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.

Monday, 28 November 2022

William Grenfell, Balliol College and Dr Jowett

William Henry Grenfell in the Harrow cricket XI, 1873


Dear Titan Supporters

We wanted to give you a Titan of the Thames update before Christmas. As you already know we have completed the final drafts of our chapters and submitted them to Unbound. We are in the process of finishing the various appendices (Chronology, Table of Appointments & Honours, Sources & Bibliography, and Acknowledgements) and checking all the scans and permissions for the 120 (or so) images that will appear throughout the book.

The development editing and copy editing will take a few months, and this will be followed by design and layout of words and images, and then proofing. So, the book will get into production – printing and binding – towards the end of next year. Which means that a publication date looks likely to be in early 2024. We’re sorry if this feels a while away, but we hope that you’ll be pleased with the book when a copy gets into your hands.

You can still order copies of Titan for friends or colleagues through the Unbound site ( https://unbound.com/books/titan/ ). We are most grateful to those of you who have already recommended our biography of Lord Desborough to others.

Below is an amusing story from 149 years ago, when Willy Grenfell was coming to the end of his time at Harrow School and thinking about going to Oxford.

With many thanks as ever and greetings for the season,

Sandy and Peter


William Grenfell, Balliol College and Dr Jowett

In the autumn of 1873, as Willy Grenfell (Lord Desborough) approached his eighteenth birthday, he applied to Balliol College, Oxford, and took the entrance exam in October. Writing to his mother, he described how he travelled to Oxford with his Uncle Henry (his guardian after his father’s death in 1861 and his grandfather’s in 1867). But they got the timing wrong and arrived at 10 a.m. instead of the appointed time of 9. Nevertheless, he sat the papers and faced more exams the next day as well as a viva. Somewhat accident-prone, it took him longer to get back to Harrow because he boarded the wrong train. However, a telegram had arrived at the school before him, which was opened by his brother Claud who greeted him with news of his success.

The Balliol offer was for a start in January of the following year,1874. But Willy wanted to stay at Harrow until the summer and asked his Uncle Henry to write to the Master of Balliol and request a postponement.

Dr Benjamin Jowett, detail of a print after Désiré François Laugée, 1871

The Master, Dr Benjamin Jowett, famous as a cleric and university reformer, responded by saying:

I cannot accede to your nephew’s wish that he should defer his residence at Balliol though I should gladly have done so if the application had been made six months ago.

I am obliged to have fixed rules about the admission of residents in College. We cannot allow the candidate to change his mind after the Examination because a set of rooms has been reserved for him which would in that case remain vacant.

My own impression is that every boy ought to leave school at about 18 or 18½ as was usually the case in our generation. I do not agree with schoolmasters & tutors in detaining boys at school. After a long university course which is somewhat longer than formerly they get too late into life.

Two days later Willy explained in a letter to his mother that he was deeply frustrated by Jowett’s refusal, and boldly asserted that he would, ‘like to know what he means by it, the little ass’. He claimed that if he stayed at Harrow through the following year it would make a positive difference for both his work and cricket, and suggested that the Master was as obstinate as a pig. Willy then illustrated his impertinent view of Dr Jowett.

He added, arrogantly, ‘I’ve no doubt that the Ass-pig is an estimable man but I should like to flatten his nose.’

Writing to his Uncle Henry on 23 November, Willy explained again why it was important to stay on at Harrow:

In cricket it will make all the difference … and [I] will improve a great deal in batting, and have an infinitely better chance of doing better at cricket at Oxford. A man who is in the eleven at Oxford is much better known generally as a first class man, and I believe that hundreds know of Grace who have never heard of Gladstone.

By the end of November the matter was still not resolved and his housemaster, Mr Rendall, reported that Jowett refused to change his view. In early December Willy wrote to Jowett himself, for which a draft has survived:

Dear Rev. Dr. Jowett,

I hope you will forgive me troubling you upon a question which has already occupied too much of your attention.

My Uncle has allowed me to do what I can in this matter and has no objection to my staying on at Harrow if possible but says he cannot interfere any more himself.

I have a strong desire to become a scholar and feel perfectly certain that it is of paramount importance for me to stop on here for two more terms: I am not yet advanced enough to be able to cast off regular School discipline without the greatest disadvantage.

I have several times talked the matter over with Dr Butler and Mr Rendall and know that their opinion entirely coincides with mine.

I should not have thought of this request without good authority, and feel sure that a thorough education is as important in my case as in any.

If it is impossible to stay away after having passed the Examination is there any objection to my coming up to be examined again? If I failed then I should have no right to be a member of your college. Of course I should not do this without my Uncle’s sanction.

My excuse for making this request is that I had no idea that it was necessary to go up to College immediately after having passed the examination.

I hope you will overlook my boldness in writing to you: nothing would have induced me to do so, had I not felt the question to be one of the greatest importance.

I remain, Yrs very humbly, W.H.Grenfell

It isn’t clear whether Willy’s thinking was entirely based on academic concerns, given that he also hoped to be head of house and to play cricket for another season. But his tactic of offering to be re-examined produced a change of heart and Jowett wrote back to Grenfell on the 12th:

I very much disapprove of breaking an engagement at the last moment which is what you have done, though unintentionally. The consequence is that a set of rooms has to be kept vacant & the College loses its rent & tuition fees & the servant his payment for attendance.

But as you let me think you did not understand the rule & that you remain at Harrow for the sake of becoming a better Scholar I shall not enforce it in your case.

I shall expect you to be examined again after Easter & to show us that you are really a better Scholar than you were last October.

The further examination was successful, and Willy went up to Oxford to read Greats at Balliol College on 20 October 1874. How Willy got on at the university is another story, but luckily his early arrogance was tempered by time and experience.

      Willy Grenfell at Oxford, 1878?

However, in 1878, when ill-health forced him to take a break from his studies at Oxford, Dr Jowett wrote:

My dear Mr Grenfell

            I am very sorry that you are prevented from going into the Schools : It is provoking to head down at this time of the race.

            But I have no doubt that you have gained greatly by leaving. I look back upon the whole with much satisfaction on your Oxford course.

            I shall be interested to hear about your future plans : For I am sure you may have a distinguished life if you will take the trouble: no distinction can be gained, nor can life be made really useful without a good deal of labour.

            You have the good will of everybody here.

            I remain, Yours very sincerely


     Dr Benjamin Jowett by ‘Spy’, Leslie Ward, in Vanity Fair, 1876


Excerpts of letters from the collections of Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, Hertford, and images courtesy Grenfell family collections and the National Portrait Gallery.

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