Fairbairn, Stephen

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Fairbairn, Stephen

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  • Fairbairn, Steve

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25 August 1862-16 May 1938


Fairbairn, Stephen (1862–1938), oarsman, was born at Toorak, Melbourne, Australia, on 25 August 1862, the fifth of the six sons of George Fairbairn and his wife, Virginia Charlotte, youngest daughter of George Armytage of Geelong, Victoria, a native of Derbyshire. George Fairbairn, having emigrated from Berwickshire in 1839, owned a large sheep station and in the 1870s started the first canning and meat-freezing works in Australia. The Scottish theologian Patrick Fairbairn was Stephen's uncle, and one of his elder brothers was Sir George Fairbairn, agent-general for Victoria from 1924 to 1927.

Fairbairn was a spirited and somewhat unruly child, and he passed through several schools before settling at Geelong grammar school, under the guiding influence of the headmaster, J. B. Wilson. A tall and handsome youth, he earned distinction in all forms of sport, but also performed well academically, and he followed his brothers to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he read law, graduating in 1884. He was called to the bar by the Inner Temple in 1886 but did not practise. In 1884 he returned to Australia, where, but for two intervals in England, in 1886–7 and 1897–8, he worked at the family's farming interests in Victoria and western Queensland. On 18 November 1891 he married Ellen, daughter of Sydney Sharwood of Aramac, Queensland; they had two sons. Fairbairn came back to England in 1904 and thereafter devoted himself almost exclusively to coaching various rowing clubs, both in London, where he worked as a director of Dalgety & Co., Australia, merchants, and in Cambridge.

Fairbairn rowed in the losing Cambridge crews of 1882 and 1883 and in the victorious crews of 1886 and 1887, and won many other races besides, including the Grand Challenge Cup, the Stewards', and the Wyfold at Henley. However, his claim to fame rests on his methods of coaching and the success of the crews that he coached. In an era of competing rowing styles, with their emphasis on differing body positions during the stroke, some tried to attribute to Fairbairn a new style, ‘Fairbairnism’. That, however, came from a complete misunderstanding of the man. Fairbairn created no new style and had no desire to invent one. He wrote: 'There are certain principles underlying rowing, and what is called style is the endeavour to carry them out. Variations are merely failures to carry out the principles. There can be only one true style.' He emphasized above all a powerful leg drive and a relaxed recovery to maximize the boat speed, and he cared little for the aesthetic effect that this produced. He turned the pupil's mind to the oar in the water and to moving the boat, regardless of the angle of the head or the straightness of the back, whereas the orthodox coach would concentrate on positioning the body in order to produce certain results on the oar and the passage of the boat. Fairbairn summed up the debate over style as '“pretty pretty” versus honest hard work' and wrote: 'Never sacrifice work to appearance; but of course style is effect, and honest hard work will give true style eventually' (The Times, 1 June 1931; Fairbairn on Rowing, 542).

Fairbairn coached always for looseness and ease. A favourite remark was: 'If you can't do it easily, you can't do it at all'. He would never try to correct by condemnation and gave wide licence to individuals to develop their stroke naturally. He was ahead of his time in recognizing the importance of the subconscious mind in the development of technique, and his famous phrase 'Mileage makes champions' resonates still. He set before the performer an ideal after which to strive: if in his striving he did some odd things, never mind; the key was to be positive in coaching and encourage rather than criticize. It was inevitable that some of his crews, which had moved only a little way along the road to perfection, showed ungainly attitudes and exaggerations of ideals which earned bitter condemnation from more orthodox coaches, but what Fairbairn's crews lost in aesthetics they often gained in speed.

Fairbairn was an enthusiast, and was able to impart his enthusiasm to his pupils. He was ever progressive, ever ready to try out some new idea in coaching or some new device such as long slides or swivel rowlocks. He did much to make rowing popular, particularly in the clubs at Putney, and in 1925 he instituted the ‘head of the river’ race on the Putney to Mortlake course: a bronze bust of Fairbairn, by George Drinkwater, is held each year by the winning crew as the trophy. He coached many successful crews of both the London Rowing Club and the Thames Rowing Club, but his old college, Jesus, always took first place in his affections, and for more than thirty-three years he devoted himself to coaching its crews. It was a small college with a small boat club, but Fairbairn brought it many successes. His crews always raced hard and often won against crews which seemed to be better or more experienced.

Fairbairn was known throughout the rowing world as Steve, and even those who disagreed with his unorthodox ways admitted his genuine love of rowing, his boundless enthusiasm, his kindliness, and his genius for coaching. He cut a tall, portly figure on the river bank, 'in an old blue blazer, with back as straight as when he rowed in '82, chest thrown out, head slightly on one side, and eyes fixed immovably on the crews racing past' (The Times, 17 May 1938). His writings include Rowing Notes (1926) and an autobiography, Fairbairn of Jesus (1931). His collected writings on rowing were published in a single volume in 1990, Steve Fairbairn on Rowing, edited by his son Ian. Fairbairn died at his residence, the Mostyn Hotel, Portman Square, London, on 16 May 1938, in which year Jesus College retained the headship of the Cam; his ashes rest beneath the shadow of the college chapel. He is remembered in Cambridge by the Fairbairn cup races, which he inaugurated in the late 1920s as a handicap race between Jesus crews to serve as a form guide towards the end of Michaelmas term. The event later expanded to include other colleges and, in 1976, a women's event as well. And on the Thames in London there is the Steve Fairbairn memorial stone: marking 1 mile from the start of the boat race course at Putney, and 1 mile from the finish of the head of the river race, it aptly commemorates Fairbairn's immense contribution both to varsity and to tideway rowing.


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1919-1920 Captain of Royal Wimbledon Golf Club

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Fairbairn, Stephen Ian (14 April 1896-5 December 1968)

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Fairbairn, Stephen Ian is the child of Fairbairn, Stephen

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Playford, H. (2004, September 23). Fairbairn, Stephen (1862–1938), oarsman. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. Retrieved 26 Oct. 2018, from http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-33068

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