Douglas ‘Ducker’ McLean

Douglas McLean, pictured in Vanity Fair in 1895.
Douglas McLean, pictured in Vanity Fair in 1895.

19 August 2016

William O’Chee writes:

The late 19th century produced a growing class of the superrich, whose lifestyles would not be unfamiliar to appearing in today’s celebrity magazines. Some of the sons of this class naturally found their way into rowing, where they made their mark on the sport in its day.

Many of these men are largely forgotten today, but it is worth examining their place in the sport. One such athlete was an Australian, Douglas ‘Ducker’ McLean.

Douglas McLean was born in Sydney in 1863. His father, John McLean, was a member of the Legislative Assembly for the newly formed Colony of Queensland and in 1866 was the Colony Treasurer before a fall from a horse brought about his untimely demise.

John McLean had built a fortune from the acquisition of large pastoral estates in Northern New South Wales and Southern Queensland. The Colonial government was literally giving land away to encourage settlement, and McLean was more than happy to receive land allocations.

John McLean in 1866.
John McLean in 1866.

Building the new colony was expensive, however, and the colony was in financial crisis within five years of its founding in 1859. This led to the fall of two successive governments, and led to McLean’s eventual appointment as Treasurer in May 1866. He stabilised the colony’s finances and laid the foundations for its future growth.

Unfortunately, he died in a fall from a horse at Westbrook, where he had a rural estate, in 1866. At the time, Douglas was just three years of age, and his younger brother, Hector, just two.

The boys grew up in Queensland, and Douglas was sent to Eton College at the age of 14, where he learned to row. In 1882, he was in the winning crew of the Ladies Challenge Plate, and thereafter went up to New College at Oxford.

It should be remembered that by this stage McLean had been orphaned for 16 years, and that his family’s wealth derived not from anything in the United Kingdom, but was dependent on the thousands of acres of sheep grazing land they owned on the Queensland-New South Wales border.

Nonetheless, he was able to maintain a very comfortable lifestyle, and during his time at Oxford, made not infrequent trips between Australia, England and places in India.

His time at Oxford seems to have been filled largely with rowing and cricket, albeit the latter not being pursued at quite the same level as the former. Indeed in his first year, he made the Blue Boat, and would be a fixture in the crew for another four years. With five appearances in the Boat Race, he equalled the then Oxford record for the number of blues, which was held by the famous Tom Edwards-Moss (twice winner of the Diamonds, and also a winner of the Goblets with W.A. Ellison).

McLean also rowed with some famous names of the time. In his 1883 Blue Boat, McLean rowed in the five seat with none other than G.C. Bourne – who would go on to have an enormous influence on British rowing – occupying the bow seat. That crew won by 3½ lengths, although his 1884 Blue Boat lost to Cambridge by 2½ lengths.

The 1885 Boat Race saw Douglas McLean joined by his younger brother, Hector, who had also gone up to New College after completing his schooling at Eton. The race that year was not short on excitement. Cambridge, on the Middlesex station, got out to an early lead, but Oxford had pegged that back by the Mile Post. Stroked by the Old Etonian, Pitman, Cambridge tried to lift the rate to prevent Oxford getting a lead, but were hampered by the fact their two man had been brought in only a week before the race.

Oxford were leading the race by a length at Hammersmith Bridge, only for the boat to lurch badly and surrender their lead. P.W. Taylor, in the three seat of the Oxford crew, had slipped his shoulder out of joint, and disturbed the boat, but managed to put it back into place while the rest of the crew rowed on! Oxford again took the lead, and notwithstanding an excellent effort by Cambridge to sprint at 41 strokes per minute to overlap the Oxford crew at Mortlake brewery, Cambridge lost finally by 2½ lengths.

Two more Boat Races would follow for McLean, but his fifth and last was the most dramatic. Both crews were more than filled with stars. Cambridge included Fairbairn at five and Muttlebury at six. In the Oxford crew, the McLean brothers shared the boat with Claude Holland and Guy Nickalls in the bow pair, both making the first of many appearances.

Douglas McLean himself was a late inclusion in the crew. He had been in India and missed the early trials, but such was his reputation that he immediately found his way into the seven seat.

Oxford were the favourites, and although Cambridge, on the Surrey station, took an early lead and held onto it for the first 15 minutes, Oxford looked in no way flustered. Although three lengths down at Chiswick Steps, Oxford reduced the margin to a length at Barnes.

The Vanity Fair account of the race stated that:

Oxford knew that they would then have the bend in their favour, as well as comparative shelter from the wind; and they knew they had the advantages of weight and better condition. The last five minutes of the race must have been a grand spectacle, at any rate; and the Oxford Eight, ‘fresh as daisies,’ were rowing so well, with such uniform swing and time, that no oarsman could have thought them beaten.

At this point the Oxford stroke lifted the rate and the crew started to surge relative to their opponents. However, there was a sudden crack, and McLean’s oar broke in two and floated away.

Guy Nickalls picture in 1889, two years after the McLean’s fateful last Boat Race.
Guy Nickalls picture in 1889, two years after the McLean’s fateful last Boat Race.

Guy Nickalls later wrote a lively if somewhat frustrated account of event from the Oxford boat:

We were on Middlesex shore, and, out of the corner of my eye, I could see the Cambridge cox bobbing back to us at every stroke. Titherington began his spurt; back they came to us. I was opposite their stroke; we knew the race must be ours and Holland yelled: ‘Its all right, weve got ‘em!’ Then, ‘Ducker’ McLean broke his oar off short at the button. With the station in our favour and him out of the boat we could have won even then, but ‘Ducker’ funked the oncoming penny steamers and, instead of jumping overboard as he should have done, we had to lug his now useless body along, to lose the finish.

The eventual result would be a Cambridge win by by 2½ lengths.

Further tragedy struck the McLean family the next year when Hector died of typhoid. Douglas retired from active competition, but took up coaching. He acquired an estate in Somerset, but continued his close association with Australia. As a coach he oversaw five successful Oxford Boat Race crews before handing over to Rudie Lehmann. 

The Boer War saw McLean keen to participate, as did many of the other privileged young men, like Winston Churchill. In 1900, McLean joined the 69th Sussex Company Imperial Yeomanry as a lieutenant. He was given a captaincy later that year, but died in Johannesburg in February 1901.

Back in Australia, a memorial to Queensland men who served in the Boer War was finally erected in 1919. It is a bronze mounted light horseman, bearing the names of the fallen on bronze plaques on both sides. It stands in Brisbane’s ANZAC Square, at the other end of the park from the circular colonnade containing the eternal flame in honour of the fallen of the First World War.

McLean’s name is, however, missing from the Boer War monument. Nobody is quite sure why, since McLean was clearly a Queenslander by upbringing and repute. The most likely explanation is that with both brothers now dead, there was no family in Queensland when the memorial was put in place.

Eton College School Hall.
Eton College School Hall.

McLean’s name does appear in the memorial cloister of Eton College. Eton also erected the School Hall as a memorial to all its old boys who died in the Boer War.

It is sad, though, that Douglas McLean has no memorial in the land of his birth.

The Boer War Memorial in Brisbane, Queensland.
The Boer War Memorial in Brisbane, Queensland.

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