The Rowers of Vanity Fair/1890 - 1898 Oxford’s Decade
1890 - 1898: Oxford’s Decade
In 1890 Oxford ended the Cambridge four-year run in the Boat Race and went on to win the next eight in a row. Their success was due in no small part to having a disproportionate share of Etonians, who at school under the Oxford Etonian coach R.S. de Havilland won the Ladies’ Challenge Plate seven years straight from 1893 to 1899. By then Leander Club had emerged from fifty years of relative obscurity to become the most successful of the gentlemen amateur clubs, largely by virtue of the 1893 “University Qualification Rule.” By limiting undergraduate membership to the Oxbridge cream, it gave the club sufficient cachet more or less to ensure that those oarsmen would row for Leander when not for their own colleges. In 1897, under secretary G.D. Rowe, Leander built a boathouse at Henley by the finish of the course, reflecting the club’s new fortunes. The course had been altered in 1886, keeping the original length of about one mile 550 yards but shifting the start downstream to avoid the bend round Poplar Point and thereby, it was hoped, end the advantage the Berkshire station held over Buckinghamshire. The alterations also entailed marking the outside boundaries with piles and narrowing the course so that it could no longer hold three crews abreast but only two, which led to extending the regatta from two days to three. (The modern course, with the same distance and finish, was laid out in 1924 and made rail straight by moving the start from the Bucks to the Berks side of the Island.)
On the technology front, in contrast to previous years there were no major advances to disrupt order; some crews toyed with oarlocks on swivel pins, and everyone got tubular iron outriggers to replace the solid kind -- an invention borrowed from the new bicycle craze -- but that was about it. In 1895 the Boat Race became the first major British sporting event to be filmed. From the vantage of Vanity Fair, which started covering gentlemen’s sports in earnest after Bowles sold out in 1889 and its new owner brought W.B. Woodgate back on board to cover the Boat Race and Henley Regatta, Oxford, Eton, and Leander were on top and, on the whole, all was right with the world.
There were, however, two lurking problems, one foreign, one domestic. With the growth of rowing abroad came increased foreign interest in Henley Regatta. Early entries such as the Shoe-wae-cae-mettes from Michigan for the 1878 Stewards’ were viewed almost as circus sideshows: curious in costume, speech, and rowing style, but not a serious competitive threat. However, as the number and average quality of foreign entries rose the attitude gradually changed, with the Henley stewards applying the same “amateur” standard for entries from abroad as for home crews, with the same exclusionary effect. At the same time, the stewards and the rest of the gentlemen amateur rowing establishment kept their distance from foreign efforts to organize the sport, declining to affiliate with Le Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron, the international governing body formed in 1892, and to participate in the European Championships that began the next year, and entirely avoided Olympic rowing until having to host it at Henley in 1908. “England, which regarded bodily strength and vigor the exclusive property of her children, was not enthusiastic,” recalled Baron Pierre de Coubertin, about his experiences in the early 1890s organizing the first modern Olympic games. British indifference left the French with the upper hand, so that while the Henley starting command is “Are you ready? Go!”, in the FISA world it was for years “Êtes-vous prêts? Partez!”; and because Henley’s one mile 550 yards did not convert into an attractive number in Napoleon’s metric system, FISA lopped off 123 yards to set 2000 meters as the new international standard. To this day the Henley Regatta remains the only event on the international calendar outside FISA control. “It is no spirit of criticism,” wrote Gully Nickalls of his uncle, H.G. Gold, who chaired the ARA from 1948 to 1952, “that I record that, in spite of all the forward-looking and imaginative activities in which he engaged on behalf of rowing he, like the great majority of his contemporaries, had no very great love for its international aspects.”
If ignoring foreigners was relatively easy, the domestic front presented gentlemen amateurs with a more complex question, namely, redefining their own identity. The old distinction drawn against “professional watermen” no longer worked, given the dwindling number of professionals remotely interested in racing without a purse, the mass influx of the new middle class with ample leisure who were flocking to the river, and the corresponding erosion under Dilke-sponsored legislation of such barriers as working hours and education levels that formerly kept amateur rowing socially exclusive. In the late nineteenth century the debate continued to be framed largely as amateur vs. professional, but the results – chiefly the founding of the Amateur Rowing Association and the promulgation of its restrictive “amateur” definition – became increasingly detached from the publicly-stated rationales that underlay them.
The 1882 founding of the ARA came just before or after similar mid-Victorian organizing efforts in other sports: tennis (Wimbledon 1877, Lawn Tennis Association 1888), cycling (Bicyclist’s Union 1878), athletics (Amateur Athletic Association 1880), boxing (Amateur Boxing Association 1881), association football (Football League 1888), and gymnastics (Amateur Gymnastics Association 1888). Promptly after its founding the ARA defined “amateur” to bar, among others, anyone employed “in manual labour for money or wages,” a restriction that originated in the Henley Regatta rules of 1879. The ARA imposed the definition on its member clubs and all regattas organized under its rules, thereby exporting the views of its London and Oxbridge governing members to the rest of the country. Publicly, the new definition served to prevent cheating, preserve the “spirit” of the sport, and avoid the unfair advantage that would accrue to watermen and other non-amateurs due to their supposed extra training and strength. In truth, the means hardly served the ends and had other, rarely spoken rationales. As noted earlier, the public schools imbued their cadets with some notion of the immutability of rank, even though many of them came from socially-ambitious, newly-rich families. The Warden of Radley College, Woodgate’s alma mater, said: “A gentleman both knows and is thankful that God, instead of making all men equal has made them all most unequal. Heredity, rank, nobility of blood is the very first condition and essence of all Christian privileges and woe to the man who will honour no one except for his own merit and his own deeds.” In addition, would-be gentlemen objected, at least in theory, to a dedication to sport to the exclusion of other affairs. “To play billiards is the amusement of a gentleman,” wrote Anthony Trollope in 1868; “to play billiards pre-eminently well is the life’s work of a man who in learning to do so can hardly have continued to be a gentleman in the best sense of the word.”^ As the athletics correspondent of the Saturday Review noted in 1867, “the facts of his being civil and never having competed for money are not sufficient to make a man a gentleman as well as an amateur.”
A byproduct of the ARA’s restrictive definition of “amateur” was the creation in 1890 of the National Amateur Rowing Association, which excluded only those who raced for money. Anyone otherwise employed “in manual labor for money or wages” was welcome. For a time some thought the NARA would serve as a political counterweight, forcing the ARA to moderate its definition and return to the center with a less exclusionary approach. However, the first meeting between the two bodies went poorly and resulted in a “widening of the breach rather than a widening of the amateur definition.” Indeed, with the NARA now available to house any club not able or willing to meet the ARA’s standards, the ARA felt free to add a further restriction in 1894 to bar anyone ever employed “in our about boats.” The restriction remained in place until 1956, with its repeal facilitating the merger that year of the two associations. The ARA remains the U.K. governing body for rowing.
- ^ N. Wigglesworth, The Social History of English Rowing, p. 154; R. Burnell & G. Page, The Brilliants: A History of the Leander Club, p. 66.
- ^ R. Burnell, Henley Royal Regatta: A Celebration of 150 Years, pp. 67-72; H. Cleaver, A History of Rowing, p. 119; C. Dodd, The Henley Royal Regatta, pp. 69, 83.
- ^ N. Wigglesworth, p. 86.
- ^ Baron P. de Coubertin, Une Campagne de Vingt-et-Un-Ans, pp. 91-92, quoted in B. Henry, An Approved History of the Olympic Games, p. 32.
- ^ R. Burnell, p. 67; H. Cleaver, p. 170; N. Wigglesworth, p. 166.
- ^ G.O. Nickalls, A Rainbow in the Sky, p. 170.
- ^ N. Wigglesworth, p. 154.
- ^ Ibid., pp. 117, 119, 130-32; R. Burnell, p. 20.
- ^ Warden of Radley College, quoted in N. Wigglesworth, p. 117.
- ^ A. Trollope, quoted in N. Wigglesworth, p. 119.
- ^ N. Wigglesworth, p. 120.
- ^ Ibid., pp. 132-33.
- ^ Ibid., p. 136.