Speeches: Literary and Social, by Charles Dickens

SPEECH: LONDON, MAY 7, 1866.

[The Members of the Metropolitan Rowing Clubs dining together at the London Tavern, on the above date, Mr. Dickens, as President of the Nautilus Rowing Club, occupied the chair. The Speech that follows was made in proposing “Prosperity to the Rowing Clubs of London.” Mr. Dickens said that:-]

He could not avoid the remembrance of what very poor things the amateur rowing clubs on the Thames were in the early days of his noviciate; not to mention the difference in the build of the boats. He could not get on in the beginning without being a pupil under an anomalous creature called a “fireman waterman,” who wore an eminently tall hat, and a perfectly unaccountable uniform, of which it might be said that if it was less adapted for one thing than another, that thing was fire. He recollected that this gentleman had on some former day won a King’s prize wherry, and they used to go about in this accursed wherry, he and a partner, doing all the hard work, while the fireman drank all the beer. The river was very much clearer, freer, and cleaner in those days than these; but he was persuaded that this philosophical old boatman could no more have dreamt of seeing the spectacle which had taken place on Saturday (the procession of the boats of the Metropolitan Amateur Rowing Clubs), or of seeing these clubs matched for skill and speed, than he (the Chairman) should dare to announce through the usual authentic channels that he was to be heard of at the bar below, and that he was perfectly prepared to accommodate Mr. James Mace if he meant business. Nevertheless, he could recollect that he had turned out for a spurt a few years ago on the River Thames with an occasional Secretary, who should be nameless, and some other Eton boys, and that he could hold his own against them. More recently still, the last time that he rowed down from Oxford he was supposed to cover himself with honour, though he must admit that he found the “locks” so picturesque as to require much examination for the discovery of their beauty. But what he wanted to say was this, that though his “fireman waterman” was one of the greatest humbugs that ever existed, he yet taught him what an honest, healthy, manly sport this was. Their waterman would bid them pull away, and assure them that they were certain of winning in some race. And here he would remark that aquatic sports never entailed a moment’s cruelty, or a moment’s pain, upon any living creature. Rowing men pursued recreation under circumstances which braced their muscles, and cleared the cobwebs from their minds. He assured them that he regarded such clubs as these as a “national blessing.” They owed, it was true, a vast deal to steam power — as was sometimes proved at matches on the Thames — but, at the same time, they were greatly indebted to all that tended to keep up a healthy, manly tone. He understood that there had been a committee selected for the purpose of arranging a great amateur regatta, which was to take place off Putney in the course of the season that was just begun. He could not abstain from availing himself of this occasion to express a hope that the committee would successfully carry on its labours to a triumphant result, and that they should see upon the Thames, in the course of this summer, such a brilliant sight as had never been seen there before. To secure this there must be some hard work, skilful combinations, and rather large subscriptions. But although the aggregate result must be great, it by no means followed that it need be at all large in its individual details.

[In conclusion, Mr. Dickens made a laughable comparison between the paying off or purification of the national debt and the purification of the River Thames.]

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