Aquatic Oddballs in Britain’s Biography

The View of London Bridge from East to Weste by John Norden, 1597. As this picture indicates – and as Sir Thomas Rempston had confirmed 1406 – passing under the London Bridge of 1209 was a risky act. Picture: Folger Shakespeare Library (CC BY-SA 4.0).

14 October 2021

Article by Chris Dodd, image selection and captions by Tim Koch

Chris Dodd mines the DNB.

A while ago I was given access to the 2006 electronic version of Oxford University Press’s Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) in part payment for a couple of contributions, so I typed ‘rowing’ into the search window and watched a welter of deceased oddballs and history makers tumble out of my printer – around two hundred of them. Few are included for their prowess at rowing, and quite a few make you wonder why they are there at all. I put them in a file for future reference and forgot about them until rediscovering the file recently and couldn’t resist dipping into it. 

Oxford’s DNB – worth dipping into if you have access.

So here is a random selection of incidents in British history as seen from small boats. First up, the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, who was the Jacobite claimant to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland and styled as Charles III. His 14 pages in the DNB describe his sometimes cantankerous, sometimes charming life fighting his way round Europe and shagging his way round the daughters of lesser-known European monarchies.

The only reference to rowing in Charlie’s DNB entry is not ‘over the sea to Skye’ but a consequence of his defeat at Culloden in 1746. On the run and attempting to find passage to France, the bonnie prince and his entourage ‘rowed back to Scalpay’ on 10 May. 

As Prince Regent of the exiled house of Stuart, Charlie tried to regain the British throne by uniting Highland clansmen and invading England. After his final defeat in 1746, he was chased across Scotland for several months before ultimately escaping to France.

I failed to find a rowing reference in Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s 23-page entry, but he serves as a reminder that in the 16th century transport by boat was at the root of communication. Rivers were the motorways of centuries before the wheel and tar roads (and there was no such thing as a smart river).

A good example of reliance on water transport is the adventures of Guy Fawkes, a professional soldier from a protestant family in York who was educated at the now well-known rowing school of St Peter’s. He became a Catholic sympathiser in his teens, and as a young man was characterised as a paragon of virtue while skilled in matters of war. 

Fawkes is famous for his part in the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in the cause of Catholicism, recruited by ringleader Thomas Winter on the recommendation of mastermind Robert Catesby. The conspirators stored their gunpowder and mining paraphernalia in Catesby’s old Vauxhall manor house on the Surrey bank of the Thames in Lambeth while they dug a tunnel to the foundation wall of parliament in the dead of night. Tunnel complete, they rowed their explosives to conspirator Thomas Percy’s house on the Westminster side of the river. The plot to change the Westminster skyline – in more ways than one – was set for 5 November 1605 but was foiled. Rowing explosives around on the Tideway became the least of the conspirators’ worries. 

Guy Fawkes was not the Gunpowder Plot’s ringleader and there were thirteen conspirators in total. However, it was Fawkes who gained notoriety after he was caught red-handed with 36 barrels of gunpowder stowed under Parliament. His former school, St. Peter’s, does not celebrate Guy Fawkes Night, refusing to burn a Guy out of respect for one of their own.

Sir Thomas Rempston was a soldier and owner of the manor of Bingham in Nottinghamshire and supporter of the Lancastrian cause. The DNB says that the account of his capture by the French in the Thames estuary may be a conflation in later chronicles of his career with that of his son. 

But, says the DNB, there is no doubt about the manner of Rempston’s death. On 31 October 1406, while being rowed down the Thames towards the Tower of London (5-star hotel for foreign dignitaries and gaol for traitors), he commanded the boatmen on pain of death to pass under London Bridge, despite their insistence that the strength of the tide against them made the passage extremely hazardous. 

From King John’s reign London Bridge was 26 feet wide with 19 arches, some of which were blocked by grain mills and water wheels, its piers protected by ‘starlings’ that caused the depth of water to vary by as much as six feet either side – hence the saying that the bridge is for ‘wise men to pass over and fools to pass under.’ Specialist bridge shooters would risk the torrent under the bridge for premium fares, but most passengers alighted wherries up or downstream of the bridge and walked or rode to the next steps above or below the bridge to continue their journey by water. 

Rempston had his way; his boat collided with a starling and capsized, drowning Sir Thomas. He was a ruthless character, illustrated by a will that contained guilt in buckets of charitable bequests. 

Detail from Norden’s 1597 The View of London Bridge from East to Weste showing some skilful shooting of Old London Bridge.
Another detail from Norden showing the result of a less-than-skilful attempt of passing under Old London Bridge. 

Morgan Hen (‘the Old’) aka Morgan Mawr (‘the Great’) was the most dominant king of the Morgannwg region of Wales from 930 to 974. He spent much of his time witnessing the signing of charters in England and resorted to King Edgar’s English court to settle a territorial dispute with King Hywel Dda. But the DNB points out that Morgan is conspicuous by his absence from the list of Welsh kings said to have submitted to Edgar at Chester and rowed him along the Dee after his ‘coronation’ in Bath in 973. It is possible, says the DNB, that after his forty-year reign, Morgan was too old to engage in naval activities. 

A fanciful Victorian view of eight kings or princes rowing down the Dee from Chester in 973 with King Edgar I at the helm.

Thomas Tollemarche’s experience of travelling in Europe and studying at Queens’ College, Cambridge, developed his interest in the genius, customs, politics and interests of foreign nations. He became a high-ranking army officer and a great supporter of William III, resigning his commission in 1686 in protest at the admission of Catholics. 

By 1694, though, he was back scrapping against the French. He commanded an expedition to Brest, where on 7 June he encountered a strong French force in Camaret Bay. Tollemarche’s plan was to skirt the French ships in the bay and bombard Brest, but any surprise element within such a move was thwarted by the hours it took for Lord Carmarthen to position his ships. Eventually a flotilla of small boats advanced on the beach and met heavy French fire. Tollemarche ordered his boat to be rowed to within shouting distance of Lord Cutts, the flotilla commander, who received a dressing down in best stiff-upper-lip style: 

‘My lord,’ shouted Tollemarche, ‘is this following of orders? Do you see how the boats are in disorder? Pray, my lord, let us land in as good order as we can.’ This naval version of the charge of the Light Brigade ended in tears. Tollemarche was injured and persuaded to retreat by his underlings in the face of heavy fire from French artillery and cavalry. He was carried to his boat and rowed to safety. Three hundred of his men were killed.

The Cutting-Out of the French Corvette “La Chevrette” in Camaret Bay. Picture: Bristol Museum & Art Gallery (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Dame Mary Joan ‘Bovvy’ Tyrwhitt’s father was Admiral of the Fleet, which explains why her family spent time in Gibraltar, Malta, Scotland and London. In Gibraltar, she spent mornings at a convent school and afternoons hunting, swimming, rowing and playing tennis. When she was 14, her father was in charge of the Navy’s fleet of cruisers and destroyers in Harwich, and at the conclusion of the First World War, she witnessed 129 surrendered German submarines being escorted into the port. 

Bovvy became a Girl Guide leader and joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) and transformed it into the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) in 1949. 

Dame Mary Joan Caroline Tyrwhitt. Picture: National Portrait Gallery x91554 (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Lord William George Frederic Cavendish-Scott Bentinck was a soldier, sportsman and politician described as the ‘bulwark of the protectionism cause’ against advocates of free trade. Born in 1802 and brought up on his family’s estate at Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire, he attended neither school nor university, but gained sporting skills as a brilliantly daring horseman, a good shot, cricketer and oarsman. His main interest was riding and betting, becoming known as the ‘Leviathan of the Turf’.

Statue inscribed “William George Frederick Cavendish Bentick Died MDCCCXLVIII” in Cavendish Square, London. Picture: Wikipedia/Chemical Engineer.

Horatio Gordon Hutchinson was a writer and golfer educated at Charterhouse, the United Services college at Westward Ho! and Corpus Christi college, Oxford, where he captained Oxford in the first university golf match in 1878. He represented Oxford at billiards and was a competent oarsman, cricketer, angler and shot. He wrote prolifically for newspapers on golf, shooting, fishing and natural history, and was the author of several golf books and some novels that the DNB describes grudgingly as ‘not unsuccessful’ for an essayist rather than a novelist. 

Horatio Gordon Hutchinson as depicted by Vanity Fair and by a contemporary photographer.

Ernst Georg Ravenstein was born in 1834 in Frankfurt am Main, a place known for its engraving and cartography. He emigrated to London in 1852 and obtained a job as cartographer with the topographical department of the War Office. He began writing in 1856 with a work on Russian exploration, to be followed by a stream of travel books and guides. Ravenstein developed an interest in sport and was the founder and first president of the German Gymnastics Society that built a magnificent gym beside St Pancras railway station. The building is still there, now a bar-restaurant. He was active in many societies including the Royal Geographical and the Royal Statistical and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. 

Among his literary works is a translation of Vasco da Gama’s account of his first voyage, and his Oarsman’s and Angler’s Map of the River Thames (published in 1893 and reprinted in 1991).

Ernst Georg Ravenstein. Picture: Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Michael Flanders, actor and lyricist, attended Westminster School and became a notable oarsman and quarter-miler at Christ Church, Oxford, before poliomyelitis altered his life. He eventually found fame with his old school mate, Donald Swann, in Flanders and Swann.

Donald Swann (left) and Michael Flanders (right).

A contemporary of Flanders at Westminster was the polymath and bulky Peter Ustinov who I caught being interviewed by Michael Parkinson on YouTube. He remarked to Parky how he was forced to play cricket and row at school. He didn’t take to rowing much – ‘I don’t like having my back to the engine.’ He caught a crab and ‘my little seat came off’. There is nothing more stupid than eight men sitting in a row while water rises around them, he said. ‘After destroying the boat, I was allowed to go and play tennis.’

A young Ustinov, freshly out of Westminster School. 

Another old Westminster popped up on a repeat of the BBC antiques programme, Flog It!, when presenter Paul Martin did a feature on the Boat Race and interviewed Oxford coach Dan Topolski on how there was a gradual dietary change from ten pints of Guinness to a non-alcohol and healthy eating preparation before doing battle on the Tideway.

1978: Dan explains to the Oxford crew why they are still training while the pubs are open.

That’s all, folks! But one of these days I will dive into the DNB again.


  1. Ernst Georg Ravenstein’s father Friedrich August Ravenstein also was a cartographer and gymnast, probably more of a democrat and less of a radical nationalist than his more famous colleague Johann Friedrich Ludwig Christoph “Turnvater” Jahn. Ernst Georg seems to have emigrated for poltical reasons to London in the aftermath of the the collapse of uprisings and closure of the first German parliament of 1848. See and Wikipedia.

  2. Thanks – a great read.

    I lived for 8 years in Newcastle (Naval Architecture training), and was much more into sailing than rowing.

    One recollection of under oars was taking out a crew of Sea Scouts/Sea Cadets (small bodies) in the Tyne Naval Reserve 27 ft whaler – quite a heavy boat, pulling 5 oars. I retained the ability to get back to the drill ship HMS CALLIOPE against the significant tide by attachment to a long rope. No support motorboat available at the time.

    Have a look at my work in progress on my website – I have still to get my prototype canoe afloat.

    Peter Edmonds Perth, Western Australia

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