Bernard Hempseed’s interesting item on Famous Scullers Monuments (HTBS 22nd March) prompts me to send some pictures of a rowing monument that 120 million people will hear about today, Saturday 26th March, but which few will see. It is the ‘Mile Post’, a stone obelisk which is sited exactly one mile from the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race start at Putney and which is the first official timing point in the race. The record time to here was set by Oxford in 1978 and repeated by Cambridge in 1993, 3 minutes and 31 seconds. The ‘Mile Post’ is more correctly called the Steve Fairbairn Memorial. A plaque below an oval profile of Fairbairn reads:
COMMEMORATES THE CENTENARY OF
FAMOUS OARSMAN AND COACH
FOUNDER OF THE HEAD OF THE RIVER RACE
ERECTED BY THE MEMBERS OF
JESUS COLLEGE CAMBRIDGE LEANDER CLUB
LONDON AND THAMES ROWING CLUBS
IT IS EXACTLY ONE MILE
FROM THE START OF THE
UNIVERSITY BOAT RACE COURSE
Steve Fairbairn (1862-1938) was an Australian who was responsible for popularising the ‘leg drive’ in British rowing. Sliding seats had been around since the 1870s but traditional British conservatism meant that they were not used to their full advantage and for fifty years after their invention crews in the UK used the stiff ‘orthodox style’ developed for fixed seat rowing where the back does most of the work. ‘Steve’ was also a great believer in the benefits of rowing long distances and to encourage this he developed the idea of winter time trials, that is ‘head racing’. At the time his ideas produced fierce debate (some even holding the idea that ‘It is better to look good than to go fast’) and they were never fully accepted until after the 1939-1945 War.
The other official Boat Race timing points are Hammersmith Bridge (record 6:20, CUBC 1998), Chiswick Steps (record 9:56, CUBC 1998), Barnes Bridge (record 13:32, CUBC 1998) and the University Stone at the finish (record 16:19, CUBC 1998). I think that these records will be safe this year.