Robert Wells Risley

Robert Wells Risley

Robert Wells Risley

Robert Risley was born in 1837, the son of Rev. William Cotton Risley, JP, from Deddington, Oxfordshire, Rector of Shalstone, Buckinghamshire. He entered Radley during Robert Singleton’s wardenship in 1850, at the age of 13. He was the third boy to be appointed Senior Prefect. He rowed for the Radley VIII in 1854-5. He left school in 1855 and went up to Exeter College, Oxford. Whilst at Oxford he rowed for the University VIII, 1857-60, and in sculls 1857-8. His career as a rower continued after he left university. He won the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley for Kingstone Rowing Club in 1865. He was ordained in 1862, and served as curate at Hurst, Berkshire from 1871 until 1883, and as Rector of Moulsoe, Buckinghamshire, 1883 to 1884. In 1870 he married Isidora Shannon. He died on 23rd August 1884.

His obituary was published in The Radleian, December 1884

We have to thank the kindness of a contemporary Radleian for this memoir of Rev. R. W. Risley’s life.
R. W. Risley entered Radley at Easter, 1850. Professor Sidney Owen of Oxford, who formerly was a fellow at Radley, once remarked that Risley was the most mature grown boy that he bad ever met with. Certainly, before he was 15 years old, Risley was in growth, muscle and activity, entitled to rank with what schoolboys are in the habit of defining as the” big fellows.” He had few superiors at football; at running he was reputed the speediest in the school.He does not seem to have been of a quarrelsome nature; there is no record of his ever having been engaged in a “mill,” but he was looked up to by many small boys as a protector to whom to appeal from the tyranny of the many bullies with whom the school was infested prior to the establishment of prefects. This latter innovation took place in the spring of 1851. Risley was too junior to be a prefect at that time. The change of Wardens in October, 1851, caused a diminution of numbers in the school (there had been 85 residents at the close of 1850, exclusive of one or two invalids on leave). During Heathcote’s Wardenship Risley was made a prefect. Heathcote’s resignation at the close of 1852 caused a still further depletion in numbers, and when Dr. Sewell took office in 1853, 45 boys only were on the roll.

It may be mentioned that there had been an attempt at aquatics so long ago as 1849 and 1850. A few of the bigger boys were allowed to man an eight or four on the river, under the supervision of the head. So early a boathouse was built on the creek which stands on the Berks shore nearly opposite to Nuneham boathouse. (The bridge leading from that creek to the Thames covered in those days nearly the full length of what is now causeway beyond the present bridge.) The” boating boys” wore a brown straw hat with blue ribbon, the only headdress allowed in those days to any boy except the college cap. The latter was de rigeur
for all games and hours with everyone else. It is believed that Risley was not among the boating elect of Dr. Singleton’s era. The privilege of even this boating was withdrawn in 1851. Bathing was not allowed. In 1852 Dr. Heathcote secured the present bathing place, instituted swimming classes, and allowed all who could “pass” to boat. The old boathouse at Nuneham (aforesaid) was reopened. Risley soon passed, and became with W. G. G. Austin one of the two prominent oars of the school. The depletion of the school at the close of 1852 left Austin and Risley Tritons among minnows in the school. They both were unusually powerful boys for their age. Austin was senior prefect. He and Risley were the closest friends, and their friendship held close through University days and through later life to the end of the chapter. There was no school Four (still less Eight) at the beginning of 1853. Risley and Austin used to row a pair oar, outrigged, called the Peri. There was a school tradition that in June, 1853, the Oriel Eight was rowing down to Nuneham one day: the Peri was coming through Sandford bridge as the eight left the lock; the pair kept ahead of the eight till she reached the school boathouse: a decidedly good feat. Of the two school champions, Austin had learned swimming first, and was the more proficient. He one day swam from the Sandford bathing place to the Nuneham boathouse, some 2 1/2 miles. Risley
set to work to improve his swimming, and accomplished the same feat a few months later. In the autumn term of 1853 a Four was started; Austin did not join it, as he was leaving in October and so would break up the crew. He had a sculling boat for the term. The crew was, Risley, R. W. Lightfoot, Gauvrier, and Hetling, W. P. Holland, cox.; uniform: brown straw hat, blue ribbon, white
flannel shirts, with blue rosettes on breast.

Risley succeeded Austin as senior prefect in 1853. Dr SeweIl used to say of both these pupils of his that they were in turn his right hand. He enjoyed their confidence, and they his. It was through them and their influence on the school, under his guidance, that he was enabled to establish his code of parole d’honneur, which certainly worked effectually so long as he was Warden. In organizing this in the school, Austin with Risley, and Risley solus after Austin, were Dr Sewell’s machinery. He has often said to the writer in later years that he owed the success of his tactics to their cooperation and mutual confidence in him.

On Easter Monday, 1855, a ” duffers” Eight was manned; the first Eight of any note since boating and swimming had become open institutions. The school Four kept its own crew. The eight best boatmen were picked for this scratch Eight, and set to race the Four from Nuneham railway bridge. By the rules of aquatics an eight should beat a four, but the Four did not expect defeat until they found it. This race started the idea of a school Eight, which Risley at once founded after the Easter holidays, and rowed stroke of it.

It has been said that Risley was a Triton among minnows in those days. Perhaps there never was a boy at school with so much power, physical and political, over his fellows. He was looked up to as a deity by small boys, he was in their eyes a far more powerful minister of the government than any of the “Fellows,” or masters. Clive was “astonished at his own moderation” in India. So might the Warden be at the fact that Risley was not spoiled at school or in after life by the flattery of schoolfellows, and by the autocracy which he enjoyed. Yet he certainly was not so. There is no better proof of this than the warm regard of his school contemporaries, masters and boys alike, which followed him through life to the grave. He entered into residence at Oxford in October, 1855. A handsome testimonial in books was presented to him by the school when he was leaving. He did not get a seat in the 1856 University Eight; he could probably have rowed if he liked, but he had to pass an examination and had to decline being tried. He rowed in the Exeter Eight and at Henley that year. His subsequent aquatic performances were a matter of world-wide history.

He was ordained curate to Dr Monsell, Egham, in 1860; removed to curacy, St. Mark’s, Surbiton, 1864, and there revived his aquatic renown by rowing in the Kingston eight at Henley and elsewhere as Mr. ” Wells.”

In Risley’s Oxford days there were no athletic sports, nor direct lists of running powers, but he and Daubeny of Exeter, who was rather his senior, were reputed the fastest runners of their day at the University. Risley was good on a horse. We never heard of his riding in college grinds or steeplechases, but he could go well to hounds. As a boy he once awoke to find himself famous in the hunting field by jumping a canal lock, with stone coping and take off, and stone landing somewhere near Heyford. He was riding an old Roman-nosed horse which belonged to his father or to his elder brother, Holford Risley, we forget which.

As a cricketer Risley played in the school eleven, and was one of the best of the team of those days, such as it was. But his heart was not in the game and he played it more from a sense of public duty. The saddle and river were his real pleasures.

The only real school escapade recorded against Risley was in the summer of I850, just after he had come to Radley. It deserves record as characteristic of his nerve, pluck and prowess as a school athlete even in those earliest years. Some boy, a friend of his, was confined for some offence in one of the upper floor rooms of Radley Hall. Risley and his ally, Philip Gurdon (who afterwards was in the University crew with him), set bolts and bars at defiance to visit their imprisoned friend. They climbed the face of the house, to the second floor windows, by inserting their fingers and toes in the triangular niches of the stonework which are, as modern Radleians can see for themselves, about 1 1/2 inches deep and quite 2 feet apart, paid their call, and returned in the way they came. It was most providential that neither of them broke his neck.

We have not much to add to the foregoing account except that perhaps it may be of interest to the younger generation of Radleians if a few more details of Risley’s aquatic career are given.

He rowed in four University crews, viz., those of I857-8-9-60, being we believe the first Oxford oarsman who rowed so many years, a feat indeed rarely equalled since; he also won the University sculls in 1857-8, to say nothing of seven great races which he won at Henley, and which are briefly referred to above.

His interest in the doings of the School crews continued up to the very last, and the present generation little know how much the Boat Club have to thank him for advice and encouragement in the past; it is not so many years ago, when immediately after a most discouraging and complete defeat he said, “Well never mind, only make them go on rowing, they must win at last, they are bound to win some day if they only go on trying.” He lived to see his words come partially true, their fulfilment is sure if present Radleians continue to persevere in the spirit which animated the past.

It has been suggested that it would be very suitable if those who knew R. W. Risley best when at Radley, would put up in Chapel to his memory a small brass tablet like those already there. The expense we believe is under £5. It would be a grateful memorial.

No 10 clock towerRisleyRW chapel plaque

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