Part II – Peter Haig Thomas: The Unorthodox Orthodoxist

Boats not books

Third Trinity’s First May Boat, Head of the River, 1903. PHT is sitting second from the right. Picture courtesy of Tony Haig Thomas.

10 December 2019

By Tim Koch

In Part I, published yesterday, it was stated that the three key elements of Peter Haig Thomas’s life story were money, women and rowing. Previously, Tim Koch looked at PHT’s relationship with the first two. The remaining three parts deal with different aspects of the key element of Haig Thomas’s life – rowing.

While studying Peter Haig Thomas’s multiple financial problems, the various women that he wooed, and the diverse creatures that he shot, hooked or netted may tell us much about the man, ultimately there can be little doubt that it was rowing that defined his life. Here, we look at PHT’s own career as an oarsman.

PHT was the first of his family to go to Eton. The World of 4 July 1905 recorded that:

(He) commenced his rowing career at Eton in 1896, and his training was on fixed seats until 1899… Mr Thomas’s successes at Eton included the Novice Eights in 1898, and the Lower Fours in 1899, while in 1900 and 1901 he was in the Trials, and in the latter year he won the School Sculling; he rowed (for Eton in Henley’s Ladies’ Plate) in 1900 (losing the final) by half-a-length only.

Two views of Haig Thomas’s student sitting room in Trinity College, Cambridge, around 1904. They show much evidence of rowing and hunting but little of academic work. Pictures courtesy of Tony Haig Thomas.

In 1901, Haig Thomas went up to Trinity College, Cambridge. The large and wealthy college traditionally attracted a large number of Etonians and in PHT’s time had two boat clubs, Third Trinity for those members of the college who had been to Eton or Westminster, and First Trinity for the rest. Second Trinity, ‘the Hallelujahs’, had been for theology students and clergymen but had folded by 1876. Haig Thomas joined Third Trinity and was thus rowing with many people that he had been in the boat club at school with, all physically fit and uniformly trained in the Eton/Orthodox style.

PHT did not allow studying to get in the way of time on the Cam; he won every rowing event that the University had to offer, and was President of Cambridge University Boat Club in 1904. Lists can be boring but a roll of the major wins in Haig Thomas’s short rowing career, 1902 – 1905, is impressive.

The University Boat Race: Won 1902, 1903 & 1904. Lost 1905.|
Cambridge May Bumps: Head of the River 1902, 1903, 1904.
Cambridge University Fours: 1901, 1902, 1903, 1904.
Cambridge University Lowe Double Sculls: 1902, 1903, 1904.
Cambridge University Magdalene Pairs: 1903, 1904.
Cambridge University Colquhoun Sculls: 1903.
Cork International Regatta: 1903.
Henley, Grand Challenge Cup: 1902, 1904, 1905.
Henley, Stewards’ Challenge Cup: 1902, 1903, 1904.
Henley, Silver Goblets: 1905.

PHT’s grandson, Tony Haig Thomas, has a splendid photo album that his grandfather had made recording his rowing achievements at Cambridge. Above and below are a random selection of some of the 60 pictures in the book, reproduced courtesy of THT.

Cambridge University Fours, 1901. PHT is back, left. Chapman, back right, was the coach.
The Cambridge Crew of 1902. Standing third from the left at the back is FJ Escombe; Haig Thomas was to have a very successful coaching partnership with him between 1924 and 1935. PHT is also standing at the back, on the far left.
Third Trinity’s First May Boat, Head of the River, 1902. PHT at ‘6’.
Third Trinity beating Leander in the final of the Grand, Henley 1902. PHT at ‘4’.

R C Lehmann wrote about the victory pictured above:

(Third Trinity) came to Henley in 1902 with a very brilliant crew containing seven Blues… Not many days before the race, Nelson (stroke) had an accident, which compelled him to withdraw from the crew. His place was supplied by J. H. Gibbon, who happened to be at Henley, and was not very much out of condition. He had stroked Cambridge to victory against Oxford in 1899 and 1900. Such a catastrophe as a change of strokes so soon before the race might well have upset any crew. Gibbon, however, did extremely well for them, and so excellent was the uniformity which they had already attained that their pace seemed in no way to suffer from the change. Against them Leander had brought a crew of Oxonians, all Blues. Third Trinity, however, in the final gave them very little chance, though Leander had the best of the station. They went ahead at once, and won with great ease.

PHT, winner of the 1903 Colquhoun Sculls.
The Third Trinity Boat Club crew for Henley’s Stewards’ Cup in 1903. PHT is second left. His future brother-in-law, Rowley Nelson, is on the far left.
PHT (with early moustache) at stroke and Rowley Nelson at bow, winners of the Magdalene Pairs 1904.
The Boat Race at Hammersmith, 1904. Oxford were leading at this point but were eventually beaten by Cambridge by four-and-a-half lengths. PHT was the Cambridge ‘6’.

While PHT may have gained every rowing honour that Cambridge had to offer, he failed to get a degree, not even a ‘Third’, which was in reality an attendance certificate, often called an ‘Oarsman’s’ or ‘Gentleman’s’ Degree. Later, his son, David, wrote:

I, like my father and my grandfather before me, would go down without a degree. Grandfather never looked like passing an exam. Father passed one and I had passed two, and I thought it would spoil the family tradition if I did any more, as well as impertinent on my elders and betters! 

Martin Vander Weyer:

Though his own top-class rowing career ended in his twenties, Haig Thomas was a physical fitness fanatic for the rest of his life, so competitive that he could not bear to be overtaken in the street by anyone walking faster than him…

As his Times obituary noted, ‘Few men have had more success in a relatively short active rowing career…’

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