EXTRA,  FEATURES,  June 2023

The Great Sportsman: William Henry Grenfell

The 1st Baron Desborough, William Henry Grenfell left a lasting legacy in open water and Olympic circles. Elaine K Howley discovers the story behind the Oxford rower, pioneering Rocky Mountain rambler and daring Niagara Falls dipper who went on to become a swimming legend. 

Across the lengthy history of Oxford vs Cambridge, one single rowing race stands out from the others. The 34th Boat Race between the universities’ top eight-man crews that took place on 24 March 1877 saw two sleek boats surging down a winding River Thames from Putney Bridge to Chiswick Bridge, a distance of 4.2 miles.

On that fateful day, 21-year-old William Henry Grenfell sat tall and strong in Oxford’s fourth seat – a key position in the boat’s central powerhouse. It was his first time rowing in the head-to-head competition, a sign of his elite athletic status. (He would row in the annual competition twice more and coached the “Dark Blues” several times in the 1880s.) 

For more than 24 minutes, the crews battled mightily, each claiming a slim margin at various points. But when they reached Chiswick Steps, a strong wind broke the Oxford bow rower’s oar, and he was unable to contribute to the cause; he became literal deadweight in the boat as the Oxford crew saw Cambridge creep ahead. 

The other seven Oxfordians surged valiantly, and despite their disadvantage, passed the finish point neck-and-neck with Cambridge – though Oxford and some witnesses contended Oxford had actually overcome the handicap and inched about five feet ahead of Cambridge. 

The finish, ruled by a 70-year-old finish line judge who was reportedly blind in one eye, was highly contentious and eventually landed in court where the race was officially declared a “dead heat,” the only Oxford-Cambridge match up to ever end in a tie. But the controversy led to changes in how the race was conducted and new rules around who could judge. 

The entire experience left a lasting impression on all involved, but perhaps most significantly on the young William Henry Grenfell, who would go on to serve as a member of parliament and as president of the Thames Conservancy for more than three decades. One of the most accomplished and involved sportsmen and administrators of his era, Grenfell made time for a wide range of athletic pursuits, including open water swimming, both as a competitor and as a passionate defender of the value of amateur athletics.

A love affair with water

Grenfell, who would be elevated to the peerage in 1905 when he was granted the title 1st Baron Desborough, was a master of many sports – he earned a silver medal as part of the team épée (fencing) event at the 1906 Intercalated Olympic Games in Athens. At the time, the newly anointed Lord Desborough was just shy of his 51st birthday, making him one of the oldest athletes to ever participate in an Olympic Games, much less earn a medal. 

Grenfell’s sporting skills spanned land and sea, but also stretched from gifted participant to willing coach and leader. Grenfell served as the Chairman of the British Olympic Association starting in 1905 and was elected to bear the Union Jack for the British Olympic Team at the opening ceremonies in Athens a year later. 

In his 2022 book The Watermen: The Birth of American Swimming and One Young Man’s Fight to Capture Olympic Gold, author Michael Loynd notes that Desborough’s regal posture and 6’ 5” height lent him an undeniable air of authority in any role he inhabited. “The 50-year-old sportsman was the epitome of British manliness. With a broad chest and beefy arms that look as if the lord split rails for a living – which he most certainly did not – he was as fit and strong as any man half his age.”

Keen on adventure, Grenfell also made a name for himself breaking new wilderness trails, most notably in the Rocky Mountains of the American West, and became widely known for landing big fish, climbing big mountains and earning big titles in all the upper-crust sports of the day.

But Grenfell was a waterman at heart. Growing up on, in, and around the Thames, he plied its waters not just as part of a collegiate eight, but also as a champion punter. While punting and rowing are different, there is overlap in the skills needed, and Grenfell displayed a true talent for the tippy practice of poling his boat down the river; he was Amateur Champion three years in a row in the 1880s, a major feat in the hotly contested sport that requires remarkable core strength and coordination. 

It’s that connection to punting the Thames that led racing doubles partners, Sandy Nairne and Peter Williams, to realise a gap in the sport’s historical literature and set about writing the definitive biography of Grenfell and his myriad sporting and public service accomplishments.

“In the course of these gentle discussions up and down the river and elsewhere, we resolved that he was an interesting and significant figure not just to us but maybe to other people as well, and we should embark on at least an exploratory study considering writing a book about him,” Williams says.

They started researching in 2015, and Titan of the Thames: The Life of Lord Desborough, will be published in early 2024. The work has been a labour of love, “and what we discovered, of course, was that he was a far more significant figure than our thoughts simply about punting had been,” Williams says. 

Swimming for adventure

In the course of their research, Nairne and Williams found that swimming was never far from Grenfell’s mind. His most famous swims – two trips across the tide pool at Niagara Falls, took inspiration from Captain Matthew Webb’s fatal attempt to swim the rapids near the famous Falls. 

Broke and losing public interest, in 1883, Webb got swept up in the Niagara craze of the era that saw many daredevils attempt to adventure in, across or around the massive falls for fame and fortune. Sadly, Webb met his death within minutes of entering the water, but the highly publicised drowning did little to quell interest in similar stunts.

Caught up in the story of Webb’s daring yet tragic passing, Grenfell apparently fell under the spell of Niagara Falls, too, and on 25 August 1884, Grenfell “jumped out of the boat which Webb had jumped out of the previous year,” he recounted many years later. 

Grenfell’s swim took him across the pool, rather than down the rapids, and while his endeavour was still dangerous, it wasn’t suicidal. But because there was no public record of the swim, he felt compelled to repeat the feat four years later, this time with witnesses. 

That second swim took place in tough conditions. Grenfell later recounted that because the boatman who’d taken him the first time refused to venture out in such sloppy weather, Grenfell hopped on the tourist boat Maid of the Mist and “got a boy and a flat-bottomed boat from the Canadian side.” 

The wind was so intense that they struggled to reach the intended start point, but he swam anyway. Grenfell later recalled “it was such a rainy, rough day that I didn’t get up to the right place and jumped in off a rock not close enough to the falls – the consequence being that I met the back-wash which made it harder work – getting out of this I struck the current where the water was very broken and soon after the Maid of the Mist came by – too close and I yelled at her being afraid of the wash.”

He eventually landed on the American side, tired but intact. But it didn’t take long for the newly married Grenfell to realise the unnecessary risk he’d taken; he acknowledged such in a letter to his wife Ettie soon after, noting that “I couldn’t help swimming across as they didn’t believe it – a very rough day and rather hard work.” He added in another letter, “I hope you will not think me a beast for doing it – but I don’t call it risky really – & I mean to take great care in the Rockies & just walk about very gingerly and not run any chances.”

Given that Grenfell was inspired by Webb and undertook his first Niagara exploit on the ninth anniversary of Webb’s English Channel crossing, when the Amateur Swimming Association supported a proposal to create a memorial for Captain Webb in 1908, it’s no surprise that Grenfell was tapped to be the patron of the resulting memorial fund. A bronze bust of Webb by sculptor Francis William Doyle-Jones was unveiled in Dover in 1910. That same statue still stands on the Marine Parade, a fitting pilgrimage site for all would-be and successful English Channel swimmers. 

First president of the Channel Swimming Association

Grenfell, who had been part of the Oxford Eight team that rowed from Dover to Calais in 1885, maintained his connections to marathon swimming and Dover. In 1927 when the Channel Swimming Association launched, Grenfell stepped in to act as the organisation’s first president.

Olympic Administration and Sports Leadership Grenfell lived for adventure, having once said “the presence of a certain element of danger adds to the excitement and attractiveness of any sport.” But he also believed in rules and sought to make sporting opportunities fairer.  

As Grenfell’s competitive sports career faded, he remained a key figure in coaching, administration and sports government. According to his obituarist, “With his union of social gifts, personal charm, and administrative ability, [Grenfell] was known as a man who could get things done, and at one time he was actually serving on 115 committees. The multiplicity of his interests was indeed only matched by his industry and sense of duty.”

That feeling of obligation proved especially important in the run-up to the 1908 Olympic Games, slated to be staged in Rome. But when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 1906, devastating the city of Naples and killing 100 people, it scuttled those plans. Desborough and his British Olympic Association took the lead in changing the host venue to London. 

Nairne notes that he and Williams were aware that Grenfell had been involved in the 1908 Games, “but I don’t think we realised that this was a really pivotal moment,” he says. After the 1904 Games in St Louis, which hadn’t been a success, and the lukewarm Paris Olympics in 1900, the Olympic movement was off to a shaky start. The 1908 Olympiad “was really the first modern Olympics. It’s the first time the rules are really written down and the first time they map out custom built facilities.”

In London, Olympic athletes would swim in a “properly calibrated outdoor pool in the middle of the Olympic Stadium” for the first time, Nairne says. But Grenfell had less than two years to make all that happen.

Still, Grenfell sensed a greater purpose for the Games. Nairne notes the world really needed a collective show of goodwill and international collaboration “that did not involve warfare. This is a period in which the world is falling apart, and soon does fall apart by 1914. But we see Desborough’s efforts at seeing sports as much more than just the competition between people. He sees it as a much larger thing and that’s really symbolised by those Olympics.”

Grenfell was always a firm believer in the “virtues of amateurism and wanted to see sports dominated by amateurs rather than professionals,” Nairne and Williams write. This view lined up well with the nascent Olympic movement, and the writers conclude, “his commitment was to the sport and the ideals that underpinned it rather than how it was organised.” 

For more information about the forthcoming book Titan of the Thames, check out the Unbound backer page here.

To see all the online content from the June 2023 issue of Outdoor Swimmer, visit the 'Sea' page.

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