Dick, Gray, Eton, Freddy, Steve and two Elliotts: Or Never Judge an Oarsman

“Poems of Thomas Gray”, Dick Burnell’s ‘leaving book’ from Eton.

12 January 2021

By Göran R Buckhorn

Last week, HTBS published two articles about Oxford Blue, Olympic champion, rowing journalist and writer, Richard Burnell. Robert Treharne Jones had peeked in Burnell’s albums of newspaper clippings and Chris Dodd remembered a colleague who pushed a pen at The Times and The Sunday Times. On Saturday, Tim Koch wrote about the unusual training at Cambridge for the 1939 Boat Race, and while Burnell was not mentioned in Tim’s article, Burnell was racing at ‘5’ in the 1939 Dark Blue crew. Here Göran R Buckhorn adds to the Dick Burnell pile.

A gem in my collection of rowing books is actually not a book on rowing per se, Poems by Thomas Gray, a book of 18th-century poems by Thomas Gray, who once studied at Eton. I bought the book in the beginning of 2010 together with Frederick Brittain’s Oar, Scull, Rudder, the only printed rowing bibliography, published in 1930.

Taking a closer look at Poems by Thomas Gray, it is hardbound and was privately printed for Eton College in the Riccardi Press fount of the Medici Society Limited, VII Grafton Street, London, W., MCMXX (1920). 87 pp. Its binding is of full vellum, titled in gilt on the spine and stamped in gilt with the college coat of arms on the front cover. On the printed presentation page, it says ‘Ricardo Desborough Burnell’ [presentee] and Claudius Aurelius Elliott [Head Master, 1933-1949; Provost, 1949-1965] in autograph, and with date amended to 1936.

The presentation page in the article writer’s copy of “Poems by Thomas Gray”.

So, my copy once belonged to Richard Burnell, who received it from the hands of Eton Head Master, Claude Aurelius Elliott, in July 1936. I believe it’s still the tradition today that the boys at Eton get Poems by Thomas Gray as a ‘leaving book’.

Without knowing it when I ordered Poems by Thomas Gray and Brittain’s Oar, Scull, Rudder, there is sort of a connection between the two books, or that is between Brittain, Elliott and the famous coach Steve Fairbairn. This is how the story goes…

Freddy Brittain’s diaries with anecdotes about Steve Fairbairn.

As a Christian and pacifist with socialist views, Frederick Brittain – called ‘Freddy’ by his friends and anyone who knew him – had served in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the First World War. After Freddy had demobilised, he was admitted as an ex-service man to Jesus College, Cambridge, to read modern and medieval languages and literature in October 1919. During his first term at Jesus, Freddy took up rowing at the college’s boat club. Steve Fairbairn had coached some of the novice boats of which Freddy had been a member, and while Freddy never became a distinguished oar, a beautiful friendship arose between the novice oarsman and the master coach.

Steve Fairbairn

Many of the manuscripts of Fairbairn’s famous books were first read by Freddy, who would become a don at Jesus College. About his life at Jesus and his connection with the Australian coach, Freddy tells in his autobiography It’s a Don’s Life, which was posthumously published in 1972. Another source is Freddy’s diaries, Fifty Years at Jesus (2001), which were published by his widow, Muriel, née Cunnington, who was 26 years Freddy’s junior and whom he had married in 1959.

In 1929, Freddy Brittain selected and arranged 366 of Steve Fairnbairn’s sayings – or ‘Fairbairnisms’, as Freddy called them – a maxim for each day of the year, starting with “Don’t start the next stroke too soon” (1 January) and ending with the peculiar “Sit back at the finish till the cows come home” (31 December).

The working title for this little book had been “365 Points for Oarsmen”, but Freddy added a saying for Leap Year Day and, as the religious man he was, ‘a little light relief’ by fitting in a number of the quotations to appropriate saint’s days. Freddy also changed the title to Slowly Forward, which surprised Fairbairn. To his question where the title came from, Freddy answered that it was Steve’s favorite expression when he was coaching his crews. Steve denied this, saying that he always said: ‘Slow Forward’. Freddy explained that an adverb was essential in that position. ‘Adverbs!’ Steve blurted out, amused. ‘Adverbs! You are like the rest of the bloody dons – specialized idiots’. Steve never seemed to forget this Freddy writes in It’s a Don’s Life:

Whenever he introduced me to anyone – in the Stewards’ Enclosure at Henley, or anywhere else – he used to add solemnly, ‘He knows a lot about adverbs, he does’; and when he wrote to me he often ended his letter with

Yoursly everly, Stevely

Slowly Forward was published on 8 May 1929 and Steve gave copies of the book to some of the dons at Jesus. A week later, he received a note from Claude Elliott, who had been Freddy’s tutor when he arrived at the college in 1919. According to an entry in Freddy’s diaries, Elliott, who had studied at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, before coming to Jesus, wrote to Steve: ‘It is extraordinarily good of you to send me a copy of Slowly Forward, especially after the way you used to talk to me when I was in a boat. The book is most amusing besides being highly instructive’.

Claude Elliott, the Head Master of Eton College, around 1940.

This was not received well by Fairnbairn. He got annoyed by Elliott’s note. Steve did not see anything funny or ‘amusing’ with rowing – the sport he loved was serious business. It seems he got easily irritated by Elliott and had lost his temper coaching a four with Elliott in the crew once upon a time. A 1929 entry in Freddy’s diaries reveals this and what Elliott meant by ‘the way you used to talk to me when I was in a boat’. Freddy wrote:

Wednesday, 30 January […] In Hall Elliott related that Steve’s first remark to him (when coaching him in a IV years ago) was ‘You’re no more use than a b – – – – – sack of s – – -.’

In 1933, Claude Elliott was appointed headmaster of Eton and was knighted in 1958 – and he had become a member of Leander Club already in 1922.

Elliott’s son, Nicholas, who was educated at Eton but did not row there, became a famous MI6 Intelligence Officer. Nicholas Elliott would be involved in two publicly noted intelligence scandals that rocked MI6’s boat: the ‘Buster Crabb affair’ in the mid-1950s and the flight of Elliott’s longtime friend, the spy Kim Philby, who escaped to Moscow in 1963.

In the 1990s, Nicholas Elliott published two entertaining and highly readable autobiographies – a remarkable thing as he had been in the MI6 – Never Judge a Man by his Umbrella (1991) and With My Little Eye (1993). The first book got its title from a notice in an Eton master’s schoolroom: ‘Never judge a man by his umbrella, it might not be his.’

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