. It seemed to be a rule of Victorian rowing photography that a dog should be included in any crew shot – as evidenced by this Pinterest ‘board’ put up by the River and Rowing Museum.

In his autobiography, Life’s A Pudding (posthumously published in1939), Guy Nickalls recalls his part in the Henley of 1895 where he raced in three events, the Stewards’ (4-), the Goblets (-2) and the Diamonds (1x), winning all but the latter. He wrote, ‘…. I got all the rowing I wanted by the end of the Regatta, and a bit more’. Were this the only time in which Guy took part in the Royal, his achievements of 1895 would be remarkable enough, but it was only one of the eight Henleys in which he won two or more events.

The official account of the first round of the Stewards’, London R.C. against the Argonaut Boat Club of Toronto, said, ‘this was one of the finest races from start to finish ever rowed’. Nickall’s autobiography gave this description:

The race was a continual spurt at 36 – 38 all up the course. When they spurted they got four feet; we replied and got two feet ahead. We must have changed places six times before the mile with neither boat ever leading more than three or four feet. At the mile I made what I hoped was my last spurt, I was now rowing blind, and we got half a length up at the Isthmian enclosure [see map below, TK] but they came up with an astonishing rush and were half a length up at the grandstand. It was do or die, and I felt much more like dying than doing. I had one more go, and, magnificently backed by Vivian, we lifted the boat over the line, winners by two feet…

London Rowing Club, right, beating the Argonaut Boat Club of Toronto by two feet. Guy called it ‘...the hardest [race that] I had ever rowed to that date’.
London Rowing Club, right, beating the Argonaut Boat Club of Toronto by two feet. Guy called it ‘…the hardest [race that] I had ever rowed to that date’.
Map of the Henley Course, 1895.
Map of the Henley Course, 1895.

While Guy claims that he ‘never recovered properly from (the race) for two weeks’, the next morning his four came from behind to beat New College and, in the afternoon, his pair (with brother Vivian beat Walter Erskine Crum and Charles Murray Pitman, who had won that year’s Oxford University Pairs. In his history of the London Rowing Club, Water Boiling Aft (2006), Chris Dodd holds that ‘the Nickalls brothers were not pretty to look at but they had undeniable pace….’ Crum and Pitman were great oarsmen but perhaps they did not gel as a pair. Typically, the circumstances of the Nickalls’ win were spectacular:

Fifty yards below the top of the Island I steered into a pile, a fearful crack which split the boat. Luckily, we were rowing with swivels, and it didn’t take long to clear ourselves and get going again, but in the interlude, Pitman and Crum spurted and had taken several lengths off us. With a very leaky boat and a bent rowlock we started out to chase them. It looked hopeless, but by dint of great efforts and a high stroke, we caught them at the half-mile mark. We led at Fawley by half a length, getting slower and slower as the water rose over our heel traps. By superhuman efforts we had a length and a half at the mile, with the water over my insteps. The water continued to rise, and we were not clear of them when we passed over the line.

Not long after getting out of his sinking pair, Guy was in his single scull in a heat of the Diamonds. He won but was dismissive of his victory as he felt that his opposition ‘was no sculler, and let me win’.

The final of the Stewards’ was against ‘a very hot Thames R.C. four’:

(We) had a magnificent race, ding-dong the whole damned way over the course…. and won a fine race by a quarter of a length’s daylight.

In the Goblets final two hours later the Nickalls brothers met two other good oars, W. Broughton and S. D. Muttlebury where Guy recalls, ‘we had another good race…. two lengths to the good at the mile’. The trailing Thames pair twice collided with skiffs on the course but declined the Nickalls’ offer of a re-row because they felt the race had been lost before the incidents occurred.

A few hours later Guy took a cab down to the start for the final of the Diamond Sculls. Originally he had been drawn against Vivian but the younger brother refuse to race against his older sibling and withdrew.

I got a rub down from old Phelps, but it was no use, I was through, and Rupert Guinness, who had, as usual, confined his efforts to sculling, had in his trial heats two nice gentle pipe-openers and no race out of him that day. On level terms, old as I was, I knew I could beat him, but, with six races out of me and two gruellers on the same afternoon, the case was hopeless. I sculled, I think, the race of my life. We were virtually neck and neck all the way up the course, with Rupert always perhaps a few feet in advance…… I waggled over the line, half a length to the bad.

The winners of the 1895 Stewards’ thirty years later in 1925.
The winners of the 1895 Stewards’ thirty years later in 1925.

Between the ages of 19 and 40 Guy Nickalls won at fourteen Henley Royal Regattas. He achieved single medals in 1885, 1888, 1889, 1882, 1906 and 1907; two medals in 1890, 1891, 1893, 1894, 1895, 1897 and 1905; and three medals in 1896. He did not compete between 1898 and 1904 when he was busy attempting to improve his always precarious finances. He lost only thirteen out of eighty-one races at Henley and he claimed that he had never been beaten ‘…by either a colonial or a foreigner….’ On his rowing career Guy wrote that:

I do not wish for a moment to take any credit to myself. . . . Nature has endowed me with a fairly strong body, a constitution of iron, and a will power or stubbornness above the average. These I have tried my best not to abuse, and any man so built and constituted, given my opportunities, could no doubt have done the same.

Guy and his lifelong friend, Lord Ampthill (plus dog). They won the Goblets together in 1890 and 1891. They died within a day of each other in July 1935, Ampthill of pneumonia and Nickalls in a car accident. Picture: Wikipedia.
Guy and his lifelong friend, Lord Ampthill (plus dog). They won the Goblets together in 1890 and 1891. They died within a day of each other in July 1935, Ampthill of pneumonia and Nickalls in a car accident. Picture: Wikipedia.

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