F. S. Kelly – A Life of Rowing and Music 1

While in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, to study piano and composition at Dr. Hoch Konservatorium, F. S. Kelly one day picks up a copy of The Times where he reads that Lou F. Scholes is going to represent Canada in the single scull at the Olympic rowing regatta in Henley-on-Thames. In his diary the same day, 10 May 1908, Kelly writes that the news ‘roused my fighting spirit so much that I went off to ask Director Scholz about the date of the Concert at which I am to play and conduct, to find out for certain whether it will possible for me to scull and have my revenge.’

This entry in Kelly’s diary gives an excellent illustration of what was close to his heart: music and rowing.

Frederick Septimus Kelly was born on 29 May 1881 in Sydney. Frederick was the seventh child of Thomas Hussey Kelly, a wealthy Irish businessman, and his wife, Mary Anne, born in Australia. Like his brothers, ‘Sep’, as he was called by the family, was sent to Eton, where he began to row in 1897 – stroking the eight to victory in the Ladies’ Plate at the Henley Royal Regatta in 1899. As a Lewis Nettleship musical scholar, he went up to Balliol College at Oxford. In Oxford, Kelly – or ‘Cleg’ as he was known there – also took up sculling, winning the Diamond Challenge Sculls at Henley for his college in 1902. On his way to his first Diamond victory, he beat prominent scullers as A. H. Cloutte (London RC), C. S. Titus (Union BC, New York), and R. B. Etherington-Smith (Leander Club).

The following year was very successful for Kelly, although his Oxford eight lost the Boat Race. In the cerise colours of Leander Club, Kelly won the Wingfield Sculls, and the Grand and the Diamond trophies at Henley. After his first Diamonds, Kelly had rapidly been regarded as a brilliant sculler. At his second Diamonds, he easily sculled away from Julius Beresford (Kensington RC) and H. T. Blackstaffe (Vesta RC) to claim the trophy. A contemporary source wrote that ‘his swinging and sliding were perfect in unison and symmetry’ and another one said, ‘that the grace with which his hands left the body at the finish of the stroke was like the down-ward beat of a swallow’s wing.’

It was, therefore, all the more surprising when, in a heat in the Diamonds in 1904, Lou F. Scholes of Toronto RC defeated Kelly. Scholes had been two lengths behind at Remenham, when suddenly he put on a spurt and easily gained on Kelly. At the Grand Stand, Kelly was two lengths behind and, totally exhausted, had to stop. He was lifted out of his shell into a launch while the Toronto oarsman crossed the finish line. The Henley crowd was astonished that ‘a sculler with the style of the Canadian, who depended on his arms and legs, and was without body swing, could beat one with the easy and natural form of the Anglo-Australian.’

One reason for the loss, T. A. Cook wrote, was that Kelly had only trained in his boat for three weeks before his first race in the Diamonds that year. Kelly’s unwillingness to train, made Vivian Nickalls write in his Oars, Wars, and Horses (1932) that Kelly ‘hated training and spent his whole time playing the violin.’ Vivian’s brother, Guy, agreed and wrote in his posthumous published memoirs, Life’s a Pudding (1939), that Kelly ‘was most likely the fastest sculler of all time – quick, neat and polished’ but added solemnly ‘a difficult man to train.’ Unfortunately, Vivian Nickalls’s comment about which instrument Kelly played would later make rowing historians joke and incorrectly remark that Kelly was a sculling ‘fiddler’.

Revengeful at the 1905 Henley Royal Regatta, Kelly easily outclassed all his opponents in the Diamonds (Scholes was not competing), trashing poor Blackstaffe in the final with 15 seconds, winning in the new record time, 8 minutes, 10 seconds, beating the Canadian’s record time from the previous year by 13 seconds. Kelly’s record would last until 1938, when the American Joe Burk knocked 8 seconds off Kelly’s time. In 1905, Kelly would also win the Grand (as he had done in 1904), and adding another triumph in 1906 in the Stewards’ Cup.

In Kelly’s personal life, his father’s death in 1901, and his mother’s death the following year, was a hard blow for Kelly, whose academic studies suffered, and he graduated with fourth-class honours in history. However, his father’s passing left Kelly economically independent, which allowed him to set up a comfortable life with his sister Mary, ‘Maisie’, at Bisham Grange, a house close to Marlow. There they lived a high-society life with trips to London and abroad. Kelly, with his good-looks, was also invited by aristocratic friends to give piano concerts in their country houses.

To be continued…

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