15 May 2020
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch concludes his look at Fred May’s caricatures from Henley 1923 with a piece on the very full life of WB Close.
William Brooks Close had an impressive rowing record while at Trinity College, Cambridge, but his post-university life was even more noteworthy, and the legacy of his business career continues to this day.
‘WB’ (as his family called him) was born in Naples in 1853 where his investor father was an advisor to King Ferdinand II. For the first five years of WB’s life, the Close family lived on their yacht, sailing the Mediterranean. The father educated his children according to his own theories, including the idea that it was possible and desirable to be both a gentleman and a good businessman. After more conventional schooling at Marlborough, three of the brothers, William, James and John, all went to Cambridge. A fourth brother, Frederick, chose not to go to university and took up farming in Virginia.
At Cambridge, all three Close boys rowed for First Trinity and for the University and all served as President of CUBC. Weighing in at 75kg, WB gained the rare Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race record of a loss (1875), a win (1876) and a draw (1877).
On the Cam, WB won the Head of the River Fours and the Colquhoun Sculls in 1874 and the CUBC Pairs in 1875.
At the two-day Henley in 1874, First Trinity entered the same crew (with WB at ‘7’) in both the Grand and the Ladies. They won the latter, beating Trinity College, Dublin, by 1 1/2 lengths. The next year, First Trinity again entered one crew in both the Grand and the Ladies with WB again at ‘7’; he also entered the Diamond Sculls. WB won all his heats on the first day but lost all three finals on the second day.
In 1876, while still at Cambridge, the 23-year-old WB entered a four from First Trinity Boat Club into a grand regatta to be held in Philadelphia, USA, to mark the centenary of American independence. It was to be the largest regatta yet held in the U.S., President Grant was to attend and the New York newspapers ran front page articles about the foreign crews.
The American hosts did their best to welcome the visiting oarsmen but there were problems and culture clashes. The (London) Times of 13 September 1876 reported:
Everyone became more or less ill after arrival at Philadelphia…. diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, sore throats…. Still more objectionable… was the class of oarsmen they had to compete with, including, as it did, in the elastic term ‘amateurs’ – as understood in America – coal-whippers, glass blowers, hewers of wood, drawers of water, working mechanics, and other handicraftsmen… who gain their living by manual labour.
The organisers allocated the five Cambridge oarsmen (a spare was included) and their boatman one room with three beds. The hosts were firmly told that British gentlemen amateurs would not sleep two to a bed, nor would they share a room with a professional boatman.
WB was fond of telling the story of him injuring his backside on a faulty sliding seat in practice on Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River and been unable row for a period. In the resulting free time, he made friends with Daniel Paullin from Illinois, a man who had made a fortune buying public land in Iowa and selling it in plots. Paullin invited WB to tour the state with him. Inspired, two years later WB and three of his brothers set up a London partnership, Close Brothers, and purchased 15,000 acres of Iowa farmland for $3.50 or less an acre.
Close Brothers decided to recruit not penniless emigrants but upper-class Englishmen to become farmers in Iowa, giving them land in return for half of the crops that they produced and even for a time teaching them the required skills at their own agricultural college. In a good year, the brothers would get a return of over 50 per cent on their capital (landowners in England were lucky to get three per cent). This obscure but remarkable piece of American history about an aristocratic British colony so incongruously existing in rural Iowa has been chronicled in a book titled Gentlemen on the Prairie by Curtis Harnack (Iowa State University Press, 1985).
I do not have a copy of Harnack’s book but the website Bibliovault says this of it:
In the 1880s, the well-connected young Englishman William B. Close and his three brothers, having bought thousands of acres of northwest Iowa prairie, conceived the idea of enticing sons of Britain’s upper classes to pursue the life of the landed gentry on these fertile acres. ‘Yesterday a wilderness, today an empire’: their bizarre experiment, which created a colony for people ‘of the better class’ who were not in line to inherit land [i.e. second-born and younger boys, also any wayward sons] but whose fathers would set them up in farming, flourished in Le Mars, Iowa… with over five hundred youths having a go at farming….
Many of these immigrants had no interest in American citizenship but enjoyed or endured the challenging adventure of remaining part of the empire while stranded on the plains. They didn’t mix socially with other Le Mars area residents but enjoyed such sports as horse racing, fox hunts, polo, and an annual derby followed by a glittering grand ball. Their pubs were named the House of Lords, the House of Commons, and Windsor Castle; the Prairie Club was a replica of a London gentlemen’s club, an opera house attracted traveling shows….
An earlier book than Harnack’s, The British In Iowa by Jacob Van der Zee (State Historical Society of Iowa, 1922), noted:
Unfortunately, no steam or body of water at or near Le Mars was adequate enough to satisfy the craving of the English for boat racing. In July 1884, a score of English ladies and gentlemen whiled away some time at Spirit Lake [Iowa] which had already acquired a reputation as a summer resort. The English visitors made themselves conspicuous by appearing at dinner in full evening dress and also by putting on some exciting boat races [in single and double sculls].
Returning to Harnack:
Problems soon surfaced, however… The chief problem was farm labor; there was no native population to exploit, and immigrant workers soon bought their own land… [Also] appropriate female companionship was scarce. The climate was brutal in its extremes, and many colonists soon sold their acres at a profit and moved to countries [in the British Empire]. When the financial depression in the early 1890s lowered land values and made agriculture less profitable, the colony collapsed.
The economic depression of the 1890s forced WB to look for a new way of making serious money. It came with the discovery of gold in the Yukon in 1897 – ‘The Klondike Gold Rush’. The most popular route taken by prospectors to the gold fields around Dawson City, Canada, was a treacherous one using pack horses or human porterage from the port in Skagway, Alaska, across the mountains to the U.S. – Canada border. The Canadian authorities only allowed entry to those with sufficient gear for the winter, typically one ton of supplies. To amass this amount usually required many trips back and forth across the mountains.
WB saw the chance of a fortune not by gold prospecting but by building a railway from the Pacific coast of Alaska to the headwaters of the Yukon River. From here, steamboats, also owned by Close Brothers, would carry prospectors upriver to the goldfields.
Seemingly impossible obstacles such as building in uncharted territory, blasting through enormous mountains, bridging deep valleys and working in freezing temperatures were somehow overcome in only two years. The attitude was exemplified by one of the main contractors, Mike ‘Moose’ Heney, who said: ‘Give me enough dynamite…. and I’ll build you a railroad to hell’. The initial line was soon extended and, even when the gold rush ended, WB’s railways were still needed by the new communities and industries that had grown up alongside them.
An enormously sociable man, WB probably yearned for London life while living in unsophisticated Iowa. In the early days at least, he found even New York too primitive (on his first visit there in 1876, he complained that grass grew on Fifth Avenue and was ‘enough for three cows’).
WB also missed rowing and he kept in close touch with the Cambridge coaches, often offering advice by letter from afar. Presumably during visits home, The Times reported that he assisted in coaching the Light Blues in 1880, 1881 and 1885. In 1891, WB divorced his American wife and moved back to England to live, though he continued to head Close Brothers for the rest of his life.
Back in England, WB mixed in high society including the louche set that gathered around his friend, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). As well as a London house, he bought a country residence, Huntercombe Hall, Nettlebed, near Henley-on-Thames, where he could lavishly entertain rowing friends and Henley crews. WB died in 1923, aged 70, expiring at the home of the last of several mistress, an 18-year-old actress.
The firm of Close Brothers continues to this day as ‘a leading UK merchant banking group providing lending, deposit taking, wealth management services and securities trading’. In 2018, to mark its 140th year, the company put out a splendid little illustrated booklet on its history. Today, Close Brothers is a FTSE 250 company with a market capitalisation of £2.4 billion. Not bad for something that apparently began with a bruised backside on the Schuylkill.