The 2012 Olympic’s were heavily touted as the games when the Isle of Man would finally break a 100 year absence from the top step of the podium on the world stage; even if the eventual record breaker was not the expected Mark Cavendish, and was instead the underrated Peter Kennaugh. In 1912 Sydney Swann, a member of the Leander Rowing Club who stormed to victory in the final of the men’s eights, was the pioneer ‘Manx’ winner of Olympic gold. Yet any connection with the Isle of Man was purely accidental being born whilst his father was, for a short spell, curate at Sulby, Isle of Man.
Swann’s father, also called Sydney Swann (1862-1941), was something of a maverick being a pioneer motorist and airman, cyclist and canoeist, but his greatest successes came as a rower. He rowed for Trinity Hall and Cambridge between 1883 and 1885, and was part of the winning crew in the 1884 Boat Race. He was ordained in 1885 and became curate to Plymouth and Sulby (Isle of Man) before taking up a missionary position in Kobe, Japan (1890), and returned to England to become vicar of Blackford (1897). As his obituary records, Swann was
[a] man of remarkable physical strength, he cycled from Land’s End to John o’Groats in record time, riding from Carlisle to London in a day, and was the first to cycle round Syria. Another feat of his was to canoe from the head of the Cronk Beck down to the Eden and thence to the Solway. In 1911 he rowed across the Channel in three hours 50 minutes, a faster time, as he put it in ‘Who’s Who,’ “than any one had ever gone between England and France by muscle power.” (The Times, 04 August 1942: 6, col E).
At the age of 55 he walked, ran, paddled, rowed and swam six consecutive half miles in a competition with Lieutenant Muller of the Danish army (1917).
Sydney Junior had some big shoes to fill coming from a family with such a distinguished rowing pedigree. Like his father he was educated at Rugby before moving on to Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Swann, nicknamed Cygnet by his friends, had something of meteoric rise in his rowing career; before going to Cambridge he had never even held an oar, and only first got into a boat in his second year, but he had an immediate impact helping Trinity Hall to victory in both the Visitors and Wyford Cups at Henley (1910). He built upon these successes by winning the first of four ‘Blues’ for Cambridge the following year, but was powerless to stop a convincing Oxford victory. The following year (1912) Swann retained his position as part of the Cambridge crew but was switched to stroke. He took part in the infamous Boat Race where both boats were swamped and sank due partly to inclement weather. When the race was rerun the following day Oxford won the toss, choosing the somewhat sheltered Middlesex station and went on to victory. Despite this performance in the Boat Race Swann was chosen to row for the Leander Club eight at the 1912 Olympics, being the only Cambridge oarsman picked for the team, indeed Swann and C Tinne (University College, Oxford) were the only participants not from Magdalen College (Oxford). In the first round heats at the Olympics the Leander crew won a close run first battle against the Canadian’s (Toronto Argonauts), setting up a quarter final appointment against the Australian’s. There was some concern over the contest as the Leander crew had lost to the Australian’s (Sydney Rowing Club) at Henley Regatta the previous month. As the Daily Mirror reported:
The reputed improvement in the Leander crew was simply confirmed, when, in one of the most gruelling races ever seen, they turned the tables on their victors in the Henley Grand and beat the Australians by half a length, in 6m 10 1.5s. The Australians, rowing the faster stroke, led from the start, but there was never much in it. Still at the swimming stadium the Colonials were a length to the good. Here Fleming called upon his men and inch by inch they pulled up. At the bridge about 300 metres from the finish, Australia were half a length to the good, but the Englishmen kept up their titanic sport. To shouts of ‘Leander’ quite in the Henley style, they drew up level, man for man, and then with one mighty effort Fleming pulled every ounce out of his men. The Australians could not respond, and Leander shot a full length ahead. But the race was not over. Sitzhardinger got his crew together again for a forlorn hope, and reduced England’s lead to half a length as they passed the post (The Daily Mirror, July 19 1912: 14, col. d).
This set up a semi-final race against the German team (Berliner Ruderverein von 1876-2) which was won by Leander by two seconds. This victory meant an all British final against the second team (New College, Oxford). The final was a close run affair for the first thousand metres, when stroke for Leander, Phillip Fleming (uncle of James Bond author Ian Fleming), increased the stroke rate pulling out a small lead. Despite the best efforts of New College, Leander had extended their lead to over a length by the finish line. The Times reported
Among the Eights, however, Leander and New College were not only better than any Continental crews, and won comfortably. Among the Eights, however, Leander and New College were not only better than any Continental crews, but of a better class…. Leander beat New College by a length without much difficulty, but the winners had an advantage in the stations and steered a better course. (The Times, July 20 1912: 14, col. A)
Leander’s victory was overshadowed by national disappointment over the lack of success at the Games, which many attributed to wider British decay, but which could be framed in a wider debate about professionalism within sport (Llewellyn 2008).
The following year Swann was elected president of Cambridge University Boat Club (1913), but was powerless to prevent another Oxford win, albeit by a much smaller margin (by ¾’s of a length). At the Henley Royal Regatta Swann, along with three others from the Olympic winning crew (L. G. Wormald, E. D. Horsfall and A. S. Garton) and cox (H. B. Wells), were selected to row for the Leander Club in the Grand Challenge Cup, powering the boat to victory over Jesus College, Cambridge. Swann also took victory in the Silver Goblets and Nickalls’ Challenge Cup (coxless pairs) for Trinity Hall with his younger brother Alfred.
The following year (1914) Swann helped Cambridge to an easy victory, in what The Times called “a most disappointing race” (March 30 1914: 14, col. a), by 4½ lengths. Swann returned to contest the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley the following year, in a crew that included two members of the winning crew from the previous year (Horsfall and Scrutton) along with his brother Alfred. Unfortunately, Leander lost during the heats to eventual winners to Harvard Athletic Association Boat Club, although the Swann brothers successfully defended their title in the Silver Goblets and Nickalls’ Challenge Cup (coxless pairs).
The coming of war effectively ended any chance for Swann to add to these victories. Swann’s contribution to the war effort was as a chaplain in the army, but little is known about what service he actually saw. On returning Swann took up a position as chaplain at his old college, Trinity Hall (1920-1924 and again in 1946) coaching Trinity Hall and the Cambridge crews, the later to four victories in the University Boat Race, but also resumed his own rowing career for the Leander Club. In 1920 he was selected to compete at Henley, unfortunately losing by two lengths in the final of the Grand Challenge Cup to the crew from Magdalen College. The Henley event was used by the Amateur Rowing Association as the selection event for the Olympics; whereas in previous years Leander had been selected to represent Britain, largely due to their successes at previous Olympics (they had won the 1908 and 1912), it was a slight surprise when the organisers selected a composite crew for the 1920 Olympics. The backbone of the crew was Magdalen, but the authorities introduced Swann (bow), Ralph Shove (No. 2) and Robin Johnstone (cox) from Leander, along with John Campbell who had helped Cambridge win the Boat Race (No. 4). To some consternation amongst the Magdalen members of the crew, Shove was installed as captain, an action which caused considerable friction amongst the crew. Despite this initial disharmony the crew beat Switzerland in a close run heat, to set up a semi-final against the Norwegians which was won with some ease. The final, against the American’s (United States Naval Academy), was a much closer affair and despite dominating for most the race the British crew lost in the final thirty metres to take the silver medal. As The Times reported:
America have had it all their own way this afternoon, winning three out of the four events in which they took part. The last event, in which America met Great Britain in the final round of the Eights, roused the American contingent to the greatest enthusiasm.
Great Britain started at 41 strokes a minute to 29, and were leading by a quarter of a length after a quarter of a mile, and by half a length at half-way. It was not until the last 30 yards that America caught up to win by a few feet. The race was rowed in the record time of 6min. 5sec. (The Times, Aug 30 1920: 5, col. g).
Swann went on to spend a number of years in Kenya and Egypt becoming Archdeacon of Nairobi and later Sub-dean of Pro Cathedral in Cairo. Following his return from Africa he took positions in Leighton Buzzard (1933-36); St Mary’s Redcliffe, Bristol (1937-51) and Timberscombe, Minehead (1951-59). In 1938, he was given the honorary canonry of Bristol, becoming Rev. Canon Swann, becoming dean of Bedminster (1940) and Chaplain to King George VI and later Queen Elizabeth II (1941-1952). During his time at St Mary’s Redcliffe Swann was responsible for saving the church from almost complete destruction. After an attempted robbery of the church (Apr 12 1942), Canon Swann decided to sleep in the church the following night encase the thieves returned. As The Times records:
Shortly after he had gone to sleep he was disturbed, and on going into the vestry found the whole of it on fire. Altar cloths and furnishings had been piled on a chair and set alight. Canon Swann ran to the nearest fire station, and the brigade put out the fire in about a quarter of an hour…. (The Times, Apr 14 1942: 2, col. f).
On his return to Britain Swann also continued to be actively involved in rowing being elected president of the National Amateur Rowing Association (1938) and along with his father took a leading role in opening up the sport of rowing to the ‘working’ classes.
A window is dedicated to Swann in St. Stephen’s church, Sulby where his father was briefly curate, with an inscription that reads “Sydney Ernest Swan born St John Baptist’s Day, 1890”. This remains the only tribute to the Isle of Man only Olympian.
Llewellyn, M. P. 2008. ‘A Nation Divided: Great Britain and the Pursuit of Olympic Excellence, 1912-1914’. Journal of Sport History 35: 1, pp.73-97.