The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Forster RH
Forster, Robert Henry
“Bill” (ELF), July 6, 1910
Although Mr. Forster is best known in connection with rowing matters, his interests range over a large field, as a reference to “Who’s Who” will verify. He is the author of many volumes of both prose and verse, is an archaeologist of repute, and is a barrister-at-law. Nor does this complete the list of his acquirements and activities.
He was born at Backworth forty-three years ago, the son of a Newcastle mining engineer, and in due time went to Aysgarth School, Harrow, to make his preliminary essays in learning. His introduction to books and book-learning seemed to be to his liking, for he quickly started on the business of education in grim earnest. The mere list of his successes is formidable, and calls for no comment: -- Entrance Scholarship, Harrow, 1881; Leaf Scholarship, 1885; Minor Scholarship, St. John’s, 1884; Foundation Scholarship, 1887; M’Mahon Law Student, 1891; 1st Class (3rd Division) Classical Tripos, 1888, and 1st Class (Senior) Law Tripos, 1889. Although he is not in practice, he was called to the Bar in 1892, and, had he chosen, might have made a name for himself in the law.
But circumstances and tastes led him elsewhere. He had for many years been fond of scribbling, and in 1898 published his first book, “The Hand of the Spoiler.” This was quickly followed by other volumes -- “The Amateur Antiquary,” “Down by the River,” “A Tynedale Comedy,” “The Last Foray,” “In Steel and Leather,” “Strained Allegiance,” “The Arrow of the North,” “The Mistress of Aydon,” and several volumes of verse. Of the prose work it is to be said that one could not expect better, while his verses are better than one could expect.
He has never essayed a wife, but, judging by his books, he is not a stranger to the sex. He has been for many years captain of the Thames Rowing Club, and as a coach has the respect which success imposes. On the river bank he has to perfection that mild, hesitating timidity of speech characteristic of successful coaches, and he has never been under any delusion as to the uses of a megaphone.
George Baker Forster was First Captain of Lady Margaret Boat Club, won the Cambridge University Fours, rowed for C.U.B.C. against Oxford in the 1853 Grand (losing by a foot and a half to Chitty’s crew), and then retired from the sport. His son, Robert Henry Forster (1867-1923), was a less successful oarsman but became an accomplished coach. In 1888 at his first Henley Regatta, young Bill won the Ladies’ and the Thames with L.M.B.C. coached by his Trinity neighbor and future Thames R.C. compatriot, S.D. Muttlebury. From 1892 to 1903, having become a barrister, he unsuccessfully vied for the Grand, Thames, and Wyfolds with the Thames R.C., was its Captain most years from 1896 to 1907, and later became vice president. At the first part of the century the club’s fortunes “were at a very low ebb, owing to a paucity of good material,” recalled B.J. Angle, “and had it not been for Foster [sic] it is more than probable that the club would have permanently lost the position it had previously held in the rowing world. From 1897 to 1903 Thames won practically nothing, but in 1904 Foster’s untiring efforts at last met with reward, and since that date the club has gone steadily forward, until now it has quite gained its former position.” In 1910 he and Steve Fairbairn founded the Forster-Fairbairn Trial Pairs at Cambridge.
For writing on rowing, W.B. Woodgate and R.C. Lehmann take the gold among Vanity Fair contestants for prose and poetry respectively, but Forster contends for the combined event. He wrote the first volume of the L.M.B.C. history and the lyrics for two club songs (“Si Je Puis” and “Carmen Aquaticum”), and several short stories on rowing (from which are excerpted “My garments expansion require” and “Problems in pairs”). He also wrote “Notes on the Early History of Rowing” for the St. Johns’ College magazine, reflecting his deep interest in archaeology and ancient civilization. There he conjectures that “rowing was [first] practiced on the Nile at least as early as the reign of Khufu (3733 B.C.),” because tombs of the fourth dynasty (3766 to 3566 B.C.) depict “boats and oars of a type which altered but little during the subsequent course of Egyptian history.”
Bill once defined rowing as “seeking fame at the end of an eight-foot spruce.”
A Boat Race Fantasy
“[P]erhaps some day Mr. Forster will see his way to give us a real river story,” wrote The World (July 5, 1904), a knock-off of Vanity Fair, for “there are few good accounts of boat-racing in fiction -- the Ouidaeque oarsman who strokes ‘crack’ eights untrained being the favourite rowing hero of fiction.” After Oxford’s 1909-12 run in the Boat Race, Vanity Fair published just such a tale (April 3, 1912), though its author, “Cambriouleur,” was probably not Forster but B. Fletcher Robinson. Chastening the C.U.B.C. to “carry a reserve crew ready to step at a moment’s notice into the places of those who sink or expire” and otherwise to draw on all the resources of the University to gain victory, he launched into it:
At this point you must allow me to relate the story of the great race of 18__, in which I played so conspicuous a part. The true story of that thrilling contest has never yet been told in print. In fact, only my grandchildren know it as it should be told. Every year on Boat-race night I gather the little ones round my knee and relate the story.
I was training for the Lents. I was a humble member of the Fifth Lent Boat, but one afternoon in early February our coach had been pleased to commend my oarsmanship. “Well rowed, bow!” he cried. Just at that moment who should be passing but the President of the C.U.B.C. on his ancient white charger! He heard the encomium and he looked in my direction. Without turning my ear I could feel his eye upon me. I rowed better than ever.
After Hall in the evening -- and I had dutifully passed my plate for a third helping of roast beef -- I was sitting in my armchair before the fire gazing pensively at my disused pipe, when there came a knock at the door. I was scarcely surprised to see that my visitor was the President himself. Instead of falling on the ground and worshipping, as I should have done in calmer moments, I asked him to be seated. He informed me that he had just looked in to ask me whether I should care to occupy the vacant bow thwart in the University boat. He said that bow had been giving a lot of trouble lately and had got to clear out.
“I was rather bothered,” he continued, “to know where to look for a thoroughly competent bow. But I happened to be on the towpath this afternoon and I noticed the magnificent work you were doing. I hope you won’t mind helping us out, old man.”
“Not a bit, old chap,” I answered.
“Spoken like a brick,” he replied. “By the way, we have put forward the boat-race on account of your engagement in the Lents. It is to be rowed to-morrow morning at ten o’clock. We have just time to catch the train. So come along.”
“Right,” I answered. “Have I time to change?”
“You can change at Putney,” he said. “I felt sure you wouldn’t refuse, so I have brought your blue along with me.” He exhibited a complete rig-out of light blue which he had brought with him in a brown-paper parcel.
At the gate he suddenly remarked, looking at his watch: “By Jove! I’m not sure that we shall do it in time, even if we do catch the train. Luckily, my horse is here. If you don’t mind getting up behind me we shall be at Putney by half-past nine easily.”
I mounted the white charger behind the President, and clasping him firmly round the waist, we set out at a hard gallop along the Trumpington Road. At Bishop’s Stortford the President looked at his watch. I heard him swear.
“Only half-an-hour before the gun goes,” he exclaimed. “You must change at once.”
So, while the white charger fled onward through Tottenham and Hempstead, I changed my clothes and donned the blazer and cap, the sweater and zephyr and shorts, casting my ordinary garments away as we rode. It was hard work getting into the armholes, but it was for my University, my Alma Mater, and I did it.
We were only just in time. The gunner stood with his lighted match at the porthole as we crossed Putney Bridge, and the vast concourse of spectators set up a thunderous shout of applause as we clattered down the towing-path. It was the work of a moment to fling off our outer clothes and leap into our seats -- the President at stroke and I at bow -- just as the gun went off with a deafening crash.
I noticed the Oxford cox scowl and frown when he saw me take my seat. I noticed the Oxford stroke set his teeth tighter. We were off!
Heavens, how I pulled! I was putting in two strokes to every one of the rest of the crew’s.
“Well rowed, bow!” roared the cox through his megaphone.
“Well rowed, bow!” roared the crowd on the banks. I could see ladies waving their handkerchiefs and children shouting on the house-tops. Faster and faster I rowed. The Oxford crew were biting their nails with vexation as they slipped further and further astern. The Oxford cox was cursing audibly. The Oxford stroke was pale with vexation. Faster and faster I rowed.
Suddenly the sky grew as black as pitch. “A storm, by Heaven!” shouted our cox through his megaphone. “Well rowed, bow!”
At that moment the black sky cracked open and a huge sheet of flame descended hissing upon the river. As soon as my dazed eyes could take in the spectacle I saw that the Oxford stroke had been struck by lightning and was gone. With magnificent sportsmanship our own stroke determined to equalise matters and leapt into the stream.
Faster and faster I rowed. Great angry billows rolled in upon our frail vessel as we shot through the gloomy arches of Hammersmith Bridge. Surely no boat could live in such a sea!
Ah! A huge green-backed monster descended upon our deck, carrying havoc as it came. Seven, six, and five were swept overboard into the boiling flood. Not to be outdone in generosity, the three corresponding Oxford oars dived overboard and swam for the bank.
Undermanned, waterlogged, and now at the mercy of wind and waves, we four survivors fought our way towards Barnes. Another flash of lightning carried off four and three in each boat. Faster and faster I rowed, and the stout ashen oar bent almost double in my hands, while the waves rose higher and higher. Suddenly there was a shriek from cox.
“The rudder is broken. I can steer no longer. I am only a burden to you. Farewell! Well rowed, bow!”
I saw him plunge into the torrent, and two turned for a moment to grasp my hand.
“Barnes Bridge,” I shouted, “we’ll conquer yet!”
Then, hurrah! the goal was close at hand, if I could only reach it.
There arose a great shout from the banks -- “Cambridge has won.”
“And in record time, too, by Gad!” I heard the umpire remark.
I looked at the clock on the chimney-piece, and it said half-past ten.
That was the only time I ever rowed in the University Boat Race.