Part IV – Peter Haig Thomas: The Unorthodox Orthodoxist

Accepting His Teaching

PHT coaching Oxford at Henley in preparation for the 1948 Boat Race.

12 December 2019

By Tim Koch

In this last part of his four-part look at the life of Peter Haig Thomas, Tim Koch investigates his career as a coach, notably at Cambridge but later at Oxford, and looks at some the final words written about a man who everyone in rowing had an opinion on.

Although a strict amateur, in coaching terms Peter Haig Thomas was ‘a gun for hire’. In the words of his Times obituary ‘he was always willing to help any crew, however humble, providing they were prepared to accept his teaching’. The result of this was that at various times between 1922 and 1959 he coached the Orthodox style at Oxford and Cambridge, both for University crews and for certain college boat clubs, and for Leander. However, he would not assist the Grand Old Clubs on the Thames Tideway as Metropolitan rowing mostly followed the teachings of his rival, Steve Fairbairn.

PHT at the Cambridge Lent Bumps in 1931.

I do not have an extensive list of every crew or club that Haig Thomas coached, but some random examples will illustrate his commitment. He did a great deal of work over many years with his old college, Trinity, Cambridge, and also with Trinity Hall, Cambridge (together with Lady Margaret, the three were the last outposts of Orthodoxy on the Cam). He coached a total of four winning Henley Grand crews in his career including the Leander eight that, in 1934, set an event record time of 6 minutes 44 seconds, one that lasted for 18 years. At Oxford in 1938, he got Trinity College to Head of the River. In the early 1950s Haig Thomas had great success at Magdalen College, Oxford, notably in 1953 when Magdalen went Head of the River and won the University Fours and Pairs and also the Visitors’ at Henley. On PHT’s death in 1959, RMA Bourne wrote: “All last year he did wonders for (First and Third Boat Club), and was full of plans to do even better this year…’

PHT with the Trinity College, Oxford, crew that he coached and that went Head of the River in 1938. Picture courtesy of Trinity College, Oxford.

However, for all his college and club coaching activities over a period of nearly 40 years, Peter Haig Thomas would ultimately be remembered as a veteran Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race coach.

Typically, Gordon Ross wrote in his 1956 book, The Boat Race:

It is impossible to over-estimate the importance of Peter Haig Thomas’s teaching at Cambridge between the wars…

The Light Blues won all but three of the 20 races between the two World Wars, 1920 – 1939, and had a record run of 13 consecutive victories 1924 – 1936. It is popularly supposed by sources such as Haig Thomas’s Times obituary that:

He was one of the chief architects of Cambridge success in the twenties and early thirties, and in all he coached them eleven times without having a single losing crew. He also coached Oxford four times, including their winning crew in 1946.

While Haig Thomas’s involvement with Boat Race coaching was remarkable, accounts such as that in his Times obit give a wrong impression, implying that he was the only Cambridge coach in their great inter-war run. Before I expand on this, a look at the coaching system used by the Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Clubs in the 1920s and 1930s is necessary.

In 1933, “The Times” felt that Haig Thomas had made that year’s Light Blue Boat ‘sing’.

In modern times, each Boat Club uses a single professional coach for the whole training period which nowadays officially starts in September. In PHT’s time, there were multiple coaches, all were unpaid and the training period was much shorter.

The Times of 5 February 1930 noted that ‘The normal period of training for the Boat Race is a little over ten weeks’. This period excluded the weeks taken for the pre-Christmas Trials and only counted the time between the start of the new term in early January and race day itself (which was typically in the last week in March or the first week in April).

The process began with each college boat club captain recommending his best oarsmen for consideration for the University boat. At Cambridge in 1932 for example, 110 names were submitted in November. The individual University Boat Club Presidents would then ask one of their Old Blues to put together two to four eights from these names to train on home waters, the Isis or the Cam, or, for longer outings, Ely for Cambridge, and beyond Iffley Lock towards Radley for Oxford. A squad of up to four boats was usually rapidly reduced to two crews before Christmas by means of Trial Eight races (though Blues were sometimes exempted from Trials).

After Christmas, one or more Trials coach(s) would continue into the ‘preliminary’ stage until about the end of January. At this stage, the emphasis was on eliminating individual faults. After this, a ‘refining’ coach would take over, perhaps running another Trail Eights Race if it was felt necessary, but certainly soon deciding on a probable eight and moving training to Ely (in the case of Cambridge) and/or some part of the Upper Thames (Bourne End/Cookham or Henley or Marlow). At this point, the stress was on rowing together as a crew.

The “Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News” notes the move to the Upper Thames for both crews in early March 1925.

When Haig Thomas was coaching during the ‘refining’ phase of training, the Cambridge camp often moved to his riverside house in Goring-on-Thames, ‘The Grange’, five miles south of Wallingford, eight miles north-west of Reading. The Hurlingham Club in Fulham was asked to supply ‘Mrs Gibson and three maids’ to help look after the boys while they were staying at chez Haig Thomas.

Two or three weeks before the race, a third and final former Boat Race oarsman would do the finishing work at Putney over the Tideway course; the emphasis here was on boat speed, latterly working on short pieces at high rates.

Cambridge move to Putney under FJ Escombe in late March 1925.

Numerous Old Blues including the coaches from other parts of the cycle would regularly turn up to observe progress during training, probably giving whoever was coaching at that time more advice than they wanted or needed. It may have been a practical system, allowing for differing availability and for the differing particular skills needed at different stages of training, but, unless all the coaches were in complete unison, it must have been tempting to consciously or unconsciously spend time undoing the work of the previous man. In the true ‘Corinthian Spirit’, it was common for coaches from the opposing crew to be invited to attend their rival’s training and trial sessions.

Above: The 1934 Trial Eights as covered by the British Pathe cinema newsreel.

In an attempt to put a huge amount of information into an easily digestible form, I have produced the table below showing Haig Thomas’s coaching involvement in the Boat Race, 1924 – 1948. These facts have been gathered from the detailed, informed and almost daily Times newspaper reports on pre-Boat Race training that was a characteristic of the inter-war era. After 1945, the coverage was less comprehensive and the coaching plan for 1946 in particular was not reported as clearly as before. The phrases ‘preliminary’ and ‘refining’ are my own; ‘finishing’ was and is in common use.

Click to enlarge.

As the above shows, Haig Thomas had significant input into the training of ten Cambridge crews (1924 – 1925, 1928 – 1934, 1947), all of whom won. Five of ‘his’ Light Blue crews were especially regarded: 1924, 1928, 1929, 1932 and 1934. For reasons explained in Part Three, PHT also coached four Oxford Crews (1935, 1936, 1946, 1948), though only the 1946 crew was victorious.

In their history of Leander Club, The Brilliants (1997), Burnell and Page state that ‘In what he regarded as being in the best interests of British rowing, in view of the forthcoming Olympics, Haig Thomas took the unique position of helping with the coaching of both crews for the (1948) Boat Race…’ However, The Times reports were on his work for Oxford at Henley-on-Thames but make no mention of any Cambridge role. What was essentially a Cambridge eight won Silver in the 1948 Olympics.

PHT seemingly had no significant part in the Boat Races of 1926, 1927, 1937, 1938 and 1939. He was due to coach Cambridge for the unofficial wartime Boat Race of 1940 but did not recover from an operation in time to do so.

An article by PHT on training for the Boat Race that appeared in “The Graphic” magazine of 26 March 1927. Click to enlarge and read.

Haig Thomas’s main talent was coaching the middle ‘refining’ stage, something he did for all of the Boat Races that he was part of. He ‘doubled up’, taking on two of the three-part coaching roles for half-a-dozen of the 14 Boat Races that he was involved with. He was ‘preliminary coach’ five times and twice acted as the ‘finishing coach’ to the final crew at Putney. However, PHT called the middle stage ‘the most critical’. He held that:

If they have been well grounded, i.e. individual faults eliminated…, considerable progress can now be made by coaching the men, not individually but as a crew.  

At a factious Oxford in 1936, PHT and JH Gibbon fell out over who should stroke the eight and William Rathbone took over as the Putney finishing coach, a task that was originally going to be undertaken by Haig Thomas. This picture shows the crew training in February.

Like the stroke seat, the job of finishing coach probably carries the most glamour or prestige, and thus it is surprising that the work of Francis Jerram ‘Jerry’ Escombe in this role is so little known, particularly as he formed a very effective working relationship with Haig Thomas during ten Boat Races and went over to Oxford with him in 1935 (Escombe intended to coach the Dark Blues in 1936 but illness forced him to stand down and he died in 1938). However, as the above table indicates, when Escombe was available, he was the finishing coach of choice.

FJ Escombe pictured in 1909. He was a 1902 Cambridge Blue, a multiple Henley winner, and a Light Blue coach 16 times (1904 – 1909, 1924 – 1930, & 1933 – 1935). “The Times” said that he ‘obtained excellent results by subtle methods, without apparently going too deeply into minute details of correct action’.

Why was Jerry Escombe less well-known than his colleague, Peter Haig Thomas? Escombe’s Times obituary called him a ‘man of genial disposition’, ‘popular’ and ‘a cryptic wit’ with ‘a wide circle of friends’. Thus, he was the antithesis of PHT, but his ‘genial disposition’ could be the reason that he had a lower profile than the more abrasive and opinionated Haig Thomas who, according to Hylton Cleaver, ‘could never be inconspicuous’. Nonetheless, the two apparently mismatched devotees of Orthodoxy had a very effective partnership and together they produced nine winning crews.

Last Words

PHT and Oxford’s AV Sutcliffe pictured in 1934, in preparation for the 1935 Boat Race.

On his death in January 1959, the style of PHT’s many obituaries were mostly typical of the time – factual, chronological and largely uncritical with no mention of scandal or failure. RMA Bourne’s postscript to the workaday Times obit followed this tradition but gave a little more insight into the man’s strengths:

To us he was the coach; however famous or successful other coaches were, once Peter had taken the crew we had confidence in no other. Many were more explicit, all were more audible, most had more to say; his success came, I think, from his remarkable skill in seeing what each oarsman was doing and might do in the future, and his unerring judgement on each piece of work… (He) was ageless and tireless, and as young in heart as the oarsmen he was coaching…

Peter Haig Thomas pictured in the 1929 Boat Race programme.

Unsurprisingly, MA Nicholson, PHT’s co-author on The English Style, was another who only saw positives (and also managed to get in some digs at Steve Fairbairn):

‘You’ve got to be wigged wight if you’re going to wow well’. This remark is typical of Peter Haig Thomas, not only in diction… but in the approach to rowing that lies behind it. Peter was a perfectionist. First-class rowing was the only kind of rowing that he cared about, unlike Steve Fairbairn, who cast his net wider and thus made a greater name. Peter did not, like Steve, make rowing easier for oarsmen of limited ambition or capacity, or popularise it as a sport. But for those who had… the ability… he was one of the greatest coaches of all time.

PHT: ‘…no time could he be mistaken for a nonentity…’

While few doubted Haig Thomas’s talents as a coach, he was not universally popular; he had his devotees but some did not like his dogmatic view that Orthodoxy was the only way to row, some found him personally objectionable, and some disliked him on both grounds. Perhaps a wonderfully written and gently blunt obituary of PHT by Hylton Cleaver, published in Rowing magazine in January 1959, should get the final say. It is a great lesson in backhanded compliments and I particularly like the line about charm.

Hylton Cleaver:

(PHT’s book, The English Style of Rowing) not only provided provocative talking points but managed to portray the character of the man himself. He was forthright in speech, intolerant of those who did not agree with him, destructive in criticism, and had a brusque manner which sometimes amounted to rudeness. But if…. he cannot be said to have commanded affection, he always commanded respect. He was too sincere to bother about charm…

Peter Haig Thomas could never be inconspicuous, and certainly no time could he be mistaken for a nonentity…. He was a rich personality in rowing, and if he did not make a wide circle of friends, it was because he never sought to. He played a lone hand, with his whole life a challenge to others. It had no dull moments….

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