10 May 2021
By Chris Dodd
Last week, The Guardian turned 200 years. Chris Dodd, a former journalist and rowing correspondent of the newspaper, takes a look back at one of the paper’s most famous editors, who had rowed at Oxford.
The Guardian celebrated its 200th birthday on 5 May. Founded by a Manchester printer as a weekly newspaper after the Peterloo Massacre, the daily paper that it became now has a readership slightly larger than HTBS – 1.5 million subscribers and a mere 200 million monthly visits to its electronic editions.
Charles Prestwich Scott (1846 – 1932) was the editor in situ when the paper celebrated its centenary, and he wrote a piece in 1921 entitled “A Hundred Years” in which he coined the phrase that now appears daily on the leader page – ‘Comment is free, but facts are sacred’, often amended to ‘Comment is free, but facts are expensive’, a truism that illustrates the importance of all those readers and contributors to a paper that has kept its principles of fairness, truth, liberalism, good writing and so on in the age of fake news and unreliable social media.
Almost every line of Scott’s substantial piece is quotable – here are two that give the flavour:
Nothing should satisfy short of the best, and the best must always seem a little ahead of the actual. It is here that ability counts and that character counts, and it is on these that a newspaper, like every great undertaking, if it is to be worthy of its power and duty, must rely.
And then there is this piece of wisdom:
[…a newspaper’s common and successive labours] should be like a racing boat’s crew, pulling well together, each man doing his best because he likes it, and with a common and glorious goal.
Scott occupied the editorial chair for 57 years after being recruited as a future editor by the owner, his cousin, when still an undergraduate at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. A keen oarsman at Corpus (see Martin Wainwright’s 2019 HTBS piece here), he honed his journalistic skills by writing rowing for the Manchester Guardian – possibly its first rowing correspondent. He covered such gems as the Paris International in 1867 where the renowned St John fishermen from New Brunswick beat all comers rowing in a four without a coxswain, absolutely unheard of.
Scott told his readers:
Paris has resolved to have a genuine regatta and neither trouble nor expense have been spared to procure it… splendid prizes, the most exalted patronage, reduced fares for the oarsmen and free carriage for their boats, have been the baits held out to tempt competitors from every country. When to these are added the inducements which Paris itself at this carnival offers to every visitor… entries have been larger than anywhere known.
The Brunswickers in their high boots, long flannel coats and peaked hats, began a revolution.
Their style for rowing is by no means in accordance with received ideas. It consists in a short, quick stroke, pulled almost entirely with the arms, hitting the water fairly at the beginning, with a jerk at the end, and a regularly marked hang upon the chest. They row without a coxswain, bow steering, partly by an ingenious contrivance with his feet, partly with his oar. Their time is perfect and their course is as straight as a die…
Their success, Scott wrote, was largely due to splendid condition and enormous ‘grit’, but also to the lack of cox’s deadweight and good quality boats which, though heavy, are keel built and stand up well in the bows.
Also observing the goings on in Paris was Walter Bradford ‘Guts’ Woodgate of Brasenose College, Oxford, who returned home with some sketches of the self-steering gear and adapted a boat in time for 1868’s Henley. The Stewards were not amused when Woodgate announced Brasenose’s intention of competing in the Stewards’ Challenge Cup without a cox. They hastily passed a rule to the effect that eights and fours must carry coxes, but the wording was vague as to whether a cox must cross the finish line as well as the start line.
In the event, Brasenose began their race with a martyr, Frederick Weatherley, hunched in the rear – there was no seat for a cox – and as soon as they got going he jumped overboard. The coxless four won easily and were disqualified on the grounds that their action was against the spirit of competition. But it wasn’t long before the Stewards had dropped coxswains from all their four-oared challenge cups.
Scott went on to greater things, ensuring that the [Manchester] Guardian’s ‘common and successive labours’ pulled well together.