Part I – Peter Haig Thomas: The Unorthodox Orthodoxist

Ladies and Lucre

Peter Haig Thomas coaching in 1948. Characteristically, his battered old hat is matched with an extravagant fur coat made from the pelts of wolves that he had shot himself.

9 December 2019

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch’s four-part biography of a unique character who spent 60 years as active and influential figure in rowing but whose long-term fame has been overshadowed by the apparent greater success of his rival, Steve Fairbairn.

Anyone looking at British amateur rowing in the period between the death of Queen Victoria and the birth of the Space Age will, at regular intervals, come across the name of Peter Haig Thomas (1882 – 1959). I have long had a vague awareness about the man: he had a short, successful rowing career and a long, successful coaching career; he was a fanatical advocate of the ‘Orthodox’ style of rowing; he lived the life of a Victorian gentleman adventurer long into the 20th century; he had a colourful private life.

Recently, I was inspired to find out more about ‘PHT’ by memories of him in the early 1950s recalled by Sir James Gobbo in his autobiography, Something To Declare, (2010) a work that I featured in a recent post.

When Gobbo arrived at Oxford from Australia in 1952, Haig Thomas, then in his 70s, was busy turning around the fortunes of the ailing Magdalen College Boat Club. In his memoirs, Gobbo wrote:

Peter Haig Thomas’s success as a coach at Magdalen was little short of extraordinary. Magdalen in 1953 went Head of the River and won the (University) fours and pairs – and also the (Visitors) at Henley Royal Regatta.

James Gobbo’s stories of Haig Thomas at Magdalen give a good impression of the man he was. Once, Gobbo asked PHT about two great Australian oarsmen that he had known in his youth. Typically, his replies were brief, blunt and dismissive. On Stanley Bruce (who rowed for Cambridge and who was later Prime Minister of Australia): ‘A very indifferent oar’. On his old rival in the battle of rowing styles, the famous coach and Cambridge Blue, Steve Fairbairn: ‘He was very uncouth – he came to his first Henley Regatta dressed in top hat and tails’.

The 1904 Cambridge Crew. Haig Thomas is seated in the middle and Stanley Bruce (the ‘very indifferent oar’) is standing behind him. At the time, he would have been listed as ‘PH Thomas’, as he was Christened ‘Peter Haig’ with the surname ‘Thomas’. In 1917, his mother, Rose, whose maiden name was Haig, thought ‘Thomas’ too numerically and socially common as a moniker and rebranded the family ‘Haig Thomas’ (also a prestigious reference to her cousin, Earl Haig of Great War fame).

Gobbo found a man from another age:

Peter was himself also somewhat anachronistic in his dress code, for he always dressed in plus fours. He also took snuff and had some strangely narrow views. He once expressed surprise to me when I said a number of us were taking some girls to a country pub… ‘Surely you would not take a young lady to a public house…?’

Haig Thomas, Gobbo recalls, was not too good on picking up on social signals:

Because of his age, Peter could not travel (from his home in Henley) to and from Oxford every day, so was accommodated in a guest room in the college. It so happened that this room was opposite mine. Each evening after dinner, he visited me. He was totally oblivious of my need to study and would consume precious hours telling me about his youth – which was of course, pre-Titanic… These were indeed fascinating as he told of… taking fast steamers to Egypt and then down the Nile to engage in lion hunting. During one of his stays there also happened to be staying a Colonel Blimp from a similar era. In a crowded junior common room filled with grammar school entrants who could not conceive of a life spent mainly hunting or chasing butterflies in the Pyrenees, Peter Haig Thomas and his colleague engaged in animated discussion. Peter’s final line, which rang out across the common room was, ‘I maintain that a wounded lion is more dangerous than a wounded tiger!’

Haig Thomas coaching in a bank tub at Cambridge in the early 1930s.

Looking for more information on Peter Haig Thomas, one of the best online sources that I found was, strangely, an e-book telling the complex story of a once famous but now forgotten financial scandal of the 1920s involving a company called ‘City Equitable’. This was Martin Vander Weyer’s Fortune’s Spear: A Forgotten Story of Genius, Fraud, and Finance in the Roaring Twenties (2014). The author has done impeccable, detailed and original research into all the wild characters involved in this saga, including one Peter Haig Thomas. Vander Weyer says of him:

The three key elements of Peter Haig Thomas’s life story are money, rowing and women.

These three divisions are a good a way as any to tell the man’s personal history. However, to help the narrative, I will change the order to money, women and rowing. Here, in Part I, we look at PHT’s relationship with the first two, money and women.

Money

The Cambrian Colliery, Clydach Vale, c.1914, the source of the Thomas (later Haig-Thomas) family wealth.

Money should not have been a problem for Peter Haig Thomas as he inherited it and also married into it. Unfortunately, he could not keep it or make it grow.

The Thomas (later Haig Thomas) family fortune was started by Samuel Thomas (1800 – 1879) who shrewdly acquired many coal mines in South Wales in the days when Coal Was King. He had three sons and two daughters. The oldest son, John Howard (‘Jack’), was PHT’s father but history mostly remembers the second son, David Alfred (‘DA’).

DA Thomas had a commercial flair that led him to build up his father’s business empire. He was also a Member of Parliament between 1888 and 1910 and he was a very successful Minister of Food Control during the First World War. He was created The First Viscount Rhondda in 1918. Both DA’s wife, Sybil, and his daughter, Margaret, were noted feminists and suffragettes. Margaret also inherited her father’s business acumen and in 1926 she was elected the first female President of the Institute of Directors.

As an aside, DA Thomas had strong rowing connections. His biography, ‘D.A Thomas, Viscount Rhondda’ by ‘His Daughter and Others’ (1921) says:

He was twenty when he went up to Caius College, Cambridge, in 1876… His life at college seems to have been spent mainly on the river…. He rowed for his college and did a good deal of pot-hunting sculling, but he never achieved any outstanding distinction. It is probable that his light weight… told against him…. He did practically no work. He always declared that he knew far more when he went up than when he came down…

According to The Times, in the trial races on 17 June 1880 for a place in Henley’s Ladies’ Plate, DA Thomas (weighing in at 10 stone 1 pound) rowed at ‘2’ for Caius. They came ‘a bad third’. The website “Cynon Culture” claims that ‘For some years he was rowing correspondent to the London Daily News…’

David Alfred Thomas and his wife, Sybil. This may be a picture of them onboard the ship “Lusitania”, the torpedoing of which they and their daughter survived. After their rescue, a Welsh newspaper unthinkingly printed a poster for the newsstands stating: ‘Great National Disaster: DA Thomas saved’. Picture: Library of Congress.

Strangely for a time when large families were the norm, the Thomas brothers, Jack, David and Samuel, all had only one child each. PHT’s grandson, Tony Haig Thomas, who knew him in his later life, told me that a woman who had some practical experience in the matter explained that ‘sex with a Haig Thomas man once is enough’. I am not sure if this was a complement or a criticism but the fact is that, in 1920, Peter did not have to share his £2 million inheritance from father Jack with anyone. This sum would have a buying power of perhaps £90 million today.

The Times of 30 June 1920 gave an example of Peter Haig Thomas’s wealth and what he cared to do with it. The paper reported that he had bought 50,000 acres of Scottish moor and lowland from the cash strapped Duke of Sutherland which, the article said, ‘should give a heavy bag of grouse, as well as a number of stags… Perhaps the chief feature is the salmon fishing in the Brora, which is one of the best spring salmon rivers in the North of Scotland’.

A small part of the 50,000 acres (80 square miles or 200 square kilometres) of Scotland that Haig Thomas bought with part of his inheritance.

Peter Haig Thomas had a lifelong obsession with hunting wild animals and game birds as well as fishing and butterfly collecting. A large part of his wealth must have been spent in pursuit of these activities. Even before he inherited his fortune, one of his photograph albums now held by grandson Tony reveals that he was with gun, rod or net in Tunisia and the Pyrenees in 1905, Asia Minor in 1908, the Pyrenees and the Caucasus in 1910, the Pyrenees again in 1912, Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and Somaliland in 1913, British East Africa (Kenya) in 1914, and Eastern Sudan and the White Nile between 1919 and 1920. Tony tells one story of PHT laying down his rifle to inspect a water buffalo that he had just shot. However, the animal was not as dead as the great white hunter had supposed and the understandably annoyed beast trapped him up a tree for several hours.

Another Edwardian album shows PHT with friends and family fishing in Norway and Scotland, also game bird shooting in England. Field sports, hunting and shooting are controversial nowadays, but they were widely thought of as perfectly acceptable activities until relatively recently.

Peter Haig Thomas may have been keen with a gun, but he did not take part in the two biggest shoots of all. He spent the First World War managing coal mines in Wales and the Second War in the Home Guard on his Scottish Estate. We can only speculate why he did not follow the vast majority of his contemporaries in the ‘officer class’ and enlist in the military during the Great War. He would have been 32 in 1914, a perfectly acceptable age for a commission. By May 1916, men aged 18 – 41 could be conscripted. Possibly PHT claimed that overseeing the production of coal was ‘essential war work’ but I think it very likely that he had to deal with much criticism for not serving in uniform. If so, perhaps this may have been one reason for his famously brusque personality.

PHT (fourth from the left) and a shooting party after game birds on his father’s estate, Warmwell in Dorset.
PHT and a magnificent salmon, possibly from the part of the Brora River that he owned.
PHT with an unfortunate Caucasian Tur, a goat-antelope native to the Caucasus Mountains, 1910.
PHT (left, on horseback) hunting in Abyssinia & Somaliland in 1913.
In a paradox to shooting big game, PHT was also a noted and lifelong collector of butterflies. An addendum to his ‘Times’ obituary noted that ‘his exceptional strength and powers of endurance stood him in good stead, enabling him to reach and collect (butterflies) in localities which would be regarded by most as entirely inaccessible. His most important collections were those made in (the Balkans, 1931) and in Swedish Lapland (1938)…’ His collection is now in the Natural History Museum, London.

PHT was a skilled hunter but a poor businessman. Over the years, he lost a large part of his fortune through bad investments. Martin Vander Weyer quotes grandson Tony: ‘He really didn’t know a debit from a credit… You’d have to say that he had no financial acumen at all.’

By far Haig Thomas’s most notorious investment was in The City Equitable Fire Insurance Company headed by a fraudster, one Gerald Lee Bevan. The story is an enormously complex one that I would not attempt to summarise even if I properly understood it. The publishers blurb for Fortune’s Spear perhaps gives an idea:

Gerard Lee Bevan was the epitome of an Edwardian swell: arrogant, smooth, and highly cultured. He married into money and influence and exploited a glittering range of social connections as the black sheep of one of London’s most respectable banking families. He could not uphold his many deceptions, however, despite a long run of success in city dealings, and perpetrated a massive fraud which ruined both the City Equitable Fire Insurance Company and his stockbroking firm, Ellis & Co…. His sensational Old Bailey trial shocked the entire country.

Bevan liked to surround himself with rich, respectable and not very astute people. In 1917, as Chairman of City Equitable, he brought onto the board two men who were clearly trustworthy as they were both Old Etonians, Cambridge Rowing Blues and Henley winners: Theodore Barclay and Peter Haig Thomas. Vander Weyer notes that:

(Peter Haig Thomas) was the most bullish of all Bevan’s associates, investing personally on a large scale in several of his high-risk propositions. With a powerful physique – at his peak he weighed in at eighteen stone on a five-foot-ten-inch frame – came the personality of what would be called in modern parlance an alpha male, and a tendency to leap before he looked.

PHT, pictured here in 1918, had ‘no financial acumen at all’ despite what the sycophantic and misleading text under the portrait says.

With directors like Barclay and Haig Thomas having minimal interest in, or knowledge of, the business there was little oversight. During Bevan’s trial, Haig Thomas admitted to signing important documents without reading them. All this enabled Bevan to commit one of the most notorious financial frauds in 20th century Britain.

In 1922, City Equitable came crashing down, losing £1,200,000. The liquidator sued the directors (including Barclay and Haig Thomas) for negligence but a landmark judgement held that, though some directors did breach their duty of care, they were not liable to reimburse.

Typical of another of Haig Thomas’s business failures was putting £100,000 in a syndicate owning 10,000 head of cattle in Brazil. Unfortunately, Gerald Lee Bevan was behind the whole thing and his downfall also led to the collapse of the ‘Syndicate Inglez’.

Other poor investments followed and after the Second World War Haig Thomas sold off his Scottish sporting estate and also much of the family’s land holdings in Wales. Fortunately, some of his money was safe in a trust fund. Vander Weyer summarises that:

He was perpetually trying to drum up cash, but equally open-handed in lending or giving it to any acquaintance who pitched a good story to him…. Having been worth a couple of million at his financial zenith forty years earlier, Haig Thomas’s estate on his death (in 1959) was valued at £150. 

Women

Maud Nelson, PHT’s first wife, the mother of Anthony, David and Enid.

Like many upper-class (and not-so-upper-class) men of his generation, Peter Haig Thomas did not allow wives, children or family life to interfere with him pursuing interests, hobbies, amusements and other women. Though married three times, he seemed to have constantly led the life of a young, unattached man with no responsibilities.

Haig Thomas’s first wife was Maud Nelson, the sister of a fellow oarsman from Eton and Cambridge, Roland ‘Rowley’ Nelson. They had three children, Anthony, David and Enid. The two boys were both born in 1908 but they were not twins, there was ten months between them. Maud died in 1913 giving birth to a fourth, stillborn, child.

The Times of 5 June 1924 lists Anthony Haig-Thomas, ‘the son of the Old Cambridge Blue’ as stroke of Eton’s Henley crew. He weighed just 60kgs and was, prestigiously, Eton’s Captain of Boats and stroke of the First Eight. Perhaps with a little hyperbole, The Eton Book of the River (1935) described him as ‘perhaps the best stroke and oar combined yet seen in the school’. He died aged 16 in September 1924 following an operation.

David Haig Thomas was in the winning Cambridge crews of 1930, 1931 and 1932. Also in 1932, he won the Grand at Henley and rowed in the British eight that came fourth in the Los Angeles Olympics. In 1936, he married a debutante, Nancy Bury, and one of their two sons is Tony Haig Thomas (b.1937) who supplied me with much valuable material on his father and grandfather. Tony rowed at Eton but spent most of his life in faster forms of transport – fighter jets. His amusing, self-deprecating and un-PC autobiography is called Fall Out Roman Catholics and Jews (2008), a title taken from the command once given to RAF parades before the start of Anglican prayers.

Brothers David (left) and Anthony (right).

During the trials for DHT’s first Boat Race, that of 1930, The Times of 2 December 1929 said of him:

(David) Haig Thomas… created a good impression (at the December Trials). It is by no means unusual for a comparatively weak man to become a really good oarsman, and Haig Thomas’s timing is so good that he is more effective than many men endowed with much more weight and strength…. (His) style of rowing gives one confidence that he would not falter even in a close race, and although he has a high standard of style to live up to as his father’s son, he was not found wanting in that respect.

In his last Boat Race (1932), The Times held that ‘(David) Haig Thomas is better than he has ever been, longer with his swing and firmer with his finish’.

David Haig Thomas, his father’s son, caricatured in 1932.

David Haig Thomas became a well-known ornithologist and explorer and one of his many expeditions, the Haig Thomas Arctic Expedition of 1937-1938, was in part a pioneering study into the ozone layer, then a phenomenon unknown to most people. In 2015, The Daily Telegraph wrote:

David Haig-Thomas was one of a group of Britons who came to embody the marriage of intellect and action that characterised exploration in the 1920s and 30s. 

At the age of 31, he published a very readable autobiography, I Leap Before I Look (1939).

During the 1939 – 1945 War, DHT started military service in the unit responsible for logistics, the unglamorous Royal Army Service Corps, but he soon volunteered for the newly formed Commandos. After training, he joined the Special Commando Boating Group, a unit that specialised in infiltration of enemy positions using canoes and kayaks. It was composed of those experienced in the use of such craft including Canadians, Scandinavians and polar explorers such as Peter Scott and DHT himself. Transferred to No. 4 Commando and attached to the Parachute Regiment in late 1943, he was part of the first wave airborne assault during Operation Overlord, the invasion of France on 6 June 1944. David Haig Thomas was killed in action on the morning of D-Day and is the sole member of the liberating forces buried in the churchyard of the village of Bavent in Calvados, Normandy.

Commandos in training with a two-man canoe in 1941. For hand-to-hand combat, Commandos were famously supplied with the Fairbairn–Sykes fighting knife, but DHT allegedly supplemented his personal weaponry with an ‘oosik’, an Inuit club made from the penis bone of a walrus. Picture: National Army Museum.

We can only guess the effect on Peter Haig Thomas of the loss of a young wife and then of two sons, one at the age of 16 and one at the age of 35, both apparently the sort of men that he would have wanted them to be. Like his failure to go into uniform in the Great War, these tragedies may have been further contributing factors in forming his brusque manner in dealing with people. However, there is no-one left who can confirm or refute this speculation.

PHT’s second wife came from aristocratic stock. Her godmother was Edward VII’s wife, Queen Alexandra.

In 1917, Peter had married Lady Alexandra Henrietta Alice Agar (1897 – 1971), second daughter of the wealthy Earl of Normanton. Martin Vander Weyer notes:

It was characteristic of Peter that their honeymoon was combined with his favourite hobby of big game hunting. They spent it shooting lions in the Sudan… It was equally characteristic of the era that when Lady Alexandra found her headgear unsatisfactory, a lady’s maid was despatched from London via Suez laden with hatboxes.

Lady Alexandra on safari, wearing a hat that may or may not have been satisfactory.

Tony HT holds that Lady Alexandra was more attracted to the Haig Thomas fortune than to Peter himself. Further, she did not get on well with many people and, as this was also one of her husband’s traits, it is perhaps not surprising that the marriage was not a happy one. Admittedly, Lady Alexandra bore seven children between 1918 and 1930 but, from the early 1930s, the couple lived apart.

Lady Alexandra Haig Thomas pictured in 1922 with Angela, the first of the seven children that she and PHT had together.

Haig Thomas survived the City Equitable financial scandal in the 1920s but, in his late 60s, he got involved in a sex scandal involving a Soho prostitute 30 years his junior. Depending on which press report you care to believe, Eva (Evelyn) Holder was ’golden-haired and attractive-looking’ or ‘artificially blond and heavily made-up’. They first met in November 1947 when PHT was ‘having some family trouble at home’ and she was ‘sympathetic and understanding’ and he began to visit her regularly. Soon, he became infatuated and was paying the 22s 6d (£1.12) a week rent on her Soho room, a place where they lived together for a time, she having a gas oven installed so she could cook for him. It conjures up a strange domestic picture involving a man who had inherited a fortune and who had married an aristocrat.

Over the next two years, PHT gave Holder cash that today would be worth a million pounds (then £36,000), later claiming that he believed that she was investing in Soho clubs and property. Holder claimed that the cash sums were ‘gifts’ and payments ‘for what he required from me’. This left PHT ‘practically penniless’ and, though he had a small income from a trust fund, he had to borrow money from friends and relatives. By February 1950, the law got involved, prompting Holder to visit Lady Alexandra, threatening to reveal ‘unpleasantness’ if a prosecution went ahead. However, it did go ahead and at the Old Bailey in July 1950, the Judge told the jury that what they had to consider was ‘however peculiar or eccentric (Haig Thomas) may be, has he told you… the truth?’ They took 37 minutes to decide that he had been honest and Eva Holder was sentenced to two years imprisonment for conspiracy to defraud.

The Daily Mirror reported PHT’s reaction:

I’m not by any means the first man to be stung by getting mixed up in the life of Soho. I’m just the one with the courage – if you like to call it that – to come forward and get the police to do something about it. You see, I’m not worried about what people may say about me. I have that sort of nature.

The Mirror reporter asked PHT if he would give Soho ‘a wide berth’ in future:

He shrugged his shoulders, wrinkled his sunburnt brow and said: ‘I really couldn’t say!’

The Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey – a dramatic venue for the finale of an unfortunate case.

It would be easy to be cynical about the motives of the two parties and to say of him, ‘there is no fool like an old fool’ and of her, that she was ‘a tart without a heart of gold’. However, this may be unfair on both of them.

The Judge was probably attempting to complement Haig Thomas when he suggested that he had treated Holder more like a mistress than a prostitute, but certainly PHT claimed that he wanted to ‘reform her’ and improve her life, at one stage suggesting that they moved to Kenya together. He bought Eva presents including clothes, launch tickets for the Boat Race and a wedding-type ring, a piece of jewellery that may have conferred some respectability upon her.

As to Holder’s motives, despite numerous convictions for soliciting, she had none for dishonesty, and none for soliciting after Haig Thomas had met her. In passing sentence, Mr Justice Jones seemed sympathetic to the woman dubbed ‘the Queen of Lisle Street’: ‘I do not suppose that you are the only person concerned, and I will take into account that temptation was probably very much put in your way… (and) although you have lived the life you have, there must have been a great deal of temptation (to be dishonest that) you have avoided…’ Despite later attempts, Haig Thomas did not get his money back, ending a case that seems more sad than salacious.

According to James Gobbo, the widespread and scandalous publicity, reported in detail in both the tabloids and the broadsheets, meant that Haig Thomas was asked to resign from all his clubs except, for some reason, Leander. Perhaps the Pink Palace was more broad-minded than the Travellers’ Club?

In January 1951, Lady Alexandra, probably less than amused that she had been called to the Old Bailey to give evidence in PHT’s court case, was granted an undefended divorce on the grounds of adultery. At the wedding of Alexandra and Peter’s youngest daughter seven months later, the bride was ‘given away’ not by her father, but by her uncle.

PHT coaching at Henley in his later years. According to MA Nicholson (Haig Thomas’s co-author on a 1958 book on rowing) he alternated between only two neckties: a very old Eton Vikings one with a large hole burned in it (as worn here) and an equally shabby and aged Old Etonian tie.

Also in 1951, at the age of 69, Haig Thomas married for a third time, to Miss Joyce Holloway Leach who had written to him during his court case expressing her admiration for his courage. They were together until his death eight years later, but this may not have been a romantic flowering of love in the couple’s twilight years. Grandson Tony Haig Thomas told me that, characteristically, PHT took Joyce fishing in Norway for their honeymoon. Here he met a woman with whom he enjoyed an extended stay after his new bride had returned home. As ever, PHT did not allow anything to get in the way of his pursuit of pleasure.

The next three parts look at the one thing that really defined Peter Haig Thomas’s life – rowing. Part II covers PHT’s own rowing career, Part III will be on his devotion to the Orthodox style of rowing, and Part IV will study PHT the coach.

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