Laid Back 

This social distancing warning at Putney seems to be saying that anyone rowing in the ‘Lady Margaret style’ (the ‘long lay-back’ form of rowing popular in the 1950s), should keep two metres apart. Picture: Martin Gough.

28 November 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch on horizontal rowing.

Regular HTBS reader and occasional contributor, Teresa Stokes (daughter of Adrian Stokes, who rowed for OUBC in 1951 and 1952) recently left a comment on a HTBS piece on her father that was posted nine months ago and which featured newsreels from Pathé:

Since this blog post was published, a great discovery: newly uploaded just this month… are four more films featuring Dad, all originally on Pathé’s rival, the Gaumont British News. The accent of the narrator is even more clipped than that of the Pathé man. The first shows the Oxford crew in training in early 1951.

This is a delightful film for several reasons. Yes, there are the clipped chapish tones of the narrator but there are also some wonderfully clear close-up shots of the ‘laid back’ technique common at the time. Also, there is a cutaway to the interior of the Rutland Boathouse in Hammersmith, then occupied by Sims’ Boatbuilders. The building still exists behind Auriol Kensington Rowing Club, but it is nowadays, sadly, abandoned and decaying.

Returning to laid back rowing, the Gaumont newsreel below shows that in the next year, 1952, Oxford were perhaps even more horizontal at the finish.

This style of rowing was popularised by Roy Meldrum, who became coach of Lady Margaret (the boat club of St John’s College, Cambridge) in 1936. In 1932, he had published a coaching manual called Coach and Eight and had followed this up in 1950 with Rowing and Coaching. Both works aroused great interest. In the 1950s, his ‘Lady Margaret Style’ or ‘Meldrum Style’ began to produce results and his crews rapidly achieved startling success

The Pathé film below shows that ‘Lady Margaret’ was still dominant with both Boat Race crews in 1954. Cambridge (shown 48 seconds in) perhaps took it to extremes.

Most notably, Meldrum emphasised a long lay-back to produce a well-drawn-out and covered finish. It attracted many imitators, but few other coaches could make it work. Some swallowed their pride and went to the source. The Times report on the 1951 Oxford Summer Eights noted that:

University (College, Oxford) have paid a visit to Cambridge, where they were coached by Mr Roy Meldrum, of Lady Margaret, and, if they do not exactly bear his hall-mark, the act of faith had been of some value.

“The Times” of 6 December 1951 on ‘The Meldrum Style’ and its influence and development.

Lady Margaret held the Headship of the Mays for five years, 1950 – 1954. There were also headships in the Lents and the lower boats rose sharply up the bumps charts. Meldrum’s death in February 1955 had a devastating effect on Lady Margaret and they lost both the Lent and May headships that year.

1950: Lady Margaret’s ‘annus mirabilis’.

In the 1950 May Bumps, Lady Margaret’s nine crews made a total of 34 bumps and the First Boat went up four places to go ‘Head of the River’. After the Mays, the First Boat won the Grand at Marlow and then raced in the Grand at Henley, coming closest to the winners from Harvard. Four of the crew won the Visitors and the other four lost in the Stewards (on the same day that they raced Harvard in the Grand). The Second Boat raced in the Ladies and the Third Boat in Thames Cup. That year’s Boat Club Dinner must have been noisy.

Roy Meldrum’s Times obituary concluded:

The impact which Meldrum had on Cambridge, and even on British, rowing in a short space of time was truly remarkable, for his precise and academic approach produced crews which bore unmistakably the impact of his coaching. His ideas were perhaps controversial, but few coaches have succeeded in producing a distinct and recognisable style as he did, and few have had better cause to let his theories stand or fall by the result that they achieved. 

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