Thames Pathway

Journal of a Walk Down the River Thames

by Keith Pauling

The Desborough Cut

Between Shepperton and Walton Bridge the natural river forms a sweeping “M” shape. This acted as something of a buffer causing low flow rates further downriver. This difficulty was resolved by the digging of the “Desborough Cut”, opened in 1935. It is named after Lord Desborough, who was the longest serving chairman of the Thames Conservancy.

The Desborough Cut Upstream
The Desborough Cut Upstream

The Desborough Cut joins the bases of the “M” with a straight line, forming an island in the middle that is logically named Desborough Island. Digging the cutting not only improved the flow-rates for which purpose it was designed, but more importantly for my current purposes provides a short-cut reducing the distance to Walton-on-Thames by more than half.

Baron Desborough was a very interesting character whose life seems leap out at you from the pages of a “Boys Own” comic. You know the sort of thing, up early in the morning, do lots of good deeds and only just getting to the stadium in time to win a couple of gold medals after all the others had started and finally changing for dinner with the latest film star.

William Henry Grenfell was born on October 30th 1855. His father was Charles William Grenfell a former Member of Parliament for Sandwich. The young William excelled at sports, setting a record for the mile at Harrow School that was to stand for sixty years before being beaten.

Sporting excellence continued when he went to Balliol College, Oxford. Grenfell rowed twice in the Boat Race, including the famous “dead heat” race of 1877. He was elected President of the Oxford University Athletics Club in 1876, and President of the Oxford University Boat Club in 1878. Later he turned his attentions to punting, and won the Upper Thames Punting Championships for three successive years, 1888, 1889 and 1890. In 1906 he was part of the British Olympic team that took part in the Interim Games held in Athens, and led the British team to a silver medal in the epee fencing competition.

Not content with victories against fellow beings, he also tested himself against the forces of nature. He swam across the base of Niagara Falls on two occasions, and as if that was not enough he climbed the Matterhorn on three separate occasions and rowed across the English Channel.

William Grenfell dedicated himself to public service in a way that we would not consider today. He stood for Parliament and was elected as a Liberal member for Salisbury in 1880 and 1885, and for Hereford in 1892. In 1893 he resigned his seat because he felt he could not support Gladstone’s Irish Home Rule Bill. However he returned to Parliament in 1900 as a Conservative and represented High Wycombe for five years before he was elevated to the Peerage as Baron Desborough in 1905.

The Desborough Cut Downstream
The Desborough Cut Downstream

All in all this looks quite a full life, but that was not enough for him. It seems that he was a classic example of the old adage “If you want something done ask a busy man, because they are the only people that have the time”. So stand by, this is what he did in his spare time; President of the Amateur Fencing Association; President of Marylebone Cricket Club; President of the Lawn Tennis Association; President of the London Chamber of Commerce; President of the Royal Agricultural Society; and President of the Thames Conservancy for a period of thirty-two years during which he planned and oversaw the cutting that bears his name.

I am only pausing for breath; I will continue...

Mayor of Maidenhead; Steward of the Henley Royal Regatta; Chairman of the British Olympic Association from 1905 to 1913 and to cap it all he was Chairman of the committee that organised the 1908 London Olympic Games.

Desborough’s family life was to prove one of sadness. Two of his sons, Julian and Gerald, were killed in action during the First World War, and his youngest son Ivor was killed in a mooring accident in 1926. Upon his death in 1945 the title of Lord Desborough ceased to exist.

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