FAIRBAIRN, Stephen (1862-1938)


FAIRBAIRN, Stephen (1862-1938)
always known as Steve Fairbairn
oarsman and coach
was the son of George Fairbairn (1815-1895), an early Victorian pioneer who married a Miss Armytage. George Fairbairn came to Adelaide in 1839 but soon afterwards moved to Victoria and became a successful pastoralist. He took much interest in the preservation of meat and made many experiments which were not successful. In 1878, however, he was associated with Andrew and Thomas McIlwraith (q.v.) of Queensland in sending the first successful cargo of frozen meat to England in the Strathleven. He was also one of the earliest to export tallow. He died at Queenscliff, Victoria, on 18 July 1895, leaving a family of five sons and a daughter. His eldest son, Sir George Fairbairn (1855-1943), was well-known in his younger days as a rowing man, became a leading pastoralist and politician and was knighted in 1926. Stephen Fairbairn, one of his younger sons born on 25 August 1862, was educated at Wesley College, Melbourne, and Geelong Grammar School, where he was a good footballer and cricketer. He went to Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1881, and won the hammer throwing and putting the weight at the Freshmen's sports. He was at Cambridge for six years, assisted in bringing the Jesus crew to the head of the river, and rowed for Cambridge in 1882, 1883, 1885 and 1886. He mentions in his autobiography that he also attended one lecture (Fairbairn of Jesus, p. 35). He, however, graduated B.A., became a barrister of the Inner Temple, and returned to Australia where he was engaged as a pastoralist until 1905. Coming to England again he made the coaching of rowing crews his hobby and revolutionized the style of rowing. His first principle was that the legs were the strongest part of the body and that at the beginning of the stroke everything must be sacrificed to get a good leg drive. The oarsman must not think too much about his body but concentrate on correct blade movements, some relaxation of the body is permissible, and on the forward stroke the blade must be kept well clear of the water. This is necessarily an inadequate account of a method which Fairbairn has discussed in detail in four books: Rowing Notes (1926), Slowly Forward (1929), Some Secrets of Successful Rowing (1931), and Chats on Rowing (1934). He continued to coach until near the end of his life, and his huge figure perched on a bicycle was continually to be seen on the river banks at Cambridge and London. In 1925 he founded the head of the river race at Putney at which anything up to 1000 oarsmen compete. His autobiography Fairbairn of Jesus, a lively book, appeared in 1931 with an excellent portrait by James Quinn. Fairbairn died in England on 16 May 1938. He married Nellie Sharwood who survived him with two sons. He was the most picturesque figure of his time in British rowing, and his coaching had an immense influence on the sport not only in Great Britain but on the continent.
For George Fairbairn Sen., The Argus, Melbourne, 21 May 1938; J. T. Critchell and J. Raymond, A History of the Frozen Meat Trade. For Stephen Fairbairn, The Times, 17, 18 and 19 May 1938; Fairbairn of Jesus; Who's Who, 1938; private information.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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