The Waterloo Veterans Who Rowed to London

A near run thing – the Coldstream Guards close the gates at Hougoumont after French troops broke in.

12 October 2020

By William O’Chee & Major Peter Le Marchand (Retired) Scots Guards

Just before 3am on 12 May 1824, a crew of Guards officers, wearing red and white broad striped jackets, straw hats and loose trousers, took to the water at Oxford’s Folly Bridge in a six-oared wherry.

They had come together to decide a bet between Captain Charles Short of the Coldstream Guards and Viscount Newry. Lord Newry had been rowed from Oxford to Westminster Bridge by six of his servants the year before in 18 hours. Short had wagered the eye-watering amount of 600 guineas – the equivalent of ten years’ wages for a carpenter or schoolmaster [i] – that he and his crew could cover the 118 miles to London in two hours less. [ii]

Although professional watermen had been plying their trade between Oxford and London for centuries, this may have been the first such row by gentlemen amateurs. In addition to Short, the other members of the crew were Captains George Standen, George Hudson and Hugh Blane, as well as Lieutenants Edward Douglas and John Westenra.[iii]

Daunting as it is to row from Oxford to London, the challenge was unlikely to have deterred Short, Standen and Blane. All three were veterans of the Battle of Waterloo.

A Guards Rowing Club jacket similar to the one worn by the crew; this one from the 1920s.

Charles Short left Eton in 1814, and at the battle was an Ensign in the 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards. [iv] Standen and Blane were also Ensigns at the time, serving in the 2nd Battalion 3rd Foot Guards (now Scots Guards). [v]

Napoleon’s sudden return from exile on Elba in 1815 heralded a series of battles across southern Belgium, known as the Hundred Days Campaign, between the French, and the allied powers of Britain, Prussia and the Netherlands.

At Waterloo, Wellington chose to defend a long ridge line running from west to east astride the road to Brussels.  However, Wellington was worried the French might try to outflank him and rested one end of his line upon the farmhouse of Hougoumont, which commanded much of the battlefield on the British right flank.

Hougoumont was a substantial farm complex with a walled garden and orchard, with woods to the east. It largely fell to the light companies of the Coldstream and the 3rd Foot Guards, along with some Belgian and German troops, to hold the farmhouse of Hougoumont, which was turned into a veritable stronghold. [vi]

Short was the most junior officer in his regiment and spent the battle on the ridge behind Hougoumont with the regimental colours, while most of Coldstream Guards were eventually sucked into the desperate fighting in and around the farm. As officers in the light company of the 3rd Foot Guards, Standen and Blane found themselves in the thick of the action fighting in the vicinity of the farm itself.

The Coldstream Guards engaged in fierce fighting in the woods outside Hougoumont.

The farmhouse and its surrounding orchard saw the fiercest of the day’s combat, with some 9,000 French soldiers fighting for nine hours in an unsuccessful effort to take the farmhouse. [vii]

The light company of the 3rd Foot Guards was initially employed defending the walled garden, but after some three hours withdrew to the woods where the French were now in numbers. Here Standen did what junior infantry officers have done for centuries: with his cap in one hand and his sword in the other, he led some of the guardsmen in attempting to charge the French skirmishers. [viii]

For his own part, Standen later wrote:

…a haystack was set fire to in one of the attacks in which our Companies were repulsed, behind which we repeatedly formed and charged. [ix]

The courage of the 3rd Foot Guards was pitted, however, against an overwhelming number of French soldiers who poured through the woods. As Standen recalled:

When we in turn retreated, our attacks became each time more feeble. Although we drove them out, our advances became shorter. They fed an immense force of skirmishers; we had no support. [x]

Blane and Standen eventually led their men into the farmhouse itself just before the critical moment in the battle for Hougoumont occurred. Some 30 French soldiers broke in through the gate into the courtyard. Lt Colonel Macdonell and a handful of guardsmen managed to force the gate shut, after which the garrison proceeded to butcher all of the intruders, with the exception of a young drummer boy, who was locked in an outhouse until the battle ended. [xi]

In his dispatch, written after the battle, the normally taciturn Wellington said the defence of Hougoumont “was maintained throughout the day with the utmost gallantry by these brave troops, notwithstanding the repeated efforts of large bodies of the enemy to obtain possession of it.”[xii]

Elsewhere, the French assailed Wellington’s troops on the ridge with a series of attacks, and the battle in the centre wavered all day. From the top of the ridge, Short had a privileged view of these events, and wrote his mother an account of what he had seen.

We were ordered to lie down on the road, the musket shots flying over us like peas – an officer next to me was hit in the cap, but not hurt, as it went through; another next to him was hit also, on the plate of the cap, but it went through also without hurting him. Two Sergeants that lay near me were hit in the knapsacks, and were not hurt besides other shots passing as near as possible. [xiii]

Others were not so lucky.

The Brigade Major was wounded by a cannon ball, which killed his horse and broke his arm; and General Byng was wounded slightly while standing opposite me about five paces. General Byng did not leave the field. Lord Wellington with his Ball dress was very active indeed, as well as Lord Uxbridge and the Prince of Orange, both severely wounded, the former having lost his leg and the latter being hit in the body. General Cooke, commanding our Division, lost his arm.

Late in the afternoon, the French launched massed cavalry attacks at the British, who formed into squares to repulse the horsemen.

The Cavalry came on about five o’clock, and attacked the rest of the line, when the Horse Guards and the other regiments behaved most gallantly. The French charged our hollow squares and were repulsed several times….

At 7 o’clock, Napoleon made a final, desperate gamble to break Wellington’s line. He ordered an assault by his elite Imperial Guard, the “Immortals”. Short, who had had his horse shot out from under him, was right at the point of attack, and wrote of the climactic moment in the battle: 

The Imperial Guards with Napoleon at their head charged the 1st Guards, and the number of killed and wounded is extraordinary – they lie as thick as possible, one on top of the other.

They were repulsed in every attack, and about seven o’clock the whole French army made a general attack for their last effort, and we should have had very hard work to repulse them – when 25,000 Prussians came on, and we drove them like chaff before the wind, 20,000 getting into the midst of them played the Devil with them, and they took to flight in the greatest possible hurry. [xiv]

The 3rd Foot Guards repulse Napoleon’s “Immortals” as the battle is finally won.

With his Imperial Guard in retreat, Napoleon’s dreams of Empire were finally and irretrievably shattered. He abdicated soon after and was exiled to the far away island of St Helena, whence he would never return.

The nine years between Waterloo and 1824 were the beginning of a long peace for most of Europe, and in Britain this coincided with the rise of many sports, including rowing. So it was that officers the Guards Division formed their own rowing club, with many members having served in the Peninsula or Hundred Days Campaigns. Short’s crew reflected this, with three veterans of Waterloo.

Of the six oarsmen in Short’s crew, he was, interestingly, the only Etonian. Hudson was educated at Westminster where he may have rowed, before entering the Grenadier Guards a month after Waterloo. Westenra had also been at Westminster, before joining the 3rd Foot Guards. The others seemed to have been privately tutored, so it is unclear whether they learned to row before they joined the Army, or sometime after.

It would be tempting to look upon Short and his colleagues as a nothing more than a collection of wealthy dilettantes, but this would be to do them an injustice. In fact, the preparations for their row were undertaken with all the attention to detail of a military campaign.

From newspaper reports, it is clear the Guards Club must have had in excess of 20 members in London at this time, and it was but one of a number of rowing clubs we know to have been in existence. The Emerald, the Eagle, the Frederick, the Corsair, the William Frederick Club, the Whitehall Club, the Funny Club and of course Leander Club were amongst the others. [xv]

For many years, on the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington would host a dinner at Apsley House for his surviving senior officers.

Short was an astute member of this thriving rowing community. Some months before the row, he contracted boat builder James Sullivan of Millbank to build a boat specifically for the wager. The craft was based on the Marquess of Worcester’s Fancy, a boat deemed the cutting edge of design, and considered “remarkable for its fleetness”. [xvi] In consequence, The Mary, as Short’s boat was named, was a broad beamed wherry, but built in what was then a very light construction. [xvii]

Another wise decision was to obtain the assistance of the Commissioners of the Thames Navigation Commission in having all of the locks along the way – there were 32 of them at the time – open in advance, awaiting the arrival of the crew.

Finally, Short organised three watermen as coxswains to take the crew for different parts of the journey. The first of these was none other than the renowned Oxford waterman, Isaac King. He not only built and hired boats, but also rowed as coach/stroke of the Jesus College crew in the first Head of the River in Oxford in 1815.

The task was nonetheless an ambitious one, as it must be remembered that they were rowing fixed seats, in a boat that had no outriggers.

At one minute past 3am, the crew were sitting with their oars raised. King gave the command “all’s ready”, they placed the oars in their rowlocks and were soon away, cheered on by a large crowd that had gathered on the towpath, in spite of the early hour. The row proceeded without incident until they reached Henley, when a strong easterly squall blew in and slowed their progress. [xviii]

They reached the halfway point – Boulter’s Lock at Maidenhead – at half past 11, which meant they were at least half an hour behind schedule. Here King got out of the boat and was replaced by another waterman, James Cannon. The crew took ten minutes to consume a leg of hot mutton and some port wine in the Lock House. They headed off, much improved, and took an hour to cover the next seven and a quarter miles to Windsor Bridge. [xix]

For some reason, the passage from Eton to Staines seems the hardest stage of a row from Oxford to London. The mind becomes weary, and every stroke seems to drain the limbs of what strength they have left. For Short and his comrades, the challenge was made even harder by having to row into the mouth of a roaring easterly wind. Still, they redoubled their efforts and covered the eight miles in 50 minutes. Cannon urged the oarsmen on past Staines, with 17 miles until they reached Teddington and the Tideway.

A light-hearted image of a six-oar of the time. Note that this tint shows an eight in the background in red and white striped jackets and straw hats, like Short’s crew.

At Teddington, they exchanged Cannon for their final coxswain, Thomas Hill, and took a little refreshment which was served to them by publican of the Topham Inn. [xx] When they set off again at 4:45pm, there were still some 20 miles to go to Westminster Bridge. With Westenra having injured his shoulder, and the rest of the crew exhausted, the wager was very much in the balance, but they picked up an ebb tide, and had the benefit of boats from some of the metropolitan clubs rowing along beside them to keep pace. They were also preceded by two eights from the Guards Club, whose task was to clear a way through the spectator craft that thronged the river.

At 6pm, they passed under Putney Bridge, with six and a half miles yet to row. Half an hour later, they arrived at Battersea Bridge, completely exhausted. There were still three and a quarter miles to go, but the oarsmen were described as “completely knocked up, some of them almost bent double.”

They took a fortifying tot of brandy and set off again in a final dash for the finishing line. Miraculously, they reached Westminster Bridge with 14 minutes to spare. As at Waterloo, the Guards had turned a near run thing into a heroic victory. Their boat builder immediately towed them to Whitehall stairs, where they were put into carriages, with some of the crew unable to stand without assistance. [xxi]

Years later, Charles Short retired from the Army as a Lt Colonel, as did Hugh Blane, who succeeded his father as the 2nd Baronet Blane in 1834. George Standen would also reach the rank of Lt Colonel, dying in 1840. [xxii] It was claimed by some that he died prematurely as a result of the row, although Douglas disputed this. Blane and Standen remained lifelong friends and were memorialised together on a plaque in the Guards Chapel, alongside a fellow officer of the light company, John Elrington.

Edward Douglas-Pennant, Baron Penrhyn, in later life.

John Westenra was another of the crew to reach the rank of Lt Colonel. He was elected as a Whig MP for King’s Country in 1835 and sat until his retirement in 1852.

Edward Douglas married an heiress, Juliana Dawkins-Pennant, and changed his name by Royal Licence to Edward Douglas-Pennant in 1841. From her family, he inherited the Penrhyn Quarry in Wales, which he developed into one of the largest slate quarries in the world. He served as a Tory MP for Caernarfonshire from 1841 to 1865. The following year, he was elevated to the peerage as Baron Penrhyn. [xxiii]

For millennia – from the windy plains of Troy to the windy mountains of Afghanistan – soldiers have endured the same dangers on the battlefield. Displaced and disaffected, they have endured the same painful processes of readjusting to a world without war. The Guards Boat Club was a product of this, like similar groups today.

The row by Short and his colleagues was made possible by enduring friendships forged on the battlefield. Although largely forgotten today, their comradeship also played a seminal role in raising the profile of amateur rowing in the Regency era, proof that close friendships can change the course of history in more ways than one.

Postscript: As William O’Chee finished researching this article, he realised he had rowed with a descendant of one of Short’s crew. Andy Douglas-Pennant was the “two” man in the 1987 Brasenose College 1st VIII; always enthusiastic, he was the life and soul of the crew. He remains much loved and much lamented.

Endnotes:

[i] Lindert, P.H. & Williamson J.G. “English Workers’ Living Standards During the Industrial Revolution: A New Look” in English Economic Review, Volume XXXVI, No 1, February 1983.

[ii] Douglas, E. “A Feat of Endurance” reprinted in The Guards Magazine, Spring 1955, p 29.

[iii] Ross-of-Bladensburg, C.B. A History of the Coldstream Guards From 1815 to 1895, London 1896, p 86.

[iv] Austen-Leigh, R.A. op cit, p 72.

[v] Dalton, C. The Waterloo Roll Call with Biographical Notes and Anecdotes, London 1894, pp 112-113.

[vi] Cornwell, B. Waterloo, London 2014, p 160.

[vii] ibid, p 162.

[viii] Clay, M. A Narrative of The Battles of Quatre-Bras And Waterloo; With the Defence of Hougoumont, Bedford 1853, p 19.

[ix] Siborne T.H. (ed), Waterloo Letters, London 1891, Letter from G.D. Standen at p 268.

[x] ibid, p 269.

[xi] Cornwell, B. op cit, p 209.

[xii] Duke of Wellington, Waterloo dispatch to Lord Bathurst, 19 June 1815.

[xiii] Glover G (ed), The Waterloo Archive vol IV, Barnsley, S. Yorks. 2012, Letter from C Short to his mother, 19th June 1815, at p 148.

[xiv] ibid.

[xv] Morning Chronicle, 13th May 1824.

[xvi] ibid.

[xvii] Feilding, P. “The Oxford Race” in The Guards Magazine, December 1897, p 568.

[xviii] The Star, 13th May 1824.

[xix] Douglas, E, op cit.

[xx] Morning Chronicle, 13th May 1824.

[xxi] The Star, 13th May 1824.

[xxii] Dalton, C. op. cit. p 115.

[xxiii] “The Douglas-Pennant family”, http://www.douglashistory.co.uk/history/families/douglas-pennant.htm#.X2iQQy8Rp-V, recovered 21 September, 2020.

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