Some weeks ago, I found a copy of the pamphlet London Rowing Club 1856-1956 (n.d., probably 1956) online. While I have Chris Dodd’s eminent book on the history of the London RC, Water Boiling Aft (2006), I did not have this 36-page pamphlet. As it was only a few pounds, including shipping, I quickly ordered the little booklet. The other day it arrived; a slightly faded cover in blue with crossed oars and the London emblem and the title in silver.
The pamphlet has a short history of the club, lists of Henley winners from the club, lists of Officers and Members of the club, and some interesting advertisements from the time of the printing of the publication. However, what really caught my eye was an ex-libris, or bookplate, which was attached to the inside front cover, showing a former owner’s crest with a motto: Vis Fortibus Arma – ‘Vigour is arms to brave men’. Beneath the motto is the owner’s name, Anthony Nisbet. The crest showed the three boar heads of the family of Nisbet. (An ancestor, Alexander Nisbet (1657-1725), was a famous author of Scottish heraldry, also on the Nisbet Clan.)
I do not know how Anthony was related to Robert Archibald ‘Archie’ Nisbet (1900-1986), who was a famous oarsman and member and one of the vice-presidents of the London RC. Archie began his rowing career at Pembroke College, Cambridge. Although he never got a ‘Blue’, Archie was a good oar and rowed bow in the 1923 Pembroke eight in the Grand which lost to Thames RC in the final. For a stint thereafter, he was a member of Thames RC, but left to take on the Captainship of London RC in 1924.
In 1927, Archie joined forces with Terence ‘Terry’ O’Brien to win the Silver Goblets at Henley. They were picked to represent their country in the pair at the 1928 Olympic rowing on the Sloten Canal in Amsterdam, even though some weeks earlier they were beaten in an early race in the Silver Goblet by Jack Beresford and Gordon Killick of Thames RC. Both Beresford and Killick were also members of their club’s eight that took the Grand that year. In the Olympic rowing in August, Archie and O’Brien rowed a good race in the final, but they were overpowered by the German duo, Bruno Müller and Kurt Moeschter, who were trained by the English professional, ex-champion, Ernest Barry. The Henley winners in the pair, Beresford and Killick, also took a silver medal at the Olympics, in Thames’ club eight.
During this time at London RC, Archie Nisbet was still in contact with his Alma Mater, and helped to coach their eight. When Pembroke’s bow man suddenly could not row in the first heat of the Grand in 1931, his seat was taken by Coach Nisbet. There is a photograph of November 1934 of Archie with his back towards the camera talking to a crew in the Cambridge trail eights on the Cam. His bicycle indicates that he has followed the eight along the towpath. It states that Archie was an ‘old blue’, which he was not. See photograph here. The following year, in 1935, Archie was one of the ‘official’ Cambridge coaches. This year the light blues had Ran Laurie at stroke and behind him his good friend Jack Wilson. Cambridge won with four and a half boat lengths.
Here is a short film clip of the 1935 Cambridge eight training on the Thames. On race day Laurie was moved from sixth-seat to stroke. You will see a quick glimpse of Coach Nisbet, too.
Archie was still coaching after the Second World War and was elected vice-president of London RC in 1951. According to Dodd, in his Water Boiling Aft, Archie retired from the London RC’s seat on the ARA council in 1975, only to become the Chairman of the Head of the River Race two years later.
Despite Archie’s success as an oarsman and as a coach, there is maybe one accomplishment that rises above the rest, at least in the eyes of rowing historians; Archie was the one who got Steve Fairbairn to begin coaching at London RC after Steve had left Thames RC due to an argument with Jack Beresford’s father, Julius. Steve started to coach London RC crews in April 1926 and the club would thereafter have a long run of success, also many years after Steve had died, in 1938.