‘Cuthy’ – The Geelong Grammar School Rowing Poet

James Lister Cuthbertson, ‘Cuthy’, a photograph taken in 1897.
James Lister Cuthbertson, ‘Cuthy’, a photograph taken in 1897.

Göran R Buckhorn writes:

As April is actually ‘Poetry Month’, HTBS should at least post one rowing poem this month. I have picked a poet who probably is unknown to most of you HTBS readers, despite the fact that he has written several poems on the sport of rowing, James Lister Cuthbertson.

“Dark Blue v. Light Blue”

(From Grammar School Verses; 1879)

Beside the green-fringed willow-woven banks
Where Yarra’s waters flow,
The ‘Alexandra’ and ‘Melburnia’ floated,
Waiting the word to go.
Upon the north the dark blue muster strongly,
Eager to back their crew,
And on the southern shore all those have rallied
Who wear the lighter blue.
Idly the mitred flags are trailing downwards,
Slow glides the dark stream down;
Through the thick screen of leaves we see but dimly
Spires of the distant town.
Pleasant for us ashore, but in the boats there
All hearts are beating fast
This is their maiden race, and much they wish that
At least the start were past.

Now then, are you ready?
Geelong, there, keep steady.
Come up a bit, Melbourne – yes, that will do – ”Row !”
Hullo! what a cheering
As onwards Careering,
Half mad with excitement, beside them we go;
By Jove, they are gaining,
The Melbourne are straining
Their stretchers and backs to a pretty quick time.
Why, look there to nor’ward,
They’ve got her head forward –
They’ll lead us – they’ll lead us a length or more soon!
What, gaining? – not they!
Yes, that is the way,
Yes, stick to if, Fairbairn*, and bring up ‘the silk.’
Now, now we are near them,
Straight, mind, ‘Rad,’ you steer them,
Well rowed, boys! Remember, if once you are clear,
You’ve got the right side, and you’ve nothing to fear.

Now Brander’s is past,
And, leading at last,
We have them in hand by a length in the bend.
The race is a gift,
Now, lift her, lads, lift,
And see if you can’t give them ‘bellows to mend.’
Not so fast, not so fast,
There’s a buoy to be past,
And our Cox. means to clear it, if clear it he can.
The current is strong,
He’d surely be wrong
Not to save us our distance – the wise little man!

Alas! for ‘our Wonder,’
‘Two’s oar, with a crash,
Is ‘on it and under,’ –
A beautiful smash.
Our boat has lost way,
Her head is astray,
And the Dark blue are on us, and level, and then
Have a length by the time we are going again.
“The race is all over – the Light blue are hit,
“They can’t make the distance.” – But just wait a bit,
Now, boys, for an effort – now make the boat spin –
Go on, ‘Alexandra,’ through thick and thro’ thin!

Ah, watch the long sweep
Of the oars, as they keep
Perfect time, and the leap
As she lifts to the turn;
See the swing and the swirl
Through the stream as they hurl,
Through the waters that curl
Far away from her stern.
See, inch by inch, nearing
The straight, we are clearing
Their craft, and the cheering
Is loud at the bend.
As every nerve bracing,
We come up outpacing
The crew who are racing
It out to the end.

A clear length ahead! Now stick to your work.
Their stroke is a ‘pluck’d’ un,’ he never will shirk:
He’ll come to the front, and be in at the fun,
And tho’ their boat’s collared, the race isn’t won.

Yes! see, he has caught her,
And on he has brought her,
Right into your water,
Right up to your bow.
Now, hold to it, light blue,
For home is in sight; you
Must show them the right blue –
Row never, or now!
All right – it is done,
And the victory won.
Just hark to the cheering that comes from the shores,
To welcome the workers in each of the fours,
As breathless, exhausted, they rest on their oars.

Well rowed, gallant dark blue; you couldn’t diminish
Our yard to the good at the desperate finish,
But you showed you were staunch to your Grammar School blue –
So we’ll cheer for you too,
When we welcome our crew,
When we cheer for ‘our boys,’ for the fastest of boats,
For the flag at the head of the river that floats.

*Probably Tom Fairbairn, one of Steve Fairbairn’s brothers.

James Lister Cuthbertson was born on 8 May 1851 in Glasgow and studied at Trinity College, Glenalmond, Scotland. Cuthbertson had set out to join the Indian civil service and was admitted to Merton College, Oxford, where he, however, failed a necessary examination and had to give up his plans for a career in India.

Geelong Grammar School, 1862.
Geelong Grammar School, 1862.

Instead, in 1874, Cuthbertson left for Australia where his father, William Gilmour Cuthbertson, had become a manager of the Bank of South Australia in Adelaide. The following year, James Cuthbertson joined the Geelong Church of England Grammar School (Geelong Grammar School) as classical master. As he had rowed with some success at Merton College, he was assigned to be in charge of the school’s rowing programme, which had begun the year before. The first Captain of Boats of the rowing club was Charles Fairbairn, Steve Fairbairn’s older brother. Cuthbertson, affectionately called ‘Cuthy’ by the school boys, also founded the school publication, School Quarterly, which he filled with rowing poems and verses. During Steve Fairbairn’s last two years at the school, he helped Cuthy edit the publication. In the famous rowing coach autobiography, Fairbairn of Jesus (1931), he mentions his old teacher fondly as the school master ‘who taught us esprit de corps’.

In 1879, Geelong Grammar School published Cuthy’s pamphlet Grammar School Verses. In 1882, he left Australia and returned to Oxford to continue his studies, graduating with a B.A. in 1885. Cuthy then returned to Australia and Geelong Grammar School. In 1893, the slim volume Barwon Ballads by ‘C’ was published in Melbourne. Despite being devoted to the school and to the education of the boys, Cuthy was an unhappy man; he struggled with his homosexuality and frequently took to the bottle, so that the boys had to be on ‘Cuthy Duty’, fishing out their school master from the gutter in the evenings and helping him to his rooms.

John Bracebridge Wilson, headmaster of Geelong Grammar School, and the school boys seemed to have shielded Cuthy from the outer world, and when Wilson died in October 1895, Cuthy was made interim headmaster. However, when the new headmaster arrived to the school, he did not approve of Cuthy’s alcoholism and sometimes erratic behaviour, whereupon Cuthy left the school in December 1896 to join his mother in England. A year later, in December 1897, he returned to Australia to residence in Geelong. He worked as a journalist, and spent the summers fishing in the Glenelg estuary on the South Australian border, but he was still in contact with Geelong Grammar School, sending contributions to the School Quarterly.

While staying at a friend’s house at Mount Gambier, South Australia, Cuthy took an overdose of veronal and died on 18 January 1910. Two years after his death, a memorial edition of his poems, Barwon Ballads and School Verses was edited by E. T. Williams, who held his classical mastership, and published by members of the Geelong Grammar School.

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