Eric Fairbairn – Olympic Oarsman, Soldier In The Great War, Part 1

The 1908 winning Boat Race crew, Cambridge: bow F. H. Jerwood; 2 G. E. Fairbairn; 3 O. A. Carver; 4 H. E. Kitching; 5 J. S. Burn; 6 E. G. Williams; 7 E. W. Powell; stroke D. C. R. Stuart; cox R. F. R. P. Boyle.

George Eric Fairbairn (1888-1915), Australian and GB Olympic oarsman, is featured in a new book by Stephen Cooper: The Final Whistle: the Great War in Fifteen Players, which will be published in September 2012. Fairbairn occasionally played rugby, but was better known as part of the Fairbairn rowing dynasty. This is an abridged extract from the Cooper’s book.

Eric Fairbairn came from a large Australian family in Melbourne. He went up to Jesus College, Cambridge in 1906, the latest in a line of rowing Fairbairns, and by no means the last. ‘The most frequent name in Boat Race annals is that of Fairbairn, for their name has appeared in the Cambridge lists in no less than seven past contests: Mr A. A. Fairbairn rowed in 1858 and 1860; Mr C. Fairbairn in 1879 and Mr S. Fairbairn in 1882, 1883, 1886 and 1887.’ Eric’s Times obituary commented:

‘His rowing achievements are rather connected with Jesus College, Cambridge, which owes no small part of its fame as a rowing college to that great oarsman of the eighties, Mr Stephen Fairbairn.’

The river, not academic study, was to preoccupy Eric at Cambridge. He spent five years there, won Blues in 1908 and 1911, but did not do enough to earn his degree. However, ‘his rowing career has been one unbroken chain of successes … Like all geniuses, he has his idiosyncrasies. He hates collars, takes no milk in his tea through fear of dead flies, and is a confirmed Peripatetic after bump-suppers.’ (i.e. he was given to wandering about in a drunken state after the Boat Club dinners.)

His annus mirabilis was 1908, although it was not without controversy. Eric stroked the victorious coxless four in Michaelmas term. Jesus rowed over as Head of the River in the Lents and won the Ladies’ Plate at Henley Regatta for the first time in thirty years. Eric Fairbairn also won the Colquhoun Sculls. Greater challenges were to come.

At Putney Bridge on 4 April, at precisely 3.30 p.m. he sat in the two seat of the University eight for the annual Boat Race against Oxford. Cambridge, although hot favourites having won the two previous encounters, did not draw away until after Barnes Bridge to win by two and a half lengths, in 19 min. 20 sec. The Tideway course, rowed against the stream, is one of the most gruelling sporting events in the world. The New York Times reported that ‘the Oxford men who had gamely rowed a losing race were much distressed at the finish’. In his blue blazer at dinner on that triumphant night in 1908, he would have been as peripatetic as a newt.

But the victory was deemed a lacklustre performance from the Eight nominated to represent Great Britain in the London Olympic Games that summer. The selectors, fearful of losing at home, hedged their bets and invited ‘some of the older men to try to get fit with a view to rowing in the Olympic Regatta’. A second crew of veteran Blues, long retired from the river, rowed under the flag of Leander. The Light Blue crew was reshuffled: the only man to lose his seat was Eric, replaced by fellow Jesus man and former Cambridge President, Henry Goldsmith. No explanation is given, and he remained a substitute; was there some prejudice against an Australian in the Blue Riband event of the Olympic regatta? It did not stop him competing for Britain in another boat; Eric would have the last laugh.

The rowing was held at Henley-on-Thames, spiritual home of the sport. The regular course of 1 mile 550 yards was lengthened in the hope that the heavyweight GB/Leander crew might take advantage, which they initially did over the renowned Canadian Argonauts. In the second semi-final, the student Eight faced the mighty Belgians, of the Royal Club Nautique de Gand [Ghent], twice winners of the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley. The Light Blues ‘showed unmistakable signs of staleness…and when the strain came, the crew disintegrated’. This was the only heat in which Britain was defeated by a visiting nation. ‘Team GB/Cambridge’ had to be content with Bronze but Leander saved the Empire’s blushes by pulling through for final Gold over the Belgians.

Watching from the bank, Eric Fairbairn would see the red, yellow and black of Belgium again, and more than once. Meanwhile he teamed up with Jesus colleague Philip Verdon in the coxless pairs. The All-British final saw John Fenning and Gordon Thomson take gold from Verdon and Fairbairn. But Eric had his silver Olympic medal, one up on his erstwhile colleagues in the Eight.

Stephen Cooper’s article about Eric Fairbairn continues tomorrow.

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