4 February 2021
By Göran R Buckhorn
Recently Tim Koch published a two-part article about the fairly unknown sculler St George Ashe – an interesting story with a sad ending (Part I and Part II). Ashe raced for 10 years, between 1896 and 1906, and while he was not one of the top scullers at that time – the highlight of his career came in 1904 when he won the Wingfield Sculls – he made rowing history to be the first, as Tim writes, ‘Briton/Englishman/Irishman’ (George Ashe’s family background shows strong Irish roots) to row at the Olympic Games, in Paris in 1900, placing third.
Another sculler in this era and Ashe’s rival was Guy Rixon, whom Tim introduces the following way in the second part of his St George Ashe article: ‘Unfortunately for Ashe, he encountered a new nemesis, the rising star, Guy Rixon of Kingston RC, coached by the great professional, WG East. In 1903, Rixon beat Ashe easily whenever they met: Goring, Marlow, Kingston, Molesey and Staines.’
What those few (if any?) rowing historians and enthusiasts today might remember about Rixon is that he was a sculler from Kingston Rowing Club. However, looking in the Henley records for the years around the turn of the 20th century, Guy Rixon seems to have started his rowing career at the same club as St George Ashe, Thames Rowing Club.
At the 1897 Henley Royal Regatta, Rixon rowed at ‘7’ in Thames RC’s eight which raced in the Grand Challenge Cup. In their first heat, the oarsmen from Thames met a strong Leander crew who won by one and three-quarter lengths. The Leander crew reached the final where they were beaten by New College, Oxford.
In the following year’s Grand, Thames RC were back, now with Rixon at ‘2’, but they were kicked out in the first race when New College won by a third of a length. Looking at the list of the oarsmen from the Oxford college, only one of them, C. K. Philips, had been in the previous year’s winning eight in the Grand.
The oarsmen from Thames are not known to give up so easily, so in 1899 they again were on the starting line in a Grand heat; now with Guy Rixon at ‘6’. Their opponents were a crew from London RC, who proved to be too strong for the Thames oarsmen. Rixon also rowed ‘2’ in the Stewards’ Challenge Cup, but the Thames RC’s four did not find any luck in that race either. They were easily overpowered by Balliol College, Oxford.
But, as it is said, ‘perseverance is the key to success’, so in the 1900 Henley Royal, Thames returned with a crew to again have a go at the Grand Cup; Rixon now at ‘3’. Their opponents, Trinity College, Cambridge, did not have a problem defeating them easily. Then Rixon (at bow) and three of his club mates from the Grand eight, F. W. Chambers (2), W. A. Bieber (3) and A. F. Johnstone (stroke) were beaten in their first heat in the Stewards’ by a strong crew from Leander. The cerise crew, with R. O. Pitman (bow), F. W. Warre (2), C. D. Burnell (3) and J. E. Payne (stroke), eventually took the cup by winning over a crew from Trinity College, Cambridge.
Though Thames RC still sent crews to Henley in the new century, Geoffrey Page mentions in his book Hear the Boat Sing: The History of Thames Rowing Club and Tideway Rowing (1991): ‘In 1900, Tideway rowing was at a low ebb and both Thames and London were experiencing particularly bad runs.’
Maybe Guy Rixon took a break from rowing during 1901 and 1902, I am not sure what happened, but he did not compete at Henley these years. However, in 1903, he was back on the Henley course but in Kingston RC’s colours, racing in the Diamond Challenge Sculls. Would Rixon, now in his mid-20s, be more successful with two oars than one? In his first heat, he won over London’s C. H. R. Thorn ‘by many lengths’, as Theodore Cook writes in Henley Races (1919). In the next race for Rixon, he met Julius Beresford, Kensington RC. The records say it was a hard race, with Rixon being in the lead by a length at Fawley Court Boathouse. Then Beresford started to gain on Rixon and drew level at the Mile Mark and then just took off, leaving the Kingston sculler to paddle the rest of the course. In the final Beresford lost to the great sculler Frederick Kelly of Leander.
The 1904 Diamonds became a thriller on many levels. In the first heat, Rixon beat St George Ashe by the humiliating distance of 10 lengths. In Rixon’s second heat, he almost lost the race to Viscount Mahon of the Guards Boat Club, but he managed to push himself over the finish line three-quarters length ahead. In his next heat, Rixon lost to Arthur Cloutte, London RC. The favourite for the cup was last year’s winner, Kelly, who easily had beaten only one opponent, C. G. Kay Monat of University College, Oxford, to get to the semi-final, where Kelly, who that year rowed for Balliol College, was meeting L. F. Scholes, Toronto RC. The Canadian had to beat two scullers to reach the semi-final. In the semi-final it looked like Kelly was going to win, but at the Mile Post Scholes passed Kelly, who was two lengths behind at the Grand Stand, where he stopped. The verdict for the race was ‘not rowed out’, according to Theodore Cook. In the final, the Canadian easily defeated Arthur Cloutte, setting a new course record.
In the 1905 Diamonds, Guy Rixon advanced through the heats by winning over St George Ashe and then G. G. Russell, King’s College, Cambridge. However, Rixon did not stand a chance against his next opponent, Harry Blackstaffe, Vesta RC’s magnificent sculler. Blackstaffe advanced to the final, where he gave Frederick Kelly, now racing in the colours of Leander, a good fight, but in the end the Vesta sculler had to give up. Kelly won in the new record time of 8 minutes 10 seconds. It was first in 1938, the American sculler Joe Burk would beat Kelly’s record by knocking 8 seconds off Kelly’s time.
Next year’s Diamonds came to be Rixon’s last try to win the Pineapple Cup. Unfortunately, the Kingston man lost to H. Bourke of Tamar RC, Tasmania. The final winner of the Diamonds this year was Blackstaffe, who won after his tenth try, by easily winning over Captain W. H. Darell, Household Brigade RC.
While Guy Rixon raced for the most prestigious prizes of the time, the Diamond Sculls and the Wingfield Sculls, both would elude him. In the history of rowing, Rixon will not be counted among the top scullers like his contemporary oarsmen Hunting Howell, Frederick Kelly and Harry Blackstaffe, but he did something that rendered him a place amongst a small group of rowers – those who wrote a book about the sport. In 1904, Rixon came out with Rowing and Sculling in The All-England Series of sports published by George Bell and Sons in London.
In the series was already another book on rowing, also confusingly titled Rowing and Sculling by Walter Bradford Woodgate, whose book came out in 1889. Maybe the publisher thought a new book on rowing and sculling would sell better if it was written by a ‘rising star’ in the sport and asked Rixon to pen it?
Unfortunately, I do not have a copy of Woodgate’s book handy while writing this, so I cannot compare the two books. One difference, however, is that Rixon’s book also had a chapter on punting, which Woodgate’s book lacked. When it was time for a new printing of Rowing and Sculling in 1908, George Bell and Sons publisher reprinted Woodgate’s book, not Rixon’s.
As was common at this time, many of the how-to books came with advertisements. In Rixon’s book are ads for famous boat builders, J. H. Claspers; Brewer, Swaddle & Co; R. J. Turk; and George Sims & Sons. There are also two ads for the rowing accessories companies, Gamages of Holborn, that has ‘everything for rowing’ and John Piggott, Ltd.
Rixon’s book is for novice rowers, and to help the reader to understand the ins and outs of the sport, there are several illustrations, some showing the ‘bad’ way to do things in the boat. The rower in the Kingston RC’s striped shirt and socks in these illustrations, I presume is the author himself.
Another how-to-row book that came out the same year as Rixon’s was written by his old coach, the professional sculler Bill East. It seems publishers at this time lacked fantasy, so also East’s book was called Rowing and Sculling, and also had a chapter on punting!
Unfortunately, it has been difficult to find more information about Guy Rixon after he ended his rowing career in 1906. According to Wikisource, the author of the 1904 Rowing and Sculling, Guy Clarence Theodore Rixon was a British ‘Stockjobber [stockbroker], military officer and rower, 1876/77-1963. [Correct years should be: 21 September 1878-20 June 1963. Thanks to fine detective work by Teresa Stokes – see comment section!]
If you happen to have more information on Guy Rixon, please send it along to HTBS.