Keeping Terms: PHT’s Cambridge Years: Part I, 1901-02

Peter Haig Thomas (PHT) coaching from a tub perhaps sometime in the 1930s. Typically, his extravagant fur coat was made from the pelts of wolves that he had shot himself. Inset is the cover of the photograph album that he had made recording his time rowing at Cambridge thirty years previously.

13 March 2023

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch opens a photographic portal.

Three years ago, I wrote a four-part biography of a unique character who spent 60 years as an active and influential figure in rowing but whose long-term fame had been overshadowed by the apparent greater coaching success of his great rival and near-contemporary, Steve Fairbairn. It began:

Anyone looking at British amateur rowing in the period between the death of Queen Victoria and the birth of the Space Age will, at regular intervals, come across the name of Peter Haig Thomas, (1882 – 1959). I have long had a vague awareness about the man: he had a short, successful rowing career and a long, successful coaching career; he was a fanatical advocate of the “Orthodox” style of rowing; he lived the life of a Victorian gentleman adventurer long into the 20th century; he had a colourful private life.

Peter Haig Thomas started his rowing career at Eton in 1896 and went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1901. The large and wealthy Cambridge college traditionally attracted a large number of Etonians and in PHT’s time it had two boat clubs, Third Trinity for those members of the college who had been to Eton or Westminster, and First Trinity for the rest (second Trinity, “The Hallelujahs”, had been for theology students and clergymen but had folded by 1876). Haig Thomas joined Third Trinity and was thus rowing with many young men that he had been in the boat club at Eton with, all physically fit and uniformly drilled in the Eton/Orthodox style.

As well as the professional photographs in a specially bound album, PHT also had a few amateur snapshots such as these. Left: WH “Teddy” Chapman (holding bicycle) with the Jesus College boathouse in the background. Chapman was killed at Gallipoli in 1915. Right: Cambridge on the Leander balcony at Putney, probably in 1903.

PHT did not allow studying to get in the way of time on the River Cam and he won every rowing event that the University had to offer, becoming President of the Cambridge University Boat Club in 1904. Not unusual for the time, he failed to get a degree, not even a “Third”, often called an “Oarsman’s” or “Gentleman’s” degree. Later, his son, David, also a successful oarsman, wrote:

I, like my father and my grandfather before me, would go down without a degree. Grandfather never looked like passing an exam. Father passed one and I had passed two, and I thought it would spoil the family tradition if I did any more, as well as impertinent on my elders and betters! 

The Boat Race historian and Old Blue, George Drinkwater, said this of Third Trinity Boat Club during PHT’s time and after:

From 1901 to 1906 “Third” were Head of the River and won almost every important race on the Cam, some of the records they established remaining unbroken to the present day [1929]. At Henley, they won the Grand in 1902, lost to a strong Leander crew by six feet in 1903, and provided five men for the winning Leander crew of 1904. Against severe competition they won the Stewards’ consecutively from 1901 to 1904 and Goblets in 1902 and from 1904 to 1907. These Third Trinity crews formed the backbone of the (Cambridge) University crews of that time… 

In November 2019, I met up with PHT’s grandson, Tony Haig Thomas, who holds his grandfather’s archive, including a splendid photo album that PHT had made recording his rowing achievements at Cambridge between 1901 and 1905. Tony allowed me to copy the sixty high-quality professional 4 inch x 5 inch plate camera photographs in the album but I subsequently reproduced only a few of them in my PHT biography. I now think it long overdue that the remaining photographs in PHT’s album are made public. The high resolution pictures capture a world that had little more than ten years left before it would change forever following The Great War. 

Four of the young men pictured in Haig Thomas’ Boat Race crews 1901-1905 were killed in the 1914 – 1918 War: BR Winthrop-Smith (1905), WH Chapman (1899, 1902, 1903), JS Carter (1903) and EPW Wedd (1905).

There follows three posts that each cover an academic year in PHT’s university career. Today, it is 1901-1902, tomorrow 1902-1903 and finally 1903-1904 plus the 1905 Boat Race.

Cambridge University Fours, 9 November 1901

The winning four of Nelson, Edwards-Moss, Taylor and Thomas (the family became “Haig Thomas” in 1917).

The Lancashire Evening Post of 11 November 1901 reported:

The 51st annual contest for the Cambridge University Coxswainless Fours was decided on (9 November), Third Trinity beating Trinity Hall by 180 yards in 10min. 29sec. The winning four are the best crew that has been seen on the Cam for many years. 

Training for the 1902 Boat Race, January – March 1902 

At this time, the normal period of training for the Boat Race was a little over ten weeks. This period excluded the four or five 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 22 March in 1902).

PHT’s album pictures seem to be arranged in rough chronological order and, as this is the first picture referring to the 1902 Boat Race (and also one that shows the final crew) I assume that it was taken soon after the crew was settled in late January/early February, three weeks after training had started but before Blues had been awarded.

The next set of pictures in PHT’s album would have been taken in February and March.Ice had hampered training at Ely and so Old (Dark) Blue Sir John Edwards-Moss invited the crew to train at Henley using his home, Thamesfield, as a base. A week with Colonel Francis Ricardo at Cookham on the Upper Thames followed. Training finished as usual with Tideway Week at Putney.

The crew, now having been awarded their Blues, pictured at Henley-on-Thames.
The crew training at Cookham/Bourne End, three miles north of Maidenhead. 
Passing the Crabtree pub upstream of Putney.

Boat Race Day, 22 March 1902

The story of the 1902 Boat Race is easily told. Cambridge were 1/4 length up passing London RC, 3/4 length up passing Thames RC and 3 lengths ahead at the Mile Post.

The view from Hammersmith Bridge. Cambridge were 3 lengths up at this point.
The race at Barnes Bridge with Oxford 11 seconds behind.

Cambridge passed the finishing post with a five-length lead, in a time of 19 minutes 9 seconds.

Lowe Double Sculls, Cambridge, May 1902

PHT and John Edwards-Moss, winners of the Lowe Double Sculls. The event is still run today but has lost the prestige that it had in PHT’s day. 

The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News of 24 May 1902 wrote:

In the Lowe Double Sculls last week, the result was a surprise, for Edwards-Moss and Thomas, who had almost decided to scratch, defeated the hitherto unbeaten Taylor and Nelson by about ten yards after a capital race… This is the first time that Taylor has lost a race on the Cam, and the two Eton freshmen are to be heartily congratulated on their victory.

Head of the River, Cambridge, June 1902

Third Trinity 1st May Boat, Head of the River
The Globe of 9 June 1902 noted that, “Third Trinity easily maintained their position at the Head of the River.”

Grand Challenge Cup, Henley, July 1902 

Third Trinity’s Grand Crew of 1902.

Coach, journalist and historian, RC Lehmann wrote this about Third Trinity’s Grand Crew of 1902:

(Third Trinity) came to Henley in 1902 with a very brilliant crew containing seven Blues… Not many days before the race, Nelson (stroke) had an accident, which compelled him to withdraw from the crew. His place was supplied by JH Gibbon, who happened to be at Henley, and was not very much out of condition. He had stroked Cambridge to victory against Oxford in 1899 and 1900. Such a catastrophe as a change of strokes so soon before the race might well have upset any crew. Gibbon, however, did extremely well for them, and so excellent was the uniformity which they had already attained that their pace seemed in no way to suffer from the change. Against them Leander had brought a crew of Oxonians, all Blues. Third Trinity, however, in the final gave them very little chance, though Leander had the best of the station. They went ahead at once, and won with great ease.

A heat of Grand, Third Trinity beat the Argonaut Club of Toronto, Canada, by just over a length.
The final of the Grand, Third Trinity beat Leander by 1 1/2 lengths.

Stewards’ Challenge Cup, Henley, July 1902

Third Trinity Stewards’ Four, 1902.

The Times of 11 July 1902 wrote of the final against Leander:

Both rowed 39 strokes in the opening minute, but so superior were Third Trinity to Leander that the former were more than clear at the top of the island, and after passing the quarter mile post crossed over in front of their opponents…

The final of the Stewards’ Challenge Cup, Third Trinity beat Leander “easily.”
Trophies won by Third Trinity BC, 1901 – 02. These include the Grand, Stewards’, Silver Goblets, Head of the Mays, Cambridge University Fours, Lowe Sculls and Magdalene Fours. Trinity College also supplied 2/3 of the winning University Boat Race crew.

Tomorrow covers the academic year 1902 – 1903. 

All pictures courtesy of Tony Haig Thomas.

My four-part biography of Peter Haig Thomas, “The Unorthodox Orthodoxist” is on HTBS:

Part I Ladies and Lucre

Part II Boats not Books

Part III Ye Whose Style is Orthodox 

Part IV Accepting His Teaching 

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