May Time IV: Family Connections

“A Re-Echo Of Henley” by Fred May, 1922.

9 February 2023

By Tim Koch

After a three-year gap, Tim Koch produces two more parts of a series that is drawn-out in more ways than one.

HTBS Types with good memories may recall that, three years ago, I posted three articles under the headline title “May Time”. In each part, I took a set of caricatures by magazine cartoonist Fred May that depicted some of those attending Henley Royal Regatta in 1920, in 1921 and in 1923 and produced a brief biography of each of the people that May’s pencil had affectionately captured. Having just found his caricatures for two more Henley Regattas, I will now repeat the process for 1922 and 1925.

I began the first May Time:

Remarkably, the caricaturist Fred May worked for the Tatler magazine between 1917 and his death in 1976. He sent his first cartoons from the trenches of the Western Front and he soon developed “an acute, gentle and humorous style.” Many famous and powerful people were flattered to be drawn by him: Winston Churchill, Sir Malcolm Campbell, Neville Chamberlain, the Aga Khan, the Duke of Windsor, Amy Johnson and Hollywood stars such as James Cagney. 

In the inter-war years particularly, Fred covered participants in most of the important annual sporting contests such as Henley, Wimbledon, the Football Association Cup Final, cricket test matches, the Schneider Air Trophy and motor racing at Brooklands. He also spent a lot of time drawing at white-tie dinners for sports clubs, the military, business and government. It was a very masculine, cigar smoke filled world, mostly depicting members of “society” for the entertainment of the other members of that exclusive group.

Frank Lumley Playford (1855–1931)

London RC’s Frank Playford won the Wingfield Sculls (The Thames Amateur Sculling Championship) five times between 1875 and 1879 before he retired from defending his title in 1880. At Henley, he won the Grand in 1874, 1877 and 1881, the Stewards in five consecutive years, 1874 to 1878, and the Diamonds in 1876.

This picture from the 2006 history of London RC, Water Boiling Aft: London Rowing Club, The First 150 Years, says that it is LRC’s Thames Cup winning crew of 1875. However, it shows Frank Playford at stroke and LeBlanc-Smith at “six” so it is in fact London’s Grand winners of 1877.

Putney-born Playford may have had little choice in his choice of sport or club as his father was Francis Playford, the first Captain of LRC after its foundation in 1856. Before this, Playford senior was a member of Thames Club, one of the rowing clubs that combined to form London RC, and with them he had won Henley’s Grand in 1846 and Silver Wherries in 1849. He was Wingfield Sculls Champion in 1849. In 1862, the City of London Boat Club renamed itself “Thames Rowing Club”, this done with the permission of Francis, the only traceable member of the original “Thames Club”. 

Frank’s uncle, Herbert Harlee Playford, won both Henley’s Diamond Sculls (1854 and 1860) and Grand (1857). He was also a Wingfield’s Champion in 1854 and was another LRC founder who became club captain. 

Frank’s son, Humphrey Blake Playford, rowed in the winning Cambridge Boat Race crews of 1920, 1921 and 1922 and won Henley’s Silver Goblets in 1921 (with Jesus College) and the Grand (with Leander) in 1925. 

Thus, the Playfords produced three generations of Grand winners in a direct line.

Frederick Islay Pitman (1863 – 1942)

Freddie Pitman won the Ladies Plate at Henley with Eton in 1882 and he stroked the Cambridge crew in 1884, 1885 and 1886, losing in ’85 but winning in ’84 and ’86, the latter after being behind at Barnes Bridge, until then something never before done. Remarkably, we can hear stroke Pitman talking about this race in a recording made in the 1930s (he does not make clear that building work on Hammersmith Bridge meant that the centre arch was only just wide enough for two boats to go through two abreast).

While still at Cambridge, Pitman had Henley wins in the Visitors in 1884 and the Diamonds in 1886. He was also Wingfield Champion in 1886.

After university, Pitman umpired all nineteen Boat Races run between 1903 and 1926. Between 1919 and 1944, he was Chairman of the Henley Royal Regatta management committee. Strangely, he did not get directly involved in the running of the regatta, describing his position as “Chairman of the board with the particular function of finding the finance if Tom Steward over-reached himself.”

Pitman’s Times obituary said that:

He was a middle-weight of considerable strength, and his form was sound rather than remarkable. His skill lay chiefly in the hold that he had on his crew and in the faculty of getting the utmost out of it at the right moment. 

The eight Pitman brothers at Eton in 1890. From bow to stroke: RO, HA, JS, JC, CM, ARC, TT and FI. Bow (RO “Rosie” Pitman) rowed for Oxford in 1898 and 1899; “5” (CM “Cherry” Pitman) rowed for Oxford 1892 – 1895; Stroke (FI “Freddie” Pitman) rowed for Cambridge 1884 – 1886.

Freddie Pitman’s son, Frederick Archibald Hugo Pitman, rowed for Oxford, winning in 1912 and losing in 1914, and he was a member of the Oxford New College eight that won Silver in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.

John Pemberton Heywood-Lonsdale (1869 – 1944)

JPH Heywood-Lonsdale was educated at Eton (where he was the cox for the school’s 1888 Ladies’ Plate crew) and New College, Oxford. At Oxford, he coxed in four consecutive Boat Races, 1889 – 1892, winning all but the first. At Henley in 1892, he steered Leander to victory in the Grand. The great Guy Nickalls listed him as one of the three best coxswains that he had known. 

After Oxford, Heywood-Lonsdale led a life then typical of a man of his social status: Master of the Bicester Foxhounds, county councillor, magistrate, and marriage to the daughter of a Viscount. In the 1914 – 1918 War, he was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the DSO.

Oxford’s 1891 crew, coxed by Heywood-Lonsdale, contained some of the greatest oarsmen of the late-Victorian era, what they would have thought of as the “Golden Age” of British amateur rowing.

John Heywood-Lonsdale’s father, Arthur Pemberton Heywood-Lonsdale, was in the Oxford crew in the Boat Race in 1856 (lost) and 1857 (won). In 1857, Heywood-Lonsdale senior partnered Edmond Warre in a coxless pair to win Henley’s Silver Goblets. With another relation, James Pemberton Fell, Heywood-Lonsdale made substantial investments in the City of North Vancouver, Canada, in the 1880s and several locations in the area are named after him.

Guy Nickalls (1866 – 1935)

Strangely for the time, Guy Nickalls had only one Christian name and was never referred to by his initial “G”, he was always “Guy.”

Even when compared to the august company in which May depicted him, Guy Nickalls was remarkable. In a 28-year career, he won everything worth winning at Eton, Oxford, Henley and the Tideway: Head of the River at Oxford, three out of five Oxford – Cambridge Boat Races, 21 Henley prizes, three Wingfield Sculls contests and the 1908 Olympic Eights. The latter was won at the age of 42, but not before he had threatened to resign from the eight when he was not chosen for the four as well. Guy did not lack self-belief – though perhaps not without reason.

This remarkable record of wins may have been even greater were it not for three things: Guy had to stop rowing between 1898 and 1904 in order to try and deal with his always chaotic finances; many simply refused to race against such a strong opponent; he often weakened himself by doubling and trebling up at Henley (he won two out of three events at seven Henley Regattas but just once, 1886, achieved the triple of the Grand, the Stewards and the Goblets). Guy lost only thirteen out of eighty-one races at Henley, and he claimed that he had never been beaten “…by either a colonial or a foreigner…”

During and after his rowing career, Guy gardened, acted, shot, hunted, rode, fished, played tennis, ran and swam. His tireless competitiveness would physically and mentally exhaust all those around him; he could endear and frustrate at the same time. Further, Guy’s son, Gully, held that his father’s tact was “atrocious… he could never modify his point of view for the benefit of any one of the company.” In a less critical recollection, Gully held that: “Every minute of his time was occupied. I don’t think he ever knew what it was to be dull or lonely.” As Guy himself wrote: “Nature has endowed me with a fairly strong body, a constitution of iron, and a will power or stubbornness above the average.”

Guy (centre) at Henley Regatta in 1934. His long-suffering wife (left) was the former Ellen Gilbey Gold, the sister of a contemporary, the great oarsman, coach and rowing administrator, Harcourt Gilbey Gold. 

Guy’s father, Tom (1829 – 1899), made the family fortune when, sent to America as a boy, he gained an understanding of which routes would be of strategic importance for the developing railways, information he used when he returned to England to work on the London Stock Exchange. Tom was another of the founding members of London Rowing Club and in 1895 he presented the “Silver Goblets & Nickalls’ Challenge Cup” to Henley Regatta to replace the Silver Wherries prize for the pair-oared race. This was to commemorate the achievements of sons Guy and Vivian who between them won the pairs eleven times in the 1890s, a feat only bettered in 1995 when Steve Redgrave won the event for a seventh time.

Tom had twelve children, but Guy and Vivian were the most accomplished oarsmen. Vivian rowed in the winning Oxford crews of 1891, 1892 and 1893 and was Wingfield Champion in 1892, 1893 and 1895. His Henley wins were the Diamonds (1891), the Grand (1891), Stewards (1892, 1895, 1896) and Silver Goblets (1892 – 1896). One Boat Race and three Silver Goblets wins were with his brother, Guy.

Guy’s son, Guy Oliver “Gully” Nickalls, rowed for Oxford 1921 – 1923, winning in his last year. Between 1920 and 1928, he won Henley’s Grand seven times. He also rowed in the Silver Goblets in eight successive years, winning twice, and in the Stewards for five successive years, winning once. In 1920 and 1928, he was in the British Olympic Eight. Post rowing, he was much involved with Henley, the Amateur Rowing Association and the Boat Race.

George Carr Drinkwater (1880–1941)

Drinkwater was the only British rower depicted by Fred May in 1922 that was not from a famous rowing family.

George Drinkwater attended the non-rowing Rugby School and then went up to Oxford in 1897. He took leave from university in 1900 to serve in the Boer War. After returning to Wadham College, he rowed in the 1902 and 1903 Boat Race (both won by Cambridge).

After Oxford, Drinkwater became an architect and portrait painter and was the rowing correspondent for the Daily Telegraph from 1906 until his death 35-years later. He was the author of several books on the history of the Boat Race and, as an architect, he was responsible for new buildings and alterations both at Oxford and Cambridge.

Volunteering for the 1914 – 1918 War at the age of thirty-four, Drinkwater served in France, Egypt, and Palestine, finishing as a Brigade Major. He was awarded the Military Cross and was twice mentioned in Dispatches.

Drinkwater was killed on the night of 10 – 11 May 1941 in one of the worst air raids of the Blitz. Westminster Abbey and the House of Commons received direct hits and the raid inflicted the highest number of casualties of any single night of Luftwaffe attacks: 1,436 Londoners were killed and over 2,000 others were seriously injured.

Drinkwater working on a maquette of the bust of Steve Fairbairn that still serves as the trophy for the fastest men’s crew in the Tideway Head of the River Race.

Fred May included American sculler Walter Hoover in both his 1922 and 1925 impressions of Henley. After I have covered 1925 in May Time V, I will give Hoover his own post in May Time VI.


  1. I invariably read the fascinating articles of Tim Koch with a mixture of envy , admiration and the words of L. P. Hartley ringing in my ears.
    “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

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