The Rowers of Vanity Fair/1899 - 1914 Fairbairnism and Foreigners

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1899 - 1914: Fairbairnism and Foreigners[edit | edit source]

In 1899 Cambridge won the Boat Race for the first time since Muttlebury’s crew in 1890. Cambridge won seven of the next nine, the last three with Duggie Stuart and his so-called “sculling style.” In 1901 Oxford coach D.H. McLean died in the South African war. In 1904 Steve Fairbairn returned from Australia to his alma mater, Jesus College, Cambridge, where he produced successful, distinctly unorthodox crews for the next thirty years (save of course for the 1914-19 hiatus). Result: Oxford’s orthodox went into a spell of doubt and self-criticism , which ended only with the Leander Olympic victory in 1908, Edmond Warre’s lectures “On the Grammar of Rowing” in 1907 and 1909, and Bob Bourne’s four-year run in the Boat Race starting in 1909, all played out in the pages of Vanity Fair.

At the same time, the numbers and quality of foreign entries at Henley Regatta were increasing, setting off stress fractures throughout the community of gentlemen amateurs who were already straining under the largely domestic problem of defining what it meant to be an “amateur.” Vanity Fair had plenty to say about these subjects as well.

Figaro Illustre, 1890

While “Fairbairnism” and “foreigners” challenged the old order, “females” by and large did not. The suffragist movement that McKenna confronted before the 1914-18 war and which included Dilke’s Women’s Property Act of 1870 and the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1878 among its roots, had no serious counterpart in rowing, though women did take up the sport in numbers as part of the late Victorian fashion for boating. Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall, new Oxford colleges for women, both established boat clubs in 1884 and some twenty years later a university boat club for women was formed, but the O.U.W.B.C. rules of 1906 made clear the subordinate status of women’s rowing at the time:

Rule 1: Young ladies shall take their outings at such times that they do not encounter gentlemen’s crews.
Rule 2: They shall have a draw string in their skirt hems so that no ankle is exposed.
Rule 3: If coaching by a gentleman is desired leave must be obtained from their moral tutors and a gentleman cox must act as a chaperone.[1]

In similar vein, the Amateur Rowing Association decided in 1907 that it “did not legislate for ladies and therefore could not affiliate clubs containing ladies,” thus effectively blackballing them from ARA clubs in the same manner as manual laborers and “professionals.”[2]

Since the rowing coverage in Vanity Fair was almost exclusively dedicated to the Boat Race and Henley Regatta, the magazine paid no note to these developments, its sole reference to women in rowing being the appearance of a guest woman coxswain for the 1885 Oxford crew:

The Oxford University Boat Club, with its old gallantry, is about to acknowledge the very useful steering of the eight by a lady, at Bourne End, during the absence of the coxswain, Mr. Humphreys. The fair lady is the most graceful gondolier either in England or on the Continent, and has already distinguished herself at the oar under the able tuition and in the company of her husband.[3]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. ^ Wigglesworth, The Social History of English Rowing, p. 107.
  2. ^ N. Wigglesworth, p. 111.
  3. ^ Vanity Fair, March 21, 1885, p. 168.