The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Bourne RC

Bourne, Robert CroftEdit

“A Good Stroke” (Ape Junior), March 29, 1911Edit

The lightest-built man in the Oxford boat -- barring, of course, the cox -- is Mr. R.C. Bourne, the seasoned stroke upon whose lead and generalship the Dark Blues depend so much for their hopes of victory in Saturday’s great race over the historic course on the Thames tideway between Putney and Mortlake.

Robert Croft Bourne is an aquatic enthusiast who has the inestimable advantage of having led the victors in the last two inter-’Varsity Boat Race tussles. Born in 1888, he first began rowing seriously when but twelve years old, and got into the Eton eight in 1906, because of the brilliant promise he showed on the water after being sent to the famous school. Naturally he favors the classic Eton style, of which he is such a conspicuously good exponent, and which has served him time and again so admirably.

Ruddy-faced and handsome, with flashing dark eyes, Mr. Bourne looks the confident athlete all over. He is very sure of himself, and has the gift of inspiring confidence in those who row at his bidding. He is an absolute stranger to nerves, and, asked what he thought about when engaged in the big struggle of the year, Mr. Bourne nonchalantly replied that all he had to do was to look to his stroking, the other men having to respond to his lead. With quite wonderful command he marks from the beginning most inspiringly, and gets through his work with a most effective body swing, which looks as easy as graceful to those who do not know the difficulties of oarsmanship. Then he can swing out when the need comes without causing his men any unsteadiness or deterioration of rhythm. He is a perfect genius in the boat, and is always intent on winning.

He smokes with moderation, has no hobbies other than his favourite sport, and is always hailed by his chums as “Bob.” For he has grown quite fond of the diminutive that denotes in its way his very undeniable personal popularity. But the presumptuous stranger who “Bobbed” him would quickly regret it, for he knows how to support the dignity belonging to such a ‘Varsity celebrity as he has become.

Gilbert Charles Bourne rowed the Boat Race twice, in the winning Oxford crews of 1882-83. An apostle of Warre’s orthodoxy, he married practical knowledge of rowing to professional grounding in zoology, marine biology, and mathematics to become a renowned rowing coach, with his Text-Book of Oarsmanship (1925), a milestone in the literature. His only son, Robert Croft Bourne (1888-1938), also of Eton and New College, rowed and won four Boat Races, becoming the last rower of Vanity Fair to do so and the only man ever to do it all at stroke. He won the School Sculling at Eton in 1906, the University Sculls in 1910, the University Fours in 1911, went head of the river 1911-12, and was O.U.B.C. President for the 1911 and 1912 Boat Races. Bob Bourne never won the Ladies’ (in three attempts) or the Grand (in six), but won the Stewards’ thrice (1912-14) and stroked his college crew in the final of the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, losing to Cygnet Swann’s Leander VIII.

In the 1914-18 war, young barrister Bourne started as a Second Lieutenant in the First Herefordshire Regiment. In August 1915, he had one hand crippled and a lung seriously injured at Suvla Bay in the Dardanelles, the same battle that killed W.H. Chapman. Since he had only one good eye to begin with -- the other having gone in a game of rounders at school -- Bourne moved from active service to the Claims Commission. He was elected Justice of the Peace for Herefordshire in 1920, member of the city council in 1921, and in 1924 took the Oxford City seat in Parliament once held by J.W. Chitty. “In the House of Commons, where he rose to be deputy chairman of ways and means (1931), Bourne’s name was canvassed as a possible Speaker,” said his Times obituary, “for, although on the platform he filled his speeches with too much information for a popular audience, he earned the respect of all parties by his mastery of the rules of procedure, the clearness and quickness of his rulings, his skill as a draftsman, and, above all, by that same strict impartiality which had secured for him as president of the Oxford University Boat Club the complete confidence of his fellow oarsmen in the justice of his choices when making up his crews.” He died in office August 7, 1938, suddenly falling dead while walking on the moors near Strontian, Argyll.

The 1911 Boat RaceEdit

Airplanes followed the race for the first time. Vanity Fair (April 5, 1911):


The evening and the morning papers nowadays so forestall us of the weekly Press in matters of moment that one gets little chance in the great game of recordership in connection with hebdomadal journalism. Yet how can we let the long-to-be-remembered aquatic event of 1911 pass without some notice in the columns of Vanity Fair, which has ever concerned itself with the best of sport?

Oxford, the favourites, won, and set up a new record for the race which should stand long. The Dark blues covered the four and half miles Thames course in 18 minutes 29 seconds, winning by two boats lengths and three-quarters, and leading all the way from start to finish! This is 18 seconds in front of record.

Two of the King’s sons followed the race in a launch; the weather was all that could be desired; aviators (including our Mr. Claude Grahame-White) flitted over the contending crews; and Cambridge, though clean rowed out at the end, gave a display of oarsmanship that would, in any of the years that have gone, have secured them the victory. The battle of the Blues of 1911 will not readily be forgotten by those who witnessed it!


“Why did our men win?” “Because,” answered one who has himself stroked Oxford to victory, on being questioned by a Vanity Fair representative at the Grand Hotel dinner on Saturday night -- whereat, by the way, Justice Eldon Bankes, who rowed in the winning Dark Blue boat in 1875, presided -- “they were the better men and did their best on the day. They were up to concert pitch, and went level all the way. They have been admirably coached and kept together, and Mr. Bourne is simply a great coach, all bull-dog determination and no flourish. His triple win is something for him to be proud of in after life, whatever Fame may have in store for him.”


A prominent Cantab confided to our representative on the occasion referred to his conviction that the Light Blue lost because their this year’s men are inferior on the water to those of Oxford in everything but style. “The Dark Blues are faster and stronger, undeniably, than the Cambridge crew, and are quite ahead of us, save as to polish. Bourne set a pace we could not catch up, and, what is more, never halted in his terrific swing. It was a great thing to keep so near the winner in a race so terrific. The Cantabs have any amount of neatness and beautiful uniformity; but leg-drive, length, and sheer brute force -- I say it without hint of surely belittling the other side -- will always reduce science to nothingness when it comes to lasting over the long river stretch from Putney to Mortlake. But you must not forget that we too have beaten record. Only, Oxford went one -- nay, two and three quarters, better.”


A typical Cockney, who had -- per favour of the Chiswick Urban Council -- secured a stand of vantage in the Duke’s Meadows at Corney Reach, thought it the grandest race he had ever seen and it was his thirtieth.

He cheered the Dark Blues lustily as they hove in sight and shot past swiftly; he shouted encouragement to the Cantabs as they struggled doggedly in the wake; he was frantically loyal in his vociferous cheers as the prince of Wales and his brother were pointed out to him standing on the Hibernia a little behind the boats that had flashed up river. “But, bli’ me,” he said, “these ‘ere eeryplaines caps all. Not ‘arf! I niver thort I’d live to see ‘em flying that ‘ow. That ‘Gray an’ White’ chap, he’s a fair knockout. He takes his airship just where he likes, and arsts nobody. I reckon, though, that skylarking won’t ever be so pop’lar as the boat race. It don’t seem so English, somehow -- no, nor so manly neither, guv’nor. Gi’ me the good old Oxford and Cambridge. And I don’t never hope to see a better race than to-day’s, nor a grander day for it.”

“Quite right, Bill,” chipped in his buxom “missus,” affably; “and now let’s go home -- it’s orl hover bar the sharting.” And gatewards wended the pair with the throng, chattering happily as they went.