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Olympic medalist
William Grenfell
Medal record
Men’s Fencing
1906 Intercalated Games
Silver 1906 Athens Team épée

William Henry Grenfell, 1st Baron Desborough, KG, GCVO, (30 October 1855 – 9 January 1945) was an athlete, sportsman, public servant and politician. He sat in the House of Commons firstly for the Liberal Party and then for the Conservatives between 1880 and 1905 when he was raised to the peerage. He was President of the Thames Conservancy Board for thirty-two years.

Grenfell was the son of Charles William Grenfell, former member of parliament for Sandwich and Georgiana Lascelles, daughter of William Saunders Lascelles, M.P. and his uncle was Henry Riversdale Grenfell, the banker and politician. Grenfell was educated at Harrow School, and Balliol College, Oxford. He rowed for Oxford in the Boat Race, in the dead heat race of 1877 and Oxford's win of 1878. He was president both of the Oxford University Boat Club and of the Athletic Club. He enjoyed mountaineering, swimming, fishing and big-game hunting. He swam the Niagara rapids twice, climbed the Matterhorn three times, rowed across the English Channel and was Amateur Punting Champion of the Upper Thames.[1] He was President of the Amateur Fencing Association, Marylebone Cricket Club, and the Lawn Tennis Association. He was a J.P. for Buckinghamshire and a Deputy Lieutenant for Tower Hamlets.[2]

In the 1880 general election, Grenfell was elected the Member of Parliament for Salisbury and held the seat until 1886. He was elected MP for Hereford in 1892. Politically, he was a Gladstonian Liberal, but he resigned in 1893 rather than support Gladstone's Second Irish Home Rule Bill. He returned to the House of Commons in 1900 as a Conservative.[3]

Taplow Court front view

Grenfell lived at Taplow Court where he and his wife hosted gatherings of the elite and aristocratic group, the 'Souls'. In 1892 he built at Stické court at the house.

In 1905, he was raised to the peerage as Baron Desborough, of Taplow, a title he took from the old hundred of Desborough in Buckinghamshire.

Desborough won the silver medal for fencing in the team epee at the 1906 Intercalated Games. In 1908, he was president of the Olympic games held in London.

During a long career dedicated to public service, he was President of the Thames Conservancy Board from 1904 to 1937, the London Chamber of Commerce, and the Royal Agricultural Society, amongst many others. He was High Steward of Maidenhead, the nearest town to his home at Taplow Court, Taplow. He performed many good deeds for the town, including the donation of an old chalk pit for use as a park, to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria. Grenfell Park contains many unusual trees, the seeds of which were collected by Lord Desborough as he travelled the world. He was also an active freemason. He became a steward of Henley Royal Regatta.

Desborough cut from one of the bridges

Desborough was appointed CVO in 1907 and advanced to KCVO in 1908 and GCVO in 1925; and in 1928 he was admitted as a Knight of the Order of the Garter. From 1924 to 1929 he was Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard. Between 1919 and 1929 he was chairman of the Pilgrims of Great Britain. He planned and oversaw the construction the Desborough Cut a channel in the Thames between Walton-on-Thames and Weybridge which was opened in 1935. The island created thereby was named Desborough Island.

Desborough had the unfortunate distinction of having his obituary erroneously published on 2 December 1920 in The Times which had confused him with Lord Bessborough. He actually died 25 years later at the age of 89.

Desborough married Ethel Fane, granddaughter of John Fane, 11th Earl of Westmorland, in 1887, and they had three sons and two daughters. His eldest son was the poet Julian Grenfell, who was killed in action in 1915. His second son, Gerald William Grenfell, was also killed about two months after his elder brother. His third son, Ivo George Grenfell, died in 1926 as the result of a car accident. As all his sons predeceased him, the Barony became extinct.

See also


  1. ^ Paul Goldsack, River Thames:in the footsteps of the famous, (2003) pp86-87
  2. ^ Debretts Guide to the House of Commons 1886
  3. ^ Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by William Grenfell

External links

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Granville Richard Ryder
John Alfred Lush
Member of Parliament for Salisbury
2-seat constituency

With: John Passmore Edwards)
Succeeded by
John Passmore Edwards
Coleridge John Kennard
Preceded by
John Passmore Edwards
Coleridge John Kennard
Member of Parliament for Salisbury
(1-seat constituency)

Succeeded by
Edward Henry Hulse
Preceded by
Sir Joseph Russell Bailey
Member of Parliament for Hereford
Succeeded by
Charles Wallwyn Radcliffe Cooke
Preceded by
Richard Curzon
Member of Parliament for Wycombe
Succeeded by
Thomas Arnold Herbert
Peerage of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
(new creation)
Baron Desborough
Succeeded by
(title extinct)


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