Titan of the Thames

By Sandy Nairne and Peter Williams

The first biography of Lord Desborough, a towering figure of early 20th century public life.

Biography | London
100% funded
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Writing in progress

Publication date: TBC

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"He was the wonder of the age and there will never again be anyone like him who can combine so many personal triumphs with such unremitting public service". 

Rt. Hon H.T. Baker, January 1945

"His extraordinary athletic versatility has somewhat obscured the real contributions he has made not only to the welfare but also to the history of his country".  

Sir Theodore Andrea Cooke, 1925 

Willy Grenfell, Lord Desborough, was celebrated in his lifetime as an astonishingly talented all-round sportsman and public servant. For many he was the epitome of the perfect English gentleman. Early feats included climbing the Matterhorn and four nearby peaks within days, taking part in the famous dead-heat Boat Race of 1877, swimming across the basin at the foot of Niagara Falls and rowing in an eight across the Channel, while later representing Great Britain in fencing. A man of boundless energy and a skilful networker - chairing or sitting on innumerable committees - he threw himself behind a host of causes, from bimetallism to establishing a fixed date for Easter. Central in his life was his outstanding success in the near-impossible task of staging the first Olympics in London in 1908 at only two years’ notice. Yet a seemingly gilded life was not untouched by the larger events of the day: in 1915 he lost both his elder sons, Julian and Billy, on the Western Front.

Running throughout his remarkable story, however, was one constant – the Thames. He lived by it, rowed on it, raced his punt on it - winning the Amateur Punting championship three times – and greatly improved it through his remarkable long service as Chairman of the Thames Conservancy.

In 1887 he married Ettie Fane and as a couple the Grenfells established a dynamic life as central figures in the intellectual high-society circle known as the Souls. Ettie became a notable hostess and their family home, Taplow Court near Maidenhead, the stage for entertaining politicians, aristocrats and writers. These included A.J.Balfour, Lord Curzon and the young Winston Churchill as well as H.G.Wells, Henry James and (occasionally) Oscar Wilde. It was also the backdrop for sport, travel, work and family life, but they and their daughters Monica and Imogen endured further grief when their third son, Ivo, was killed in a car accident in 1926.

Titan of the Thames charts Grenfell’s exceptional sporting achievements, from rowing and racing punting to athletics, cricket, equestrianism, fencing (at Olympic level), big-game hunting and fishing, together with a commitment to amateurism and widening participation. Ennobled in 1905 as Lord Desborough, his energy and diplomacy made the 1908 London Olympic Games possible and also forged key components of the modern Olympics, from the setting of internationally-agreed rules to the provision of custom-built facilities.

Grenfell’s earlier life progressed from education within the ethos of muscular Christianity in the 1870s to business and politics amid the upheavals of the 1890s and 1900s, and then to major contributions to public life in the inter-war years. Raised within a well-connected and privileged Victorian family – though losing his father and grand-father when young – he came into his own when elevated to the Lords and no longer working as an MP. He emerged as a successful and surprisingly modern figure in public life, with a prodigious array of national and international roles: heading volunteer efforts during WWI, promoting aviation, leading the London Chamber of Commerce, establishing modern policing through the Police Committee, and as chairman of the Thames Conservancy, overseeing flood prevention and crucial improvements in the water supply to London.

Titan of the Thames offers a strong narrative backed by critical analysis and complemented with many unpublished photographs. Detailed archival research, including among previously unused family letters, makes it possible to disentangle the myths surrounding the man, ranging from an assertion of his contemporaneous service on 115 committees, to supposedly fighting in the Sudan armed only with an umbrella. Finally, we have the compelling story of a great sportsman, sports administrator and public servant, as well as a devoted husband and father.

"Here is a man who works for play and plays for work, who is at home in business or a boat, who can swim rapids or preside over the biggest trade organization in the world … There’s something about this man of title, business and sports that makes you feel at home when he talks. That tells you he means all he says and says what he means".  

Winnipeg Saturday Post, September 1911


Image Credits (from the top of the page down)

Lord Desborough, Conservator from 1895, and Chairman of the Thames Conservancy, 1905-1936

Set 1

William Grenfell punting, photograph by Marsh Bros 1889, courtesy National Portrait Gallery.

Lord Desborough drawn by John Singer Sargent 1911. Courtesy Firle Collections.

William Grenfell in the Rocky Mountains, 1884. Courtesy Grenfell family albums.

Set 2

The Grenfell family at Taplow Court c1907: Monica, Ettie, Billy (behind), Imogen, Willy, Julian and Ivo. Photograph courtesy Grenfell family albums.

Lord Desborough overseeing WWI volunteers, Didcot, 1917. Courtesy Grenfell family albums.

Lord Desborough with the Mayor of Maidenhead at the opening of the electric boat conveyor at Boulters Lock, Maidenhead, 1913. Courtesy Maidenhead Library.

Queen Alexandra with Lord Desborough, presenting her personal trophy to the marathon runner Dorando Pietri, at the London Olympics, July 1908. Courtesy IOC/Olympic Museum.

From the excerpt

The 1906 British fencing team in Athens: Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon, WG (second from right), Charles Newton-Robinson and Edgar Seligman. Photograph by Bowden in Theodore A Cook, The Cruise of the Branwen, 1908.



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  • Sandy Nairne avatar

    Sandy Nairne

    Peter Williams avatar

    Peter Williams

    Sandy Nairne CBE FSA is a writer and curator, previously programme director at Tate and director of the National Portrait Gallery. He is chair of the Fabric Advisory Committee at St Paul’s Cathedral and of the Maggie’s Art Group, and a trustee of the National Trust. Recent books include Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners (Reaktion Books, 2011) and The Coincidence of Novembers (Unbound, 2020)

    Peter Williams is a writer and researcher and Departmental Fellow in the Department of Land Economy at Cambridge. A nationally recognised expert on housing and mortgage markets, he is a non-executive director of Vida Home Loans and Chair of First Affordable. He is a co-editor/author of the annual UK Housing Review, now in its 29th year.

    Nairne and Williams still compete in the sport of racing punting on the River Thames. Realising there was no published biography of the great Thames figure of Lord Desborough, they started their joint research project in 2015.

  • Titan of the Thames – Sample Chapter

    Athens and London: Chance Encounters 

    When Mount Vesuvius erupted on 4 April 1906, few could have imagined the chain of events this would trigger, nor the consequences for William Grenfell, newly ennobled as Lord Desborough. It was the worst eruption since the 17thcentury and it soon became clear that Italy could no longer stage the next Olympic Games, planned for 1908 in Rome. The search would be on for an alternative location.

    The 50-year-old all-round sportsman Lord Desborough sailed - literally and metaphorically - into this vacuum, and within months was offered the leadership challenge of his life: to stage an international event in London at a scale never previously seen, with no set budget, no government support, and with an almost impossibly tight timescale. The story of how this came about, and the success of the London Olympics that followed, delineates a pivotal point in his career, and was critical to the future of sport in Britain.

  • 7th April 2022 Willy and Ettie

    Dear Titan supporters

    We are very grateful for your support for Titan of the Thames: The Life of Lord Desborough and wanted you to know that we are making good progress with the fund-raising (now at 71%, and all the Titan marmalade spoken for). Of course, we are keen to spread the word, so do pass on information about the book to anyone you think might like to become a supporter and help us get…

    3rd March 2022 Katherine Grainger steps on board

    We are delighted that Dame Katherine Grainger has agreed to contribute a Foreword to Titan of the Thames, our forthcoming life of Lord Desborough.

    [photograph courtesy University of Glasgow]

    Katherine is a five-times Olympian and gold medalist in rowing and now Chancellor of the University of Glasgow and Chair of UK Sport. She is therefore well placed to introduce the life and legacy of Lord…

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