The Bournes: 4 – ‘Beja’, The Old Master Coach

Here continues the story of Dr. Gilbert Charles Bourne, famous coach at Oxford.

In A Text-Book of Oarsmanship Bourne agrees that the orthodox style has changed since Warre’s days, and that the style has been taught differently by different coaches, all being campaigners for the English orthodox style. The general factor that all the ‘orthodox’ coaches of the day could agree upon was that the Cambridge coach Steve Fairbairn’s new ‘style’ was wrong and therefore should be rebuked, which Bourne also does in his book. One error among many that Bourne found with Fairbairn’s Jesus College crews, who fully rowed according to Fairbairn’s method, was that they “always had an air of dreaminess about it.”

The year after, in 1926, Steve retorted Bourne in the book Rowing Notes. Regarding his dreamy Jesus crews, he writes, “Dr. Bourne […] says my crews look dreamy. They could not have given higher praise, especially as the criticisms were intended to be against the style in which I coach my crews. [- – -] Does not looking dreamy only mean being very smooth? In my opinion the dreamier a crew looks, the nearer it approaches to the poetry of motion.”

A jocular rhymester gave his view of the orthodox style in the Cambridge student magazine The Granta:

Beware the Orthodox, my son,

The slides that check, the arms that snatch;
Beware the drop-in blade, and shun
The Bourneish shoulder-catch.

A few oarsmen and coaches thought that a mix of the two styles were to be preferred, “each style has its own particular merits, and when the best points of each are blended then, in my opinion, perfection is very nearly achieved,” Vivian Nickalls wrote in 1932. But to “blend” the two different styles would be a rare thing to suggest during Bourne’s and Fairbairn’s lifetime. It would however be a more openly discussed subject during the 1950s and 1960s. Vivian Nickalls’s thoughts to “blend” the styles would be expressed some thirty years later by H. R. A. ‘Jumbo’ Edwards in his The Way of a Man with a Blade (1963) where he writes: “… by ‘orthodox’ I mean teaching the best method of moving the body to achieve maximum muscular efficiency in propelling the boat. The Fairbairn method was to teach the oarsman to perfect his bladework and to apply the maximum power to it throughout the stroke. Of course, the ideal is achieved by a combination of these two methods. Putting it another way, orthodoxy was the teaching of the pure art of rowing, while Fairbairnism was the application of the art to winning races. […] It is the greatest pity that Steve and Beja [Dr. Gilbert C. Bourne] never worked together. They would have produced wonderful crews.”

‘Jumbo’ Edwards should know as he had rowed for them both, at Oxford and later for The London RC. It is significant that Edwards dedicated his luminous book “to the memory of the greatest of Old Masters Steve and Beja”.

Dr. Bourne only published one book on rowing during his life time. However, the year after his death, in 1933, his manuscript about his younger days was published, Memories of an Eton Wet-Bob of the Seventies, which is a very exciting read for anyone interested in Eton and Oxford of those days. It is not, however, an easy book to find in an antiquarian bookshop nowadays.

In tomorrow’s entry the story about the Bournes continues, then about Bobbie Bourne.

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