General Sir George Higginson: An Aquatic Postscript

General Sir George as depicted by ‘Spy’ in 1884.

24 April 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch adds a postscript about General Sir George Higginson.

In my earlier piece published today, May Time II, I wrote that we know that General Sir George Higginson rowed while at Eton in the 1840s as we have his boating jacket, ‘the oldest rowing blazer in the world’, even though he did not mention rowing at school in his 1916 autobiography.

Terry Morahan (left) presents Higginson’s boating jacket to Chris Dodd (right) of the River and Rowing Museum in 2013.

However, I have just discovered a part of Higginson’s autobiography, Seventy-one Years of a Guardsman’s Life, that reveals that he continued rowing after he had left school and joined the army. Moreover, Higginson gives a personal view of an important part of the development of British amateur rowing. Starting on page 43 and probably referring to the 1850s, Higginson writes:

On more than one occasion… have I exchanged [military] uniform for a boating-jacket, and, driving in haste to Whitehall stairs, joined three or four brother officers [from the Guards Brigade] at that time-honoured landing place on the eastern side of Whitehall gardens, and rowed up to Battersea fields, our four-oar being steered by our own waterman. Here we had breakfast in an old-fashioned riverside tavern called the Red House, which stood in what is now Battersea Park not far from Chelsea Bridge. 

The Red House was sited on the opposite side of the river to where the Royal Hospital Chelsea still stands.

On Sundays, an eight-oar of the [Guards] Brigade would pull in good Eton style to Putney Bridge and dine at the well-known inn, the Bells, contenting themselves with the simplest fare, consisting of cold lamb, salad and cider cup, as the return journey in the dark did not admit of either reckless rowing or careless steering.

Bells Tavern, Putney, c.1850.

Occasionally the same crew of eight oars rowed down stream to the Trafalgar at Greenwich, indulging in a fish dinner for which it was celebrated; but the return voyage through the crowded mass of shipping was not accomplished without risk. This otherwise pleasant excursion was discontinued after the sad death of our favourite waterman who, two or three years later, through an error of judgement, brought a four-oared crew into serious danger at Vauxhall Bridge, involving the complete destruction of the boat, the rest of the crew with difficulty saving themselves by swimming ashore. This caused the members of the [Guards] Brigade to found the club at Maidenhead where it now flourishes.    

The Guards Boat Club moved to Maidenhead in 1865. For nearly 40 years it had premises in Mill Lane but in 1904 it moved to a larger site a little upriver and on the opposite bank, taking over two large neighbouring houses and their grounds (shown here). In 1965, its centenary year in Maidenhead, the Guards Club gave up its lease – and a developer promptly demolished the place.

I have previously written about the Guards Boat Club and had noted that officers of these elite regiments played an important part in early amateur rowing, not least because most would have been to Eton or Westminster schools where they would have been first exposed to the sport. In my 2016 piece, I wrote: ‘One of the first rowing contests between upper-class gentlemen to be recorded appeared in Bells Life in 1822. It reported on a match between seven pair-oared boats:

….for a prize of thirty pounds which was given by ‘The gentlemen of the Frederic and the Corsair,’ or in other words by the Amateur Rowing Club, which is composed of noblemen and gentlemen nearly the whole of whom are in the Life and Foot Guards.

According to The New Sporting Magazine, in 1824 six Guards officers rowed a cutter 115 miles from Oxford to Westminster in fifteen hours and forty-eight minutes. In 1831, it reported on a “Grand Rowing Match between ten Officers of the (then) three Regiments of Guards”, a sweepstakes match in sculls from Westminster to Chelsea and back.’

Coldstream Guards officers in 1830. Ready for a row?

‘The most informative report from this period appeared in the Woolwich Advertiser on 20 July 1839 (when it was not a problem for amateurs to row for prize money or to be steered, as the Guards were, by professional watermen):

ROWING MATCH BETWEEN THE GRENADIER GUARDS AND THE ROYAL ARTILLERY.

On Saturday, July 19, the town of Greenwich was a scene of much gaiety, and was more than usually crowded with fashionable dinner parties in consequence of the much talked of match having been fixed to come off in the afternoon between six officers of the first battalion of Grenadier Guards and the same number of officers of the Artillery…… The galley in which the Guards rowed belonged to their own club and that of the Artillery to the Union Club..… The Guards had slightly the advantage in going off, and betting extremely brisk in their favour. Indeed, for days past it was said, that so high an opinion was entertained of the aquatic prowess of the Guards at the Club-house, in the metropolis, that odds of 7 to 5 were in many instances laid on them. The result of the match confirmed this opinion, for the Guards maintained the lead from the start to the winning-post…. It was stated that the match was for 1,000 guineas and that an immense sum changed pockets on the occasion in the sporting circles.

Thus, rowing by officers from the Brigade of Guards was already well established when Higginson was ‘pulling in good Eton style’ in the 1850s.

3 comments

  1. Higginson is a name well known in Harvard rowing: Francis Lee Higginson, class of 1900 (“aughty-aught”) and John HIgginson., class of 1962, later ltwt coach. F.L.Higginson is also mentioned in the article here about the Cambridge-Harvard race in 1906, I thought it would be delightful if a close connection to George Higginson could be found,.apparently not, however, A website about Harvard’s founding in 1636 mentions a Francis H, who came to Salem, Mass..in 1629, son of John H.
    Larry Fogelberg

    • Tim, many thanks, a lot of begats. For George, it was apparently important to establish the connection to the American (colonial) side of the family.,which,as he mentions, by then were quite influential..
      I look forward to your next article.
      .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.