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.

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.

However, it was by chance that in the days following the eruption Desborough was making his first visit to Athens as a member of the British Olympic fencing team, participating in an ‘interim’ set of Games being held that spring (now known as the Intercalated Games). He met with other team members in Naples, including Lord Howard de Walden, in whose new steam yacht Branwenthey were to sail to Athens. Desborough, however, was already worried: about the impact of the volcano, about his physical fitness and the suitability of the boat.

For an accomplished sportsman his nervousness was surprising: an element of his private self never visible in public. After leaving Marseille, he believed that, ‘There may be trouble at Naples but I hope the worst is over – though the worst will not be over till the fencing is!’ On arrival in Naples he described the terrible scene:

Vesuvius is not to be seen. Two days ago it was very bad here – but nothing is falling at the moment. Everything, roofs etc. is deep in dust. I have seen our little yacht … She is very small, but I hope safe.

The weather rather than the eruption made their next stage hazardous: by Wednesday the 18ththey had only reached Messina, and Desborough wrote:

We have just put in here after a most awful day, a sort of hurricane & we have only done about 4 knots. Everything in ‘my cabin’ was drenched, so it is far from comfortable and no one turned up all day except Howard de Walden. I hope we shall not be storm bound here so as to make us late for everything. I do not see how anyone can fence after all this: & we now have to face the Adriatic in this little boat: she is only 68 tons nett.

Yet, despite storms, by the weekend Branwendocked safely in Athens and Desborough could focus his mind on his two roles: as a competitive fencer, with épéehis speciality, and as sporting diplomat, one of two official British representatives at the Games (being Chairman of the British Olympic Association). He wrote to his wife Ettie from the Hotel Imperial:

My dearest – We have at last arrived here very battered. I lunched with the Legation to meet the King and Prince of Wales, who were most kind. Then we processed with the other competitors round the stadium before 50,000 people, including the King and Queen, P & Princess of Wales, K of Greece etc. etc.. and now we are at the Hotel & just going to do a bit of fencing.

It was very silly coming here on a little yacht, nothing could have been worse. We fight the Germans on Tuesday: I do not know how good they are. … Athens is fascinating as far as I have seen it: we first went into Piraeus, & then to Phalerum where the yacht, absurd little boat, is now lying …The Greeks, I have come to the conclusion, know nothing whatever about the management of any form of athletic sports.

I am scratching this with the most awful row going on. Very best love, yr loving Willy 

* * * *

 Vesuvius dramatically altered Italy’s national priorities. At short notice a new host city was needed, and soon after his arrival in Athens Desborough was sounded out about whether London could be that location. He immediately saw this as an exceptional opportunity - both national and personal – and shrewdly recognised that royal approval might be critical to making this happen.

King Edward VII was in Athens for the Games, as a guest of his brother-in-law King George I of Greece. Desborough had known Edward when Prince of Wales as a sporting enthusiast (they took part in the same shooting parties, and fencing was a shared interest). Athens provided a perfect opportunity for consultation with the King, if Desborough could fit it in around his fencing matches. Still very nervous, he wrote to Ettie on the 23rdApril:

I have been spending the morning at the palace where Seymour Fortescue sent for me to see the King – Our Queen was there, and says she is coming to see us fence the Germans tomorrow, & Princess Victoria and all the Greek Royalties, to say nothing of the King & Prince of Wales; it will be awful, we fight the German team at 11 o’clock, & I hope I shall beat them. The King has asked me to drive down with him to the fencing … but it will be awful if get whacked by these Germans. I will wire. It will be dreadfully hot fencing.

The 1906 British fencing team in Athens: Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon, Lord Desborough (second from right), Charles Newton-Robinson and Edgar Seligman.

[Photograph by Bowden in Theodore A Cook, The Cruise of the Branwen, 1908.]

He also confessed to Ettie that if Rome did fall through he was already sketching out what London might entail:

I spoke to the King about it this morning and he highly approved. We could run at the Queen’s Club, Fence at Olympia, row on the Thames, Swim at Highgate Ponds – and I think make much more business like arrangements than they have here, but it would give me a lot to do as President of the Olympic Committee – we have no Stadium, which is seriously glorious, with the Acropolis above you in the sun, but could make a fine show at Olympia to wind up with; massed bands & crown the Victors ...

Desborough’s forceful imagination was now at work (though it’s hard to think how the modest scale of Highgate Ponds on Hampstead Heath in London could ever be deemed adequate) and soon he was committing himself very significantly. The next day he reported his contests to Ettie: relishing successful fights and the whole experience of the Games:

I began with the Captain of the German team & pursued him to the ropes & got in a rib-roaster which was a good beginning: & I had three fights and was not hit - so all was well … [after dinner last night]I spent the evening watching the illuminations between the two Queens – so you can see how regal I have been.

However, a key issue that would be disruptive in London – fair adjudication – was forced on him very directly. On the 26thhe complained how, ‘We beat the Belgians this morning & did very well – then we fought the French and made a tie, & were finally beaten by 3 points: we really won but the judges treated us mostunfairly, especially me which they all allow – I hit three straight off & was not allowed one. It was quite ridiculous, and I am frightfully annoyed.’

Having now obtained a positive royal response, vital to his enterprise, Desborough wrote to Baron Pierre de Courbetin, President of the International Olympic Committee [IOC], in Paris, before enjoying his final and festive day in Athens:

Yesterday I put on my gorgeous new uniform & had lunch with the King [of Greece] – a very big affair, and then we were given prizes in the Stadium – bunches of olive from the top of Olympia, & medals – very good ones – amid the cheers of the populace. We got these as second prize, & the Belgians got third. We really won without a doubt, and I am very sad about it … If the Games really come off in England in 1908 I shall have a very great deal to do being President of the Olympic Committee – but I do not know if we should be able to raise the money: one ought to have £10,000 guaranteed.

As he travelled back from Athens to Venice on theBranwen with Theodore Cook and Cosmo Duff Gordon, Desborough took the opportunity to discuss the complexities of staging a London Games. He was heading for Paris, where he would fence competitively and hoped to gain outline agreement on the London option with de Courbetin. Before continuing his journey he wrote to Ettie from Venice:

I want to see Courbetin & Brunetta d’Usseaux about 1908; it will be a great business & one doesn’t quite see how to get the money – However if the King helped, as I believe he would, it would go all right.

Typically of this determined and brilliant fixer he arranged a route from Venice to Paris via Rome where he could discuss with Italian officials their views on ‘the rules for several sports.’

* * * *

The birth of the modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 was the achievement of Baron Pierre de Courbetin, who was passionate about re-kindling the Olympic ideals of sportsmanship and international cooperation. These broad aims resonated with many others, particularly as colonial rivalries at the end of the 19thcentury were overflowing into the threat of more serious international conflicts. Desborough, in his summary report at the end of the 1908 Games, emphasized these ideals as the core purpose - well beyond the scope of a regular athletic meeting:

 … a dominant idea of the old Hellenic games was peace, and that although the superb physical efficiency they fostered naturally produced a citizen qualified in all respects to serve his state against a foreign enemy, the Olympic Games were the expression of good-fellowship as between Greek and Greek, the one institution, indeed, which united the Hellenic race during a history which was marred throughout by internal conflict … The same idea of peace and unity in connection with international athleticism is capable of a modern application.

This aspiration was crucial to Desborough, while sharingde Courbetin’s ambition to create an international event that would attract more participants and spectators than any previous occasion. Desborough experienced pressure from all sides but emphasized what would be seen today as the ‘values’ of the event. At an inaugural Olympic banquet he encouraged officials and competitors to work together in the spirit of international harmony and mutual respect. The Timesreported him declaring that, ‘many points must arise on which there would be strong difference of opinion … But as sportsmen we must be willing to give as well as take.’This wasn’t just about the athletes and spectators but an ambition to promote international fellowship and to counter the evident and growing hostilities in the world.

William Grenfell, Lord Desborough, was in many ways the right person at the right time. But many elements in his earlier life, as a sportsman, politician, businessman and writer pointed towards the events of 1908 and many others flowed from that year. Any sense of luck (and privilege) would belie the degree to which he had created his own successes, and many came to regard him as an ideal English gentleman: with his early fame as an exceptional all-round sportsman gradually matched by recognition of him as an outstanding leader of public institutions, and crucially as a ‘man who could get things done.’ In his time Lord Desborough became a byword for duty, integrity, humility, diplomacy and generosity of spirit. And while others might regard these as specifically English virtues, his own aspiration was to contribute - internationally, nationally and locally - to a better organised and more stable world.

Desborough’s life neatly spanned the second half of the 19thcentury and the first half of the 20th, and as the nature of England changed so too did the roles of privileged and educated men. England was still deeply marked, despite political reform, by divisions of class, gender and culture. Desborough was devoted to creating a more open and participative society: a traditionalist in style and temperament but a believer in change. He wanted others to be inspired by individual achievement (as demonstrated by the Olympics) but he also wanted sport more generally to be a positive symbol not just of intense competition but of wider collaboration.

If public and national service, within and beyond Parliament, was a key theme in his life, his relationship to the River Thames was the central thread. Alongside his other notable achievements, his later years in charge of the Thames Conservancy followed naturally not just from his sporting achievements on the water and his management of the Thames-side estate at Taplow Court, but also from knowing those, across generations, who worked and played on the river. His tall powerful oarsman’s frame was complemented by an approachable manner: although occasionally reticent in company he offered rousing but thoughtful words when speaking at public events.

Desborough’s life wasn’t one of scandal or intrigue - there were no mistresses or hidden identities – but it was one of tragedy. Alongside his life of public achievement, his marriage to Ethel Fane (known always as Ettie) became a central steady thread through his life. She is famous as an elegant and intriguing figure amongst The Souls, a group of like-minded society hosts of the late Victorian and Edwardian period. By the 1890s the Grenfells, as a couple and then as a family, were much in the public eye: in civic circles locally in Maidenhead, in London society, when visiting great country houses, or as they socialised with prominent figures in politics or public affairs and at Court. However, within seven years of the Olympics, their two elder sons, Julian and Billy, were killed in May and July 1915, and the Desboroughs were then perceived, like so many who lost close relatives in WWI, as figures struck by cruel misfortune. The family was dealt a terrible further blow by the death of their youngest son, Ivo, from injuries following a car accident in 1926.


As led by Lord Desborough, London salvaged an Olympic movement that might never have survived,and many of the principles and tenets of the modern Games were established in London. In their heady mix of sport and politics, glorious victory with tragic defeat, visionary leadership with detailed organising, national significance combined with international cooperation, the 1908 Olympics represented the challenge of public service that he pursued so relentlessly and so passionately. The determination and professionalism with which Desborough tackled the Olympics was mirrored in all his many enterprises and projects, and the Games provide a window into his long and fulfilling life, which we explore in the chapters that follow.

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