The Rowing Flemings – Part I: In His Majesty’s Service

The author Ian Fleming, who did not row at Eton.

7 June 2017

Göran R Buckhorn writes:

Looking back at the articles published on HTBS in May, there is an unsuspected pattern of James Bond-related material. It started out on 5 May when I wrote that the automobile maker Aston Martin – the car 007 drives in many of the Bond films – has gone into partnership with Henley Royal Regatta. Then on 23 May, our comrade Grigori Denikin of the famous Soviet/Russian website ‘Hear The Boat Sink’ (HTBSk) wrote an article – actually a spoof article on spook 008+ written by Greg Denieffe – about Soviet rowing movies and posters (no fake news in this article!). Next, on 24 May, HTBS reported that Sir Roger Moore, who played a charming James Bond in seven films, had sadly passed away the previous day.

Ian Fleming’s image of James Bond.

There could have been another mentioning of James Bond in an article by Tim Koch, but that was omitted (as 007 really had nothing to do with what Tim wrote). In Tim’s first article about the famous American rowing father and son, Jack and ‘Kell’ Kelly, and the amazingly beautiful Grace Kelly, on 15 May, Tim quotes Grace saying about her brother: ‘He lived the first part of his life thinking he was Dad,…’ and then the quote actually continues, ‘and the second part of his life trying to be like James Bond.’ And just for the record, the Kellys’ rowing club in Philadelphia, Vesper Boat Club, has nothing to do with the cocktail Bond drinks in the books and films.

There is no rowing in the James Bond novels or films, that I can remember, although one could suspect that the fictional Bond had to do some rowing when he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1941, ending up as Commander, before he became an agent for the Secret Service.

A young Ian.

Bond, like his literary creator, Ian Fleming, went to the prestigious Eton College, but the fictional agent-to-be was sent down after two halves because of some ‘girl trouble with a maid’. Young Ian was a rebel and compared to his father and older brother, Peter – both showing excellent attainment at Eton – Ian was an academic underachiever, though he managed not be thrown out of school. Ian was excellent at sports, though, becoming a star at Eton in long jump, running, cricket and steeplechase. Looking back at Ian’s ancestry it is however odd that he did not become a wetbob at Eton.

Ian, long jump at Eton.

Ian’s grandfather, Robert Fleming, of Scottish stock, was well off after having started the merchant bank Robert Fleming & Co. in 1845. In the tradition of a gentleman, he sent his two sons to Eton. The oldest, Valentine ‘Val’ (Ian’s father), was born in 1882 and the youngest, Philip, was born in 1889 – born in between the Fleming brothers were two sisters, Dorothy (born 1885) and Kathleen (born 1887). In the Procession of Boats at the Fourth of June celebrations at Eton in 1898, Val rowed in St. George, one of the so-called ‘Lower Boats’, manned by the younger boys at the school. He also raced in the House Fours and in Junior Pulling. The following year, Val had advanced to an ‘Upper Boat’, Prince of Wales, and in House Fours he was racing in the boat that came second. In the 1900 Procession of Boats, Val rowed in Hibernia (‘Lower Boat’) and in the Trial Eights and School Sculling, according to The Eton Boating Book (1933).

In 1900, Val also rowed in the Eton colours at Henley Royal Regatta. Val, in the fifth seat, raced in the Ladies’ Challenge Plate first against Trinity College, Cambridge, a race which Eton won by a length. Going to the final, the Eton crew met New College, Oxford, which proved too hard to beat. Three years later, now racing for Magdalen College, Oxford, under the watchful eyes of the legendary coach Harcourt ‘Tarka’ Gold, Val and his crew mates easily overpowered Jesus College, Oxford, in their first heat in the Ladies’. In their second heat, they raced against Trinity College, Dublin, a hard race, but at the end the Magdalen crew beat the Irish. Now in the final, Magdalen beat Eton, taking the Ladies’ Challenge Plate for the first and only time up to date. This was the first time Magdalen won an eight race at Henley. This period came to be remembered as the Golden Era for the college boat club. Val was the Captain of the Boats at Magdalen for the year 1903/04.

Among other regattas Val raced in was the one in the village of Sonning, which for many years had been headed by George Alfred Sainte Croix Rose, a Berkshire Justice of the Peace. One of George Rose’s daughters, Evelyn ‘Eve’ Beatrice St. Croix Rose, was known for her flamboyant beauty; she was also, it was said, ‘frivolous, snobbish and vain’. From Eton and Oxford, Val knew Eve’s brother Harcourt, who can best be described as a total rake. According to the Fleming family legend, Val and Eve fell in love at an Oxford ball. But they had probably already met at the Sonning Regatta, and, as Andrew Lycett writes in his biography Ian Fleming (1995): ‘One can imagine that Eve first saw her future husband rowing in her father’s regatta and was attracted by his physique and sporting prowess.’

Val and Eve married in 1906, a year after Val left Magdalen. Val started working at his father’s bank, but he also joined the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars. A couple of years later, Val began showing interest in politics, so much that he was elected a conservative Member of Parliament (MP) for Henley in 1910. He befriended Winston Churchill, a fellow officer in the Oxfordshire Hussars and an MP for the Liberal Party. Six years earlier, Churchill had ‘crossed the floor’ from the Tories to the liberals. In 1924, he would re-join the conservatives.

Major Valentin ‘Val’ Fleming.

At the outbreak of the Great War, Captain Val Fleming was sent to France with the British Expeditionary Force together with Winston Churchill’s brother, Jack, who also belonged to the Hussars. In May 1917, Val Fleming, now a Major, was killed in action in France. Winston Churchill praised him in The Times as a man with a ‘loveable and charming personality’. Val’s death came as a big blow to the Fleming family: Eve, now a widow at age 32, and her four sons, Peter, age 10, Ian, age 9, Richard, age 6, and Michael, who was only 4. Val’s will was a disappointment for Eve. He left her their home, Pitt House, and most of his effects, but the bulk of the estate, valued to £265,000, went to a trust fund for their four boys. Eve would get an income every year, but if she decided to remarry the stipend would be lowered to £3,000 a year, which was not an unsubstantial sum at this time, but not enough for a spender like Eve. The young widow thought it was ‘a bad will’. Though still a beauty and never without suitors, Eve never married again.

Eve Fleming, painted by Augustus John in 1922.

Five years after Val’s death, Eve sold Pitt House and moved to Cheyne Walk in Chelsea by the Thames. Close by lived the celebrated artist Augustus John. Eve became smitten by the seven-year-older John and was ready to lower her stipend to marry the artist but he was already married and had no intention to leave his wife, who allowed him his philanderer’s life. Or as Lycett puts it, ‘well-heeled society ladies […] sought his favours as portraitist and stud’. In 1925, Eve joyfully accompanied John on a painting trip to Germany, though he was not so keen to have her come along. The trip had one positive outcome for the 40-year-old Eve; coming home to England after the trip, Eve was pregnant but told no one. Later in the summer, she went on a long cruise. When Eve came home to Chelsea in December, she was carrying a baby girl in her arms telling everyone that she had adopted the girl abroad. Eve gave the girl the name Amaryllis, who would grow up to become a renowned cellist. First when Amaryllis was in her 20s, she was told who her father and her mother was – and not by Eve, but one of Eve’s friends. 

Eve Fleming with a painting of Amaryllis by Augustus John.
The adventurer, travel writer and journalist Peter Fleming, Ian’s brother.

In 1926, as Ian was still struggling with his studies at Eton, his mother decided that while his older brother Peter would follow in their father’s footsteps at Oxford – Peter went to Christ Church College, became a renowned travel writer, journalist on The Times and literary editor at The Spectator – Ian would go in Val’s footsteps in the Army. Eve, who was well connected, pulled some strings at Buckingham Palace – her mother-in-law, Katie Fleming, was a very good friend of Queen Mary – and Ian was promised a good commission to the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and got an introduction to the entrance examination at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, the infantry and cavalry training school. Ian was placed in Eton’s army class division and was later sent to a special tutorial college, a crammer at Newport Pagnell in Buckinghamshire run by Colonel William Trevor to prepare him for the exam into Sandhurst. Remarkably and to everyone’s surprise, Ian placed eleventh out of 120 candidates – it had taken his father’s friend Winston Churchill three attempts to pass the examination at Sandhurst. Colonel Trevor wrote to Eve that Ian ‘ought to make an excellent Soldier’ but could not help adding, ‘provided always that the Ladies don’t ruin him.’ Of course, that was exactly what happened. A year later, in September 1927, Ian resigned from Sandhurst after having ‘contracted a dose of gonorrhea.’

His mother was furious; he had let down his father’s memory, Sandhurst and her. Eve then decided Ian should become a diplomat. She pulled some more strings and Ian received an invitation to write a Foreign Office Examination. He did fairly well, ending up on 25th place out of 62, but only the top three were offered a job. But Eve did not give up. Next, she had Ian to write a letter to the head of Reuters, Sir Roderick Jones, who was married to a friend of Eve’s, to ask for a position at the news agency. Ian got an interview and was hired in October 1931. Although, Ian did a fine job at Reuters, he did not make a lot of money. Persuaded by his mother and his mistress, Maud Russell, who was 17 years older than the 23-year-old Ian, he quit his job as a journalist and took a job at a bank.

It did not take long for Ian to figure out that he was not cut out for banking – a realisation his older brother Peter himself had done earlier. In 1935, Ian took a job at the stockbroking firm Rowe & Pitman. As a matter of fact, there is a rowing link here as the founders of the firm, George D. Rowe and Frederick I. Pitman, once were famous oarsmen. Rowe rowed for Oxford in The Boat Race in 1879 and 1880 and Pitman for Cambridge in three Boat Races in 1884, 1885 and 1886. Pitman also won the Diamonds at Henley and the Wingfields, both in 1886 (see Andrew Lycett’s From Diamond Sculls to Golden Handcuffs: A History of Rowe & Pitman; 1998). Ian’s mentor at Rowe & Pitman was Frederick Archibald Hugo Pitman, who, according to Lycett, was a nephew of Fred I. Pitman. (Other sources say he was Fred I. Pitman’s son. It is very complicated to keep all the Etonian rowing Pitmans straight. In one particular boat race at Eton, the winning eight had a crew of eight Pitmans!) Hugo Pitman not only rowed at Eton, he was also an Oxford winning Blue in 1912 and an Olympic silver medallist in Stockholm in the New College eight that year. He was a painter and art collector, who was a friend of Augustus John and probably also knew Ian’s mother. Pitman’s wife, Reine, was the niece of the painter John Sargent.

Whatever made Ian think that he would be a better stockbroker than a banker is not clear. He was brilliant at the social gatherings, client lunches and cocktail parties, but when it came to the business side, Ian was ‘among the world’s worst stockbrokers,’ one of his friends at Rowe & Pitman remarked. Working in the City was not for him. However, Rowe & Pitman was an interesting company, which had connections to British intelligence services. Soon Ian did some freelance snooping jobs when he went to Nazi Germany on business. He also wrote some articles for The Times.

Rear Admiral John Godfrey.

In May 1939, Ian was invited for lunch at Carlton Grill by Admiral John Godfrey, who only a few months earlier had been appointed Director of Naval Intelligence. Godfrey needed a personal assistant and he had been recommended by an old friend, Admiral Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall, to pick an old Etonian stockbroker because that is what Admiral Hall had done during the First World War when he was the Director of Naval Intelligence between 1914 and 1919. Admiral Godfrey had checked Ian’s background: Eton, Sandhurst, the City – he would be the perfect man for the job! It started out as a part-time job, but soon Ian was working full-time and appointed lieutenant of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve and was wearing a uniform with two golden stripes. His mother, Eve, was very pleased; at last Ian had followed in his father Val’s footsteps into the armed services. The Second World War was only a few months away.

Commander Fleming in Room 39.

In September, Ian got his third stripe: Lieutenant Commander. Admiral Godfrey was delighted with his choice. Finally, at age of 31, Ian had found his right place in life. In fact, Ian proved to be a brilliant liaison officer between Naval Intelligence and the outside world. Room 39, described as the ‘bridge of Godfrey’s ship’, was where men and women handled reports, signals and other secret material, which came in to the Admiralty.

Ian was not always cooked-up in Room 39, he did go on operations around the world during the war, giving him a taste of how it was to be in the field.

To be continued on Friday, 9 June.

One comment

  1. One interesting point about Fleming’s time at Eton is that a contemporary was Thomas Blofeld, whose son Henry is a well-known cricket commentator. Given that Fleming gave the surname Blofeld to his most famous villain, I imagine the two did not get on very well!

    (He was in the habit of naming villains after people he disliked- Goldfinger was named after the architect Erno Goldfinger following a disagreement about the demolition of some cottages).

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