The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Swann SE
Swann, Sydney Ernest
“The Light Blue Stroke” (WH), April 3, 1912
Hope ran high when this new member of the Swann family was ushered into the world one fine day in the Isle of Man; nor was this hope destined to be unfulfilled.
By his infantile antics in the nursery he clearly showed his determination to make a name for himself in the athletic world.
However, before he was old enough to walk or indulge in childish prattle, Fate decreed that he should travel, and his parents took him to Japan. Here he stayed for seven years. What happened during that time is not definitely known, but rumour has it that he started his career running races against little Japanese boys. However that may be, he returned to England bursting with pride and good spirits, and practised jiu-jitsu tricks on his youthful companions.
After this he started seriously to “follow in his father’s footsteps,” and few will deny that so far he has succeeded. He has rowed for Cambridge twice, each year at different ends of the boat, but, like his father, he has suffered defeat by the Bourne family.
In his first year at Cambridge he stroked a Trinity Hall four to victory at Henley in the Visitors’ and Wyfold’s. In 1910 he won the Colquhoun Sculls.
It is not known for certain if he will try to break the family record across the Channel, but few would doubt his ability to do so, if pluck and stamina were the only things needed.
He is optimistic, sunny-tempered, and possesses that valuable trait of never knowing when he is beaten.
As captain of the “Hall” Boat Club he is a great success, and absolutely indefatigable in his attempts to teach the principles of Cambridge rowing to youthful aspirants.
Strange to say, his brain is as active as his body, and many in his college believe that in his last history examination this summer he will astound the examiners. He deserved every success, for he is persevering and holds distinctly original views.
Let no one think that he excels in one branch of sport only. While at Rugby he proved himself an astute runner, and ended captain of the Running VIII. What would the “Hall” tennis team do without “Cygnet,” their leader? O, those reverse American (services)!
During his twenty-one years he has tried most forms of sport. His quickness at learning is remarkable.
Before he went to Cambridge he had never touched an oar, and the fact that he got into the ‘Varsity boat in his second year showed that his rowing career has been meteoric. Seldom has any oar come forward so quickly.
If necessary, he can swim.
Among the Cambridge crew who lost to G.C. Bourne’s Oxford in 1883 was “Cygnet” Swann’s father, Sydney Swann (1862-1942). Swann Sr. won the next year (Bourne having left), lost in 1885, and won the Grand with Trinity Hall in 1886-87 and the Stewards’ in 1885 and 1887, with Reginald McKenna in two of those crews. A versatile athlete, Sydney Swann cycled the perimeter of Syria, rowed the Channel in 1911 in record time (3 hr. 50 min.) and in 1917, at age 55, he cycled, walked, ran, paddled, rowed, and swam six consecutive half-miles in competition with a Lieutenant Muller of the Danish army, both crossing the line in 26 min. 20 sec. Professionally, Sydney Swann started his career as curate to Plymouth and Sulby, Isle of Man, was a missionary in Japan from 1890-97, and vicar at various livings in England until 1937. For a period until his death in 1942, he was President of the National Amateur Rowing Association, from which post he peppered the Times with such letters as this from 1937:
Sir, -- In answer to my letter pleading for the non-exclusion of artisans in best rowing, I have received letters saying: “Now; what do you want?”
My reply is simple. Rule 4 of the Amateur Rowing Association (i.e., Henley, &c.) runs as follows:--
- No person shall be considered an amateur who has ever been employed in or about boats or in manual labour for money or wages.
Now we want the words “or in manual labour” deleted. We also want Rule 5 dropped altogether. Rule 5 runs:--
- No person shall be considered an amateur who is or has been by trade or employment for wages a mechanic, artisan, or labourer, or engaged in any menial duty.
These small changes would satisfy us and bring peace.
- Yours faithfully,
- Sidney Swann, President, N.A.R.A.
Sydney Swann sent his two sons to Rugby and Trinity Hall, where they followed him to the river and the clergy. Alfred (1893-1961) was C.U.B.C. President and won the Colquhoun Sculls in 1920, became Dean of Hong Kong, and retired as Canon Emeritus of Salisbury Cathedral. His older brother, Sydney Ernest Swann (1890-1976), won the Colquhoun Sculls in 1910 (as a freshman, having sculled only twenty-nine times before the event!), the Lowe Double Sculls in 1911, and the University Pairs in 1913. Like his father, “Cygnet” Swann lost to a Bourne in the Boat Race (1911-12), but won in 1914 as C.U.B.C. President. At Henley Swann won the Visitors’ and Wyfolds (1910), the Goblets (1913-14, with Alfred), and the Grand (1913). He was the sole Cambridge man among the Leander crew of 1912, otherwise haling from Magdalen, Oxford, that lost to the Sydney Rowing Club in the Grand but beat them three weeks later at the Stockholm Olympics and went on to beat R.C. Bourne’s New College eight in the final. “[T]he shout of ‘Well rowed Magdalen’ from the bank brought appropriately indignant protests from Cygnet.” In his last race at Henley, rowed days after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Swann’s Leander eight lost to the Harvard junior varsity in a heat for the 1914 Grand; Harvard then defeated its alumni to become the first American victors in the event.
Trading his oars for vestments, Swann became a Chaplain to the forces for the 1914-18 war. Returning afterward to Trinity Hall as Chaplain, he helped put Cambridge rowing back on its feet in the early 1920s and rowed for Leander in the 1920 Olympic eight at Antwerp, losing to the U.S. Swann moved to Nairobi as Archdeacon in 1926-27, to Egypt in the same position in 1928, and returned to England in 1933, where he became Chaplain to the Queen and King George VI and ultimately retired as Canon Emeritus of Bristol Cathedral. He also resumed his connection to Cambridge and Trinity Hall rowing. “A stiff orthodoxy on one hand and a limited Fairbairnism on the other have at times tried to deflect the Hall from the sanity of Cygnet’s type of coaching,” wrote his nephew in the 1950 club history, “but always he has brought the Club back to a combination of the best elements in conflicting styles and the elimination of their faults.”^ On his father’s death in 1942 Swann took up the N.A.R.A. presidency and held it until 1956, when the A.R.A., under the chairmanship of Gully Nickalls, son of Guy and nephew of H.G. Gold, removed manual labor as a disqualification for amateur status and the two organizations merged. “Cygnet has more than one of his father’s characteristics: including the quality of combining acquired experience with a youthful outlook: his influence in the College never has been all in rowing, nor his influence in rowing all on style. People matter to him most.”
The 1912 Stockholm Olympics: English Decadence
Apart from occasional bright spots such as Leander’s victory, the Stockholm Olympics gave Britain a sharp bite from international competition. Vanity Fair (July 17, 1912):
England is having a poor time of it at Stockholm, where the Olympic games are being held, and there is wailing over our “decadence.” We are reminded that in the past we were supreme in most branches of athletics, and told, very bluntly indeed, that we must try and realise the fact that British athletics have gone to the dogs. The worst of it is that the actual results of the events themselves confirm the statement -- for beyond one or two notable successes our men have been swamped -- and they are, or are supposed to be, the best we have.
The trouble lies in the fact that although they are our best they are not nearly so good as they might be. There is no getting away from the truth: they are insufficiently and carelessly trained, whereas our Continental, colonial, and American friends have taken such pains that many events were theirs before Stockholm was even reached.
It comes as a shock to find our men reduced to the level of fourth or fifth raters, for most Englishmen still hold the opinion that even if what is British is not necessarily best, it is at least as good as any other. It is a bitter pill to find that while we have been sitting on the fence contentedly our friends the enemy have been straining every nerve until they are able to out-run, out-jump, and out-general us.
Many years ago, when British athletics really were preeminent, the happy state of affairs existed because we were almost alone in the practice of sports of the kind. Other nations had other ways, and naturally their men were as unbeatable at their own particular pastimes as we were at ours. Then came the vast conversion to English sports, and our present rivals not only took to them with avidity, but, profiting by our tutelage and experience, commenced where we were content to stand still, and set out to improve upon the best we could show them. How they have succeeded we now know.