Early Days of the Boat Club

William Lennox De Ros, 23rd Lord De RosThe origins of the Christ Church Boat Club are vague in the extreme.  While data is available covering the College’s initial entry into Summer Eights and the Club’s subsequent performance in events held on the Isis, and while the House’s Thomas Staniforth’s role in organizing and stroking the very first Oxford crew to race against Cambridge in 1829 is well recorded, how the Club came into being, and what individual or individuals sparked the putting together of the first Christ Church crews, has been a mystery. This is acknowledged by Richard Frost in his Short History of the Club – 

‘It seems to be impossible to say when the Christ Church  Boat Club was formed …..1

Now, because of research undertaken by Terry Morahan, a Belfast-based member of Leander with a keen interest in the history of rowing (and of the Irish nobility), and a researcher’s relentless pursuit of evidence and leads, the story of Christ Church rowing as it came into being at the end of the Napoleonic Wars is considerably clearer. In 1969 Mr. Morahan rowed for Isis against Goldie in a crew which included C.R.W. Parish and J.K.G. Dart of the House.  The same year he was a member of the Keble Head of the River crew which won Summer Eights, and again rowed for Isis at Henley in the Thames Challenge Cup.  He contacted Christ Church Archivist Judith Curthoys in 2008 in search of information regarding members of certain aristocratic Irish families with connections with the House.  Since his interest was also in such people’s possible involvement in rowing, she suggested that he contact me. Mr. Morahan was especially interested in one William Fitzgerald de Ros, a name with which I was unfamiliar save for a passing reference to him in Sherwood’s Oxford Rowing2 (which covers the history of that subject up to 1899) as a Christ Church man who in about 1817 owned a four on the river at Oxford.

Mr. Morahan’s interest in de Ros has served to focus the spotlight on a man – hitherto overlooked – who can most certainly be reckoned as a prime “mover and shaker”, if not more, in the formalizing of House rowing activity.

William Lennox Lascelles Fitzgerald de Ros was born in 1797, one of 12 children of Charlotte Boyle,  who in 1791 had married Lord Henry Fitzgerald, himself the fourth son, and one of 19 children, of the Marquess of Kildare, later Duke of Leinster.  In 1806 the baronry on Charlotte’s side, in abeyance for over a century, and which allowed for female succession, was “terminated” in her favour, and she became the 21st Baroness de Ros, the family name becoming Fitzgerald de Ros.

William de Ros was educated at Westminster from 1809 to 1815, in which year he was elected a Student of Christ Church.  In his day it was possible for an individual to enter the House on nomination by a Canon or the Dean to the status of Canoneer Student, as opposed to being admitted as an undergraduate by examination.  A Studentship carried with it the perquisite of an annual stipend.  De Ros was frequently admonished for indolence and absence, but remained a Student until 1824. In that year he married his cousin, Lady Georgiana Lennox, and in 1839 succeeded his brother, upon the latter’s death, as the 23rd Baron de Ros. He died in January 1874, having been Lieut.-Governor of the Tower of London and later attaining the rank of General.

While at Westminster de Ros rowed in a six-oared boat, the “Fly”, crewed by King’s Scholars, in 1813; at that time, this was the only Westminster School boat.  (Eton had a 10-oared boat, three eights and two six-oared boats as early as 1811).

In 1815 the first race between a very small number of college eights started at Oxford, and B.N.C., beating Jesus, the only other competitor, were Head of the River that year, and again in 1816.  In 1817 Christ Church, able to draw on its resource of Eton and Westminster rowing men, entered a boat, which went Head and stayed so for three years. 

Mr. Morahan discovered that de Ros had kept a diary and by dint of commendable sleuthing, was able to locate parts of it at the home of the 28th baron in County Down. On June 4, 1815, de Ros noted that he ‘set out rowing up the river to see the Boating at Eton’.  On February 17, 1817, he recorded at Oxford that ‘my four-oared wherry arrived’. This was a boat which he himself owned, one of three four-oars then on the Isis, the other two belonging to Morres of B.N.C. and to Jesus College

Terry Morahan’s highlighting of the name de Ros, and of his involvement with rowing, prompted a search of the writings of rowing men with 19th century associations with the sport.  In consulting A Text-book of Oarsmanship (1925) by Gilbert C. Bourne (Captain of the Boats at Eton, twice an Oxford Blue, and an Oxford coach for 17 years), I found the following reference to the year 1819:

‘W.H.L.L.F. de Ros,  with three other Westminster and Christ Church men, came from Oxford in a light four-oared boat and challenged the Eton Eight. Their boat was steered by the Hon. J.F. de Ros, then at Eton, and they were well beaten.  They were probably the following:  R.B. Bourne, J.B. Daniel, G. Randolph, W.H.L.L.F. de Ros, Hon. J.F. de Ros.’3

J.F. de Ros was William’s brother, and Bourne the grandfather of Gilbert C. Bourne,  who adds that:

My grandfather, a school fellow and intimate friend of Lord de Ros, rowed many times with him at Christ Church’.   He further states that: ‘It was under his [de Ros’s] leadership that Christ Church went head of the River in 1817 and maintained their place in the two following years’.

Indeed Bourne, referring to conversations with his grandfather about the early days of Oxford rowing, describes de Ros as ‘….Captain of the Christ Church boat’.  The grandfather also recalled a race between a House Four and a Household Brigade crew stroked by de Ros, then a Cornet in the 1st Life Guards. The year in which this race took place is not known, but it was likely to have been fairly soon after de Ros went down from Christ Church in 1824.

De Ros’s four is mentioned by the Rev. W.K.R. Bedford in his article ‘University Rowing Fifty Years Ago4:

De Ros established a racing four-oar at Christ Church between 1815 and 1820, in which, though nominally a college crew, he availed himself on occasion of the services of out-college friends, thinking it probably better to borrow an Old Westminster from Oriel than to hire, as Brasenose did about the same time, a waterman to fill a place.

This race is also supported by Brickwood5, (Amateur Champion of the Thames) who gives its date as 1820.

The conclusion may be drawn, from Mr. Morahan’s wok and the reliable sources mentioned above, that de Ros was a driving force, if not the driving force, in the establishment of rowing at Christ Church. Indeed, Bedford, goes further:   ‘The pioneer of boat-racing in the University of Oxford seems to have been William Fitzgerald de Ros of Christ Church…’ Whether this claim is valid or not, it is good that the name of de Ros, long overlooked, can now be given some recognition, almost 200 years after he made his contribution to rowing at the House.

Gerald Parkhouse


1 Richard Frost. Christ Church Boat Club. A Short History.

2 W.E Sherwood, Oxford Rowing. A History of Boat-racing at Oxford. Oxford & London:Henry Frowde, 1900.  A House man, Sherwood was twice a rowing Blue, a coach of the Oxford Blue Boat in 1877, and of many Christ Church crews in subsequent years.  He was also Treasurer of the OUBC for an extended period of time.

3 Gilbert C. Bourne, A Text-book of Oarsmanship, with an essay on muscular action in rowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1925.

4Badminton Magazine, June 1897.

5 Edwin Dampier Brickwood, Boat Racing or the Arts of Rowing and Training. London: Horace Cox, 1876.