William Grenfell’s ‘Rowing at Oxford’

William Grenfell (standing second from left), Balliol College VIII, 1875.

18 February 2022

By Sandy Nairne

Sandy Nairne is a curator and writer. He rowed as a junior international with Radley College in 1969 and in the Isis crew in 1972. On HTBS, in August last year, Sandy Nairne and Peter Williams published an excerpt in three parts from their forthcoming book Titan of the Thames: The Life of Lord Desborough about William Grenfell, Lord Desborough, and the 1908 Olympic Games – see here. In the process of writing the biography, Nairne and Williams were intrigued to come across Grenfell’s own account of rowing at Oxford. This thinly veiled semi-autobiographical narrative was published in 1889, ten years after he left the university. [1] Nairne and Williams now want to share an extended excerpt with HTBS readers, as they seek supporters for their biography through the crowd-funding pages of their publishers, Unbound. Readers are invited to become advance subscribers of the biography and to take advantage of the various offers available. Please take a look here.

Before William Grenfell arrived in Oxford, he had already made a notable mark in cricket and athletics at Harrow School, achieving a time for the mile of 4 minutes 37 seconds, a record unbeaten for many years. He was also a determined young man. When offering him a place to study classics, the famous Master of Balliol, Dr Benjamin Jowett, initially refused Grenfell’s request to start later in the year. Grenfell complained in a letter to his mother that he thought Jowett ‘as obstinate as a pig’ and drew a caricature of a pig with spectacles to emphasize his point. He was almost certainly focused on fulfilling further sporting ambitions at school, but wrote to Jowett:

I have a strong desire to become a scholar and feel perfectly certain that it is of paramount importance for me to stop on here for two more terms: I am not yet advanced enough to be able to cast off regular School discipline without the greatest disadvantage.[2]

As a negotiating point, he offered to sit the Oxford entrance exam again. Perhaps surprisingly Jowett caved in, while confirming that he would indeed expect Grenfell, ‘to be examined again after Easter & to show us that you are really a better Scholar than you were last October.’

After starting at Oxford in October 1874, William Grenfell continued to run competitively, played cricket, and also hunted, becoming Master of the Oxford Drag Hunt. He joined the Freemasons in Oxford, by chance being registered on the same day as Oscar Wilde. By early 1875, he had taken up rowing – converting from ‘dry-bob’ to ‘wet-bob’ – and so began his extensive engagement with Oxford rowing on which he drew for his semi-autobiographical article. Not everything went smoothly, as another letter to his mother demonstrates:

I am disgusted with Balliol; it is peopled with little men with big heads who think themselves clever and don’t wash. As to setting a decent boat on the river it is absurd to dream of it, as most of those men who can row won’t, as they are in for Schools, and those who will row would look much better on the bank … We have a bad boat this summer. I shall never get into the varsity as one can’t learn to row properly if half the crew are all over the place for the first quarter mile and have to be pulled over the rest of the course.[3]

* * * *

For the sake of his 1889 article (written in somewhat breathless late Victorian style) Grenfell invented a student named Graham, studying at a fictitious college, St Giles’s, whose rowing career commences at the start of the October term:

‘All those who wish to be coached during the present term are requested to be at the College Barge at 2.15’ … Among those who are looking at it without any certain idea of what they mean to do that afternoon is one Graham, a freshman, who has just come up from a non-rowing school; but, although he has never handled an oar, nature has been physically kind to him and given him good lungs which he has well tested at his public school on the football field and running – track, a straight, strong back, and legs which have already stood him in good stead. There he stands eyeing the inoffensive document, little dreaming what toil and drudgery and what glorious reward it may mean to him should he respond to its call. As yet he has not made up his mind in which direction to seek the athletic laurels of which his brows are not accustomed to be bare – triumphs on the running path, the cricket and football fields, he feels to be not outside his grasp but fate or chance turns his steps towards the river, and little does he think he is about to court a mistress who will brook no rivals.

He sits down in the College Barge, full of aspirants like himself … Two men in earnest conversation are standing at the end of the barge – the one looks solemn and phlegmatic – the other quick and vivacious. These our hero is informed are the captain and secretary of the College Boat Club … The latter comes up to our freshman.

‘Have you ever rowed before?’
‘No.’
‘Have you weighed?’
‘Yes. I’m 12st. 6lbs.’
‘All right then, will you row three in my four?’

Into the boat our hero gets – puts his stretcher the right length, and starts for his first row on the Isis. The secretary stands up in the stern and begins to inculcate the first principles of oarsmanship. Very difficult they seem at first, and so different from what he had expected. ‘Now you must try not to row with your arms. Do all your work with your body and legs. Get your hands out with stroke and swing your body down with his: slowly forward and sharp back, but keep swinging the whole time,’ and the mysteries of a sharp recovery, feathering clean, and raising the hands sharply over the stretcher are duly explained to him. Graham got out of the boat with the conviction firm upon him that rowing, or at all events rowing in racing form, was a very much more complicated exercise than at first sight it appeared, still he felt that he had received sufficient encouragement from the coach to make it worthwhile to come down to the river again. … And as he was walking back to college under the grand old elms in Christ Church Meadows the captain and secretary were walking behind him. Says the secretary to the captain – ‘Did you see that chap rowing three in my boat? Well, he’s awfully strong and plugged like fun and can swing his body right down to his knees – but he’s awfully rough and knows nothing about it, and made the boat roll like a tub.’

‘Yes,’ replied the taciturn captain, ‘I was watching him, he has the making of an oar, and we mustn’t lose him: he knows nothing about it as you say – but it’s much easier to teach a man something entirely new, than to get him out of a bad habit, and I would much rather coach a man who knows nothing rather than one who has been badly taught.’

From that hour our hero’s fate is settled … He is fired by the rowing mania – he too will see if he cannot do something to uphold the college flag upon the river … Under the careful coaching of the college rowing staff he makes quick progress … and by the close of his first October term, [he is] a confirmed ‘wet-bob’, a devoted slave of the oar, and rowing in a trial crew for next term’s Torpid … He has now raced in an eight-oared boat, and has completed the first portion of his aquatic career with sufficient distinction to be pretty secure of a place in the College Eight in the next, the summer term.

When that term opens, our friend is rowing at his old place five in the College Eight which is sixth on the river. He is now initiated for the first time into the mysteries of the sliding seat, and cannot help sliding too soon. Also, when the crew go into the light boat for the first time, he is painfully conscious of his want of watermanship; when the boat rolls he feels doubtful as to which has the best of it, he or his oar. As the races draw near, the crew goes into strict training, and breakfast together by turns in each other’s rooms, and dine together in hall, on fare specially provided for them, according to immemorial custom.

The first night of the Eights is now upon them: the first of the six nights’ racing … Graham confesses to feeling akin to trepidation and a great dryness of the throat as he walks down to the barge with number six … ‘I wish my mouth wasn’t so dry; and the tea and brandy seems to have stopped about a quarter of the way down my throat.’ By this time he is standing on the college raft. ‘Now, then, get in all’, says the captain. ‘Shove her out! – Forward all! – Are you ready? – Paddle!’ And Graham finds himself halfway down to the start before he has time to think about the matter. Then comes the most agonizing six minutes of the lot – the waiting at the post before the start. There goes the five minutes’ gun. Plenty of time yet. Half the college is on the bank, ready to run with the crew, and armed – some of the trusted ones – with various implements for making diabolical sounds should the crew come within striking distance of the boat ahead.

Bang! There goes the minute gun … ‘Shove her out. Paddle a stroke bow. Hold tight to the bung, cox. Keep her stern out.’ The stroke of the Torpids crew is on the bank counting the seconds. ‘Half a minute gone.’ ‘Three-quarters gone.’ ‘Forward all!’ Not a sound to be heard save the counting of the seconds from the bank – ‘Ten seconds more, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one’ … Bang! And simultaneously with the flash of the gun ninety-six oars swish through the water as twelve boats dash off in pursuit of the one in front and flight from the one behind. What a swirl there is on the water, and what a roar of voices fills the air! ‘Well started, St. Giles’s. Well rowed all! You’re gaining – you’re gaining!’ Our hero hears but a confused din from the bank.

The roar from the bank is increasing, and seems more mingled and confused than it was before, and every now and again there comes to his ear the cry of ‘St James’s! Well rowed St James’s!’ mixed up with ‘You’re gaining St Giles’s!’ Ah, they must be near the boat ahead! And the two crowds of supporters on the bank must be mingling. How he wishes he could look round and see how close they were.

Stroke’s oar grazes the bank – they must be near the Gut now. He can just see the cox’s face quivering with excitement while he shouts, ‘You’re gaining every stroke!’ And what is this? The boat is suddenly dancing up and down like a cork upon a troubled sea; he knows what that means – they are in the ‘wash’ of the St James’s boat. Then above all the shouts he hears the voice of the old rattle, wielded by a reliable hand, which tells them they are within striking distance.

Stroke quickens. ‘Now then pick it up’. The rudder goes on hard – five can see the white foam fly – a fever of expectancy on cox’s face – then a gloomy look of disappointment, and the rudder is hard on the other way.

Ah! They have made a shot in the Gut and missed. The boat rolls – they have taken a bad Gut, and had a fruitless spurt taken out of them. A yell of triumph goes up from St James’s supporters on the bank, as their boat has gained a good half-length. A ding-dong battle ensues all up the Willows – one continued spurt, each boat doing all it knows. Graham cannot help wondering how long it can possibly go on, and whether each stroke will not be his last. He doesn’t know whether they are gaining or not. The rattle is still on, and they are really creeping up inch by inch. Now they are overlapping a foot, but still St James’s struggles gamely to get away, and the coxswain will not risk another shot, but whispers to the stroke, who calls upon his crew for one final spurt, which each one responds to as well as he is able. Ah! What’s that little shock. The yell from the banks from every Gilesian throat proclaims it a bump. How pleased everyone is! Not rowing men alone but the whole College seems to share in the general jubilation.

… Graham feels walking on air as he returns to his rooms, and the captain of the crew unbends so far on the occasion as to allow an extra glass all round at the supper to celebrate the victory. What is there to beat the wild excitement of a bumping race?

This is however only the first night of the races. Five more times has our hero to go through the same agony at the start and the same struggle in the race … However, they have made three bumps and finished second, and so celebrate the event right royally by a ‘bump’ supper, which is followed by the irregularities for which the College authorities find excuse in the excitement of the occasion.

* * * *

After this initial success Graham is disappointed not to be selected to take part in the Oxford University Trial VIII races. But he perseveres with college rowing, and helps coach the next year’s group of freshmen.

… So, with Torpids and Eights again passed another year and another long vacation, and time again brought around the October term with its freshmen and Fours and Trial Eights. This time Graham is captain of his College boat and keeps the sacred archives of the Club. One of his first duties as captain is to attend a general captains’ meeting at the University Barge for the election of the President of the O.U.B.C. and the various officials. The captains’ choice is unanimous, and falls upon one who had twice fought with Cambridge at Putney, and had been brought up in the best traditions of Eton rowing, the acme of style … After the meeting Graham is given a seat in the Trial Eights, which he occupies regularly throughout the term, and under the constant coaching of the President rapidly develops his latent power.…

The day of the race at last arrives, and with it the end of the term. The scene is Moulsford, where the course is fair and two crews can start and row abreast. A terrific race ensues after the word has been given by the President from the bows of the launch, on which he is accompanied by several old oars, and Graham’s crew wins by a bare quarter of a length.

‘Five rowed well in the winning boat: kept it long and hard the whole way through: did more to win the race than any one. And seven in the losing boat, he rowed in first-rate form, and worked well too. I should think both of them would do for next term.’

William Grenfell’s OUBC Trial VIII medal, either 1877 or 1878.

Such are some of the remarks of those on board, and next term they prove to be true. To Graham’s great delight the faithful Tims summons him daily at the President’s behest to attend at the University Barge and form one of the crew, which is made up of four new choices and four old oars.[4] Graham rows five and, when trained, scales 12st. 12lbs …

For William Grenfell himself it was a considerable triumph to progress, even over two years, from being a rough-edged novice freshman to being selected for the Oxford eight, rowing at 4. His own weight was officially registered as 12st 10lbs, though on the team photograph it was inscribed as 12st 11½lbs.

Oxford University 1877 crew, William Grenfell, standing at left.

An excellent account of the famously contentious dead-heat Boat Race of 1877 is offered by Tim Koch in his 2014 article “Lies, Damned Lies and the 1877 Boat Race”. Grenfell himself looked back across 61 years in an interview for BBC radio which accompanied coverage of the 1938 Boat Race. For his “Rowing at Oxford” article, Grenfell gives a summary account:

… The great day dawns. Graham sleeps well, having given himself up to a fatalistic feeling, and the knowledge that all must now soon be over. The usual training walk is taken before tubbing and rubbing down, the usual breakfast, the usual preliminary spin to see that all is right, the return to their quarters through the humming crowd flocking to take up their places to see the race …

Now they have fought their way down to the boat-house again. A few last words from the coach: ‘Start at thirty-eight for the first minute, and then keep it at thirty-seven. You do better at that than any other stroke. Keep it long. Keep your eyes in the boat, and think of nothing but the time and swing.’

With a ringing cheer from the bank they are off as challengers to wait at the starting-post for their rivals. Another cheer – here come Cambridge – and the two crews are side by side, about to test the result of so many weeks’ and months’ hard work. ‘Now look alive with the coats, every minute makes a difference to the tide’ … The two crews are ready stripped. A loud cheer from the Oxford steamer for Oxford, one from the Cambridge steamer for Cambridge. ‘Are you ready? Go!’ The oars grip the water together, and another great contest is about to be won and lost.

No need to describe a race which is described every year in every paper throughout the kingdom. Suffice it to say it was stubbornly contested throughout, and that the best crew won …

Grenfell concludes his article by offering a quick retrospective view of Oxford rowing, and allows Graham a moment to reflect on how rowing enhanced his time at the university:

He has found by taking a good degree that hard reading, whose worst enemy is loafing, goes well with the fixed and regular exercise of a boating career, as is proved by the select company of old blues which he has joined, which has upon its successful roll the names of Bishops, Judges, Statesmen, Headmasters, QCs, MPs, and one Ambassador.

As he looks at his oars and trophies and thinks over the lessons of generosity in victory, good-humour in defeat, of self-denial in training, of self-sacrifice and esprit de corps, of obedience and authority, he is well assured that not the least valuable of the lessons of his University career have been taught him on the river, and that all the toil he has gone through has been more than thrice repaid. Here we will leave him, barely realizing that he could have attained so much from such extremely small beginnings, did not eyes fall proudly on the legend engraved on the gold medal of a successful University crew – ‘Possunt quia posse videntur.

Reverse of William Grenfell’s Boat Race medal, either 1877 or 1878.
‘They can because they think they can’

* * * *

After great success in the following year’s 1878 Boat Race, with Oxford winning by 40 seconds, Grenfell was elected president and presumed that he would race for a third time the following year. But illness got the better of him and although he took time out from Oxford to recover, he was not deemed sufficiently fit by the University doctors to row in the 1879 crew. He coached, however, and this set a pattern by which each year he offered the Oxford crew at least a week’s coaching and invited them for dinner at Taplow Court, his mansion near Maidenhead.

Desborough remained devoted to Oxford rowing. In 1924, as Iffley Lock was being reconstructed, Grenfell, now Lord Desborough and for many years Chairman of the Thames Conservancy, presented a new starting ring for the Oxford Bumps races. He commissioned Charles Wheeler (a young sculptor later to become President of the Royal Academy) to create the head of an ox or bull, this being the symbol of Oxford. Through the bull’s nose the starting ring was secured. Wheeler modelled the head on one of Desborough’s own prize-winning shorthorn bulls, named Red Michael.

Editor’s notes: Crew photographs courtesy of Grenfell family albums and medals courtesy of a private collector. Readers who are interested in becoming advance subscribers of Titan of the Thames: The Life of Lord Desborough and to take advantage of the various offers available, please go here.


[1] Published in The English Illustrated Magazine, Macmillan & Co., Volume 7, 1889, pp 495-506.

[2] The correspondence between William Grenfell and Benjamin Jowett is held in the Hertfordshire Archive and Library Service: HALS D/ERv/C1156.

[3] ‘Schools’ was shorthand for the Examination Schools, the building in which most University exams are sat in Oxford. Letter to Georgian Grenfell, Vincents, Sunday [no date], Hertfordshire Archive and Library Service: HALS D/ERv/C1157/91.

[4] Tom Tims was the long-standing Oxford University boatman, serving from 1863 to 1908; see Tim Koch’s HTBS article of 18 May 2021, “Boating the Blues”.

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