Fixed Seat Reading

The Mecca of rowing books: Way’s Bookshop in Henley.

22 April 2020

By Chris Dodd

Confined to barracks by coronavirus, Chris Dodd began thinking about good reads he’s come across in the course of writing books on rowing history. Here are some gems to help you remember the Boat Race and prepare for July’s Henley that never will be.

I’ve often marvelled at the prolific output of books concerned with an activity that is relatively small in the panoply of sport. Rowing is fortunate in having participants who are able to put pen to paper, literally and metaphorically. The books in this piece are mentioned because they are well written, contain good stories, speak from the soul or from a famous soul, etc – but not necessarily several or all of these attributes.

It is also fair to point out that I read most of them many years ago, since when my specs may have become rose-tinted. By and large, I have left how-to-do-it books out because I figure that those who want to know about historical styles or improve their performance will know where to look.

A somewhat stylised imagining of the scene near Oxford’s Folly Bridge on the cover of a Penguin Modern Classics edition of “Zuleika Dobson”.

For Boat Race fiction, top of a small pile is Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson, a metaphorical if not actual bodice-ripper about a feisty beauty who plays havoc with the Oxford crew. For Victorian character building on the river, consult Cuthbert Bede’s Adventures of Mr Verdant Green or Thomas Hughes’s sequel to Tom Brown’s schooldays, Tom Brown at Oxford. The compendium Great Stories from the World of Sport contains The Boat Race Murder by David Winser. A P Garland wrote a yarn called A Yank at Oxford which became a movie.

An illustration from “Tom Brown at Oxford”.

Memoirs throw up a mixture of rowing stories and good yarns about other aspects of life. And some engaging titles. Good stuff is to be found in Gilbert C Bourne, Memories of an Eton Wet-bob of the Seventies [ie the 1870s], Theodore Cook’s The Sunlit Hours, Gully Nickalls’s A Rainbow in the Sky, his father Guy Nickalls’s Life’s a Pudding, David Haig Thomas’s I Leap Before I Look, W B ‘Guts’ Woodgate’s Reminiscences of an Old Sportsman and R H Forster’s miscellany Down by the River.

David Haig-Thomas, a man adventurous enough to have enough material for his autobiography “I Leap Before I Look”, when he was only 31.

Bourne was a great influence at Eton and Oxford; Cook became editor of the Daily Telegraph and recounts poling a little houseboat from Oxford to Henley regatta and pitching up with a mooring next to the Rothschild floating palace. The Nickallses’ books recount all sorts of adventures, as does Guy’s brother Vivian in Oars, Wars and Horses, a dreadfully-written autobiography that I couldn’t put down for its awfulness. Haig Thomas recounts early days in the Special Boat Service in WWII and night climbs in Cambridge. Woodgate introduced coxless fours to Britain after he saw fishermen from New Brunswick defeat all comers while using self-steering gear at the 1867 Paris International Regatta. Forster was a talented writer with tales of Lady Margaret and Thames RC.

Guy Nickalls as depicted in “Vanity Fair” in 1889.

Still in the realm of biography is Fairbairn of Jesus. Writing certainly wasn’t Steve’s major talent, but he puts across a self-assured if not slightly arrogant account of growing up in Melbourne and moving to Jesus College in Cambridge. Freddy Brittain gives a good account of life at the college in A Short History of Jesus College and It’s a Don’s Life. The journalist Martin Cobbett tells good stories in Sporting Notions and Wayfaring Notions, including an account of being chased by a flying swan while sculling up to Henley that almost resulted in him losing his manhood. Another journalist, Anthony Trollope, edited a lively bunch of essays in British Sports and Pastimes. Leslie Stephen’s Sketches from Cambridge is a good companion for a sojourn in the armchair, and the American R E Swartwout shows brilliant talent in his verses in Rhymes of the River.

Steve’s “Fairbairn of Jesus”.

There are gems in the coaching books by Woodgate – Boating – and Rudie Lehmann’s Rowing and The Complete Oarsman. Lehmann’s son John’s Whispering Gallery tells the Lehmann family story of writers, actors and literary types in their house on the river at Bourne End. Another coaching book with added value is Jumbo Edwards’s The Way of a Man with a Blade. And while we’re talking about how to do it, Oxford trainer Archibald Maclaren’s Training in Theory and Practice, published in 1866, is a blast of fresh air.

Finally, Hylton Cleaver’s A History of Rowing is no literary masterpiece, but nevertheless contains much on both professionals and amateurs and is an essential volume for the reference library. Talking of history, there are many good club histories, particularly of Oxbridge colleges. And if you want to learn about the upper reaches of the Thames, I can recommend John Anderson’s The Upper Thames.

Finding copies may prove difficult, but the first stop should be Diana Way at the Way Bookshop in Friday Street, Henley-on-Thames. Failing that, search in

For books by Chris Dodd, see

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