21 February 2019
By Martin Wainwright
Martin Wainwright, who entertained HTBS readers last September with his rowing trip from Oxford to London, is back with a story about the Manchester Guardian editor Charles Prestwich Scott and his little-known role as an oarsman at Oxford.
Lasting fame is given to very few journalists, whose trade is well-summarised by its name: a form of writing meant for the day, rather than for all time. How many of us can name the author of the famous report on the charge of the British Light Brigade in the Crimean War? Can you say, without Googling, who had the scoop on the first climbing of Mount Everest?
That was James Morris of The Times of London, who later became well-known through his travel and history books and for transgendering into Jan Morris. In a similar way, Arthur Ransome’s fame rests on his children’s books, Swallows and Amazons and its sequels. Yet he was a top-ranking reporter for the Manchester Guardian, whose coverage of early Soviet Russia was greatly helped by his marriage to a former mistress of Leon Trotsky.
Ransome’s greatest editor, however, was one of the very few exceptions: Charles Prestwich Scott, whose 50 years in charge of the Manchester Guardian (now the Guardian) made it the most respected newspaper in the world. But there is a lacuna in his reputation: he is too little-known in his role as an oarsman of determination and dash.
He started in ernest as a ten-year-old schoolboy, telling his sister in a letter how he and his older brother were ‘becoming quite dabby hands at rowing, feathering and everything’ but it was at Oxford that he came into his own. His college, Corpus Christi, was small in numbers but big on the right stuff. It was mocked, he admitted in another letter home in January 1869, because practices for the annual inter-college Torpids races took place in one of the last inrigged racing boats still in use.
‘It is a wonderful old ship, about a yard and a half broad in the middle and with a gangway running down the whole length, which makes it look as if meant to be rowed with 16 oars or with sweeps like a barge.’ It swam like a tub but proved excellent practice for getting the crew to row long and swing together.
Scott won my affections as a fellow oarsman on the Thames at Oxford by the regime he organised, as Corpus’s Captain of Boats. Rather than pound down from the college boathouses to Iffley Lock and back, and then repeat the trip, he took the eight through the lock and all the way to the end of the next pound at Sandford. There they disembarked for beer and skittles at the King’s Arms before rowing the four miles home.
This imaginative training was matched by Scott’s approach to his own transport. Sometimes he coxed, falling overboard on one occasion during too sharp a turn-round at Iffley. He told his brother Arthur: ‘The inconsiderate laughter of the Balliol crew, who were just below us, was particularly annoying to me as I subsided underwater.’ Another time, he rode through floods on horseback, losing sight of the Eight when he was ‘unexpectedly submerged for a second time, along with my horse, in a deep hole. I stuck on and only got wet up to the middle.’
Corpus were bumped on five successive days in that year’s Torpids, and Scott retired from the rowing captaincy to concentrate on his finals. But he concluded another despatch home: ‘Our men rowed exceedingly pluckily, as was admitted on all hands, and improved steadily to the very last.’
He kept honing his own skills too and was still sculling on Ullswater in the English Lake District during breaks from the office in his seventies. In his famous essay to mark the Manchester Guardian’s centenary in 1921, alongside the dictum ‘comment is free but facts are sacred’, he returned to the river to find a metaphor for his ideal staff:
They should be a friendly company. They need not, of course, agree on every point, but they should share in the general purpose and inheritance. A paper is built up upon their common and successive labours, and their work should never be task work, never merely dictated. They should be like a racing boat’s crew, pulling well together, each man doing his best because he likes it, and with a common and glorious goal.
Special thanks to Philippa Mole and Julian Reid.