24 April 2020
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch continues his series on caricaturist Fred May’s Henley characters, this from 1921.
General Sir George Wentworth Alexander Higginson GCB, GCVO, DL (1826 – 1927).
George Higginson was a veteran of the Crimean War, who served in the actions at Alma, Balaclava, Sebastopol and Inkerman (where his horse was shot from under him). Although the end of the war in 1856 saw the end of his active service, he continued in the army until 1886 with postings in Ireland, Italy, Canada, France, Russia and in America during its Civil War.
Higginson’s autobiography Seventy-one Years of a Guardsman’s Life (1916) recalled his childhood in Belgravia, nowadays one of the most expensive and sophisticated parts of London but, in the 1820s, he saw ‘fields and enclosures’ from his bedroom window and recalled that the present site of the South Kensington Museums was occupied by gravel pits. From here, ‘all the lands westward, as far as the hamlet of Hammersmith, were then parcelled out in well-cultivated farms and market gardens’. It was an area where ‘it was unsafe to walk after nightfall… unless well prepared to meet foot-pads…’
In his autobiography, Higginson wrote that ‘… five Sovereigns have reigned since I first saw the light, and I have been honoured by the personal notice of each’. This begun at the age of 3 when he was patted on the head by George IV (1762 – 1830). At various times, he was a personal friend of Edward VII, George V and of Florence Nightingale.
The family estate was in Marlow, near Henley. Here, Higginson excavated a canal from the River Thames to Bisham Church. After that, he used a gondola to travel from home to church via the river and the canal.
Higginson was schooled at Eton between 1839 and 1844. Although there is no mention of him rowing there in his autobiography, we do have one splendid piece of evidence that he did in fact ply an oar in his time at the school. At the 2013 Rowing History Forum at Henley’s River and Rowing Museum, Terry Morahan present ‘the oldest rowing blazer in the world’ to the RRM; it was the Eton boating jacket worn by Higginson in 1844.
As evidenced by film of him in his 101st and final year, Higginson retained his military bearing to the end.
Charles Desborough ‘Don’ Burnell, DSO, OBE (1876 –1969)
Don Burnell was ‘recalled to the colours’ twice in his life and on both occasions he distinguished himself.
His first comeback was in 1908 when, five years after the supposed end of a very successful rowing career and at the age of 32, he joined ‘The Old Crocks’, a Leander crew that was Britain’s ‘second eight’ entry in the 1908 Olympic Regatta. Famously, the British selectors’ first choice, the youngsters of the 1908 Cambridge Crew, were beaten by the crew from Belgium in a heat. However, on meeting the Belgians in the final, the Old Crocks took an early lead and finished two lengths up.
Burnell’s second recall came on the outbreak of war in 1914, just one year since retiring from the Rifle Brigade after 19 years of service in the army. Sent to the Western Front in 1917, he was wounded several times, twice mentioned in dispatches and won the Distinguished Service Order. In the Second World War, Burnell served in the Home Guard’s Upper Thames Patrol (UTP) whose duty was to patrol the Thames from Teddington to Lechlade (though some claimed that ‘UTP’ stood for ‘Up The Pub’).
Prior to all this, Burnell had started his rowing career with a victory in the 1894 Ladies’ Plate with Eton. At Oxford, he won four successive Boat Races, 1895 to 1898. At Henley between 1898 and 1901, he was successful in the Grand four times and the Stewards’ three times. Burnell also rowed in the Leander crews that were victorious in the International Eights at Cork in 1902 and 1903.
In 1939, Burnell’s son, Richard, rowed for Oxford and in 1948 won the Olympic Double Sculls. They are the only father and son to have won gold medals in Olympic rowing. A grandson, Peter, rowed for Oxford in 1962.
Although Burnell was one of the strongest supporters of the ‘orthodox’ style of rowing, Steve Fairbairn, the iconoclast of orthodoxy, said that Don was one of the best oarsmen that he had known.
Sir Harcourt ‘Tarka’ Gilby Gold OBE (1876 – 1952)
Tarka’s rowing career was short but impressive. He stroked three Eton crews to victory in the Ladies’ Plate (1893 – 1895), three Oxford crews to beat Cambridge (1896 – 1898), and three Leander crews to win the Grand (1896, 1898, 1899). He also stroked the losing Oxford crew in 1899 and the winning Stewards’ boat in 1898 and 1899.
At one time or another, Gold held most of the important positions in rowing: OUBC President, Captain of Leander, Chairman of Henley Stewards and Chairman of the Amateur Rowing Association. In 1949, he was the first person to be knighted for services to rowing. Gold was driving force behind the establishment of Henley’s Stewards’ Enclosure and he coached 18 Oxford crews as well as the Leander eight that, against the odds, won the 1908 Olympic Eights.
Harcourt Gold’s Vanity Fair biography of 1899 noted that:
He is a sturdily built young fellow, with extraordinary powers of endurance who can probably get as much out of seven other men in a boat as any stroke living… He has a dry humour that is quite his own; he can play the host; he can tell a story…. He has wonderful knees; and his legs are always loudly appreciated by the crowd at Putney.
Guy Nickalls (1866 – 1935)
Even when compared to the august company in which May depicted him, Guy Nickalls was ‘larger than life’. In a 28-year career, he won everything worth winning at Eton, Oxford, Henley and the Tideway: Head of the River, three out of five Oxford – Cambridge Boat Races, 21 Henley prizes, three Wingfield Sculls contests and the 1908 Olympic Eights. The latter was won at the age of 42, but not before he had threatened to resign from the eight when he was not chosen for the four as well. Guy did not lack self-belief – though perhaps not without reason.
This remarkable record of wins may have been even greater were it not for three things: Guy had to stop rowing between 1898 and 1904 in order to try and deal with his always chaotic finances; many simply refused to race against such a strong opponent; he often weakened himself by doubling and trebling up at Henley (he won two out of three events at seven Henleys but just once – 1886 – achieved the triple of the Grand, the Stewards and the Goblets).
Guy’s son, Gully, held that his father’s tact was ‘atrocious… he could never modify his point of view for the benefit of any one of the company’. In 1890, when Guy was Oxford President, he wrote to his opposite number at Cambridge saying that the Light Blues were ‘a poorer lot than usual’. Later, he publicly said of the 1916 Yale Varsity crew that he was coaching, ‘Their paddling is bad, their rowing is worse’.
During and after his rowing career, Guy gardened, acted, shot, hunted, rode, fished, played tennis, ran and swam. His tireless competitiveness would physically and mentally exhaust all those around him; he could endear and frustrate at the same time. Gully recalled: ‘Every minute of his time was occupied. I don’t think he ever knew what it was to be dull or lonely’. As Guy himself wrote: ‘Nature has endowed me with a fairly strong body, a constitution of iron, and a will power or stubbornness above the average’.
George Duncan Rowe (1857 – 1934)
Although Rowe went to a non-rowing school, Marlborough, he must have been a fast learner as, after he went up to Oxford’s University College in 1876, he went Head of the River in 1877 and 1878 and also rowed in the Boat Race in 1879, when they lost, and as President in 1880, when they won.
After graduation in 1881, Rowe joined Leander (then based in Putney) and served as joint captain in 1883 and secretary between 1887 and 1897. Rowe greatly helped club finances by organising the Leander Enclosure at Henley every year and he also played an important part in the construction of the present Leander clubhouse. He was Club President from 1919 until his death in 1934.
Rowe’s Vanity Fair biography included the facts that:
He is a partner in the firm of Rowe and Pitman, stockbrokers, and is very prosperous… At (Oxford) he was such a model of propriety that he was one of the few undergraduates who were not sent down after certain regrettable incidents. His character has not degenerated with the (passing) of time. He is believed to prefer cricket to rowing, and golf to cricket; but he rowed better than he played cricket, and is a better cricketer than golfer.
Major William Harold Barff DSO (1877 – 1948)
WH Barff rowed for the Royal Chester Rowing Club from at least 1904 until the start of the First World War. A report on his wedding in July 1909 said that ‘Mr Barff is captain of the Royal Chester RC and has taken a prominent part in the Chester Regatta for several years. He is a first-rate sportsman’.
On the outbreak of war in 1914, a local newspaper wrote that 31 members of the Royal Chester Rowing Club had joined up and said that Barff was in the ‘Sportsmen’s Battalion’ of the Cheshire Regiment (though there seems to be no other record of his 12th Battalion being such a unit, perhaps it was an unofficial designation). In 1916, Barff won the Distinguished Service Order for leading a trench raiding party on Bulgarian positions during the Salonica Campaign in the Balkans, an action in which he was ‘severely wounded’.
WH Barff was Secretary of Henley Royal Regatta from 1919 to 1938. Taking over the secretaryship from JF Cooper, a man who had performed the role since 1883, Barff saw the regatta through the difficult inter-war years including the establishment of the Stewards’ Enclosure. Henley had financial problems throughout much of the Edwardian age and an enclosure run by the Stewards was experimented with in 1913. After the war, Harcourt Gold and others recognised that the world would never return to the way things were in 1914 and that Henley had to adapt to survive. Barff would have been responsible for implementing these changes and he would, I speculate, have had to deal with much opposition from conservative factions.
When Barff left office in 1938, the profit for that year’s regatta was £324 on receipts of £9,100. This was described as ’satisfactory’.
George Henry John ‘Harry’ Tomalin (1898 – 1976)
GHJ ‘Harry’ Tomalin was a prominent figure in the life of Henley-on-Thames from the 1920s until his death in 1976. His first public appearance in the town was aged 4 in 1902 in the parade marking Edward VII’s Coronation. A local newspaper once described him as ‘One of the most popular figures in Henley’ and a 1975 edition of the Reading Evening Post noted that ‘Harry Tomalin is a by-word in Henley. Wounded in the First World War, he spent his working life as a legal executive and found himself involved with most of the town’s numerous societies’. Fred May depicted a diminutive Tomalin in at least four of his Henley collections (‘Little but good’) and a May caricature of him in 1923 now held by the River and Rowing Museum is titled ‘The Town Clerk’.
Tomalin was a knowledgeable local historian and was the author of Henley Rowing Club at Henley Royal Regatta (1939), The Henley Royal Regatta Since 1839 (1972) and The Book Of Henley On Thames: An Anthology (1975). He joined the committee of Henley Town and Visitors Regatta in 1919 and in 1969 was made President to mark 50 years of service. In 1939, a Daily Herald article on the upcoming Henley Royal wrote that ‘In the same office (as the regatta secretary) sits Mr GHJ Tomalin who has been helping to organise Henley Regattas for 25 years’. It added enigmatically, ‘He looks after the fun’.
Tim Koch’s first article on Fred May’s Henley characters is here.