A little exercise

Why does history sometimes abandon the memory of a great and colourful character?

It’s midday on a chilly February Sunday in the year 1910.

At Hammersmith, a western suburb of London still countrified, 1,000 people have gathered on the bridge over the Thames. A ripple of applause and cheering breaks out for a thin row boat called a scull with its crew of four as it passes beneath them heading upriver leading a flotilla of other boats. The object of the affectionate attention is the white-bearded white-haired old man in the bow of the scull, rowing in perfect time with his crewmates — all of whom are young women.

How old was the old man? Two days before, the elderly rower, Frederick Furnivall, had celebrated his 85th birthday. He announced that to celebrate he would row 13 and more miles up the Thames and back with the ladies’ sculling club for ‘ ‘working girls’ (not ‘fallen’ women, but toilers in factories and shops) that he founded in 1891(men admitted in 1901) and which bears his name to this day — it has a website.

Following his six and a half-mile row against the stream, plus a mile walk for a lunch in the town of Richmond, a mile stroll back to the boat and the return row, he was asked by a “bibulous pressman with a face like a double-breasted lobster” whether he was still feeling ok. The non-smoking, teetotal one-time vegetarian and lifetime rower who often drank Thames water by the tumbler-full, replied: ” Dear me, yes. It is quite a customary thing for to do this spin every Sunday morning in winter for a little exercise.”

Furnivall on the day of the race

Furnivall on the day of the race

So, who was this old geezer Dr Frederick James Furnivall? Though he had outlived his Queen, he was the very embodiment of a true Victorian. He was demonstrably mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body). Aside from a lifetime hobby in amateur rowing, virtually inventing the sport of sculling, he had done everything in his chosen field — the study of the English language. By the year 1910 though, much of his earlier academic achievement was history. It is amazing how soon time forgets some people and recalls others forever. Newspapers reporting the old man’s feat of strength on Old Father Thames that February had to remind younger readers that the old man was “Master of Arts, Ph.D.D., Lit Hon. Fellow of Trinity Hall, a barrister, a member of the British Academy, founder and active in the direction of the Early English Text, Chaucer, Ballad, and New Shakespeare Societies; founder of the Wyclif and Shelley Societies, joint founder of the Browning Society, editor of many English MSS. and texts, a worker with F. D. Maurice, J. M. Ludlow, T. Hughes, and others in the Christian Socialist and Co-operative movements and at the Working Men’s College for ten years, a captain in the 19th Middlesex Volunteers, and, addition, editor of several learned publications.”

His profession as an archaeologist of the English language had brought him contact with almost every literary figure of the previous six decades. He had lived so long that he could tell personal anecdotes of his friends Shelley, Byron and Wordsworth. He knew Swinburne, Tennyson and Ruskin. Through Ruskin he met and worked with leading artists including William Morris, Burne Jones, Millais and Rossetti. Oh and in case it too is forgotten, it was Furnivall who was acknowledged to have driven through the decades-long project at the Philological Society from the 1850s that was in the 1890s to be commercialised as the Oxford English Dictionary.

Unconventional, bordering on the eccentric — he always carried in his pocket a bag of bull’s eye candy in winter and acid drops in summer, which he proffered to anyone and everyone, not caring whether their social position made them too grand to accept a boiled sweet. After a day’s researching in the British Museum Library at 4:30pm he would invariably hold court upstairs at the ABC cafe on Oxford St — a chain of tea rooms that could be thought of as the Starbucks of its age. Even in his eighties he took the stairs two at a time. He was famous for his pink tie, which he had tied once then cut and had it stitched together by his housekeeper to invent the clip-on. Tactless, a strident feminist and opponent of the hereditary House of Lords, he made his opinions felt wherever he went. And yet people who knew ‘Ferney’ loved him.

Furnivall on the landing stage with his shipmates

Furnivall on the landing stage with his shipmates

Perhaps it was the fact that his doctor told him he was dying made him do the journey up the Thames one last time. Within weeks he ceased to take the stairs two at a time and by July 2 he was dead.

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