Dr. Frederick James Furnivall
In April 1896, the 71-year-old Dr. Frederick James Furnivall founded the Hammersmith Sculling Club for girls. Having learnt to row in his teens, rowing became a lifelong obsession for Dr. Furnivall. He was admitted to Trinity Hall Cambridge in 1842, where he rowed in the first eight. He also sculled regularly and at the age of 20, he and his friend John Beesley built the first narrow, outrigged single scull to be seen on the Cam.
In 1891 when the Amateur Rowing Association refused to accept working men as ‘amateurs’, Furnivall founded the National Amateur Rowing Association which anyone could join. Given his passionate opposition to discrimination, he wanted to break into the traditionally male-dominated world of river sport, by building a club for women.
Membership of the Hammersmith Sculling Club was extended to men in 1901. It was also in this year that the name was changed to Furnivall Sculling Club for Girls and Men. The captaincy continued to be restricted to female members for the first half of the century, however, in honour of Dr. Furnivall's original purpose for founding the club.
An honourable doctor
Dr. Furnivall continued to row regularly every Sunday, to Richmond and back, a habit he maintained throughout his life until he died in 1910 aged 85. Following his death, the club honoured his memory by celebrating 'The Doctor's Birthday' for many years.
The club has gone through high and low points but its long term stability and the maintenance of Dr. Furnivall's vision for women's sculling have remained constant. Dr. Furnivall was true to the Victorian age. Not only did he found the club when he was a young 71 but he was also the ultimate enthuiast; passionate about social justice and personal health. He never smoked or drank and, unusually for the age, became a vegetarian.
A remarkable Victorian
In 1849 he opened a school for poor men and boys and in 1851 he sold his book collection so as to give £100 to support striking woodcutters. The following year he helped establish the Working Men’s Association. But it was his literary work that attracted national attention. In 1861 he started work on a dictionary which finally saw the light of day as The Oxford English Dictionary.
Fortunately the task was taken out of his hands as he was diverted by new pursuits. He founded the Early English Texts Society in 1864, the Chaucer Society in 1886, the Ballad Society and also the New Shakespeare Society in 1873, the Wicliff Society in 1881, and in 1886 the Browning Society and the Shelly Society. In his spare time he became the leading expert of the day on Chaucer. It is said that Kenneth Grahame modelled Ratty on him in the Wind in the Willows. Dr. Furnivall was a remarkable Victorian!
Extracted from The Walkers Guide to the Thames from Richmond to Putney Bridge by David McDowall.