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Stephen (Steve) Fairbairn (1862–1938)

by Michael D. De B. Collins Persse

This article was published:

Stephen (Steve) Fairbairn (1862-1938), oarsman, rowing coach and pastoralist, was born on 25 August 1862 at Toorak, Melbourne, fifth son of George Fairbairn, and his wife Virginia Charlotte, née Armytage. Like his brothers, who included (Sir) George, he was educated at Geelong Church of England Grammar School. In his earlier years, after frequent thrashings by a Calvinistic aunt, he was so wild that several schools found him too hot to hold; but at Geelong the headmaster, J. B. Wilson, won his undying respect, having by trust tamed his unruly spirit. During seven years at Geelong, 1874-80, he excelled at cricket, football, and rowing; was champion athlete, swimmer, and gymnast; helped J. L. Cuthbertson to edit the school Quarterly; and was librarian, dux in mathematics and English, and senior prefect.

In 1881-84 he read law at Jesus College, Cambridge (B.A., 1884; M.A., 1898), being admitted at the Inner Temple in 1882 and called to the Bar in 1886, though he never practised. At Jesus his fame as an oarsman eclipsed even that of his brothers and his Armytage cousins. He rowed in the university crews of 1882, 1883 (both defeated by Oxford), 1886, and 1887 (both victorious), in college crews at the head of the Cam four times, and in crews which won the Grand Challenge Cup (the blue ribbon of amateur rowing in England), the Stewards', and the Wyfold at Henley, all the while—in his own phrase—winning 'hundreds of Regatta races'.

Fairbairn visited Australia in 1884-85, and from 1887 to 1904 was mostly there, pursuing his family's pastoral interests in Victoria and western Queensland, notably at Beaconsfield, near Longreach, whence derived a fund of frequently unprintable stories to be told with characteristic gusto to generations of friends. On 18 November 1891 at St John's Church of England, Toorak, he married 17-year-old Ellen (Eleanor), daughter of Sydney Sharwood, of Aramac, Queensland, by whom he had two sons. Visiting England, he competed at Henley (to the general astonishment) in 1897 and 1898, and was captain of the Thames Rowing Club. In 1899 he rowed for Queensland. While settled at Meltham, near Gheringhap, in Victoria, he coached Geelong Grammar and, while visiting England, Cambridge University crews. In 1904-38, with little interruption, he lived in England, dividing his time between London—where he was a director of Dalgety & Co.—and Cambridge, in both places pursuing his great love, rowing.

He coached the Jesus boats for part at least of every year except one during that third of a century. More often than not the college went head of the river, and never was it lower than fourth. Steve's genius as a coach and his masterful and overpowering yet sympathetic personality were felt throughout the club, benefiting awkward novices and lower crews as well as first boats. 'Fairbairn of Jesus', the title of his autobiography, published in London in 1931, is no mere vainglorious phrase. A new style—Fairbairnism—was often, but erroneously, attributed to him: his innovation, if innovation it was, was to concentrate the oarsman's mind on the oar and on moving the boat rather than on the supposedly correct motions of the body. He was prepared to experiment, as with long slides and swivel rowlocks. He was full of aphorisms: 'If you can't do it easy, you can't do it at all'; 'It has all got to come from inside you, laddies'; 'Enjoy your rowing, win or lose'; 'Mileage makes champions'. He described the best action for moving a boat as 'an exact imitation of the Heave Ho of eight sailors heaving at a rope, a perfect loose and easy elastic action'—elsewhere described as 'swan-like' and 'dreamy-looking'. There was something of the mystic in his search for perfection in rowing.

In 1926 he founded the annual race for the headship of the Thames Tideway over a course from Mortlake to Putney—the winning crew holds for a year a bronze bust of Steve cast by G. C. Drinkwater. By the proliferation of similar races, by his writings, and above all by his personal influence, he increased the popularity of rowing and has some claim to be called its greatest figure.

Steve Fairbairn died in London on 16 May 1938, survived by his wife and two sons. Appropriately, his ashes rest beneath the shadow of Jesus College chapel. A portrait by James Quinn is held by the college.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Brittain and H. B. Playford, The Jesus College Boat Club, Cambridge (Cambridge, 1928), and The Jesus College, Cambridge, Boat Club, 1827-1962 (Cambridge, 1962)
  • Dictionary of National Biography, 1931-40
  • A. Gray and F. Brittain, A History of Jesus College, Cambridge (Lond, 1960)
  • Geelong Grammar School (1) Annual, 1875-76, and (2) Quarterly, 1877-80, and (3) Corian, May 1921, May 1926, Dec 1932, Aug 1938, Oct 1974, June 1975
  • Jesus College Cambridge, Chanticlere, Easter 1925
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 17 May 1938, p 18
  • Geelong Grammar School Archives
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Michael D. De B. Collins Persse, 'Fairbairn, Stephen (Steve) (1862–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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