19 January 2021
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch concludes the strange life-story of Britain’s first Olympic oarsman.
St George Ashe was always regarded as ‘a trier’, probably even by those who disliked his overtly competitive nature, something regarded as inappropriate for a ‘gentleman amateur’. However, in 1902, Ashe entered only three sculling races: Cambridge Amateur (he came off his seat and lost), Chester (he ‘rowed over’) and the Diamond Sculls (he did not get beyond the first round). This poor form may have been because whilst in his second year at Cambridge he was concentrating on cycling, not rowing. The Athletic News of 14 April 1902:
The victory of St. George Ashe in the Cambridge University fifty miles (cycle) race came rather as a surprise to me, who knew him better as a first-class amateur sculler rather than a cyclist. He did not forget to win well, however, seeing he finished two miles in front of O. P. Saunders, in the excellent time of 2hrs 26min 50sec… Ashe rode his first 20 miles in 57min 16sec. He is not a particularly young man, by the way, but is a rare enthusiast for anything in which he takes an interest. He may possibly abandon the river for (cycle racing).
In the first round of the 1902 Diamonds, Ashe was beaten easily by Julius Beresford. On the day of this heat, Thames RC held an Emergency Committee Meeting at Henley for the sole purpose of considering ‘the advisability of not entering St George Ashe in regattas under the Thames Rowing Club colours’. The six present agreed that he should not, even though the regatta programmes had already been printed.
Ashe did not enter the 1902 Wingfield Sculls, something that he no doubt later regretted (some reports suggested that he wanted to race but failed to get his entry in on time). For differing reasons, Harry Blackstaffe, Charles Fox and the 1902 Diamonds winner, Frederick Kelly, all of whom could beat Ashe easily, had not entered. Ultimately, only three ‘second division’ scullers raced and AH Cloutte narrowly beat the favourite, RB Etherington-Smith, with Julius Beresford coming in third.
In reviewing the 1902 Wingfields in Athletic News, ‘Viator’ was sniffy:
It cannot be said that either quality or quantity marked the entries for the Wingfield Sculls this year… Can it be, as alleged, that the ‘Diamonds’ race now appeals to sculling men more? It looks very like it anyway. All I can say is, Mr AH Cloutte must consider himself an extremely lucky man to hold the proud title of Amateur Champion of England.
Frustratingly for Ashe, he had beaten Cloutte six times in their seven meetings between 1900 and 1901 (though, paradoxically, Ashe had just lost at Henley to the Wingfield’s last placed Beresford).
As was now almost traditional, on 25 June 1903, the Thames RC Committee again agreed that Ashe should not be entered under club colours for the Diamond Sculls. However, this ruling proved unnecessary as, reporting on the Henley draw, The Times of 6 July 1903 noted:
The entry of Mr St George Ashe for the (Diamond Sculls) could not be received, as it had been made by telegram only, and had not been confirmed until some days after it ought to have been.
This time, perhaps Ashe was distracted not by cycling but by running. The Cambridge Daily News of 3 February 1903 reported on the University Half-Mile Handicap. Ashe won, beating 11 other students, all presumably ten years younger than the 32-year-old. He was not slow, his time for the half-mile (805 metres) was 1min 57sec (in 2021, the world record for 800 metres is 1min 41sec).
St. G. Ashe is the well-known sculler and has devoted a great deal of time to running but previously without meeting any success. On the present occasion he made no mistake and running strongly was never approached and won by quite twenty yards…
As unpredictable as ever, in July and August, Ashe entered the Senior Sculls at some ‘up river’ regattas. He did not win at any but did seem to display a partial return to form. At Reading, he won his first round in a hard race and then lost by one foot in the final, beaten by previous year’s winner who was fresh and who had the best station. Unfortunately for Ashe, he encountered a new nemesis, the rising star, Guy Rixon of Kingston RC, coached by the great professional, WG East. In 1903, Rixon beat Ashe easily whenever they met: Goring, Marlow, Kingston, Molesey and Staines.
In the 1903 Wingfield Sculls qualifying race for the right to challenge Cloutte, the holder, six entered but Ashe came fifth behind FS Kelly, Harry Blackstaffe, Julius Beresford and Guy Rixon. With typical Ashe ambiguity, he listed his allegiance not as ‘First Trinity Boat Club’ but as ‘Trinity College, Cambridge’.
The year 1904 began with Ashe, still apparently studying at Cambridge, much occupied with a race against Oxford. However, this contest was not about rowing on the Tideway, it was one of speed-skating at Davos, Switzerland. He was one of a Cambridge pair that lost three races against two Oxford men on 23 January – though The Field was complementary:
(Cambridge had) excellent material… in Mr JP Burbery (Christ’s College), the Cambridge mile runner, and Mr St. George Ashe (Trinity College), who is better known as a sculler… both of whom had taken up speed-skating with great keenness at Christmas, and had about a month’s practice on the Davos racing track by the day of the race… Both… have made very rapid progress… and their skating against the two more experienced Oxonians was most creditable.
Although Ashe and Burbery were representing Cambridge University, both had spent at least over two weeks of the Lent Term (which had begun on 8 January) abroad. I am not sure how this fitted in with the very serious obligation to ‘keep term’ at the university, meaning that a student had to reside in Cambridge for 59 nights during the Lent Term.
On the rowing front, the Thames Committee Meeting of 24 June 1904 accepted an application from Ashe ‘to be allowed to enter for the Diamond Sculls at Henley Regatta under the club colours’.
As 1904 went on, it looked like it would be a bad year for Ashe, even though he had a professional trainer in the form of Young Tom Green. In the preliminary heat of an oversubscribed Diamond Sculls, he lost by ten lengths to Guy Rixon. At Kingston, he was defeated in the first round of the Senior Sculls. Racing for the London Cup at the Metropolitan Regatta, Ashe came in last behind Harry Blackstaffe, Julius Beresford, CHR Thorn and Guy Rixon. ‘An Old Blue’ writing in the Daily Telegraph thought, ‘Ashe seems to have quite lost his pace this year’.
The 1904 Wingfield Sculls was Ashe’s last but unlikely chance to win something in that year. However, luck was on his side and the four men who could certainly have beaten him did not enter. Harry Blackstaffe raced for the Wingfields between 1897 and 1908 with the exception of 1902, 1904 and 1907. Frederick Kelly entered only once, winning in 1903 (he was probably one of those who thought the Diamonds the more important event). Guy Rixon was due to race but withdrew due to illness. Julius Beresford probably should have entered but did not. This left only St George Ashe and Arthur Hamilton Cloutte. Although Cloutte had mostly been beaten by Ashe in 1901 and 1902, the latter had ‘lost pace’ and the former was ‘on the up’ and had unexpectedly beaten Rixon in a heat of the Diamonds a few weeks previously. Cloutte was thus the favourite but Ashe, rowing under Thames RC colours and ‘sculling the longer and the better of the two’, won by six lengths.
The Field of 23 July 1904:
(Cloutte) sculled without life from the first, dug his sculls very deep, and was in entirely different form from that shown (at Henley) and at Harrods Wharf his left arm gave out.
The Sportsman of 19 July 1904:
After passing Hammersmith, Ashe always held his man and won easily… and at no period could he have been said to be extended. The winner certainly has been a trier, and from every point of view deserves the success which at last has attended his efforts.
February 1905 saw Ashe speed-skating at Davos again. As with his sculling, he did hesitate to take on those who were clearly faster than himself and he was easily beaten over 500 metres by a very experienced Austrian who had recently won the 5,000-metre race at the Austrian Championships.
Since 1898, the TRC Committee had annually discussed whether Ashe should be allowed to row for the club but in 1905 the question was never officially raised. Perhaps Ashe was mellowing? Perhaps the Committee was mellowing? Perhaps Thames liked the idea of a Wingfields winner wearing its colours?
Still coached by Young Tom Green, Ashe had a poor 1905 season. He was beaten easily in the first round of the Diamonds by Guy Rixon; defending the Wingfield Sculls, he was beaten by Blackstaffe by one-and-a-half minutes; at Windsor he lost to the up-and-coming William H Darell; attempts to win various handicap sculling races were unsuccessful; in the Netherlands, he lost in the first round of the Senior Sculls at the National Sculling Championships.
As now seemed to be his custom, Ashe spent the early months of 1906 in Switzerland involved in winter sport. At the end of January in Davos, he entered four speed-skating races, 500, 1500, 5000 and 10,000 metres, and came fourth out of six in all of them. The man who won three of the races established a world record time in the 500-metre event so, once again, Ashe had not hesitated to take on the best. In March, he was in St Moritz, coming first in one bobsleigh race but last in another.
On 12 June, The Sportsman wrote:
It was thought that St G. Ashe had retired from first-class sculling, but as during the past few days the Thames RC man has been seen out in the neighbourhood of Brentford with Wag Harding as coach, it is evident that he intends to go on. He is using an Australian boat that was built by George Towns.
However, 1906 was as bad a rowing season for Ashe as 1905 had been. He lost in the Senior Sculls heats at Molesey, Kingston, Goring and Bedford; racing Cloutte to see who would challenge Blackstaffe for the Wingfields, he lost by 15 lengths; DCR Stuart beat him ‘easily at a paddle’ at Henley in the first round of the Diamonds; in the Metropolitan Regatta’s London Cup, Ashe lost to WH Darell by eight lengths.
Perhaps the 35-year-old realised that he was getting too old for top class single sculling and in May 1906, sitting at ‘7’, he took part in the Thames RC Trial Eights, his boat coming first in the second division. At the end of July, he was ‘3’ in the Thames boat that beat five crews to win the Tideway Junior-Senior Eights Championship. At Goring in August, he was back at ‘3’ when TRC came first in Junior-Senior Eights.
In early 1907, Ashe, a 36-year-old bachelor, married Francesca Josephine Sharples, a 51-year-old widow. She had been born into the Salvin family who were wealthy, aristocratic Roman Catholics. Francesca had an unhappy childhood (courtesy of uncaring parents and mad nuns) and she eloped aged 21, becoming Mrs Sharples. She was widowed aged 29 and her son predeceased her when she was 49. Despite her earlier elopement, she may have brought family money into the marriage as, when she died in 1941, she left £40,000, a sum that would be worth over £2 million today. There are no clues as to what sort of marriage it was and to whether one or both either benefited or suffered as a result of the union.
There are few references to Ashe rowing after 1906. As a former Wingfields Champion, he umpired the 1908 race, seeing his old adversary, Blackstaffe, win again. At York Regatta on 10 July 1909, he won a heat of the Sculling Championship of the Ouse, losing the final by one-and-a-half lengths. Two weeks later, he won the first heat of the Sculling Championship of the Tyne but was beaten ‘easily’ in the final. For both events he gave his club as Talkin Tarn ARC which was (and is) located in Brampton, Cumbria. Two years later, the 1911 census confirmed that Mr and Mrs St George Ashe were living in a large 18th-century country house, Moorhouse Hall, Warwick-on-Eden, five miles from the club.
In 1912, Ashe and his wife moved further north and for five years they lived at ‘Cluden Bank’, Holywood, Dumfries, Scotland. For £40 a year they rented ‘the dwelling house of Cluden Bank with offices, garden, stabling, shootings over the adjacent lands of Kilness, and the trout and other fisheries in the Cairn’. It had ‘five bedrooms, three public rooms and hot and cold water’. For another £22 a year they hired a cook. Ashe fished, shot game and kept chickens while his wife bred show dogs.
All seemed well until early 1916 when Ashe got involved in a complex legal action when he gave notice to quit Cluden Bank but then changed his mind. His landlord would not accept the withdrawal of notice and a court case and an appeal followed, Ashe eventually winning the right to stay. However, by 19 May 1917, the Dumfries and Galloway Standard contained a very long list of ‘household furniture and outside effects… belonging to Mr Ashe, who is removing…’ for sale by auction on the 24th. Unless this was what we would now call ‘downsizing’, the sale could have been of the entire contents of Cluden Bank.
Also, in 1916, there was a sad episode that indicated that Ashe’s lifelong ‘eccentricity’ had turned into something more worrying.
The Folkestone Herald of 2 September 1916 devoted many column inches to ‘An extraordinary assault case… at Folkestone Police Court…’ It reported that, ‘St George Ashe, a well-dressed man… was charged with assaulting Joseph Edward Oram, a night watchman on Victoria Pier, by biting off a portion of his ear’. The Times report on the case stated that Ashe was ‘said to be a well-known oarsman’.
It seems that on 26 August, Ashe, accompanied by his wife, had put a penny in an arcade machine on the pier to get ‘an amusing photograph by marvellous X-rays’. The coin got stuck and he could not retrieve it. He returned home but this minor irritation must have played on his mind all night and early the next morning he put a coat on over his pyjamas and went back to the pier with a screwdriver and a knife, determined to get his penny back. In the midst of this operation, he was stopped by Oram, the night watchman, who told him that his money would be refunded as soon as the owner arrived. Ashe insisted in continuing dismantling the machine and a fight ensued in which part of one of the watchman’s ears was bitten off.
In court, tragedy may have turned to comedy. Ashe and Oram appeared with bandaged heads. Both the ‘X-ray machine’ and the piece of ear were produced as evidence. Ashe denied that he would fight in the manner alleged, saying with unconscious irony, that he had ‘the reputation of being a good sportsman’.
The magistrates eventually ruled that Ashe had ‘acted like a brute’ and that he ‘deserved a term of imprisonment’ but, because he had agreed to pay the watchman £25 in compensation (£2,000 today), he was only fined £5 plus costs – or serve one month in prison. It seems that, as was the case at Ashe’s father’s court-martial for wounding an Indian servant 55 years previously, ‘gentlemen’ were still dealt with leniently when accused of assaulting one of the lower orders.
The incident of Oram’s ear seemed to indicate that Ashe had mental health issues – but worse was to come. By 1922, he was 51 and living in the rural village of Caton, Lancashire, but on 25 June, he was ‘undergoing treatment’ of an unspecified nature three hundred miles away in St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, at the house of a Dr WE Grandy. It seems that ‘he was found lying dead in (Grandy’s) front room. A piece of gas tubing, one end of which had been connected with a gas stove, was beside the body’. Coal gas was in use in those days and, at ten percent carbon monoxide, it was ‘the execution chamber in everyone’s home’.
The coroner’s verdict on Ashe was ‘suicide during temporary insanity’. Details are scant because, while the press were happy to report his 1916 court case in full, the stigma of suicide and mental illness prevalent at the time meant that only a few lines were given to covering his death. He left over £2,800 (about £160,000 today) to his wife (who was already personally wealthy) so it seems unlikely that he had any immediate money worries.
Two years after Ashe’s suicide, his mother, Rosamond, died aged 81. The place of her death was given as ‘The County Mental Hospital, Lancaster’, an institution that had comfortable ‘villas’ for private patients and that was thought to be a pioneering place for the humane treatment of mental illness. She was buried not with her husband in Twickenham but with her mother in Folkestone. It cannot be a coincidence that Ashe had been living in Caton, five miles away from the Lancaster hospital and I speculate that he moved from Scotland in 1917 to be near her.
Nearly 30 years previously, in 1896, Ashe’s great-aunt, Eliza, had been declared insane by the Lunacy Commission and had died at Ashe’s London home under a year later. In an age when the mentally ill were put away and forgotten, Ashe seems to have kept very close contact with both of these women in their final years. If true, this presents a different picture of the man to the one drawn so far.
What can we say of St George Ogilvie Ashe, the man? He came from a family that had mental health issues and this too seems to have affected him, particularly in his later years. In 1902, the Athletic News noted that he was ‘a rare enthusiast for anything in which he takes an interest’. To be enthusiastic is a positive thing but to be obsessive or unrealistic is not. An eccentric can be charming but generally Ashe did not seem to get on well with people, particularly when his unbridled competitiveness clashed with Edwardian ideas on sportsmanship. He seemingly failed to respond to widespread criticism of his behaviour and today we might say that he was on the autistic spectrum. More positively, he may well have been a devoted son to his mother.
The rowing career of St George Ashe ran between 1896 and 1906 and had some apparent top-level successes. Unfortunately, these pale somewhat on closer examination.
Ashe’s Wingfield’s win of 1904 was against just one other man of similar abilities, Arthur Hamilton Cloutte. He got to the final of the 1901 Diamonds (coming a poor second) because a lucky draw gave him two weak opponents in the heats. Another poor second, that in the 1901 London Cup, was the result of having only three entries, one being Cloutte. He got second or third placings in the Paris Cup of 1898 and 1899 and in the 1900 Olympic Regatta – but the standard of these events is questionable.
Despite this, it is still correct to say that Ashe was one of the best ‘club level’ rowers competing in the years between 1896 and 1901 as well as being a talented all-round sportsman, competitive in cycling, running and speed skating. In sculling, he won at many of the highly regarded ‘upriver’ regattas such as Molesey, Marlow, Windsor, Goring, Maidenhead, Staines, Reading and Twickenham, mostly in Senior Sculls. He often had trouble keeping his boat on station and frequently accidentally ‘fouled’ opponents. He seemed to repeat this classic mistake of the beginner and constantly allowed the excitement of racing to override the detached skill that is the mark of the experienced competitor. From 1902 onwards Ashe’s age started to tell, and he allowed other sports to distract him from rowing training.
Had Ashe confined himself to club level rowing, his record would be regarded with more esteem. However, he often attempted to take on great scullers such as Harry Blackstaffe, Fredrick Kelly, Charles Fox, William Darell, Duggie Stuart and Guy Rixon, men who he could never hope to properly beat.
Some would say that Ashe was ‘heroic’, but I do not think that ‘heroism’ was a motivation for him, he did not accept the idea that “it’s not the winning that counts, it’s how you play the game”, he wanted to beat the best by almost any means, and he refused to accept that he did not have the required skill and ability to win at the highest level.
The words of the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News on the occasion of Ashe’s 1904 Wingfieds win probably best serve as his epitaph:
Mr St George Ashe… is what is familiarly known as a ‘trier’ … (He) has never given up….
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.