Reminiscences Of An Old Sportsman

By our founder, W.B. Woodgate

One of the last things that I did in my closing year of the Undergraduate life, was to found Vincent’s Club. The foundation was a sudden one at the last, though I have been contemplating organising a coterie of that nature for some time past. Before the Oxford Union moved to their own premises, they had rented rooms at Vincent’s, the publishers in the High Street. The migration occurred while I was still at School. Old Vincent having lost these customers, started a reading room of his own in the old suite; open only to members of the University and at 13/6 a term to undersell the Union, for which latter the terminal fee was a guinea.

For many years he had a full list of subscribers. Contiguous Colleges like BNC, University, Merton, Corpus, patronised him freely, besides casual recruits from other Colleges. But by degrees his trade grew slack, and at last he closed his doors about 1861. I had, like many BNC friends, always been a subscriber; we grudged the closed doors, and cursed the Union for attracting the youth of the day to our inconvenience. We also crabbed Union membership, for certain technical reason, as follows.

The Union professed to pass all candidates through the ballot-box; but, statistically, for £ s d they went ‘into the highways and hedges’ for subscribers, and all through my time such an event as black-balling had been unknown, even for certain of the blackest sheep who had been notoriously expelled with ignominy from public schools. But the Union went through the farce of socially ‘vetting’ every candidate, and, after all, passing all sorts and conditions of men as ‘sound’ despite notorious antecedents. For this reason a strong and elite section of BNC, University and Merton cold-shouldered the Union.

About the opening day on the River of Lent Term, 1863, I was on BNC Barge, when the Hon C Ellis and C S Stanhope of Merton, hailed me from the tow-path to come and talk some matter over with them. ‘Well,’ I hailed back, ‘where should I find them after dressing?’ Stanhope called ‘come to the Union.’ I replied ‘Hang the Union, I wouldn’t be seen there at a dog fight.’ The retort was ‘Well, then, when are you going to give us that select Club of yours that you have talked so much about?’ My dander was up, I called back, ‘This day week.’

Having thus committed myself, I had to keep my word. I set to work to book my special friends as a nucleus for starting. I selected forty original members and we met in W Heap’s room in BNC to draft rules. Twelve o’clock was striking and all rules drafted save the name. Burton Leach suggested ‘The Century’ as one cardinal principle in the foundation was a limit to a magic number – 100 – to give prestige; and to include, if possible, in that 100 all the leading men of the Undergraduate class. But the strike of St Mary’s clock sounded the closure, for many of us had to knock out of gates. So we hurriedly named the Club ‘Vincent’s’ pro tem and rushed for the gates. We opened our doors within four days of my passage of arms with Ellis and Stanhope and had a further general meeting overnight in my rooms in High Street.

One of our novelties was provision of mild refreshments and leave to smoke. The Union tabooed tobacco and had no drinks, not even temperance, in those days. There was some doubt whether proctors might intervene if we sold drinks, so, for safety, we decided on free beer, tea and coffee for all members.

The first Sunday after opening there was a meeting to elect candidates, of whom there were already many. We had in our new rules a stiff qualification – if I recollect aright – one black ball in eight (or nine) to exclude. The candidates name came on in alphabetical order accordingly the first name on the list was that of one C—-, of Magdalen. I knew the man, and in my opinion he was quite eligible as good company; but he had, perhaps, a somewhat pushing style and carriage, which possibly produced an unfavourable impression on some who knew him only by sight and not personally.

When his ballot-box went round it turned out that he had some five, or thereabouts, enemies in the room, and he was not elected. The rejection put up the backs of our four Magdalen original members, and they retaliated by ‘pilling’ everyone else. Result (as four pills among about thirty-five members in attendance sufficed to debar) no election.

Strange to say the report of this exclusiveness of the new Club so far from deterring seemed only to stimulate candidature for so select an assembly. We had more names down by that day week, and held another sitting, whereat we agreed that there night have been some misunderstanding on the preceding Sunday, and in consequence passed two resolutions; one, to put up all last Sunday’s rejected ones again, and the other, not to announce the result .of ballot until all candidates of the day had passed through the ‘mill’. Then the ballot proceeded, the bulk were elected but poor C—-’s five enemies would not leave him alone, and he was ‘pilled’ again. Forthwith my four Magdalen friends in disgust resigned en bloc. This reduced the originals to thirty-six (or thirty-seven).

I endeavour to give a list of them:- C Bill, A Brassey, H A Brassey, J H Forster, C Forster,P Green, F H Kelly, A Makgill and J Hill from University College; C C Cheston, T F Dallin, Hon C Ellis, E R Everington, T A Gooch, W H P Jenkins, C W Spencer-Stanhope of Merton; W H Dunn, L Garnett, A W Grant, C E Harris, R Burton-Leach, W E Heap, S B Illingworth, P A Latham, S Phillips, A C Plowden of Brasenose; Douglas Arden and P E Poppe of Pembroke; H P Finch and J H Homer of Balliol; J M Haygarth, C J Manning of Corpus; B Farquhar and W Prowse of Exeter; E Hume, Trinity S C Voules of Lincoln.

However, in spite of a somewhat inauspicious first ballot, Vincent’s at once acquired a special prestige, which has never left it, the Club quarters have changed at least four times, and it is now far more commodious and luxurious than the cramped suite in which it had birth. Proctors do not veto it having a commissariat, and the latter, for meals at all hours, sets an example, as to quality and tariff combined, to nine out of ten London clubs.

Vincent’s started life with one servant – Steward, petty cashier etc rolled into one – John Brown. I picked him up through old Vincent who knew of him and his trusty character. He was invaluable, and did much towards our success. When his health began to fail, his son acted as his deputy, and in due course worthily succeeded him; he is still extant, a greater swell than his old father was – High Steward of the establishment. Vincent’s without (young) ‘John’ now surely well over fifty, would hardly be recognisable by old habitue.

The Oxford and Cambridge ‘Unions’ reciprocate compliments to each other by conferring honorary membership on the members of each other. It took me years to engineer something analogous to this for Vincent’s; but about a generation ago, with aid and canvass in Cambridge by the late Hon C Stuart Erskine of Downing (brother of my BNC friend) a similar reciprocity was arranged between the Cambridge ‘Pitt’ Club and Vincent’s, which, I am told, works well to this day.