The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Nickalls G

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Nickalls, Guy[edit | edit source]

“Wingfield Sculls” (Spy), July 20, 1889[edit | edit source]

'Only a few years ago there was at Eton a young wet-bob whose vigorous energy led him to dare so much, and to display such recklessness of consequence in daring, that he came to be known amongst his fellows as “Luni.” But however well earned the style may have been, he has ever since persistently shown that he has method in what he does. While still at Eton, he played football with success, and when not engaged in athletically breaking his bones or risking his neck, he feathered an oar with skill enough to attract the notice of the galley slave-drivers of the time, who quickly placed him upon a thwart in the Eton Eight, in which he greatly helped seven other boys to carry off the Ladies’ Challenge Plate at Henley. After this, his success as a boat propeller was assured. He went to Magdalen College, Oxford, and was found ready to row down all comers. He took a seat in the Oxford Eight as of right, and has kept it for three years. He rowed once with Lord Ampthill, and again with a son of the Leader of the House of Commons in the University Pairs; and he has rowed in various Eights and Pairs at Henley with a great deal more success than most men have any right to expect.

As a Sculler, Mr. Nickalls is even more famous. When he had once won the Oxford Sculls he feared to contest them again because all other possible competitors feared to scull against him. He rowed with such vigour against Gardner at Henley that he broke a scull and was beaten -- which he could well afford to be for once. He holds the records over the Amateur Championship course; and he has now thrice won the Wingfield Sculls, no one having the stomach to contest them with him on the last occasion. He always finishes a hard race as strongly as he begins it, and it is now confidently asserted that we have never yet seen his like in a skiff.

In spite of his youth -- he is but twenty-two years old -- and of his great achievements, Mr. Nickalls is not puffed up but is the owner of a very genial and hearty manner, which upon occasion becomes so boisterous as to show justification for the schoolboy estimate of his ways as summed up at Eton. He has much capacity for exercise, and his excessive biceps is only surpassed in quantity by the size of his forearm. His favourite sport is hunting, but he can catch fish and shoot birds. He is also good at presiding over others, for while still President of the O.U.B.C., he presides over the Eton Club and over the Junior Common Room of his College, and he will presently be President of Vincent’s. He is the best of friends, a man with whom, for other reasons, no one would care to quarrel. But he is not fond of rowing, and is likely soon to retire upon his laurels.

“But he is not fond of rowing, and is likely soon to retire upon his laurels.” Unless tongue in cheek, this was Vanity Fair’s single worst rowing prediction, for Guy Nickalls (1866-1935) went on to accumulate a record to which none “can compare even remotely,” judged the Times obituarist. It is thus fitting that he was the first rower to be featured as such in Vanity Fair, all predecessors having appeared in some other capacity (and Rev. E.J.H. Smith having been a coaching fluke).

Tom Nickalls, a founding member of the London Rowing Club, did not want his sons to become oarsmen, telling Guy, “Cricket, my boy, will take you round the world, and rowing, up and down the Thames. I used to row for London, and I always wished I could play cricket.”[1] But Guy became a “wet bob” almost immediately on arrival at Eton in 1880 and kept rowing for the next twenty-eight years, with a hiatus from 1898 to 1904 to attend to family and finances. In his autobiography, he demurred: “I do not wish for a moment to take any credit to myself. . . . Nature has endowed me with a fairly strong body, a constitution of iron, and a will power or stubbornness above the average. These I have tried my best not to abuse, and any man so built and constituted, given my opportunities, could no doubt have done the same.”[2] Maybe so. But few could win three events at a Henley regatta; or enter and win in their forties (and train by dragging a horse-roller around the lawn);[3] or shrug off a surgical divot in the leg to win the Grand and jump in a scratch pair for the Goblets:

Somewhere about April [1892] I was breaking in some Arab polo ponies which my eldest brother had sent home from Cairo, and, in opening a gate, the one I was riding, a grey, suddenly plunged and swerved; consequence, a badly torn tailor’s muscle. It put me hors de combat for a day or two, and, as there were no outward and visible signs of injury, I continued riding every morning. At the end of April I could feel a hard lump as big as a goose’s egg deep on my inner left thigh. I went up to see Wharton Hood, who told me that I had a bad suffusion of blood, and that when it ripened, so to speak, it would come more to the surface, in about six weeks’ time, and that then I should have to have it opened up. . . .

The exercise at Oxford and the dancing at Commem., for which I had a big party, including my wife to be, brought my bad leg to a head. I had arranged to drive my party over to Henley with two of old Richard’s team, but before starting I went to see “Pego” Symonds, who vetted all the Varsity crews in those days. He laid me out, proceeded to hone a knife, and then, with a “Hold tight,” he made two enormous deep gashes in my thigh, bound my leg up, and told me not to take it off for twenty-four hours. When I did so, at Henley, I had a hole in my thigh that I could get my fist into. The local saw-bones, Baines, fixed me up with two tubes, and, as there was no chance of walking for three weeks, I took to a bath-chair, in which Robeson, the ninth man [for the Leander eight], was kind enough to trundle me about. I could row all right, but missed my usual running exercise badly. The only means by which I could persuade Robeson to come as ninth man was a promise that I would go in for the Goblets with him. The extra exercise certainly helped me to get fit, but we could never make a good pair.[4]

At Eton Nickalls won the Junior Sculling (1884), the School Pulling (1885-86), and School Sculling (1885). At Oxford he won the University Sculls (1887), the University Pairs (1888-90, with W.F.D. Smith once, then twice with Lord Ampthill), and the University Fours (1886 and 1889), went head of the river in 1888 with Magdalene, and rowed in five Boat Races (1887-91), winning twice and being O.U.B.C. President in 1890. He was Captain of Leander in 1892 and 1897. He won the Wingfield Sculls four times (1887-89 and 1891), and at Henley won the Grand four times (1891-92 and 1896-97), the Ladies’ once (1885, with Eton), the Stewards’ seven times (1893, 1895-97, 1905-07), the Goblets six (1890-91 and 1894-97), and the Diamonds five (1888-90 and 1893-94). All told, Nickalls won twenty-three events at Henley over twenty-two years, losing only thirteen of eighty-one races, a record that may never be equalled.[5] Had he “ever made a spécialité of sculling, and got his hands and their work approximately accurate, no doubt that he would have been better than all,” wrote W.B. Woodgate; “as it was, now and then when he won Diamonds after grinding in other races at the same regatta, he showed evidence of pace which few amateurs could ever equal.”[6] Nickalls capped and completed his career by winning the 1908 London Olympic Eight with Leander a few months short of his forty-second birthday (see below).

From 1913 through 1916 Nickalls coached Yale, enticed to New Haven by Averell Harriman and a sufficient stipend to help see his two sons through Eton. (Nickalls tried to join the army in 1914 on the outbreak of war, but was turned down on account of age. By late 1917 the army had a change of heart, sending him to France, then age fifty, as a Captain in the 23rd Lancashire Fusiliers in charge of physical and bayonet training.) Though his Yale crews won two of the three years he was there, Nickalls found the environment stressful and foreign. He was partly to blame, by spouting opinions better left unsaid or if said, certainly not within earshot of the attentive rowing press. Yet such remarks -- “Their paddling is bad, their rowing, worse” (about the Yale 1916 crew)[7] -- were wholly in line with his personality: as O.U.B.C. President, he nearly scotched the 1890 Boat Race by calling the Cambridge crew “probably a poorer lot than usual” in an official letter to his counterpart, S.D. Muttlebury.[8] Son Gully later recalled:

So far as he was concerned there were rarely two sides to any question. He was right. His opponents were not only wrong, but deliberately and wickedly wrong. So strong were his opinions that in argument he became so fierce, vehement and aggressive that a change of subject came as a welcome relief. . . .

His tact was atrocious. My mother went through agonies of apprehension. Always she knew by the trend of the conversation when he was about to drop some particularly heavy brick, and, with frantic winks and nods and desperate endeavours to turn the conversation into other channels, gallantly she would strive to steer him clear of immediate trouble. The difficulty was that he could never modify his point of view for the benefit of any one of the company. Nor could he be prevented from saying exactly what he thought. In private my mother would reproach him: “‘You’re not sane. You say such silly things. No wonder you’re so unpopular.” My father would reply: “Of course I’m not popular. Few people with any character are.” He would then try to laugh off the matter and pretend that the whole thing was a grand joke. Sometimes, if it was known that he was going to meet certain people, we would endeavour to warn him beforehand of all the possible pitfalls. We were not particularly successful. The conversation would take some unexpected turn and we were sunk. Constant tutoring, combined with a certain mellowing natural to age, tended to improve his tact during his last few years, though he was never absolutely reliable.[9]

The unbounded energy Nickalls brought to rowing carried through his later years, though lack of tact and impatience with detail kept him from ever converting much of it into commercial success as a stockbroker (1892-1922) or advertising agent (1922-35). (Gully fared better, forty years the partner of Alfred Pemberton, son of Max, in their own advertising firm.)[10] A relentless gardener and tennis player, Guy “could garden for two hours before breakfast, cut and mark out two tennis courts before lunch, and start tennis at 2.30 and play till 8.30 if he could find anyone to oppose him.”{[11] Among Nickalls’ habits that must have maddened his opponents, recalled Gully, “was his way, when he or his partner were serving, of keeping only one score when leading in any game. Thus, thirty, fifteen, was ‘Thirty here’; forty-fifteen, or forty-thirty, were both ‘Forty here’. The other side had to keep their own score.”[12] He also “had the greatest attraction and fascination to children, and he was never so happy as when surrounded by them, leading some expedition to bathe in the river, to ferret, to dig a badger, or to go beagling.”[13] “He had a wholehearted zest for life and all that it offered,” wrote Gully. A friend recalled: “Every minute of his time was occupied. I don’t think he ever knew what it was to be dull or lonely. He loved to be surrounded by people, preferably the young. And for this reason he never really grew old. With a more helpful bank balance he would have made an admirable host on the grand scale.”[14]

On July 6, 1935 Zürich Rowing Club won the Stewards’. “Thank God I have been spared to see what I believe to be the finest four of all time,” Guy told Gully. The next morning, Guy was in an auto accident en route to Scotland to fish, and died the following evening.

The 1908 London Olympics: Nickalls’ Finale[edit | edit source]

Due to bad weather, there was no rowing at the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. There was at Paris in 1900 and St. Louis in 1904, but the U.K. sent only a sculler to Paris, St. George Ashe, who apparently had no ARA or other official backing, and sent no one at all to Athens or St. Louis.[15] The isolation ended when London agreed to host the 1908 Games. The organizing committee assigned the rowing events to the ARA, whose Oxbridge leaders chose Henley as the venue and applied the ARA’s restrictive “amateur” definition to potential entrants, which effectively excluded the United States, France, Holland, Switzerland, and all but the Italian sculler from competition. The Belgians made the cut and since they had won the Grand Challenge Cup in 1906 and 1907, as well as the European Championships for ten of the previous eleven years, the ARA were determined to field strong crews for Britain. They selected two for the eights event: a composite crew of old and new Leander men in the orthodox mold, and Duggie Stuart’s C.U.B.C., which won the 1908 Boat Race but whose “sculling” style the Leander veterans thought incorrigible. At the Olympics, the Belgians beat Cambridge to advance to the final against Leander, and the stage was set for orthodoxy’s test. Nickalls’ account:

The actual racing was really too easy to be exciting. We drew Hungary in the first heat, and paddled after the top of the Island. In the next heat Canada made a better show. They started at 43, and never got much below 40 at any point of the course. We started at 41, and, continuing at a level 36, we were from a length to a length and three-quarters ahead all the way up the course. After the Henley Regatta three-quarter mark, we let the stroke down to 34, and paddled in firmly, easy winners. In the final we met the redoubtable Belgian crew, the terror of the then modern English oarsmen, the crew who had beaten the famous Cambridge crowd more easily than even we veterans had expected. We were known to one and all as “the old crocks”. I may say our style was admitted to be of the best, but would-be-wiseacres shook their heads knowingly. Wait till the Belgians press them. Well, I had never been beaten by either a colonial or foreigner, and I certainly wasn’t going to be in my old age, and this my absolutely last race.

The start was beautifully level; they did 43 and we a long crisp 42. I had never felt the like of it, and never in my life had I felt like galloping at full tilt the whole distance. We had a quarter of a length lead at the end of a minute, and, letting the stroke drop to 38, led half a length at the end of two minutes. At the second signal box we led by three-quarters of a length, rowing 37. Cockie [Maclagan] had warned us that unless absolutely necessary he was not going to ask for more than one “ten”, and that we were to let ourselves go and give it good and strong. The psychological moment had arrived. Cockie’s clear voice rang out immediately after the Belgians’ great spurt at Remenham Farm had subsided.

“Now then, Leander, we’ll have our ten strokes and let them know it! One-----”

The boat fairly leapt out of the water, up to 38 again. We fairly sang along, cleared them at once and began sailing away. Bucknall dropped to 36 again. The race was over. We had them beat. Don growled and broke into a paddle. I was all for rowing in at 40, but Cockie looked back.

“Take it easy and keep together, Leander,” shouted he, and we swung over the line easy winners, by more than two lengths, in record time. I had finished. Thanks entirely to the unselfish and patriotic action of the “old crocks” turning out again to show the younger generation how to row properly, I remained unbeaten by any colonial or foreigner. The victory of the orthodox in 1908 not only restored England’s prestige as the greatest rowing nation in the world, but straightened out the prevailing ideas on style and form which W.A.L. Fletcher and others had begun to decry.[16]

“Having just witnessed Olympic regatta while winding up these pages,” wrote W.B. Woodgate in his memoirs, “I venture to criticize the form there. It was below the average of ordinary Henley regattas between ‘90 and ‘02. The Leander eight was good, but not superlative: the Grand winners of ‘93 and 1902 would have beaten it, and others have tied it. Fours, pairs, and sculls were all below Henley average. Belgians, weaker than us, teach us valuable lessons in (1) uniform slide, (2) clean feather, (3) lively arm recovery. If they adopted our longer trunk swing they would be deadly. (Fas est et ab hoste doceri.) It is discredit to modern Oxford coaching that good men like Kirby and Southwell should be spoilt, and Leander be driven to fall back on veteran welters.”[17]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. ^ G. Nickalls, Life’s a Pudding, pp. 37-38.
  2. ^ Ibid., p. 205.
  3. ^ G.O. Nickalls, in G. Nickalls, p. 301: “At certain times of the year between 1905 and 1908 an enormous horse-roller would suddenly make its appearance in the garden. Harnessing himself between the shafts, Guy would proceed to drag it up and down the lawn. Questioning our nurse as to what was happening, we received the reply that ‘Daddy was getting ready to row at Henley.’ To our childish minds, there did not seem any very obvious connection.”
  4. ^ |Ibid., pp. 109-11.
  5. ^ G. Page, Hear the Boat Sing: The History of the Thames Rowing Club, p. 26 (Nickalls’ “twenty-three wins [at Henley] in the course of a long career may never be equalled”).
  6. ^ W.B. Woodgate, Reminiscences of an Old Sportsman, p. 373.
  7. ^ G. Nickalls, quoted in T. Mendenhall, The Harvard-Yale Race and the Coming of Sport to the American College, p. 298.
  8. ^ G. Nickalls, quoted in Windsor Magazine, p. 109 (July 1896).
  9. ^ G.O. Nickalls, in G. Nickalls, pp. 299-300, 315.
  10. ^ G.O. Nickalls, A Rainbow in the Sky, p. 118.
  11. {^ “L.A.J.,” quoted in Times, July 10, 1935 p. 16e.
  12. ^ G.O. Nickalls, in G. Nickalls, p. 304.
  13. ^ “L.A.J.,” quoted in Times, July 10, 1935 p. 16e.
  14. ^ G.O. Nickalls, in G. Nickalls, pp. 298-99.
  15. ^ H. Cleaver, A History of Rowing, pp. 160-61.
  16. ^ G. Nickalls, pp. 203-04.
  17. ^ W.B. Woodgate, p. 387.