Steve Fairbairn is arguably one of the most influential characters in the history of Jesus College Boat Club and Cambridge rowing. As an oarsman, he was one of the celebrated cohort of Jesus rowers towards the end of its golden era of 1875-1886 during which they maintained the Mays Headship for no fewer than 11 consecutive years and, in 1885, won the Grand at Henley.
Swivel Gates and Sliding Seats...
In 1904 Steve Fairbairn returned from Australia to settle in England and devoted the rest of his life to coaching oarsmen at Jesus College, CUBC and Thames Rowing Club. His enthusiasm and competitiveness within the sport is apparent from his passionate struggle for the introduction of swivel gates and sliding seats to the design permitted for the college Bumps and the 'Varsity Boat Race'. His unique style of coaching was enjoyed by anyone and everyone who sought it and bears hallmarks that are today referred to as 'Fairbairnisms'.
One of his infamous maxims, "Mileage makes Champions", speaks volumes about his attitude towards preparation for races. It was a concept he clearly enjoyed. In his autobiography, Fairbairn of Jesus, he tells of completing a bet for £1 to canoe from Putney to Henley (a distance of 62 miles, having gone up the River Wey by mistake) within a day - it took him 23 hours in an old Rob Roy canoe. It is with mileage in mind that Fairbairn founded the annual Thames Tideway Head of the River Race from Mortlake to Putney for Tideway clubs in 1926. It was as other crews, including JCBC and the RAF, joined the races and started winning that it began to gain popularity. Now clubs, universities and schools from across the British Isles, Europe and USA come to compete at the event.
It was shortly after the founding of the Thames Tideway Head that Fairbairn decided that a similar race was needed to add focus to the Michaelmas term for the Jesus oarsmen who were not involved in University Trial Eights or University Fours. Therefore, in 1927, he arranged a provisional Lents line up and raced the crews off each other over the longest distance possible on the Cam - from the Fort St George to Little Bridge (2.9 miles or 4660m). In 1928, the 'JCBC Lock-to-lock Race' or 'Crock Eights' were joined by crews from Fitzwilliam, Sidney Sussex, Peterhouse and St. Catharine's - all of which were, at the time, coached by rowers from Jesus. In 1929 the race was opened to all colleges and Steve Fairbairn donated a Cup - the 'Fairbairn Cup Races' were founded.
The Fairbairn Cup
The Fairbairn Cup Races quickly became a major event in the Michaelmas Term Calendar. In 1976 a Women's event was started, and due to the pressure of numbers a Novice division was added in 1983. In 1990, due to bridgework at the Fort St. George Footbridge the start was moved to the Jesus College Boathouse flagpole, where it has been each year since.