A Snapshot of Rowing in the 1890s

9 August 2017

William O’Chee writes: 

The archives of Brasenose College, Oxford have recently yielded an extraordinary snapshot of rowing technique in the 1890s, which has not previously been seen.

The photo above shows the Brasenose College 1st VIII taking the first stroke of the start on the third day of Summer Eights in 1892. For the previous three years the college had been Head of the River in Summer Eights. They were also seven years into a ten-year period when they were Head of the River in Torpids (the spring racing regatta).

The day before this photo was taken, the crew had been displaced from the top position after being bumped by Magdalen College. On the third day, they were also bumped by New College due to a tactical error in the second half of the course. A change of stroke for the last three days avoided any further misfortune.

In spite of losing the Head of the River, the crew was not short of talent. In the seven seat was Frederick Wilkinson, a giant for his time, who was an Oxford Blue and a winner of both the Visitor’s Challenge Cup and Stewards’ Challenge Cup at Henley in 1890. At Henley in 1891, Wilkinson had teamed up with W. A. L. ‘Flea’ Fletcher in the Goblets, which they lost to Guy Nickalls and Lord Ampthill by one foot in the final.

The six man, J. A. Ford, had been in the same crew as Wilkinson that won the Visitor’s Challenge Cup and the Stewards’ Challenge Cup for Brasenose in 1890, and had been in the Leander crew that won the Grand Challenge Cup in 1891. Ford would go on to record another win in the Stewards’ and four wins in the Grand before the end of his career.

The five seat was occupied by Burton Stewart, who would record the first of his two wins in the Grand the following year when he rowed in the Leander crew. At four and bow, respectively, were J. Hallward and H. H. E. L. Puxley, who were members of the Brasenose crew that were runners-up in the Final of the Visitor’s Challenge Cup in 1891.

Given the crew’s pedigree, the photo is perhaps the best representation of what constituted good technique in England at the time. This is all the more so given, that Brasenose was an outpost of Fairbairnism at Oxford, and one of its earliest adopters. This can be traced back to the participation of three Brasenose men – Laurie Frere, Henry Parker and the legendary Claude Holland – in the 1888 Leander crew, which evangelised the style to Oxford. It is interesting that the seven Oxford men from that crew came from just three colleges; Brasenose, Magdalen and New College. In 1892, these remained the top three colleges in Oxford in Summer Eights.

The most obvious feature of the photo is how close together the hands were placed on the handle. This is much closer grip than rowers use today. However, three of HTBS’s more senior correspondents, Göran Buckhorn, Tom Weil and Peter Mallory, recall this being the grip that was used up until the mid-1970s. After that, the placement of the hands moved to be shoulder width apart to accommodate larger oarsmen, as well as opening up the chest for more effective breathing.

As a consequence of all the oarsmen’s hands being outside the centreline of the boat at mid-drive, they tend to compensate by having somewhat more bodyweight distributed into the rigger in the second half of the stroke than might be commonly seen today. That said, anyone who has seen a Mike Spracklen crew would be familiar with the technique, which is well demonstrated in this video of the Canadian Men’s Olympic VIII in 2012.

Another interesting feature is how slightly built the oarsmen were in the 1890s. Wilkinson, who was considered one of the largest men in rowing at this time, was 13st 10lb. Hallward was 12st 12lb, but the rest of the crew, including Ford, probably averaged 11st 6lb. That would make them lightweights by today’s reckoning.

Closer inspection reveals some other interesting details. One, as Peter Mallory points out, is that stroke and six are both watching their oars. This was a feature of rowing as taught by Steve Fairbairn, who emphasised the importance of the movement of the blade in the water, as opposed to the form of the body. It is probably no surprise, therefore, that the stern four’s blades are so well and effectively covered in the stroke. Another feature of Fairbairnism is the relaxation shown by many of the crew, most particularly Ford, who appears almost nonchalant as he draws on the blade.

The wonderfully uniform nature of the body angles and the distribution of weight speaks of a well-coached crew. Who then was responsible for this bastion of Fairbairnism in Oxford during this period? Surprisingly, the Brasenose College coach from 1887 to 1891 was none other than Rudie Lehmann, who is generally considered one of the stalwarts of the Orthodox style, and was later so opposed to Fairbairnism. His coaching duties were taken up in 1892 by Wilkinson, who was in the seven seat during the last week due to a crew illness.

For Brasenose to produce such exemplary exponents of Fairbairnism as Ford, Holland, Parker, Wilkinson and Kent on Lehmann’s watch demands, at the very least, a reconsideration of how rigidly he clung to his views on style.

In all probability, there must have been some consonance between Holland and Lehmann early on in Lehmann’s time as coach, as there is no record anywhere in the Boat Club’s Minute Books of any disagreement over technique. In fact, the Minute Books repeatedly make reference to the importance of beginning the drive off the stretcher as a factor in the success of the college’s crews during this time.

All of this begs the question as to whether some form of synthesis of the best elements of Fairbairnism and Orthodoxy may have been practised by Brasenose College crews during their golden years in the late 1880s and early 1890s, all of this some 50 years or more before ‘Jumbo’ Edwards popularised this in the second half of the 20th century.

One comment

  1. Thank you for that interesting article ! and the mention of my grandfather Jumbo at the end. I will pass on to my uncle, David Edwards.

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