Part III – Peter Haig Thomas: The Unorthodox Orthodoxist

Ye whose style is Orthodox

Haig Thomas coaching a bank tub at Cambridge in 1933.

11 December 2019

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch continues his look at the life of Peter Haig Thomas. Here he deals with the veteran coach’s commitment to coaching rowing in the ‘Orthodox’ style. Of necessity, it gets a little technical in parts but (hopefully) not tedious. The next and final part will examine PHT’s record as a coach.

In his thesis, A Social and Technical History of Rowing in England and the United States (2000), Stewart Stokes noted that:

For many years in England in the 19th century there simply were not different ways to row. There was the Orthodox way to row. Of course, not everyone accomplished this, but success was viewed largely in relation to how well a crew executed the Orthodox style.

Between the two World Wars, the rowing style (or some would say ‘method’) advocated by Steve Fairbairn (1862 – 1938) was adopted by many crews and clubs. In Rhymes of the River (1927), RE Swartwourt urged the abandonment of the Orthodox style in favour of the teachings of ‘Steve’ (as Fairbairn was universally known).

All ye whose style is Orthodox
Who nobly ply the oar
With a firm, columnar swinging
As your fathers did before,
Who reach right out and drive it through
With solid body-heave,
Sink ancient animosities
And give a cheer for Steve!

However, Haig Thomas had no time for Fairbairn and his ‘new’ ideas on rowing, training and rigging and throughout his life he would do his best to keep ancient animosities afloat. In 1959, MA Nicholson, the co-author with PHT of The English Style of Rowing, wrote:

An outstandingly successful oarsman himself between the years 1902 and 1905, (Haig Thomas) believed… that most of the technical problems of rowing had already been solved in the thirty years which had then elapsed since the introduction of sliding seats. He began coaching in 1922 with a clear idea of the principles on which all successful rowing is based…

In restating the undisputed fact that Haig Thomas was a staunch defender of orthodox rowing, it would make sense to define what the ‘orthodox’ and the ‘unorthodox’ styles were. However, this is not easy.

There was never simply one version of each style and those that did exist changed over time as they were adapted to suit fashions, crews, technology and personal prejudices. Further, aspects of different styles were combined. More confusion was generated by many coaches refusing to label themselves or denying the labels given to them. Steve Fairbairn always said that what he taught was a ‘method’ not a ‘style’.

PHT coaching at Henley.

A tentative explanation of styles can begin at the arrival of sliding seats in the early 1870s, initially only moving 8 – 10 inches. Both Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race crews first used them in the 1873 race. Early orthodoxy combined the fixed seat body swing with the slide, most famously articulated by Dr Edmond Warre of Eton. Some observe that the English adapted their slide to the stroke while others adapted their stroke to the slide. After about ten years, slides lengthened to 16 inches requiring changes to the style, something notably pioneered by RS de Havilland, also at Eton. Haig Thomas felt that the oarsmen produced by the latter fuelled a ‘Golden Age’ of English rowing c.1890 – 1914. Writing in The Spectator of 16 March 1934, GO ‘Gully’ Nickalls attempted to explain this classic English style of rowing:

(The) old style aims at taking the water well behind the rigger and applying the maximum power of the oarsmen at the moment of the entry of the blade. To achieve this end… coaches aim at the perfect linking up and synchronisation of the swing of the body and the movement of the slide. I have no doubt that ‘new style’ coaches have aimed at this too (but) their teachings have generally produced crews with an exaggerated leg thrust, to the almost total exclusion of other boat-propelling factors… 

Mr Haig Thomas, who has coached the Cambridge University crews for the past ten years, can generally be counted on to produce a crew which is a pretty good representation of the ‘old style’, though there is a leavening of opportunism in his nature which does not allow him always to ‘die for the faith’….

An old drawing purporting to show Fairbairnism in black and Orthodoxy in grey.

As James Gobbo recalled about his time at Magdalen in the early 1950s:

The secret of (Peter Haig Thomas’s) success was not rigorous and long training, nor was it motivational speeches. He avoided both… His secret was clear focus on the entry of the oar into the water…. He took the crew out in twos (in a stable coxed pair ‘tub’) before every outing for short, sharp sessions to concentrate on quick entry into the water.

PHT ‘tubbing’ two oarsmen at Henley.

Ignoring the debate over whether ‘Fairbairnism’ was a style of rowing or a philosophy of coaching, a simple explanation of it is that it involved the concurrent use of the legs, back and arms at the catch to maximise the leg drive. If Orthodoxy wanted a fast vertical entry of the blade into the water, Fairbairnism described a ‘running hit’ by rowing the blade into the water faster than the boat was moving past it, thus generating momentum with a moving body before the blade went in.

Further, unlike Haig Thomas et al, Fairbairn held that crews should not unduly focus on positioning their bodies according to rigid rules but should instead concentrate on the movement of the blade, creating an easy, flowing and enjoyable stroke (‘the natural action’).

PHT complained that Fairbairn’s crews were ‘short in the water and weak at both ends, particularly the finish, as the legs had been used up so early that there was nothing left to finish with except the back, arms and shoulders’. He said that Orthodox crews used the leg drive all the time, throughout the stroke.

Haig Thomas and others of the Orthodox school did not deny that Fairbairn had many successes with his crews but held that this was only because ‘Steve’ restored the leg drive, one of the essential factors that they felt had been lost from ‘true’ orthodox rowing. Nickalls articulated this when he said that there were coaches who claimed to be orthodox but who had actually corrupted orthodoxy by ‘emphasising (looking stylish) out of all proportion to its actual importance… (The) movements they insisted on became grotesque, wooden and extremely inelastic. Leg-work was forgotten, and such rowing, still posing under the banner of orthodoxy, began to lose, and so fall into disrepute’.

Thus, Gully, Haig Thomas and others of his faith thought that proper orthodoxy had mostly been lost and consequently what passed as the style had earned the nickname ‘awfuldoxy’. They held that the change was partly through poor coaching and partly because the less regimented Fairbairn style was easier to learn, particularly for those who were not natural athletes or who could not devote a lot of time to training.

PHT also objected to the separate popular tendency of choosing oarsmen for their size rather than for their skill and quickness.

A fixed pin rowlock.

There was one further obsession held by Peter Haig Thomas and the followers of orthodoxy. Eric Halladay held that:

The symbol for many of true orthodoxy was the fixed rowing-pin, as powerful a badge as ever the true cross had been to medieval crusaders.

The old school argument was that fixed pins forced good catches and finishes. They agreed that the swivel was easier – but not better. The supporters of swivels said that they gave more control during the stroke and, as slides lengthened to 22-inches, they allowed greater angles at the catch and the finish (though this was not a problem for PHT who felt that a slide of just under 16 inches was enough).

Some of the ‘swivel school’ said that fixed-pin supporters had a simple resistance to change and that they were unwilling to lose the characteristic ‘thump, thump’ sound that the old equipment produced, a noise that carried over long distances and may have produced a Proustian response in those raised with the antiquated device.

Today, the fixed pin can only be seen in the so-called ‘Fourth of June’ Procession of Boats at Eton. The oar has a ‘button’ to hold it in the rowlock, something less user friendly than today’s ‘collar’.

Sometime in the 1950s, Haig Thomas made a rare admission of defeat and wrote ‘there is little likelihood or hope of fixed pins soon becoming universal in England again’ and conceded that ‘it is possible to obtain a very passable form of (Orthodoxy) on swivels’.

Diagrams from Haig Thomas and Nicholson’s book “The English Style of Rowing” (1958), giving an idea of how the oar moved in a fixed pin rowlock. In the Boat Race, they were last used by Cambridge in 1950 and Oxford in 1951.

A British Pathe newsreel from 1925, available online, brilliantly shows Haig Thomas’s style of Orthodox rowing and has close-ups of the fixed pin in action. The introductory caption card reads: ‘Goring, Oxon. The Light Blues – always stylists – are daily showing marked improvement in hands of their Coach, Mr Haig Thomas’.

As we will see in Part Four, when Peter Haig Thomas and Francis Jerram Escombe joined the Cambridge coaching team in 1924, it was the start of 13 years of consecutive victories for the Light Blues, with PHT getting much credit for many of those wins, all of his achieved rowing in the Orthodox style with fixed pins and 16-inch slides. However, by the early 1930s, Fairbairnism, swivels, and long slides were becoming dominant on the Cam, with the result that the Light Blue boat and its coaches were increasingly out of step with most of the Cambridge college boat clubs.

In a preview of the Trial Eights Race held at Ely on 5 December 1931, The Times wrote: ‘Orthodox coaching, if not orthodox rowing, prevails at so few colleges at Cambridge today that those responsible for selecting the men to row in Trial Eights had no choice but to blend the products of both schools of coaching’. Perhaps to the surprise of many, the mix of Orthodox and Fairbairn oarsmen worked. The Times correspondent magnanimously declared ‘It has long been obvious that Mr Fairbairn had something to teach orthodox crews…’

Things came to a head in 1935 when CUBC President, NJ Bradley, asked a Metropolitan Fairbairn coach, Robert ‘Archie’ Nisbet, to take charge. In the words of Boat Race historian, George Drinkwater:

To a man like Haig Thomas, orthodoxy was a matter of faith, far transcending allegiance to his old university…

PHT with Oxford’s Jan Sturrock (seated) and Bernard Sciortino.

PHT, Kenneth Payne and Francis Escombe transferred their services from Cambridge to Oxford, restored the Dark Blue’s fixed pins and coached them in the old ways in preparation for the 1935 Boat Race. In The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race 1829 – 1953 (1954), Dickie Burnell suggested (not very convincingly) that altruism may have also been involved in this move:

(There was a) growing realisation among Cambridge men that if something could not be done to put Oxford rowing on its feet, the Boat Race, and rowing as a whole, would suffer.

The British Pathe newsreel cameras captured Oxford’s early start in training for the 1935 Boat Race under PHT.

The 1935 Boat Race was inevitably seen as a battle of the styles but there was more to it than that. Losing, even more so than winning, becomes a habit, one difficult to break. Oxford had lost for 11 years and The Times noted that Haig-Thomas ‘had the task of teaching rowing in a University where three generations of undergraduates had passed since good rowing had ever been seen there’. But the correspondent saw hope: ‘It is the actual groundwork of rowing that is Mr Haig Thomas’s speciality…’

On the day, Oxford lost the 1935 Boat Race by four-and-a-half lengths. However, Haig Thomas’s faith was not shaken and The Times agreed that the race was not proof of the superiority of Fairbairnism over Orthodoxy. The newspaper felt that ‘Oarsmen like (Cambridge’s) Wilson and Laurie, who have rowed in good crews coached by Mr Haig Thomas, are not likely to have forgotten what he has taught them…’ Even when he was coaching Oxford, PHT could probably legitimately claim some credit for Cambridge’s wins in the late 1930s.

‘Oxford’s Cambridge Coaches’. Peter Haig Thomas and Kenneth Payne pictured by “The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News” in January 1936.

In almost literally his last gasp, in the year before he died, Haig Thomas and Matthew Nicholson published The English Style of Rowing: A New Light on an Old Method (1958). It was his defence of orthodoxy and was also, in the words of Martin Vander Weyer, ‘a thinly disguised encomium to Haig Thomas’s own best years as Cambridge coach with a forthright dismissal of almost everything that had come afterwards’.

In The English Style, Haig Thomas and Nicholson complain that ‘pseudo-Fairbairnism’ has destroyed first-rate English rowing and substituted a ‘uniform mediocracy’:

We believe that English crews are failing because coaches have lost sight of the basic principles, maintained, to our cost, by most of the foreign crews against whom we race, that the speed of a racing boat depends on the quickness of the entry and the instant application of the oarsman’s full power to the blade, in such a way that the leg drive is used all the time throughout the stroke.

There is some unintentional humour in what is otherwise a technical and defensive book, usually originating from moans about unimportant things: sleeveless singlets, purple sock suspenders, or coxswains with outsize megaphones. On an American school crew at Henley:

They swung very little, flopped their heads all over the place, bent their arms at the beginning and probably chewed gum in the boat. They almost certainly won the Thames Cup.

Reviewing The English Style in The Times, Richard ‘Dickie’ Burnell’ wrote that the book ‘rightly emphasises… that English oarsmen raced successfully against all comers so long as they held to the gold standard of orthodox teaching’. However, he cautioned ‘It must be questionable whether we can go back to the golden age, as Mr Haig Thomas and Mr Nicholson suggest, for it is unrealistic to suppose that the circumstances have not changed in 50 years.’

PHT chose a picture of his winning Oxford Crew of 1946 to go on the cover of his book. He urged the reader to ‘note the excellent entry of the blades’.

In Rowing in England: A Social History (1990), Eric Halladay said of The English Style of Rowing, ‘the fact that rowing in (Britain) could during the 1950s still be discussed in terms that pre-dated the (1914 – 1918) War emphasises the very real depth of feeling that was felt on these issues’.

Nowadays, the arguments over styles seem irrelevant and even trivial to us, but to men like Peter Haig Thomas, they were articles of faith to be fiercely defended even to the point of abandoning their strong tribal loyalty to their university and its boat club.

Referring to the long running debate between the orthodox and their opponents, Stewart Stokes wrote in his 2000 thesis that:

Instead of being a healthy by-product of the pursuit of athletic excellence, it ended up having a negative influence on English rowing as a whole.

When combined with that other long-running ‘negative influence’, the Amateur – Professional question, it is perhaps surprising that British rowing survived at all. Ultimately, the style debate may have been as unproductive as discussing which is the true religion or the best football team. As Stokes noted:

Discussing or critiquing one style or another is in no way an automatic judgement of its merits. Any style, method or form of teaching is a product of the times and the technology available, and it is limited by the ability of the athletes asked to perform it and the coaches who are trying to pass it on. Success or failure does not necessarily imply that one way is better or worse than another.

Try telling that to Peter Haig Thomas.

Haig Thomas (left) and another old Eton oarsman, Lord Vivian (right) at Henley in 1939. PHT is wearing a Henley Steward’s badge.

Part IV will look at Haig Thomas, the coach. Adding a personal postscript to this piece, when I was learning to row at a small Tideway club in the mid-1980s, at least one old member coached us to take the catch in what I now know to be the Orthodox style. No doubt, he was taught this way by someone who learned it between the wars and probably knew no other way. We did, however, have swivels.

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