A new edition of Steve Fairbairn’s On Rowing has recently been made available. The photograph of Fairbairn above is from his first book Rowing Notes from 1926.
Anyone who is only remotely interested in rowing history, probably knows, or at least has heard of, Steve Fairbairn (1862-1938), the Australian who followed his older brothers to study and row at Jesus College, Cambridge, in the 1880s. Although, a good oarsman, Steve is mostly known as a rowing coach, or one might say the rowing coach. To Steve, rowing was not a set of rules how the oarsman was to move his arms, legs, shoulders and body in the boat, which had been prevalent ever since the schoolboys at Eton had started ‘modern’ rowing around 1800. This rather stiff style called the English orthodox style, originated from rowing in boats with fixed seats and fixed pins and carried over to the out-rigged boats with sliding seats and swivels, putting a strain on the oarsmen, making it difficult to row effectively unless they had rowed for some years. Also, the style made it very hard for novice rowers to actually learn how to row. Some characteristic elements in the orthodox style were the ‘shoulder catch’, the oar’s ‘back-splash’ and the ‘lively recovery’.
Steve, who coached at Cambridge and later at Thames RC and London RC, wanted his oarsmen to only concentrate on their oars and blade work and not how gracefully they moved in the boat. Teasingly, Steve called the advocates for the English orthodox style the ‘Pretty-Pretty Brigade’ or the ‘orthodox brigade’, also saying that no cups or medals were ever given for stylishness.
Of course, the reaction from the ‘Pretty-Pretty Brigade’ came immediately, accusing Steve of teaching sloppy rowing, and they detracted the Fairbairn ‘style’, or ‘Fairbairnism’, which they said would ruin English rowing. Steve stoically kept a stiff upper lip, saying that he had not invented a new ‘rowing style’ but a method to move the boats faster than before. He was only interested in the rowing itself, not the style, and wanted the oarsmen to have a fresher approach towards rowing and not take everything that was handed down to them as ‘gospel truth’.
A jocular rhymester gave his view in some verses 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.
Mischievously, Steve said that rowing styles were like seasons in Australia, ‘bad, damned bad and bloody awful’.
Throughout his years as a rowing coach, Steve wrote books about his rowing method and how not to row (read: English orthodox style). His books became extremely popular not only in England, but also in Europe, Canada and South America. In 1951, thirteen years after Steve’s death, his son Ian Fairbairn, himself a first-rate oarsman, edited and published The Complete Steve Fairbairn on Rowing. This omnibus of Steve’s writing is maybe not that tricky to find at an antiquarian book-seller, who has his or her books listed on the web, but it does not come cheap. You have to cough up between $250 and $2,000 for a copy.
So, what to do if you are interested in Fairbairn’s writings? Fear not, because just before Christmas of last, the company Rowperfect began to publish a new edition On Rowing by Steve Fairbairn, now in digital format (eBook/Kindle edition) for the extremely fair price of $9.99. Editor of this edition is rowing historian Peter Mallory, famous around the rowing world for his 2,500-page, four-volume The Sport of Rowing (2011).
Peter writes in his Introduction, ‘I am very proud to be part of the team that is bringing Fairbairn’s complete works to a new generation of rowers and coaches in a series of affordable eBook volumes. The idea began with Diana Cook of Richard Way Bookseller in Henley-on-Thames, and Rebecca Caroe of Rowperfect.co.uk has made it a reality. Kudos to you both.’
I can only agree: what a cultural achievement this is – Bravo!
Read more about what Peter has to say on this edition on Rowperfect, here. (Peter writes that this is the first time in 60 years that Steve’s collected works are made available, which I humbly would like to correct, as a 2nd printed edition of The Complete Steve Fairbairn on Rowing was published in 1990 by The Kingswood Press.)
However, it must be pointed out that this digital edition does not include all the texts by Steve in The Complete Steve Fairbairn on Rowing, which I wish would be more clear on Amazon (where you can buy this edition). The contents in this first ‘volume’ of Steve’s complete works are as follow: Steve’s famous poem “The Oarsman’s Song”, the pamphlet Rowing Notes from 1904, his first full book Rowing Notes from 1926, Freddy Brittain’s obituary about Steve, published in 1938, and comments by Peter Mallory. More volumes are to follow.
HTBS warmest congratulations to all of you who have been involved in bringing Steve’s writings back to life again.