18 January 2021
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch wonders if there is a reason that history has forgotten St George Ashe.
Initially, it seems strange that St George Ashe, a man with a very memorable name who, in 1900, was the first Briton to row in the modern Olympics, coming third in the sculls, and who held the title of ‘Amateur (Sculling) Champion of Great Britain & Ireland’ in 1904 should be so little remembered by the rowing world, or even by his club, Thames, his picture is not among those past victors celebrated on the walls of its Putney clubhouse. However, further investigation into the man’s life and rowing career questions how good his most notable wins actually were, finds that he had a fractious relationship with the rowing establishment and notes that events in his final years may have resulted in the deliberate erasing of St George Ashe from rowing’s collective memory.
St George Ogilvie Ashe was born on 23 May 1871 on the Mediterranean Island of Malta, then a British colony, where his father, Captain William Henry Ashe, was stationed with the 64th Regiment of Foot. William, his father (a Lieutenant Colonel) and his grandfather (a Lieutenant General) were all born in British-ruled India.
In 1879, after 22 years of service, William Ashe retired from the army at the young age of 40 and with the lowly rank of Captain. In the 1881 census, he, his wife, Rosamond, and their oldest child (a girl aged 14) are living with a spinster aunt, Eliza Jane Ogilvie, in her house at 6 Albion Villas, Folkestone, Kent, a town with which the family had strong connections. At the same time, their remaining children, St George (9), the youngest daughter (11) and the youngest son (8) are living with Rosamond’s mother (Francis Charlotte Kelcey, née Ogilvie) in Twickenham, West London.
All this suggests that there may have been some sort of ‘problem’ in St George’s family, possibly centring on his father. In 1861, William had been court-martialed for allegedly drunkenly wounding an Indian servant. He was cleared even though the evidence against him seemed strong, so this incident may or may not have been indicative of his character. William died in Twickenham in 1887, aged 48.
A remarkable record of St George Ashe’s Family Tree showing its strong Irish roots and seemingly going back to his 24x great-grandfather is on the Ashe family website. ‘St George’ was a traditional family name and ‘Ogilvie’ was his maternal grandmother’s maiden name.
There is a newspaper report of the 18-year-old St George Ashe winning a mile running race at the sports day of a small private school, Schorne College, North Marston, Buckinghamshire, in 1889. It educated the sons of clergymen and military officers and had a strong sporting ethos.
In the 1891 census, the 20-year-old Ashe, his widowed mother, oldest sister and two servants were living with his great-aunt Eliza in her house in Albion Villas, Folkestone, while he was doing his ‘articles’, that is serving an apprenticeship to become a solicitor. By early 1895 at least, Ashe was at a London law firm, Collyer, Bristow, Withers and Russell (which still operates from the same building in Bedford Row). He passed his final Law Society exams in November 1896.
Ashe’s membership of Thames Rowing Club was approved on 25 April 1895 and, presumably, this is where he learned to scull. Looking at newspaper reports, the first record of him competing was on 29 August 1896 when he entered the Open Handicap Sculls at Ibis Regatta in West London. Here, the inexperienced sculler came a creditable third out of nine, a length behind second place and four lengths behind first.
In 1897, his second competitive season, Ashe was not afraid of ‘punching above his weight’, a trait that he never lost. At Maidenhead Regatta, probably never having won a sculling race, Ashe was beaten by one length in Open Sculls by the great Cambridge oarsman and future Henley winner, CJD Goldie. At Bedford, he entered Junior Sculls, won two heats and lost in the final. At Goring, he won his ‘Juniors’ against weak opposition and a week later at Marlow came third in the final of Senior-Junior Sculls.
The next year, 1898, saw much evidence of Ashe’s talent and ambition but also the first signs of his eccentricity and his first recorded clash with those in charge at Thames Rowing Club.
On the positive side, wins included Junior-Senior Sculls at the prestigious Metropolitan Regatta, Open Sculls at Cookham and Senior Sculls at Oxford. There were losses at Vesta, Anglian and Goring, at the latter taking on, for the first but not the last time, one of the best scullers of the age, Harry Blackstaffe of Vesta, a man who would go on to win the Olympic Sculls in 1908.
Early evidence of strange and unwise behaviour by Ashe occurred in September 1898 when he twice tried to cross the English Channel to France in an ordinary Thames sculling boat, thin shelled and weighing just 25 pounds. In his first attempt, the hull cracked after three miles and the boat filled with water. A week later during a second try, a wave caught him and broke the scull in half. No one was impressed by the effort or surprised by the result and the Sporting Life of 19 September called it ‘by common consent, foolhardy in the extreme’. It added, ‘There are various degrees of British pluck, some the outcome of misdirected enthusiasm. (Ashe’s attempt) was a case in point’.
Also, in September 1898, Ashe was to encounter longer-term problems. On 16 September, he had beaten three other Thames members to win an intra-club senior sculls race. On the 19th, a meeting of the TRC Committee agreed that Ashe be disqualified as the winner and that he be ‘severely censured for his conduct’. The circumstances of the incident were not recorded in the minutes at the time but, at the next committee meeting on 23 December, Ashe appealed against the earlier decision. This was rejected and the meeting again ‘severely censured’ him for his ‘general behaviour in the whole matter and also for his infringement of Rule 14 as contained in the Referee newspaper of 20 November’. A Referee cutting attached to the minutes says that Ashe was disqualified for ‘wearing a sleeveless jersey’.
I am not sure that this was really a fight over a jersey, with or without sleeves, and my suspicion is that the committee thought that generally Ashe did not act in the way that a gentleman amateur and a member of Thames Rowing Club should. Possibly his undisguised and unbridled competitive nature was thought of as contrary to the Corinthian Spirit. Also, perhaps Ashe was argumentative and lacked social skills, something that would have increased the antipathy towards him.
The TRC committee meeting of 19 September had also decided on a practical sanction against Ashe, agreeing that, ‘the club refuse to enter St G. Ashe for the Paris Cup’.
The annual Paris Cup or coupe de Paris d’aviron, the Amateur Sculling Championship of France, was a 1,900-metre race at Neuilly-sur-Seine, the 1898 race due to be held on 11 October. After Thames’ ban, Ashe entered as a member of Kingston Rowing Club. I am not sure that Kingston knew of this; it would have taken more than three weeks to properly join such a club and, in any case, I doubt that Kingston would accept someone disqualified by another ARA club, particularly one as prestigious as Thames.
One report previewing the Paris event that was widely copied says that Ashe was a member of Kensington but, as the Kensington RC archivist, I have never come across his name. It could have been a misunderstanding of the information that he was ‘from Kensington’, the district not the club. This would not be the last time there would be uncertainty about Ashe’s affiliations.
In the end, Ashe came a creditable second in the 1898 coupe de Paris, an event which the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News said: ‘included some of the best known French and Dutch oarsmen’. Despite a ‘jerky uneven stroke’ by ‘that game un’ noted by Sporting Life, he won two rounds and lost the final ‘by 50 centimetres’. The Life also recorded that, ‘No sooner out of his embarkation than Ashe changed to bathing drawers, diving in splendid fashion from off the Bry Bridge’.
If the worthies who ran Thames RC had hoped that Ashe would be better behaved in 1899, they would have been disappointed. He won his first round of the Diamond Sculls at Henley on 5 July when his opponent, EA Thompson of the Argonaut Club, Toronto, Canada, was disqualified. In the second round, he was easily beaten by Harry Blackstaffe (who in turn lost to Benjamin Hunting Howell in the final). The British papers were tight-lipped about the first round disqualification, but the Toronto Saturday Night was not:
Near the quarter mile, Ashe caused Thompson to foul him by crossing his bows. Thompson… allowed his rival to get well away, thereby giving him every possible advantage of the foul, which at best was a technical one…. (A) neck and neck struggle ensued… Thompson won… by a foot… (Ashe) claimed the race on a foul which was allowed him. It is the best comment on such unsportsmanlike action that his fellow clubmen of the Thames RC… greeted his deed with hisses, which were taken up by the crowd…
The TRC Committee must have agreed with the Toronto newspaper’s version for, on 13 July, it agreed that Ashe ‘not be entered under the club’s name for the sculls at any regatta’ and that a letter be sent to all regatta secretaries telling them to only accept TRC entries sent by the club secretary. The Thames committee minutes for 1896 – 1911 record only one other member stopped from rowing under TRC colours.
Despite the TRC Committee’s sanction, Ashe soon entered and won Senior Sculls at Chester, Oxford, Marlow, Windsor and Goring. No club affiliation is recorded for the first two but for the last three he is listed as a member of a club sited 15 miles south of Liverpool, Grosvenor RC, Chester. In September, Ashe won the Thames RC intra-club senior sculls ‘sculling remarkably well’ according to a press report.
Apart from Henley, other losses in 1899 included the Metropolitan, Kingston, Walton and Molesey.
At Walton, Ashe’s defeat in a heat was by two feet against Charles Vincent Fox, sculling in his first season. He was never again to get so close to Fox, a man who would go on to regard Harry Blackstaffe and Benjamin Hunting Howell as his real opposition – not St George Ashe.
At Molesey, Ashe had been disqualified for fouling his opponent. After this, an irate contributor to the magazine, Truth, wrote that, ‘He then tried to teach the umpire his duties. I see that he does not scull under Thames colours. He had better spend a few weeks in the study of the etiquette of oarsmen’.
There was more alleged unsporting conduct by the unattached sculler at Reading on 7 August 1899. Rowing in a heat, a pleasure boat collided with Ashe’s opponent. Ashe did not do the gentlemanly thing and stop and offer to re-row or restart the race but sculled on and claimed victory. The man that he was supposed to meet in the final refused to race him and a press report noted that there was ‘considerable feeling against St. G. Ashe’.
In October 1899, Ashe was third in that year’s Paris Cup, behind CV Fox and a Frenchman, H. Barrelet.
On 30 June 1900, the Thames committee again agreed that ‘Mr Ashe should not be entered or allowed to enter for any races under the club name during the current season’. This did not seem to stop him racing Senior Sculls and he won at Cambridge, Maidenhead, Staines, Marlow, Reading and Molesey, and lost at Bedford, Bourne End, Kingston and Windsor.
Newspaper reports did not attach Thames’ name to Ashe’s and either no club was given, or he was officially listed as ‘unattached’, or he was recorded as representing ‘Richmond’. Richmond-upon-Thames had two clubs at this time, but both were for tradesmen, not amateurs. It was typical Ashe.
At Henley’s Diamond Sculls in 1900, Ashe did not have any club recorded next to his name and in the first round he drew CV Fox. A press report on the heat said, ‘This was a rather poor race, as Fox was from first to last the superior man, and won in the easiest manner’.
Two weeks later, in the Wingfield Sculls, the ‘Amateur Championship of Great Britain and Ireland’, three scullers took part in the preliminary heat for the right to race the defending champion, Benjamin Hunting Howell. There were two ‘of the first order’, CV Fox of the Guards BC and HT Blackstaffe of Vesta RC – and then there was St G Ashe of Richmond, a man not really in the same class as the other two.
As if to confirm this, Ashe capsized on the first start and soon fell behind by crabbing after the restart. To give him credit though, when the spectators’ steamer passed him at Chiswick he gamely sculled back past it again and actually finished in second place, ahead of Blackstaffe, but only after the Vesta man had been obstructed by a barge and had exhausted himself racing Fox. However, The Times still called the Ashe – Blackstaffe scrap for second place ‘excellent’. In the final, Fox beat Howell (who was recovering from illness).
The 1900 Paris Olympics or ‘The Games of the Second Olympiad’ were held as part of the 1900 World’s Fair. In total, 997 competitors took part in 19 different sports but many athletes, including some winners, did not realise that they had competed in ‘The Olympic Games’.
In the regatta, a total of 108 rowers from eight nations competed but the self-selected Ashe was the only British representative. CV Fox had originally entered but then withdrew, probably when it became clear that the American champion, EH Ten Eyck, was not going to compete. In the sculls, 12 men raced: ten from France and one each from Great Britain and Spain (some reports list Maxime Piaggio as Italian, not French).
In winning his first heat, Ashe went out of his lane and fouled one of his two opponents. However, he was not disqualified, and in the semi-finals, he came third out of four, 14 seconds behind the winner. On unknown grounds, Ashe successfully protested the result of this race. The final therefore included five rowers instead of the planned four and Ashe came in third, 40 seconds behind the winner and 34 seconds behind the second placed sculler. The Standard felt that Ashe ‘could not be considered a representative of the best English class’.
British rowing writers were contemptuous of the abilities of those who ran what they referred to not as an ‘Olympic Regatta’ but as an ‘International Regatta’. It does seem that the organisers allowed Ashe to browbeat them into ignoring or bending the rules.
Whatever most of the Internet says, there were no gold medals awarded in the Paris Games. Silver medals went to winners, bronze medals went to those in second place, but nothing was awarded to those such as Ashe who came in third. Thus, while St George Ashe was the first Briton/Englishman/Irishman to row in the Olympic Games, he was not the first Olympic rowing medalist from the United Kingdom (this was the pair of Fenning and Thomson of Leander who won the first race on finals day at the 1908 London Olympics).
Towards the end of 1900, the 29-year-old Ashe suddenly moved his life in a new direction and in October became an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge. Why he did this is unknown. It seems unlikely that he did this for professional reasons as he was already a qualified solicitor. The initial suspicion is that he fancied three or four years of student rowing or even that he had Boat Race aspirations. In fact, there is no evidence that he rowed competitively while at Cambridge. In an article on entries for Cambridge’s prestigious intra-university sculling contest, the Colquhoun Sculls, the Western Daily Press of 13 November 1900 noted that Ashe could not take part as he was not a member of First Trinity Boat Club.
The only reference to Ashe having an involvement with rowing while supposedly ‘in residence’ at Trinity was in The Times when it was reported in both 1901 and 1903 that Ashe ‘looked after’ a contestant in the Colquhoun Sculls.
The current archivist at Trinity College Library, Jonathan Smith, has looked into Ashe’s time at Cambridge and found a typically opaque story:
According to the College admissions books, Ashe was admitted to Trinity on 5 October 1900… (He had) lived in Folkestone, but was educated by private tutors in Middlesex. Printed sources suggest that he did not graduate. While at Trinity, he was a member of the ‘Magpie and Stump’ debating society… (He) was blackballed or withdrew his application for membership of 1st Trinity Boat Club four times. On the last occasion there were 5 objections – four for fouling and one for rowing for Thames Rowing Club while wearing a bathing costume, which was adjudged unsportsmanlike behaviour. I cannot find any further evidence of his sporting activities and he does not seem to have participated in any inter-varsity competitions. Beyond this I have nothing on his later life.
The 1901 census was taken for whereabouts on 31 March and Ashe was recorded as living in a boarding house in Central London’s Bloomsbury district along with the landlady, three other boarders and a domestic servant. Cambridge’s Lent Term had ended on 27 March so this could have been compatible with him ‘keeping terms’ at Trinity, but it was also possible that he was working in Central London, not studying at university. In the census, his occupation was given as ‘solicitor’ not ‘student’.
With the approach of the 1901 rowing season, Ashe seemed full of enthusiasm and ambition. The Walsall Advertiser of 27 April reported that he was in training for the Diamonds and the Wingfields and that he had engaged the professional sculling champion George Towns as a trainer. The next year, the Globe noted that amateur scullers having professional trainers ‘is so usual now’.
On 9 June 1901, Ashe’s application ‘to be allowed to scull at Henley Regatta under the club colours’ was ‘agreed after some discussion’ by the TRC Committee.
The Diamond Sculls of 1901 provided Ashe’s best result of the seven attempts at Henley’s prestigious sculling prize that he made between 1899 and 1906 as he came second in the final, though easily beaten by CV Fox. Ideally, the final would have been against the two strongest competitors, Fox and Blackstaffe, but Ashe had a lucky draw and met the weaker competitors in the first round and in the semi-final, leaving Fox to knock out Blackstaffe in the semis before beating Ashe in the final.
In the London Cup (the Senior Sculls event at the Metropolitan Regatta) on 18 July and in the Wingfield Sculls four days later, the entries and the results were the same: 1st Blackstaffe, 2nd Ashe, 3rd Cloutte. Blackstaffe won easily in both but the Sporting Life noted that, in the Wingfields:
The struggle between Cloutte and Ashe was keen and it was not until Chiswick (Steps) that Ashe was enabled to shake off Cloutte. The latter was suffering from a badly damaged arm… It is certain that Cloutte is of the improving order…
When Ashe met Blackstaffe at Ibis and at Goring, he could not beat him, but he won Senior Sculls against other opposition at Twickenham, Chester, Kingston, Staines, Marlow and the highly regarded Molesey. Thus, 1901 was not a bad year for Ashe. Unfortunately, he was not to capitalise on it.
Tomorrow, Part Two concludes the story of St George Ashe.
My thanks to James Elder (Thames Rowing Club archivist), Jane Kingsbury (CUWBC historian), Robert Ashe (Ashe Family website) and Jonathan Smith (Trinity College Cambridge Library) for their assistance.