A Wellcome Discovery

“Artistic Poses” by Robert J. Colenso (1900). Plate XIIa: Rowing – Getting Forward. In 1900, a chap may have had his skin removed but he would still take the trouble to wax his moustache. Credit: Wellcome Collection/Public Domain.

22 August 2022

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch gladly embraces “Big Pharma.”

One of the things that Britain can be assuredly proud of is that many of its great museums do not charge for admission. The Centre for Public Impact notes in its website: 

Charging for entry to national museums has been a contentious issue since the 1960s… The Labour government of 1997 promised to reintroduce free admission and finally did so in 2001, since when it has become an accepted fact of cultural life. 

In the digital age, many museums and similar bodies in Britain and around the world have extended this apparent largess by posting high resolution images of all or part of their collection on the internet and allowing free non-commercial use through public domain or Creative Commons designations.  

I recently discovered one such website, that of the Wellcome Collection. It summarises its history thus:

Henry Wellcome (1853-1936) was a pharmaceutical entrepreneur. He left us three things in his will: his wealth, his collection of historical medical items, and a mission to improve health through research… After his death in 1936… the company became the property of the newly formed Wellcome Trust, which used the profits to fund charitable activities supporting research related to health… After the sale of the company… in 1995, Wellcome became one of the largest grant-giving charities in the world… 

The American-born Sir Henry Wellcome pictured in 1890. Picture: Wikipedia (CC BY 4.0)

Henry Wellcome’s collection was a vast personal project, the privilege of a wealthy white man in the Victorian era. He travelled the world (and sent others on his behalf) to acquire items relating to his interest in ‘the art and science of healing throughout the ages…’ 

Many objects were taken out of their social and cultural context and used to sustain a narrative that assumed European superiority… 

After Henry Wellcome’s death, much of his collection was dispersed to other museums and collectors, though we still have thousands of objects in our care, as well as other items acquired since 1936. These form the basis of exhibitions and research at Wellcome Collection, our free museum and library that opened in 2007 to explore health and human experience.

The Wellcome Collection is a museum and library at 183 Euston Rd, London NW1. Images: Wellcome Collection. 

As well as the free museum and library, there is also Wellcome’s online collection.

Thousands of items from our collections have been digitised, and copies are freely accessible online. Our digital collections cover a wide variety of topics, and are particularly strong in the areas of mental health, sex and sexual health, genetics, public health, and 19th-century books…  

Digitised materials from our collections can be accessed and downloaded for use under a variety of Creative Commons non-commercial, attribution and Public Domain licences, depending on the material. 

Regular readers will not be too surprised that I put “rowing” into the online search box and found a total of 1221 results. Of course, not all were relevant to HTBS Types, but I have reproduced an eclectic collection of some of my favourites below. 

Eadweard Muybridge 

Muybridgeis best known for his pioneering chronophotography of locomotion which used multiple cameras to capture the different positions in a stride, sometimes capturing what the human eye could not distinguish as separate moments in time. The Wellcome Collection has two of his studies of rowers in action.

Two men rowing, 1887. The rowing technique here is quite good, I suspect that the models may have been “real’ oarsmen. Credit: Wellcome Collection/Public Domain.
A man rowing, 1887. The rowing technique demonstrated here makes me think that this model was not an oarsman. Credit: Wellcome Collection/Public Domain.

Royal Naval Hospital

A large number of the results from the search using the keyword “rowing” brings up views of the Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich, London. The depictions of the building are much the same but there is a fascinating variety of river craft shown in each picture. 

A View of the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich. Coloured engraving by T. Bowles, 1753. Credit: Wellcome Collection/Public Domain.
A View of Greenwich Hospital on the Thames. A Retirement Home for Sailors. Coloured engraving by T. Bowles, 1753. Credit: Wellcome Collection/Public Domain.


John Broughton, “The founder of the British school of boxing” won the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race in 1730. Engraving by R. Cooper, 1822. Credit: Wellcome Collection/Public Domain.
The First Day of Oysters c.1841. In 19th-century Britain, native oysters were a poor person’s food, a cheap source of protein consumed in huge quantities. Sensible tradition dictated only eating wild oysters in months with the letter “r” (from September to April) to avoid food poisoning. Here, a waterman holding an oar joins in the feast. Credit: Wellcome Collection/Public Domain.

Cartoon capers

“Comfort in a Hurricane”, humour from 1803. The caption reads: “Bless me how are we tossed about, I never saw such rough weather in my life; I hope the boat will not up set: Pray ferry-man has there been many people lost in crossing here?” “Lost did you say! no I never knew of any to be lost there’s my brother he was drowned here last week-but we found him next day.” Credit: Wellcome Collection/Public Domain. 
A man in a boat house (Charles Stewart Parnell) is damaging a boat inscribed “Liberal Party” with a hammer inscribed “Manifesto”, March 1891. In the days of heavy betting on boat races, interfering with an opponent’s boat was a common occurrence. Credit: Wellcome Collection/Public Domain.

CS Parnell was an Irish Nationalist politician who persuaded British Prime Minister Gladstone to adopt Home Rule for Ireland as a central tenet of the Liberal Party. In the 1886 UK General Election, the Liberals and Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party were soundly defeated, and this ended a long period of Liberal dominance. They had held power for eighteen of the twenty-seven years since 1859 and won five of the six elections held during that time, but they would only be in power for three of the next nineteen years. In 1890, following the revelation that Parnell was involved in a long adulterous affair, many British Liberals refused to work with him and the Irish Parliamentary Party split. Parnell headed a minority faction until his death in November 1891.

Rowing by the book

A scanned copy of Donald Walker’s “British Manly Exercises”, including his chapter on rowing, is available on the Wellcome site. Credit: Wellcome Collection/Public Domain.

Published in 1834, Donald Walker’s, British Manly Exercises, may have included the first instructional text for oarsmen. The book was subtitled: In which rowing and sailing are now first described and riding and driving are for the first time given in a work of this kind. 

Much of its more general advice revealed a surprisingly modern attitude – as when Walker suggests that, Education must be divided into two parts, physical and mental. Surprisingly, men were advised to gradually increase their exercise to up to 24 miles of walking and running a day. However, Walker also felt that a healthy diet should consist of only lean meat, stale bread and biscuits. No vegetables were permitted and “everything inducing flatulency must be carefully avoided.” It was also advised that, “to attain the highest condition” only cider and cold beer should be drunk – plus half pint of red wine after dinner.

In 2016, St John’s College, Cambridge, found a copy in their library (though they are not especially rare). A spokesman said: 

Little is known about Donald Walker other than the fact that he penned several other books including “Exercises for Ladies” and “Literary Composition…”  (British Manly Exercises) gives clear instructions on the art of adopting a healthier lifestyle and offers a fascinating insight into 19th century attitudes to exercise… Even in the 1830s, there was plenty of discussion about obesity, fad dieting, the relationship between exercise and mental wellbeing, and the fact that technology might be making us all a bit lazier.

Below are Walker’s instructions for “the pull” (though we would now call it “the drive”).

Plate XXII, Beginning of the Pull.
Plate XXIII, Middle of the Pull.
Plate XXIV, End of the Pull.

Walker perhaps mansplains exercises for ladies here.

Published in New York in 1870, William Wood’s “Manual of Physical Exercise” had the snappy subtitle, “Comprising gymnastics, rowing, skating, fencing, cricket, calisthenics, sailing, swimming, sparring, base ball together with rules for training and sanitary suggestions.” Credit: Wellcome Collection/Public Domain.
Wood’s suggested daily training plan for rowing.

Wood’s chapter on rowing is here.

Ailing oarsmen?

The Victorians were much concerned with the effects of competitive rowing on health.
“Evils resulting from rowing: Their cause and remedy” was a pamphlet by John Compson MD, published in 1868. Compson concluded that rowing was not, in itself, “evil” but some selection and training methods were. Credit: Wellcome Collection/Public Domain.

Compson summarised:

The full 28-page pamphlet is here

The Wellcome Collection has also digitised another Victorian study into rowing and health, John Morgan’s 1873 work University Oars: Being a critical enquiry into the after health of the men who rowed in the Oxford and Cambridge boat-race from the year 1829 -1869, based on the personal experience of the rowers themselves. It deserves – and will get – a post of its own in the near future.

I began with Robert Colenso’s “Rowing – Getting Forward” and so will end with his “Rowing – The Finish.” You’re Wellcome. Credit: Wellcome Collection/Public Domain.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.