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The Yacht Club was founded in St James’s, London, on 1 June 1815 as a club for gentlemen interested in sea yachting. Membership was restricted to those who owned a vessel not under 10 tons and members would meet in London and in Cowes twice a year. In 1817, the Prince Regent became a member and in 1820, when he was crowned George IV, it was renamed the Royal Yacht Club.
In 1826, the Royal Yacht Club started organising racing as a principal feature of the annual regatta at Cowes (known today as Cowes week), with the winning prize being a gold cup valued at £100. In 1833, William IV renamed the club The Royal Yacht Squadron. In 1851, the club’s commodore visited the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, London, and issued a challenge for the R.Y.S Cup in a race around the Isle of Wight. The New York-based vessel, America, representing the New York Yacht Club, won the race, thus giving its name to what is now one of the oldest and most famous sporting trophies, the America’s Cup.
Published in Vanity Fair’s Winter Supplement of 1894, this lithograph and preliminary drawing features six members of the R.Y.S in discussion at Cowes.
Portrayed are (left to right):
German Emperor and King of Prussia Wilhelm II (1859-1941). Elected a member in 1889, Kaiser Wilhelm was an active participant in the annual regatta in the 1890s. In 1891, he had purchased the America’s Cup challenger, Thistle, renamed her Meteor, and in 1893 won the Squadron Regatta Cup.
The Earl of Dunraven, Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin (1841-1926). A Peer from 1871, Dunraven sat in the House of Lords and was a close ally of Lord Randolph Churchill, writing pamplets on the Irish Question and serving as President of the Fair Trade League. He served as under-secretary for the colonies in Lord Salisbury's administration in 1885-6 and again in 1886-7. However, Dunraven was chiefly known to the public as a yachtsman and was often criticised for neglecting his political duties for yachting. He competed for the America's Cup on behalf of the Royal Yacht Squadron in 1893 and 1895 with two specially built yachts, Valkyrie II and Valkyrie III – both times unsuccessfully.
Rear Admiral the Hon. Victor Montagu (1841-1915). A Godson of Queen Victoria, Victor Montagu joined the Royal Navy aged 11 and saw action during the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, before being promoted to Captain in 1877 and taking command of HMS Garnet in 1882. He retired from active service in 1885 and in 1892, whilst retired, was promoted to Rear Admiral. As a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron, he designed several boats, including the Montagu Whaler in 1890, which would become the standard sea boat of the Royal Navy from 1910 to 1970.
H.R.H Edward, Prince of Wales (1841-1910). A keen yachtsman since his youth, the Prince of Wales had been a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron since 1863, before accepting the office of Commodore in 1882. In 1893, the Prince of Wales had unveiled the new vessel Britannia, considered to be one of the finest racing ships ever built. During Britannia’s first five seasons, she entered 219 races and won 147 prizes. When he ascended the throne as Edward VII in 1901 he resigned his position as Commodore, but retained his association with the R.Y.S as its Admiral.
The 3rd Marquess of Ormonde, James Edward William Theobald Butler (1844-1919). The last Marquess of Ormonde to live at Kilkenny Castle, James Butler was a keen yachtsman and a close friend of Edward VII. The owner of several large ships, he had become a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron in 1867. He held the position of Vice-Commodore of the R.Y.S from 1885 until 1901, when he succeeded King Edward of Commodore.
The 5th Earl of Londsale, Hugh Cecil Lowther (1857-1944). A keen sportsman from a young age, the Earl of Lonsdale was known as a leading proponent of boxing and its recognition as a sport. In 1888, he travelled to Canada and then on to the Arctic Circle by horse, boat and dog sleigh. He reappeared in San Francisco in April 1889 by way of northern Alaska. He arrived back in England as a celebrity and in 1891 became a founder and the first President of the National Sporting Club. As a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron, Londsale raced with Lord Dunraven aboard the Valkyrie and purchased his own yacht, Dierdré, in 1893 from Dunraven. In 1894, it was aboard his next vessel, Shamrock, that he entertained the German Emperor during his visit to Cowes.
“Of all the booths that are to be found in this great Fair, there is none that is so hard to enter as the Royal Yacht Squadron; nor any to which admission is more prized even by the most high-placed. For, to use modern jargon, membership of the Squadron gives ‘cachet’ which is not to be had otherwise. Yachting, in the Cowes Season, is the sport of Kings - and millionaires. The humbler person may own a yacht and may make a seaman, and may do most venturous things and get much delight thereout; yet it is not for him to gain admittance within the Castle portals because only he is a good seaman, or a good yachtsman, or a bold fellow. He must be much else before he shall be entitled to fly the White Ensign. On the other hand, he need not be all that is bold and seamanlike in order to attain the high Cowes degree. Wicked men have said that sailing and the ability to sail are but an accident in the composition of a few members of the Royal Yacht Squadron; but plainly this is to go too far. Many an old Viking has set sail from Cowes Roads in a breeze that might urge a racing cutter with all her canvas spread through the water at the rate of quite six knots; has so ventured outside; has actually, greatly daring, circumnavigated the Island and yet lived to tell the tale of stays, and tacks, and green seas which might have come aboard had his ship been less skilfully handled by his gold lace-capped skipper. Such daring cruises have been done by the Squadron men of old; and now the Castle is fuller of brave spirits than ever it has been. When the Commodore became owner of the fastest cutter afloat he gave great impetus to yacht-racing; and most members of the Yacht Squadron now look upon racing with real interest, while the rest pretend to do so in respectful admiration of their Commodore's British pluck.
Once in each year there comes Holy Week at Cowes; when the little place is so crowded that a lodging ashore - for all who go down to Cowes do not go down in ships - may cost as much for a week as it may for other ten weeks. It is at this time that the Garden of the Royal Yacht Squadron is gaped at by miserable outsiders as the Holy of Holies of Fashion; to gain entrance to which fair Dames will do what they will scarce do for any other thing or man. The lucky or deserving among them enter this paradise daily and sit on chairs that are perched upon the uncomfortable grassy slope, full of determined anxiety to meet and touch the hand of that Royalty whom they have been meeting all through the just finished Season. These ladies, arrayed in all their glory, make a beautiful sight, such as may be seen nowhere else the world over; while the men are all nautical - very nautical. Blue suits topped by yachting caps and bottomed by yellow shoes are everywhere. Gold lace, badges, emblems, symbols, and the letters ‘R.Y.S.,’ are at this time common objects of the Cowes sea-shore. It is even said that some worthy members have these mystic letters tattooed on their persons. But it would be wrong to suppose that all the letters and badges and emblems combined could make, or prove, one seaman. Yet some of these blue-coated fellows are England's best men, real sailors, enterprising yachtsmen, good sportsmen; for the English still love the sea, and yachting is brave sport.
Let us look at some of these, as they kept the Holy Week this year. There is first His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales; most popular of Englishmen, most actual sportsman after the British manner, and owner of the Britannia. Much has the Prince done for yachting ; much more for the Royal Yacht Squadron; even more for English sport. The English sportsman will not win a race by all means possible. He would rather be beaten than win ingloriously. Nor, when he is beaten by foreign resources that himself would disdain to use, will he object to the winning boat. He will win against all dodges, or he will take a beating; for his notions of what sport should be are English notions, not American, and solid. Of such is our Prince of Wales.
There is foreign Royalty in the Garden. The German Emperor is a new yachtsman; who is nevertheless an authority on yachting. For he is an Admirable Crichton, who does everything well, from alarming one of his own garrisons in time of peace to composing an opera; from racing a yacht on the sea to correcting the decision of a Hanging Committee in an Art Gallery. He is a universal expert, who can do everything; and he does everything. He is very full of enthusiasm, and he is really learning to be a yachtsman. Moreover he has won the Queen's Cup with the Meteor. He has learned much at Cowes and has enjoyed much; so that he means to come again.
Descended from the first Chief Butler of Ireland - who died nearly seven hundred years ago - Lord Ormonde is of the ‘old salt’ breed, who loves the sea and all that on it is. He has done a great deal of yachting, but no yacht-racing; he is one of the few unprofessional sailors who holds a certificate from the Board of Trade to command his own ship; and he is so good a seaman that he despises the modern racing machine. He is indeed so smart a sailor that he makes sailors of others, keeping up quite naval discipline on board his ship. All his yachts have been Mirages; but there is nothing at all deceptive about their owner.
Lord Dunraven has but one mirage - a fading prospect of winning the America's Cup. He has tried very hard, and he has deserved, even though he has not commanded, success: and doing so, he has gained the respect of all as a thorough sportsman of patriotic intent. He is a very keen yachting man who knows all about a yacht. He is also the holder of a certificate, and he is a very hard-headed fellow. If the Americans will accept fair conditions, he is ready to build another Watson boat that shall be better than the ill-fated Valkyrie, and that shall be meant to take the wind out of any American's sails and give him a stern chase home. He can do more than own a yacht, as he showed in his last season's twenty-rater, whose lines were designed absolutely, if unsuccessfully, by her owner. He called her Audrey; for she was all ‘his own’; and, like Touchstone's Audrey, she was ‘an ill-favoured thing.’ He has done much besides yachting. Since he earned popularity as an officer in the Household Brigade by riding steeplechases, he has been a special war correspondent, a Colonial Secretary, a Royal Commissioner to inquire into a big subject, and an author of reputable works on the Soudan, Irish Architecture, ‘The Great Divide,’ and Free Trade. He is, moreover, an authority on hunting; and he is filled with ambition.
Lord Lonsdale has long been known as a plucky sportsman ashore. He is lately become a recruit of the yacht-racing world; and though he knows little about it yet, he will learn. He bought the twenty-rater Deirdre from Lord Dunraven, and did well with her last season; but he did not sail her himself, nor, indeed, did he often sail in her.
Admiral Montagu is another keen yachtsman; but being the good seaman that he is, he knows little of yachts, less of yacht-racing, and will not learn. His is a very genial figure at all the Regattas, and all men like him. He has done much to keep up the forty-rating class with his three ships, Vendetta, Corsair, and Carina.
There are many others in this Royal Yacht Squadron booth; sailors, seamen, yachtsmen, yachting men, longshoremen, picknickers, millionaires who have much to recommend them, and millioniares who have nothing but their millions. But the wrong members are few, and the improving Squadron is the best-manned Club in all Vanity Fair.”