William Grenfell (1855-1945), later Lord Desborough, was a brilliant oarsman, runner, mountaineer, racing punter and fencer who became a great public servant. He was most famous for overseeing the first Olympics in London in 1908, successfully staged at less than two years notice in a brand-new White City stadium.
Having been a cricketer and exceptional runner at school, it was at Oxford that Grenfell took up rowing, later describing himself as being ‘fired by the rowing mania’. After two years of college rowing, he rowed at 4 for the University VIII in the famously contentious dead-heat Boat Race of 1877. The following year Oxford won by 40 seconds, but in 1879, illness forced him off the river, even as President of OUBC.
He was invited to join Leander in 1877, and rowed for the Club in the Grand Challenge Cup in 1881, already elected as Member of Parliament for Hereford. He rowed again in 1885, by then MP for Salisbury, while also becoming a champion at racing punting. Grenfell rowed across the Channel in 1885 in a clinker eight fitted with sliding seats and outriggers, and in 1889 rowed in a team of three from Oxford to Putney (105 miles) in a time of 22 hours. Later in life Desborough became an advocate for wider participation in sport and also Chairman of the Thames Conservancy: supervising crucial improvements flood relief measures and the re-building of locks.
Sandy Nairne and Peter Williams have spent five years researching the fascinating life of Desborough under the title, Titan of the Thames. Leander members may know Desborough’s name from the Thames, from Maidenhead or Henley, from the Olympic movement or from early 20th century politics, but the book will offer the first account of his work as a great sportsman and public campaigner as well as family life with Ettie, a central figure in the intellectual grouping of the Souls, and the tragic loss of their sons Julian, Billy and Ivo.
Tickets for the dinner and talk cost £50, including a welcome drink and a three-course meal. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve your spot.
- Advance subscribers are sought for this illustrated hardback, being published by Unbound. Various rewards are on offer at the Titan of the Thames website