Historians, Poets and Painters: All in the same boat?

The tail-piece from “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” published in London in 1753. The engraving was one of several made by Richard Bentley for a collection of six poems by Thomas Gray. The volume says that the picture is of “Two boys drest in watermen’s cloaths, rowing another. A view of Eton college at a distance”. Picture reproduced by the kind permission of the Provost and Fellows of Eton College.

27 November 2017

Tim Koch gets historical.

Oscar Wilde famously observed that ‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple’. This is certainly the case in the study of history. Nowadays, the introductory teaching of the subject in British schools seems to involve random extracts from social history with no attempt at a historical timeline. Conversely, those of us of a certain age will remember that, when we were first taught history, we were given the idea that the subject consisted of a collection of indisputable facts which followed one after the other in neat chronological order. In the British case, these would include such things as date of the Norman Invasion, the names of the wives of Henry VIII, and, best of all for a schoolboy, the dictates of The Diet of Worms or the causes of the War of Jenkins’ Ear.

However, further education revealed that the study of history is not so much about memorising the dates of Kings and Queens or battles and treaties, but is actually more about forming theories, some based on evidence (interpretation) and some not (speculation). However, in an effort to turn questionable ‘speculation’ into the more respectable ‘interpretation’, the danger is that the historian only looks for, or only sees, the evidence that will support their original theory, the one that he or she would like to be proved ‘true’ for whatever reason – personal, political or egotistical. The late Peter Novick, Professor of History at the University of Chicago, went so far as to argue that:

 historians make no greater (but also no lesser) truth claims than poets or painters. 

I recently found Novick’s quote particularly relevant as I pondered on whether a piece of art, the Bentley engraving of 1753 reproduced above, was evidence concerning the origins of rowing at Eton School (properly, Eton College), a place widely accepted as the birthplace of amateur rowing (though a claim recently but contentiously questioned by rowing historian, William O’Chee).

Eton School races Westminster School in 1836. By this time, rowing as a sport was firmly established at Eton, though it was not yet recognised by the school authorities.

Eton’s own website summarises the commonly accepted history of rowing at the school:

Rowing seems to have become a recreation for Etonians in the final years of the 18th century. The Eton authorities considered it a dangerous activity, however, since the Thames was much used by commercial traffic … and they did their best to discourage the boys. Eton nevertheless challenged Westminster to a race in 1818, but it was not until 1829 that the first race between the two schools actually took place… Rowing was not formally recognised by the school authorities until 1840, and not actively encouraged until about 1860.

In investigating the origins of Eton rowing, many fix on a boy’s letter of 1793, quoted in Byrne and Churchill’s The Eton Book of the River (1952), which mentions the Procession of Boats:

On Tuesday, the King’s birthday, there went up six boats, all with flags to them… all different from each other. All the boys that pulled in them had caps with feathers in them….

Three or four years later, the same boy wrote, ‘There are four eight-oared boats, and two sixes, this year…’

The Procession of Boats in 1870.
The destination for the Procession of Boats was for many years, supper at Surley Hall, three miles from Eton. This is the scene there in 1852.

However, in the words of rowing historian Peter Mallory, we should not assume that ‘the 1793 Procession of Boats appeared suddenly and fully formed like Venus on the Half Shell’. The aquatic procession that celebrated George III’s 55th birthday does not mean that rowing as a pastime started on 4 June 1793 and that no boys were boating days, weeks, years, or even decades before.

Byrne and Churchill are vague on dates. At one point they reference the last 50 years of the 1700s:

until the last half of the eighteenth century, the silence about rowing (at Eton) is so complete as to make it practically certain that hardly any existed.

Inconsistently, Byrne and Churchill later say that ‘no trace of rowing at Eton has been found earlier than (the last quarter of the eighteenth century)’. They actually provide evidence for this period when they quote a 1773 newspaper report:

on Thursday last, a young Gentleman at (Eton)… hired a boat to row upon the Thames, and by some mischance fell overboard, and not able to swim, and being alone, was unfortunately drowned.

While evidence such as one tragic boy rowing for pleasure in 1773 is interesting, alone it is not proof of the existence of boating as common or regular sport or activity among Eton pupils at that time.

To further muddy the waters, it should also be considered whether a lack of written accounts (‘the silence about rowing’) actually means that boating for pleasure did not exist. Though not writing specifically about Eton, rowing historian Tom Weil has noted:

There are accounts… of both amateur and professional boat-races occurring over the decades before 1813… The big question is whether such events were considered so newsworthy that all of them were documented, in which case the paucity of accounts would suggest that these were one-off contests not representative of a trend, or whether such events were viewed as so banal and unworthy of note – especially in days when the availability and use of boats was ubiquitous – that no one bothered to keep track of them.

It is not my intention here to try and establish when rowing did start at Eton, and I am aware that I have provided questions but not answers. As they say at the end of statements in exam questions, ‘Discuss’.

Despite (or perhaps because of) all of the above, it was with excitement that I came across the Bentley engraving; undoubtedly it shows three young men in a boat propelled by oars near the school in 1753. Was this evidence that Eton boys were rowing 40 years before George III’s birthday in 1793?

Detail from the engraving by Richard Bentley made to illustrate Thomas Gray’s poem “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College”. The online exhibitions of King’s College London Archives & Special Collections website says that ‘This work made a significant mark in the history of book illustration and has been lauded as the finest English illustrated book of the 18th century’.

In 1742, Old Etonian Thomas Gray (1716–1771) wrote “An Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College”. The poem splits into two even parts, with the first half concentrating on the past and the present, with the boys at school devoting all their energies to play and to study and not thinking of the future. In a recent piece on Eton’s 2017 Procession of Boats, I suggested that the poem included a very early reference to boat racing (‘Margent’ is an edge or bank):

Say, Father Thames, for thou hast seen
Full many a sprightly Race
Disporting on thy Margent green
The Paths of Pleasure trace…

However, William O’Chee informed me that the ‘sprightly races’ actually refer to swimming contests. Like many others, he holds that ‘boating came late to Eton, having been preceded as a pastime by swimming’. The frontispiece for “An Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” supports this idea.

Richard Bentley’s frontispiece for Gray’s “Eton Ode”, a product of more innocent times, shows Old Father Thames watching the boys swimming and playing – but not rowing.

The Eton Book of the River:

that swimming was a common pastime at a much earlier date (than rowing) is abundantly proved. The death of Robert Sacheverell (an Eton boy who drowned in 1549 at ‘le watring-place’) has already been mentioned… In the Nugae (circa 1765) seven bathing places are mentioned…

Of particular relevance to a study of the Bentley engraving, the Eton Book records that ‘The Harcourt Collection contains a newspaper cutting of 1773 which says that the school authorities employed watermen to look after the boys bathing’. This is in the report of the drowned boy quoted above. It said that unfortunate Etonian ‘…. (abused) the indulgence given to all the young Gentlemen, of bathing in a safe part of the River, where they are properly attended by boats and men, to prevent accidents…’ Thus, watermen in their boats were employed to act as lifeguards while the boys swam and, sadly, I am inclined to conclude that the Bentley picture shows not rowing, but another leisure activity – swimming – in progress.

Geoffrey ‘Jethro’ Dobson (1826–1893), an Eton waterman and swimming instructor who served the school for 43 years.
‘Athens’, one of Eton’s former bathing spots, is still marked today.
I am not sure how a part of the river or the river bank could be presented to the school, but this stone suggests that it was.

It seems quite possible that, when in 1753 Bentley was commissioned to make the engravings for Gray’s book of poetry, he travelled to Eton to make preliminary sketches and came across a one-off incident with the three boys in a boat, something that he then proceeded to capture forever, a pre-photography ‘snapshot in time’. I think it most likely that the engraving shows Eton boys swimming from a boat belonging to a waterman, who was employed to look after them while they bathed. Where is this waterman? He has presumably temporarily deserted his post and his coat for a reason (good or bad), which we will never know. Typically for boys, they have taken advantage of his absence to ‘mess about’ in his boat, putting on his jacket with its waterman’s badge, and also his large hat (as worn by the Queen’s Watermen today), and inexpertly plying the oars. The fact that they are naked very strongly suggests that swimming was their aim, bathing au naturel being the most normal way of enjoying the waters at the time. I could not imagine that naked rowing was ever popular (except late on the Saturday nights of the Peterborough Summer Regattas of the 1990s).

Thomas Rowlandson’s print of 1815 seems to suggest that even very public bathing was done naked at the time.
The School Bathing Regulations displayed at Athens today indicate that swimming costumes were still optional, even in 1921.

The Bentley engraving is an example of the sad fact that the historian should consider that the prosaic and mundane explanation is more likely to be nearer to ‘the truth’ than is the romantic or exciting one – however much they would like the more sensational theory to be accepted. Only poets and painters can opt for the dramatic with impunity.

One comment

  1. My compliments to Tim on an excellent article. His consideration of the regulations surrounding bathing in Eton puts the engraving into context. It explains the boys’ peculiar dress – or lack thereof – which puzzled me when he first unearthed this piece some months ago. Well done!

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