The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Fletcher WAL
Fletcher, William Alfred Littledale
“Flea” (Spy), March 18, 1893
The eldest son of Mr. Alfred Fletcher, J.P., D.L., and Director of the London and North-Western Railway Company, he was born at Allerton, near Liverpool, four-and-twenty years ago. Having learned the rudiments of education at Cheam, he proceeded to Eton to amplify his knowledge, where he first became an inmate of Mr. (now Dr.) Warre’s House, and afterwards sojourned with Mr. Wintle. But the river had more attraction for him than the Muses; and, although he had not been much of a boy in his early youth, he soon helped to win the Trial Eights, and went to Henley as No. 3 in the Eton Eight full five years back. When he was not pulling an oar he played football, and was 12th man at Oppidan Wall. At twenty he went up to the “House” at Oxford, and rowed on so well that he helped to win the Ladies’ Plate and the Thames Cup at Henley in 1889. A year later he stroked the Oxford Eight at Putney vigorously enough to break a Cambridge run of four victories. He was promoted to No. 7 next year, when Oxford, with one of the biggest and longest crews ever seen in a racing eight, reached “the Ship” a bare half-length in front of Cambridge. Last year he went up one more, and at No. 6 again saw the Light Blue crew follow him home: and in the same place he means to repeat the performance next Wednesday, having in the meantime been made President of the Oxford University Boat Club. He has twice rowed in winning Leander crews at Henley; with Vivian Nickalls he has won the Silver Goblets; and both the Pairs and the Fours at Oxford have added to his reputation until he has come to be regarded as one of the finest galley-slaves that have yet been seen.
There are six feet and three inches of him, and he weighs within a few pounds of fourteen stone. His chest, back, and stomach are all muscle; yet his shoulders are inferior and his arms comparatively inferior. He has a ruddy face, which is even ruddier after a hard race when other men look pale. He is so ready for a “rag” that he is always ruffling somebody’s hair; and less frequently he gets his own ruffled. Yet is he not so ferocious a person as he pretends to be, for a child has been seen to play with him. He takes a very large size in boots, and he is so fond of dogs that he shares his Oxford lodgings, in Alfred Street, with several of them, as well as with bow and No. 5 of his Eight. He has just managed to struggle through the School of Political Economy, and he hopes by getting through two more easy Schools to achieve the degree which was, of course, his object when he went up to Oxford.
His College has presented him with a handsome salver as the benefactor of the Christ Church Boat Club. He was a member of the Oxford Water Polo team; he has been President of the Oxford Etonian Club; and he is on the Committee of Vincent’s. He is a capital shot, a staunch friend, and a really good fellow, full of British pluck.
His activity (perhaps) has earned for him the name of “Flea.”
The Boat Race career of William Alfred Littledale Fletcher (1869-1919) illustrates H.G. Gold’s comment that “[t]he choosing of a crew must always present a matter of very great difficulty to the coach, and, when chosen, the fitting of each man into his proper place, where he will be of the greatest value, is still harder.”#  Late in life Guy Nickalls called Fletcher an “absolute classic” for No. 6, but as O.U.B.C. President Nickalls boated him at stroke for the 1890 Boat Race. He was “hardly ideal” there, opined the Official Centenary History, “for although his beginning was marked like lightning, his finish was deceptive and it was not until late in practice that the crew began to come to him.” In Oxford’s one-length win “the doggedness, rather than the brilliance, of Fletcher was the outstanding feature.” The next year Lord Ampthill did no better, putting himself at No. 6 and Fletcher at No. 7. They won by half a length but “never developed the pace which they should have done,” muttered the Centenary History. Lord Ampthill “had at his command eight men who were, individually, perhaps the best that have ever been seen in residence together; yet, of the greatest of these, only one, [Stroke] C.W. Kent, rowed in his right place.” Finally, in 1892, President R.P.P. Rowe, the younger brother of Vanity Fair’s G.D. Rowe, put Fletcher at No. 6 and Oxford won in record time. The next year Fletcher kept himself there and became the first Oxford rower of Vanity Fair to win four Boat Races, again in a new course record (18.45). He ended his competitive career that season by winning the Grand with Leander and the Silver Goblets with Vivian Nickalls, a pair the Times later called “probably the fastest that ever rowed at Henley.”
Fletcher coached the Oxford crews of 1894, 1897, and 1902-06, and the Cambridge crews of 1898-1900. For his services on the Cam helping the light blue end Oxford’s string of Boat Race victories, the C.U.B.C. gave him a silver salver, a gold stop-watch, and two silver candelabra. He then lost his touch, to judge from the record: of his five pre-1901 crews, only one lost (Cambridge 1898); of his five post-1901 crews, only one won (Oxford 1905). To the authors of the 1929 Official Centenary History, the fault lay largely and unforgivably in his abandoning the Oxford orthodox style:
W.A.L. Fletcher was the next great coach [after R.S. de Havilland]. One of the greatest oarsmen himself, he learned the secret at Oxford and taught it to Cambridge in 1898 and 1899 -- a combination of swing and slide, together with a lightning entry -- and this was the foundation on which was built the magnificent Cambridge crew of 1900. At that period Fletcher reached the zenith of his fame as a coach; afterwards he coached many Oxford crews, but having poor material he turned his mind to the rig of his men blaming himself for their want of success. He forgot the physical side of oarsmanship, of which he had been so incomparable an authority, and remembered only the mechanical side. Under his coaching, Christ Church went head of the river at Oxford and won the Grand Challenge Cup in 1908, though it is but fair to state that there was little opposition in the Grand on that occasion, in consequence of the Olympic Regatta which took place immediately after Henley; but the style taught by Fletcher, which was so successful in these Christ Church crews, did not blend with the attempts at orthodoxy in which other colleges persevered, and the effect on Oxford rowing was deplorable.
Apart from rowing and coaching, Fletcher was a big game hunter, explorer, and soldier. Hunting and exploring took him to Siberia, Kenya, and Tibet. Soldiering took him to South Africa and France. He missed coaching for the 1901 Boat Race to face off against the Boers, described earlier under “Oarsmen at War” and earning a D.S.O. “He spoke little, but meant all he said, and if he had once told a man to do something he could not imagine the possibility of its not being done -- either in rowing or anything else.” In the 1914-18 war, Fletcher served as Captain of the 2/6th Rifle Battalion of the Liverpool Regiment. His troops suffered the second mustard gas attack of the war, at Armentières in July 1917, which wiped out two companies and incapacitated 440 men, including Fletcher himself. He was released from hospital two months later and resumed command, but was never the same and chose to give it up in July 1918. “Few beyond his intimate friends know what it cost him to ask to be relieved, not from any sense of personal pride,” wrote a fellow captain, “but from his intense love for his battalion.”
In January 1919, two months after the armistice, the governors of British amateur rowing -- such as remained of it -- met in London to discuss how to revive the sport. Attendees included Fletcher, acting chairman of the Henley Regatta; C.M. Pitman, acting secretary of the Amateur Rowing Association; G.D. Rowe, chairman of Leander; S.E. Swann, who due to the hiatus caused by the war was still President of the C.U.B.C.; and H.G. Gold. Fletcher’s motion to hold a scaled-down Henley Regatta the next summer carried unanimously. That event did come off, but Fletcher never saw it to fruition for he died on February 14, 1919 of broncho-pneumonia in the great influenza epidemic then sweeping the nation, which caught hold in his gas-weakened lungs. A bronze by G.D. Drinkwater stands in his memory in the O.U.B.C. boathouse, dedicated “by rowing men of both universities.”
University Sports, Part II: “The Serious Side”
By “Cambrioleur,” in Vanity Fair (March 27, 1912), covering the same ground as Woodgate had in 1873:
Rags, bedders, dons, missions, tutors, lectures -- these are among the diversions of Cambridge life. Our real business is the playing of games of every sort. Nobody goes into training for a Tripos or a C.I.C.C.U. meeting, but for a Junior College Trial on the river a man will cheerfully forego his new accomplishment of smoking, rise at seven every day, and eat red beef-steaks without a murmur. As we get up about nine o’clock and go to bed about eleven, it is clear that the hours from two to seven or eight which we spend on our games are the most important part of the day. Real sportsmen, of course, begin their games before noon. I remember how surprised a new lecturer was when he was compelled to change the hour of his lectures from twelve to eleven, because, as one of his pupils quite seriously explained to him, “You know, sir, you clash with the beagles.” He had been trained in Germany, you see, and that was why he was surprised. His dictionary informed him that a beagle was a species of dog, a Spürhund, and in Germany no professor ever clashed with a Spürhund. It caused considerable comment a few years ago when Easter clashed with the Boat Race and the authorities refused to postpone Easter. As I have already explained, every afternoon is a half-holiday at Cambridge. The afternoon begins at two o’clock and ends at two o’clock on the following day. The justification for this system -- if it needs any justification -- is that athletics at Cambridge occupy the years which are elsewhere devoted to the acquisition of bad habits, and that during his three or four years at Cambridge the undergraduate learns to throw his whole energies into something which has no monetary value -- that is, no immediate money value. As a matter of fact, a Blue is worth about £120 per annum for life in the educational profession. There is always a demand for Blues to instil the same earnest ideals into the rising generation of boys. In my college everybody plays some game every afternoon -- everybody but that ass Hetherington Johnstone -- and he plays lacrosse.
Thus it will be seen that I have now reached the most important chapter of my theme. I have had to sit back and take a deep breath before grappling with it. It is frightfully momentous, this task of writing about Cambridge sport.
Had I the pen of “Camisis” and his almost unique knowledge of the Christian names of Cambridge athletes (the ones they don’t use and try to conceal from their best friends), had I the style of Mr. Sewell or Mr. F.B. Wilson, I might essay the task, even if I had -- as I have -- nothing whatever to say. How is one to say anything new about the Boat Race, for example? I observe that Mr. Guy Nickalls is rather keen on Cambridge this year, so I suppose we shall lose, as usual. I feel convinced that the rival strokes will get their men smartly off the mark punctually to the tick of time by Putney Church clock and arrive at Mortlake about twenty minutes later. Four or Five in one of the boats will show visible signs of distress, and Swann will spurt gamely more than once. It will be a ding-dong struggle past the Doves, and daylight will be showing between the rival eights at Chiswick Eyot. Of that much I feel confident. But who will reach Mortlake first and by how much, and who will be defeated, but not disgraced, and what the dickens it matters if they do -- these things are hidden from my eyes. I know that when Saturday comes I shall rush for a halfpenny paper like the rest of the world and feel seriously depressed for half-an-hour if we are beaten. Thousands of staid parsons and their doctors and solicitors will do just the same; and nobody will know why.
When the sun has been harnessed to drive our mills, and when we have captured the energy of the tides, some philosopher will arise and seek to turn this immense output of power from the brains and muscles of two or three thousand young men, the pick of the country, into some useful and productive channel. I believe they could drive a torpedo boat if they were properly geared. Centuries ago there was a misguided youth at St. Abbs Hall, the son of an American commission agent, who determined to turn an honest penny out of the boat-racing. Under the guidance of friends, who, I fear, judged his leg to be suitable for elongation, he opened a book on the Mays. As soon as the college was aware of this the entire eight, with their cox, came to him secretly by night, one at a time, and asked him what odds he would give against them staying head of the river. He started with cox at evens, but before he had got to bow he was giving three to one. They all invested half-a-crown against their boat. The thing seemed a dead cert. for him after that. When the rest of the college rolled up to back their boat he cheerfully gave them five to one. He booked nearly a hundred bets in sovereigns on those terms. Of course, the boat stayed head -- in fact, it did the course in record time, and the precocious layer found that he had to balance nine half-crowns against five hundred sovereigns.
This prodigious industry of athletics is mainly a growth of the last twenty years, though the Boat Race and the cricket match have been in existence for over seventy. Thirty years ago the average man was content to exercise himself on the Trumpington Grind, a solemn pedestrian excursion of five or six miles with conversational accompaniments. Now there are about twenty-five different games of sufficient rank to provoke inter-University contest. Of Blues and Half-Blues there must be nearly 200, all heroes. We speak of them with bated breath. Yesterday morning I heard two freshmen under my window.
“Did you notice that chap in the corner?”
“Yes; he seemed a harmless sort of person.”
“Harmless! That was Spinks, the hockey Blue.”
“Good Lord! And I talked to him as if he’d been just anybody!”
- ^ H.G. Gold, The Common Sense of Coaching, p. 12.
- ^ G. Nickalls, Life’s a Pudding, p. 211.
- ^ G.C. Drinkwater & T.R.B. Sanders, The University Boat Race: Official Centenary History, pp. 93-94.
- ^ Ibid., p. 94.
- ^ Ibid., p. 96.
- ^ The Times, Feb. 15, 1919, p. 11d.
- ^ H. Cleaver, A History of Rowing, p. 103.
- ^ G.C. Drinkwater & T.R.B. Sanders, p. 167.
- ^ T.A. Cook, The Sunlit Hours, p. 73.
- ^ Capt. C.E. Wurtzburg, The History of the 2/6th (Rifle) Battalion “The King’s” (Liverpool Regiment), p. 199.