17 April 2017
Göran R Buckhorn writes:
On 3 February, I wrote an article called “The Oarsman who gave the Film Star her Name” about Herbert Leigh Holman, of Thames Rowing Club, who married the aspiring actress Vivian Mary Hartley. She would later be known as Vivien Leigh. Holman was a member of the club eight that took the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley in 1923. The crew was coached by Steve Fairbairn.
At the time of posting the article, I was not aware of a film showing the 1923 crew rowing, nor of any moving pictures of their famous coach (or had I just forgotten?). However, yesterday, I came across an 11-minute silent film from the Huntley Film Archives on YouTube which shows the Thames crew and Fairbairn. The reason the film is tricky to find is that it is wrongly labeled as a ‘rowing film from the 1930’s’.
Already in the beginning of the film, it is stated that ‘“Eton” is considered the Classic [style]’, which means the old orthodox rowing style, which was taught at Eton by Dr Edmond Warre between 1858 and 1884, then by Stuart Alexander Donaldson, who later handed over the coaching to Reginald de Havilland, who was the Eton coach from 1893 until he retired in 1919. Nevertheless, those of you who are familiar with the history on rowing styles know that Steve Fairbairn (in the film presented as ‘Fairburn’) did not teach his rowers the ‘orthodox Eton style’, instead he had come up with a new method for rowing. In his book Rowing Notes, published in 1926, Fairbairn explains the major differences between his method and the orthodox style:
I would say that the main object of my method of coaching crews, and the main difference between my catch-words and those of the ‘orthodox’ English coaches, is that I always try to get a man to think for himself and to work in a natural manner. I coach to win, and not for show; I test a man’s utility and earnestness by his blade-work, the manner in which the blade of his oar stirs the water, and not by any standard of beauty in bodily appearance.
At the time of the Thames crew’s victory, Fairbairn was still working on his method, and even after Rowing Notes had come out, he changed certain things in his teaching, according to his son, Ian, who stroked the 1923 crew. You will see Ian stroking the boat in several scenes in the film, looking like a younger copy of his father. Referring to Ian, who was the oldest of his two sons, Fairbairn always said ‘My son, Ian’, whilst when he was talking about his youngest son, Sydney, Steve called him, ‘My boy, Sydney’. One of Steve Fairbairn’s friends once asked Sydney about this, whereupon Sydney replied: ‘I think it’s because Ian rows and I don’t’.
At 5:08 in the film, the Thames RC’s famous sculler, Jack Beresford, Jnr, who also was in the 1923 eight that took the Grand, is introduced. Notice the different sculling style from the one used by sculling stars of today.
At 6:37, we are introduced to the professional boat builder and rower Bossie Phelps (in the film named ‘Bossy’), who ‘demonstrates a few don’ts’ in the single scull. Phelps might look porky in the boat, but there is nothing wrong with his technique or stamina.
Here is the film. Enjoy: