Remembering Guinness on St Patrick’s Day

Detail from ’Rupert’ by the artist ‘Spy’, published in Vanity Fair Magazine, 9 November 1905.

18 March 2017

Yesterday, on St Patrick’s Day, Tim Koch raised a glass of stout to a great man:

When Vanity Fair magazine published the above picture as part of their long-running ‘Men of the Day’ series, it was their custom to include a short and quirky biography, written in their own peculiar style. The one for Rupert Guinness (later 2nd Earl of Inveigh) read:

Rupert Edward Cecil Lee Guinness, the heir to Viscount Iveagh and appropriate millions, is a plump, square, well-complexioned young man, who looks out upon a friendly world with a shrewd good nature.

At Eton he set himself to the oar with the best will in the world. He won the School Sculling in ‘92, and rowed in the fine Eton eight which won the Ladies’ Plate at Henley in ‘93. He looked sweet in his blue coat, as was then universally admitted. Arriving in due course at Cambridge, he was welcomed by Third Trinity (Boat Club) as a valuable rowing asset. He won the Diamonds at Henley in ‘95 and the Diamonds and Wingfield Sculls in ‘96. But he had the bad luck to develop a weakness of heart, which kept him from his place in the Cambridge eight. 

Since his University days he has served in (the Boer War) with the Irish hospital, and become a politician, a Director of the London and North-Western (Railway), a member of the (London County Council), and the commander of the London Division of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, whose saucy fleet lies proudly at anchor off Blackfriars Bridge. He is (standing as a Member of Parliament for) Haggerston, and his supporters in that constituency are confident of his success, as is ever the custom of their kind.

He used to hunt before he motored. He is quite a good shot. He is a strong Tariff Reformer. His popularity in Haggerston is not diminished by his generosity and the interest he takes in the Workmen’s Rowing Club on the Lee. He is not a great orator, but has a breezy, direct style of speaking which scores his points and tells on political platforms. He is a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron, but is rarely ill at sea. He has a taste for old furniture, and has of late been adorning his new house in St. James’s Square. He is most fortunately and happily married. He never gambles; but he has had adventures.

A famous picture of a dinner that Guinness held in his St James’s Square house in 1930 to mark the centenary of the Wingfield Sculls. Fourteen past winners attended. The man who was by then the Earl of Iveagh is seated in the centre.

As is the nature of such things, the Vanity Fair biography was a positive and upbeat summery of Guinness’s career up to 1905. While it was true that he had a privileged start in life, born in 1874 into the fantastically wealthy Guinness brewing family, he was dyslexic in an age when people with such a condition were labeled as lazy or stupid. His cold and unloving parents certainly dismissed him as such and soon disposed of him to the brutalities of the English boarding school system where he sat firmly at the bottom of the class. Chris Dodd, writing in Regatta magazine in 1995:

At (Eton), where the headmaster valued character building and its attendant fierce competitiveness, muscular Christianity, ritual, discipline and physical hardship while trying to cope with a classical education when you suffered from what is now recognised as dyslexia, what else was a boy to do but indulge in mindless pursuits such as rowing? 

The fact that the headmaster of Eton in Guinness’s time was the great rowing coach, Edmond Warre, made even more likely the boy’s devotion to aquatics, the one thing that he could do well in the eyes of the world. His Times obituary stated:

He was said to be one of the strongest boys who ever went to Eton, and (his later professional trainer, Bill East) declared that he had ‘legs like a tree’.

In his autobiography, Life’s A Pudding (1939), Guy Nickalls wrote:

Rupert Guinness, although not what any one would term a born sculler, confined himself to sculling and obtained useful proficiency by dint of long and careful practice with East.

Bill East had a stronger opinion of his client’s natural talent and said that he was convinced that, had Guinness not been an amateur, he could have won the world’s professional sculling championship.

In a short but brilliant rowing career, Rupert Guinness won the Eton Sculls in 1892; Henley’s ‘Ladies’ Plate’ for student eights with Eton in 1893; Henley’s Diamond Sculls and the Metropolitan’s London Cup in 1895; the Diamonds and the Wingfields (the English Amateur Championship), in 1896.

Guinness joined Thames Rowing Club in order to have a London base from which he could train under Bill East, though he competed at Henley in Leander colours.

When in 1895, Guinness first won the Diamonds, some were dismissive of the achievement as he had narrowly beaten legendary five-times Diamonds winner Guy Nickalls in the final only after Nickalls had already won the Stewards’ and the Goblets on the same day, both in close races. Guinness had probably not helped himself by eating a whole chicken ‘for stamina’ just before the final but he could do nothing about Nickalls’s overcommitment. Further, the future Earl was clearly on top form that year. Before Henley, he had won the prestigious senior sculling event at the Metropolitan Regatta, The London Cup, where he had beaten Guy and Vivian Nickalls, E.A. Thompson of Toronto, and the great Harry Blackstaffe in a five boat final.

Despite a lack of academic achievement but probably helped by the fact that he was a fine Etonian oarsman and the son of an Earl, Guinness went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1895. He lasted only a year, mostly spent coaching, but by the end had been advised to give up rowing because of ‘an enlarged heart’ and so never took part in the University Boat Race.

Guinness’s boat (below), built by JH Clasper in Putney in 1894, compared with a Ray Sims boat of 1994 (above). The then World Lightweight Champion, Peter Haining, sculled the older craft over the Henley course in 1995, the centenary year of Guinness’s first Diamonds win. It was five feet longer than the modern plastic shell, but only four-and-a-half pounds heavier.

After coming down from Cambridge and having finished with sculling and rowing, Rupert Guinness could have easily led an idle and unproductive life. He was financially secure, destined to inherit a sum that would make him one of the richest men in the country. His record in rowing would have meant that he was held in high esteem by those many Britons who were more impressed by sporting than by scholarly achievements. He could easily have felt that he had nothing more to prove and so spent his time in pursuit of pleasure, while avoiding anything that his word blindness made difficult. However, his biographer, Piers Brendon, holds that ‘it was dyslexia which most affected his world view’ and in fact the rest of his long life was remarkably active and useful.

Rupert and Gwendolen Guinness, Earl and Countess of Iveagh.

After his retirement from active rowing and sculling, Guinness kept up his involvement in the sport. Notably, he was President of Thames Rowing Club for a remarkable 56 years, from 1911 until his death in 1967, and was President of the National Amateur Rowing Association (which did not have a manual labour bar on amateurs) until it was dissolved in 1956.

In public life, Rupert Guinness ably served as a member of London County Council and was an MP until he inherited his title on the death of his father in 1927. As a philanthropist, Guinness made large donations from his personal fortune to good causes, particularly hospitals. He had long been in charge of the Guinness Trust, formed by his father to build decent homes for working people.

The boy labeled as stupid at school grew up to take a great interest in medical science and scientific research and he was an early backer of Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of the ‘wonder drug’, penicillin. He had earlier persuaded his father to endow the Lister Institute of Preventative Medicine. In recognition of his many efforts, he was made Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin and of the University of Reading and a fellow of the Royal Society.

It was surely no coincidence that many of the famously innovative Guinness advertisements had a rowing theme during Rupert’s time in charge?

Guinness combined his interest in medical science and experimental farming when he pioneered the eradication of Tuberculosis in cattle on his dairy farm and encouraged research into Bovine TB. His Times obituary said that ‘Experiments on his 23,000 acre estate in Suffolk helped to revolutionise British agricultural methods’ and that it became ‘the largest and most progressive mixed farm in the country’.

Perhaps it could be said that the Rupert Guinness, 2nd Earl of Iveagh, led a life that was dedicated to proving  that ‘Guinness is good for you’. Sláinte!

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