The Rowers of Vanity Fair/1872-1889 Sliding Seats
1872 - 1889: Sliding Seats
The invention of sliding seats is generally credited to John C. Babcock of the Nassau Boat Club in New York, who used them on a single in 1857 and on a six-oar in 1870. Neil Wigglesworth traces their emergence in the U.K. to Tynesiders, whose professional scullers used them as least as early as 1865. The John O’Gaunt four from Lancaster used them in the Stewards’ in 1870, Bell’s Life commenting that the crew moved like “a piston and a pair of scissors.” In Babcock’s version, a ten-inch-square wooden seat covered in leather rested atop grooved brass tracks greased with lard to permit about twelve inches of slide, though only about six were used. Even this modest amount converted into an extra foot of drive in the water that improved the efficiency of the stroke. Edward Hanlan of Toronto, who held the world professional sculling title in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, introduced the eighteen-inch slide, which converted into about sixteen inches for sweep rowing and became the standard. In addition, new designs and materials were introduced to reduce friction and improve wear; clean shorts replaced oil-stained trousers. In the evolution, some slide types proved defective, as W. Sweetman learned in the 1888 Diamonds. “Shortly after the start, about half-way up the island,” Guy Nickalls recalled, “I heard a bang, and a shower of shrapnel fell around me; the balls from his bearings. I offered to start again and he paddled back to the raft and got another slide fixed.”
It took longer for sliding seats than for outriggers or carvel boats to gain acceptance. To be sure, London R.C. made believers of the gentlemen amateurs by winning the 1872 Stewards’ and Grand with sliding seats, much as Royal Chester had done for carvel boats with its Henley victories in 1855-56. Oxford and Cambridge promptly adopted them for the 1873 Boat Race, knocking half a minute off the record. Yet the transition to long modern slides and the adjustment of style took time, especially at Eton and Oxford where Dr. Warre’s fixed-seat orthodoxy had deepest roots -- perhaps, in the words of a contemporary dark blue, because the Oxford mind was comparatively “of a more doubting and conservative, and less mathematical and radical type.” The longer the slide, the greater the “piston and pair of scissors” effect and the greater the anxiety that it would destroy the rhythm and smoothness that the fixed-seat orthodox felt necessary for efficient boat propulsion. Cambridge, under the thoroughly un-Warreian influence of Australian undergraduate Steve Fairbairn, adapted to longer slides in the mid-1880s, which helped them and their three-time President, S.D. Muttlebury, win four Boat Races in a row. Oxford caught up a few years later when three of its blues -- D.H. McLean, Guy Nickalls, and W.F.C. Holland -- rowed behind Muttlebury in the 1888 Leander eight and brought their experience back to the Isis. The styles debate went into remission during Oxford’s golden years in the 1890s, but flared up again after the turn of the century when the Belgians and other foreign crews started winning at Henley, and continued after the 1914-18 war on into the 1930s.
In the late Victorian years the technical arguments took on a social and religious cast, with fixed-seat gentlemen amateurs preaching a hard “catch” at the water using shoulders and body swing, against the professional style that stressed a fast entry in the water and strong leg extension. “Professional” here meant oarsmen who raced for money, since by this time the tradesman class of watermen were almost non-existent, casualty to steamers, railways, and better roads and bridges. London had some 3,000 watermen in the 1820s but only half that twenty years later; by 1901, R.H. Forster concluded in Down by the River that “the oar plays a humble part in the heart of London, a battered skiff or sturdy police boat is all that remains.”
- ^ C. Dodd, Henley Royal Regatta, pp. 63-64; C. Dodd, The Story of World Rowing, pp. 75-77; T. Cook, Rowing at Henley, pp. 63-64, 95.
- ^ N. Wigglesworth, The Social History of English Rowing, p. 86.
- ^ R.S. de Havilland, in Fifty Years of Sport: Eton, Harrow and Winchester, p. 28.
- ^ G. Nickalls, Life’s a Pudding, p. 70.
- ^ G.C. Drinkwater, “Rowing,” in Fifty Years of Sport: Oxford and Cambridge, p. 206.
- ^ G.C. Drinkwater & T.R.B. Sanders, The University Boat Race: Official Centenary History, p. 167.
- ^ N. Wigglesworth, p. 88.
- ^ R.H. Forster, quoted in N. Wigglesworth, p. 136.