The Rowers of Vanity Fair/Stuart DCR

Stuart, Douglas Cecil ReesEdit

“Duggie” (Spy), March 13, 1907Edit

Mr. Douglas Stuart is a great athlete. He is also Mr. Douglas Stuart. An oarsman of demoniac swiftness and skill, who has led the Cambridge crews to victory over Oxford and Harvard, the holder of the Colquhoun Sculls and the stroke of his University in the forthcoming Boat Race, his distinction in the world of sport goes without saying.

He was born at Kingston on March 1st, 1885. Educated at Cheltenham College, where he received his boating colours. He rowed later for the London Rowing Club, and at the age of nineteen only just failed to win the Diamond Sculls. Last year the victory of Trinity Hall over the Argonauts at Henley was all his own. And he hopes to add another leaf to his laurels on March the 16th.

Originally of health so delicate that he was not expected to live, he has made himself an athlete by sheer determination of will. When racing, the passion and rapture of the contest possess him till he shouts aloud, and his eyes flame with a sort of joyous anger. His presence infects his whole crew with the same combative high spirits. It may well be that he owes his historic victories as much to his personality as to his muscle and skill.

Such a man is not likely to be a pessimist. As all the world knows, “Duggie” is no ascetic, and enjoys life with a fullness only possible to so human a temperament. Now and then his temperament carries him into scrapes, but where promptness and daring are required, he is never found wanting. To jump from a college window into thirty feet of water, as he once did at Cambridge, is not an experience which many would covet. But it proved as nothing to “Duggie.” We append a snapshot of Mr. Stuart by that no less breezy personality, Mr. A.G. Hales.

“I saw Stuart on Saturday last, and, as I watched the man whom friends and rivals alike admire and honour, I let my memory drift along the years whilst Fancy conjured up once more the forms and faces of great athletes, amateurs and pros., whom I have met. Beach, Hanlan, Searle, Stansbury, Kemp, O’Connor, all went drifting by, crowned with their hard-won laurels, great oarsmen all, differing in some nameless fashion from the men who tried to match them, as this man differs from his fellows. The river reeks with men who are good, but greatness comes to few, and Stuart is great; the old grey river has sung its song in his ears, and he has heard the song and held it. The witchery of the water has got into his blood, and all its secrets are familiar things to him. Others have wooed the waters just as zealously, but to them it was not given to draw into themselves the lore of the elements. They plodded patiently and reached that mystic spot where the shadows and the sunlight meet, and there they stayed, hard held in the chains of mediocrity, but he passed over until he stood alone where all might see him, his winsome, boyish face the lode-star for all English eyes. For England loves a sportsman who has no blemish. When a man can do any one thing better than any other man amongst many millions of virile people, he singles himself out, and makes his own place, and this the Cambridge stroke has done by virtue of his gifts; and the chief of them is his brain force.
“Let me make a pen picture of the man. He stands exactly 5 ft. 8½ in. in height, and scales eleven stone two, a beautiful figure of a man, lean and hard. One notices, too, his fair hair and blue-grey smiling eyes. His pluck, his magnetism, are written all over him.
“I asked him what was his hardest race, and he said, ‘Oh, all rowing men know that. It was against the Canadians last year; the Argonauts at Henley. I never want to go through anything just like that again. They pumped me dry, and had me as nearly beaten as a man can be who wins.’ He did not say, what all his colleagues say of him, that in a race it is his personal magnetism, his virility, his unbounded pluck that makes his crew great. As I talk to him I find him an ordinary fellow, but as I talk to his comrades I find that he is a giant. He has the gift of leadership; knows how to get the last ounce out of men.
“He has no formula for success. I talked with him, and it all amounted to this: if you have pluck you win, if you have it not, you drift down and lose. He did not put it in those words, but when I had thought out our talk, that was all there was to it. I have talked to many great soldiers; all they had to say was much as this man said: ‘Fight on until you can’t fight any more; if you are alive at the finish, why, you win.’ The young Scots oarsman who strokes Cambridge will do big things in the round. He will take his place in time with our big men. He has heart, brains, patience, instinctive knowledge. He would make an ideal leader of an exploring party in such a country as the hinterland of Russia. He is built for it.’”

“With the race of 1906 began a series of three Cambridge victories which have perhaps caused more controversy and dissension among oarsmen than any race or series of races during the whole history of the contest,” declared the Official Centenary History of the Boat Race.[1] “The controversy centred round the name of D.C.R. Stuart [(1885-1969)], who appeared for the first time this year.” So appalled were the History’s orthodox authors of Stuart’s style, yet fond of the man, that they did not blame him for the “sculling” or “waterman” style that bore his name, but rather his unfathomably wayward coaches at Cambridge for permitting such delinquency:

That he should have been so closely identified with the new style as to be looked on as its founder, appears singularly unjust. Full of dash, vigour, and tireless determination, Stuart was a born stroke, and would have done well in any style he had been taught to row. So it seems that a large share of the responsibility for the introduction of ‘Stuart’s sculling style,’ as it came to be known, must lie with the Cambridge coaches of that time. How the latter came to be led astray from the old traditions one cannot understand. Mr. S.D. Muttlebury must have known better, for he himself rowed in a very different style in the ‘eighties, and, moreover, he had coached the great Cambridge crew of 1900. Mr. Escombe and Mr. (now Colonel) Wauchope, who also bore a large share of the coaching of these crews, have been responsible for some of the best Cambridge crews of recent years, and would no doubt raise their hands in horror to see a modern University crew rowing in the style of 1906. Nevertheless, for one reason or another, the old ideals were lost sight of, in a belief that pace was only to be derived from a very hard thrust with the legs in the middle of the stroke, little attention being paid to a long reach forward, a firm grip of the water behind the rigger, or a true combination of body and slide at the finish of the stroke. . . . It was perhaps just retribution on the part of Fate that a strong Belgian crew from Ghent appeared at Henley Regatta this year, and carried away the Grand Challenge Cup.[2]

But to R.C. Lehmann, writing of Cambridge’s Stuart-led victory over Harvard in September 1906, two months after the Belgians won the Grand, “[t]here was nothing specially new in the Cambridge style. It was founded on principles which have long been established, and of which the value has been proved in many a hard-fought contest”:

Cambridge ought, in my opinion, to be ranked very high amongst good University crews. When they were eventually wound up to a concert pitch they showed a beautiful working uniformity, and great quickness, elasticity, and dash. The blades caught the water with marked precision and power, and the men applied both bodies and legs to the stroke in very good style. The finish ended by being a firm one; the blades left the water in very clean style, and the recovery movements were fairly smart. Had they possessed a longer swing and reach forward there would not have been much room for genuine fault-finding. The merits I have indicated, combined with their exceptional racing ability, sufficiently account for their victory over their powerful and plucky opponents.[3]

Stuart stroked three successive Cambridge crews to victory before losing to Oxford in 1909 when he was President of the C.U.B.C. His Trinity Hall crews were head of the river in 1907 and 1909, but he never won at Henley. Stuart became a solicitor after taking a third class in the 1909 law Tripos. In the 1914-18 war he served with the First Battalion of the Border Regiment and was badly wounded as a Second Lieutenant in the Battle of the Somme in July 1916.[4] He later served as a Captain in the Courts Martial.

Ever the iconoclast, Stuart wrote in 1929 in the Times that university crews should practice for only six weeks, given the experience and fitness of the eligible oarsmen and the risk of staleness from more extensive work. “I do not know how it is in modern times, but as rowing was conducted 20 years ago there was not much fun in it, and rowing as a pastime was in reality an infernal bore. Perhaps this explains what appears to be a lack of enthusiasm for this sport at Oxford.”[5]

Stuart on StylesEdit

In 1933 the editor of the Times received and printed a considerable number of letters on rowing theory, which confirmed his opinion that the subject was always calculated to produce a “controversy of almost theological fanaticism.”[6] Stuart’s contribution (Feb. 11, 1933):

Sir, -- Rowing would be one of the easiest of sports were it not for the continual wrangle on styles. It is so much simpler than would appear from all that is written about it, the movements of an oarsman being so easy if he be allowed to do them naturally, instead of being made to contort himself to conform to some ideal style.

To judge from the views of the orthodox, there are hardly any crews which ever reach a standard fit to be described as oarsmanship, though this is rather hard on all the coaches who have been doing their orthodox best. Doubtless the critics are right. The amount of orthodox theory daily expounded from the towpath does not seem to give the results expected from it, and it is not surprising that some coaches have come to try other ways of pushing a boat along than by the old style, and, if the truth be told, with astonishing results. It was, after all, inevitable, if the sport was to survive, that orthodoxy had to be modified, for it is an impossibility for most, and rowing it or trying to row it, became a daily drudgery, while the results were usually a dismal failure.

According to my memory, Australians, Americans, Belgians, Italians have all beaten English orthodox rowing, and the record of Jesus College, Cambridge, during the last 25 years seems to show very clearly that the new style has carried the day in all contests. And one may appositely remark that the numerous defeats of English rowing have been caused entirely by the stubborn resistance of the orthodox die-hards to any modification in the fashion of rowing. For be it remembered that it has been the invariable custom for England to be represented by orthodox crews, and it is these crews which have been defeated. And these crews are the pick of either one or both Universities and coached by orthodox coaches.

Orthodox crews were nearly always drawn from the Universities, and this gave them a greater choice in numbers and physique, and a series of victories at Henley made people hastily conclude that the way these crews rowed was and is the only way to row. At that time opposition was almost nil. From the very fact of greater choice orthodoxy should have more than held its own, not only in first-class contests but in all others. If opinion and coercion could have kept out the new style it would have done so, but, thanks to Mr. Fairbairn’s pertinacity, it is having a greater vogue than ever. Thanks to it metropolitan rowing has been revived, and it is to be hoped that it will resist all attempts to make it return to the old style. There are still plenty of unconvertible old stylists to keep their particular style going, while the metropolitan clubs have nothing to gain by going back to the old style in which for years they never won a race at Henley.

It has often been said that it was due to the failure to row in the orthodox way that foreign crews were able to take away the Grand Challenge Cup, but that is an exaggeration, for nearly all Oxford crews and most Cambridge, to say nothing about the Metropolitan crews, all of which were still floundering in orthodoxy, were unable, in spite of all, to put up any crews capable of keeping the foreigner out.

How was it that all the old-style coaches and all the old-style oarsmen were unable to turn out first-rate crews? The answer is that the orthodox style is an impossible and artificial one, possible indeed to men after long experience and, above all, of fine physique, but impossible for most men and clubs where the pick is limited and time inadequate. Not only it is impossible but it is unnecessary, for the new style is as fast as the old. The fact of the matter is that orthodoxy was invented for fixed seats before slides were thought of, to which it is inapplicable. The style of an oarsman must be adapted to the kind of boat he rows in. There is no other boat, so far as I know, in which the propelling machinery moves up and down to the extent that the human machine does in a racing eight. This has an enormous effect on the pace of a boat. This was not so in the old fixed-seat boats, or, at any rate, was vastly less.

Furthermore, the shoulder catch so dear to the orthodox is a sheer physical impossibility if the oarsman is to drive as hard as he can with his legs: and, if he is not going to do that, how can he get the hard and quick beginning demanded? If the oarsman is to adapt himself to the machine, he must make leg drive and not swing his principal point. The weight of the oarsman must be driven straight from the stretcher, and the oarsman must not hold his slide, as Mr. Lowe has so aptly said. Indeed, Mr. Fairbairn’s style shows conclusively that leg drive causing the oar to hit the water even very imperfectly gets a pace on the boat which all but the very best orthodox crews must envy. If it were done as it could be done, and doubtless will be done, there will be no two opinions about style.

As to swivels, most coaches and oarsmen have never rowed with them and are no judges. It is not too much to say that if swivels had been used the Grand Challenge Cup would never have been lost, in spite of orthodoxy. They are far easier to use, save an enormous amount of labour, and have the added advantage of permitting a faster stroke to be used without more energy. It used to be said that a fixed thole pin was necessary for a hard beginning, which most crews, we are told, never get. Some ingenious fellow invented a swivel with such thole pin fixed; so some other excuse was found to prevent their being used. Few oarsmen seem to realize that it is the movable sill which renders the swivels so efficacious.

It is quite certain that if coaches reflect on the apparatus used and adapt the style rowed to the form of the boat used, so that it has a chance to travel on the lines on which it was designed, other things being equal, unorthodoxy will beat orthodoxy every time.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,

7, Rue Gersant, Paris

“This sort of correspondence continued right up to the outbreak of war in 1939,” wrote rowing historian Geoffrey Page, “and although the controversy continued in somewhat less contentious form after the war, it was generally the pre-war generation that prolonged it.”[7]


  1. ^ G.C. Drinkwater & T.R.B. Sanders, The University Boat Race: Official Centenary History, p. 115.
  2. ^ Ibid., pp. 115-16, 117.
  3. ^ R.C. Lehmann, The Complete Oarsman, p. 246.
  4. ^ Col. H.C. Wylly, The Border Regiment in the Great War, p. 88.
  5. ^ D.C.R. Stuart, quoted in The Times, Dec. 16, 1929, p. 6a.
  6. ^ The editor of The Times, quoted in N. Wigglesworth, The Social History of English Rowing, p. 88.
  7. ^ G. Page, Hear the Boat Sing: The History of the Thames Rowing Club, p. 88.