Frank Willan (rower)

Frank Willan (8 February 1846 – 22 March 1931) was an English rower and Militia officer who rowed for Oxford in four winning Boat Race crews and umpired the race between 1889 and 1902. He was also a yachtsman and one of the founders of the Royal Yachting Association, an alderman, a Deputy Lieutenant for Hampshire, an early motorist, and a military historian.

Willan, in a wood engraving of about 1870

During the First World War, when aged nearly seventy, he drove military lorries on the Western Front in France.

Early lifeEdit

Willan was the only son of John James Willan (1799–1869) and his wife Jane Onslow,[1][2][3] who was herself a granddaughter of Colonel George Onslow MP, first cousin of George Onslow, 1st Earl of Onslow.[4] He was educated at Eton College and Exeter College, Oxford.[2][5] At Eton, he was a 'wet bob' and rowed at stroke.[6]


Willan went up to Oxford as a member of Exeter College.[2] There, he rowed for Oxford in its winning Boat Race crews in four successive years, in 1866, 1867, 1868 and 1869.[7] In 1867 he was also in the winning Oxford Etonian crew in the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta[8] and runner up in the Diamond Challenge Sculls.[9] In the same year, 1867, he gave evidence in a legal dispute over the starting of a sculls race on the Thames.[10] In 1869, he was President of the Oxford University Boat Club.[10][11]

In 1869 Willan won the Grand at Henley with Oxford Etonian again. In August of the same year, he rowed at bow in an Oxford coxed four race against Harvard on the Tideway, Harvard's first race in England.[12]

In 1878, as one of a group of "old amateurs whose ideas were universally respected", Willan took part under the chairmanship of Francis Playford in the drawing up of the definition of an amateur for the purposes of the sport of rowing.[13]

From 1883 to 1889 he was honorary Treasurer of the Winchester Diocesan Society.[14] In 1888, following the death of an oarsman, Willan wrote to The Times to propose that in bumping races a leather pad should be fixed to the nose of eight-oared boats.[15]

Willan was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Oxfordshire Militia on 26 April 1873,[16] and was promoted to captain on 23 June 1875.[17] In the Childers Reforms of the British Army in 1881, the Oxfordshire Militia became the 4th Battalion, Oxfordshire Light Infantry. He was made an honorary major on 5 May 1888,[18] and substantive major on 19 December 1891.[19] He became an honorary lieutenant-colonel on 10 May 1893,[20] and substantive lieutenant-colonel on 13 January 1902, also taking command of the battalion.[21] He was promoted honorary colonel on 13 September 1902.[22] He retired, with permission to retain his rank, and continue wearing uniform, on 17 February 1906.[23]

Willan lived at Burley Manor, Ringwood, and Thornehill Park, Bitterne, Hampshire, and was an alderman for Hampshire, a Justice of the Peace and was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant for the county on 26 May 1904.[3][24] In Hampshire, he was a breeder of Jersey cattle.[25] Willan also umpired the Boat Race from 1889 to 1902. In 1894, the future King George V rode in the launch with him.[26] Willan also awarded the prizes at Henley in 1897.[27]

He went on to become a yachtsman[28] and was one of the founders of the Yacht Racing Association (later the Royal Yachting Association), and was a member of its council for fifteen years.[2] He was also active as a sea fisherman off the coast of Dorset.[29][30] He was also a motorist in the very early days of the new sport, and in 1903 represented fellow motorists in discussions on the use of Hampshire roads.[31] In 1908, he owned a 6-cylinder 28-horsepower Lanchester.[32]

Willan married Louisa Margaret Anne Douglas, daughter of Captain C. R. G. Douglas, late the 32nd Bengal Light Infantry,[2] and stepdaughter of John Prideaux Lightfoot, Rector of Exeter College, Oxford, in the college chapel on 14 January 1875.[33] They had two sons and two daughters.[2] Both sons became brigadiers, Frank Godfrey Willan CMG DSO,[34] and Robert Hugh Willan DSO MC. Their grandchildren included Group Captain Frank Andrew Willan, RAF.

During the First World War, when aged nearly 70, Willan drove military lorries for the British Expeditionary Force in France.[28] He was later appointed to the local appeal tribunal, created on the introduction of conscription under the Military Service Act 1916.[35]

He died on 22 March 1931,[36] and his bequests included £150 to his gardener.[37] A memorial was placed in Winchester Cathedral "by Mrs. Willan, Col. F. G. Willan, and other members of the family".[38]


In 1900, Willan published an account of his old regiment, A History of the Oxfordshire Regiment of Militia (fourth Battalion Oxfordshire Light Infantry) 1778–1900.[39][40] A new edition of this appeared in 2009.[41]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ John Bernard Burke, A genealogical and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage (1852), p. 759 online
  2. ^ a b c d e f 'Willan, Colonel Frank (born 8 February 1846, died 22 March 1931)', in Who Was Who 1929–1940 (London: A. & C. Black, 1967 reprint: ISBN 0-7136-0171-X)
  3. ^ a b Colonel Frank Willan Archived 23 September 2015 at the Wayback Machine at
  4. ^ Edmund Lodge et al., The Peerage of the British Empire as at present existing (1851) p. 421 online
  5. ^ W. E Sherwood Oxford Rowing
  6. ^ James Brinsley Richards, Seven years at Eton, 1857–1864 (1883), p. 431: "It was a delicious thing to row in a long boat behind a good stroke – such strokes as Frank Willan or GH Mossop."
  7. ^ Richard D. Burnell, One hundred and fifty years of the Oxford and Cambridge boat race (1979), p. 59
  8. ^ R C Lehmann The Complete Oarsman
  9. ^ Henley Royal Regatta Results of Final Races 1839–1939 Archived 9 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ a b Eric Halladay, Rowing in England: a social history : the amateur debate (1990), p. 24 online
  11. ^ William Fisher McMichael, The Oxford and Cambridge boat races from 1829 to 1869 (1870), p. 350
  12. ^ Herbert Albert Laurens Fisher, British Universities and the War: A Record and Its Meaning, p. 74 online
  13. ^ W. B. Woodgate, Boating (2008 edition), pp. 192–194 online
  14. ^ Frank Willan, 'The Bishop of Winchester And Ritualism', Letters to the Editor, The Times, 24 January 1901, p. 12, col. D
  15. ^ Frank Willan, 'The Fatal Accident at Cambridge', in Letters to the Editor, The Times, 2 March 1888, p. 14
  16. ^ "No. 23970". The London Gazette. 25 April 1873. p. 2085.
  17. ^ "No. 24221". The London Gazette. 22 June 1875. p. 3194.
  18. ^ "No. 25813". The London Gazette. 4 May 1888. p. 2539.
  19. ^ "No. 26234". The London Gazette. 18 December 1891. p. 6978.
  20. ^ "No. 26399". The London Gazette. 9 May 1893. p. 2690.
  21. ^ "No. 27400". The London Gazette. 24 January 1902. p. 515.
  22. ^ "No. 27473". The London Gazette. 19 September 1902. p. 5889.
  23. ^ "No. 27887". The London Gazette. 20 February 1906. p. 1227.
  24. ^ "No. 27682". The London Gazette. 3 June 1904. p. 3563.
  25. ^ English Jersey Cattle Society , Register of births of pure bred Jersey cattle, vol. 5 (1886), p. 91
  26. ^ Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race – 1894 Race Report
  27. ^ The New York Times Ten Eyck wins at Henley 17 July 1897
  28. ^ a b A. Hall Hall, 'Frank Willan', in Letters to the Editor, The Times, 27 March 1931, p. 15, col. F
  29. ^ Proceedings – Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society, vol. 18 (1897), p. 20
  30. ^ Frank J. B. Beckford, On the fish of Dorset; their habits, mode of capture (1897), p. 20
  31. ^ The Motor, vol. 5 (1904), p. 246
  32. ^ Neglected Details in Motor-Car Arrangements, Letters to the Editor, The Times, 2 January 1908, p. 9, col. E
  33. ^ Registrum Collegii exoniensis: register of the rectors & fellows, scholars (1893), p. 172
  34. ^ Celer et audax Club, The King's Royal Rifle Corps Chronicle (1957), p. 175
  35. ^ "No. 29502". The London Gazette. 10 March 1916. pp. 2558–2561.
  36. ^ "No. 33748". The London Gazette. 28 August 1931. p. 5657.
  37. ^ Gardeners Chronicle & New Horticulturist (1931), p 147
  38. ^ Winchester Cathedral Record (1933), p. 6.
  39. ^ Lt.-Col. Frank Willan, A History of the Oxfordshire Regiment of Militia at
  40. ^ Dudley Keith Edwards, The Soldiers' Revolt (1978), p. 10 online
  41. ^ Lieut-Col Frank Willan, History of the Oxfordshire Regiment of Militia (fourth Battalion Oxfordshire Light Infantry) 1778–1900 Including the Diary of the Late Lieut.-Col. Thomas Mosley Crowder, 1852–1885 (General Books LLC, 2009, ISBN 1-151-29131-5, ISBN 978-1-151-29131-8