William Alfred Littledale Fletcher, (hereinafter referred to as Fletcher), was born in 1869 into a wealthy Liverpool merchant family. He was to achieve distinction during his life as an outstanding oarsman, rowing coach and administrator, and as an explorer and soldier. His father, Alfred, initially a cotton broker, was later a director of the London and North Western Railway, the Liverpool and London Globe Insurance Company, and the Shropshire Union Canal Company. The Fletcher family’s wealth derived from Jacob Fletcher, a Whitehaven, Cumberland, shipowner and privateer, who moved to Liverpool in the 1750’s. In 1815 his grandson Caleb acquired a 150 acre estate at Allerton, a few miles from the city centre, where he built a mansion, which came to be known as “Allerton”, and which in due course became the home of Alfred and his wife Edith, née Littledale.
Fletcher, the oldest of eight children, of whom seven survived to adulthood, was educated at Cheam and later at Eton. At Eton, while lacking academic distinction, he became a member of the Eton Eight in 1888 and rowed in the Ladies’ Plate at Henley Royal Regatta. In 1889 he came up to Christ Church, where he studied, again without distinction, for a “pass” degree, though he never completed the course. He quickly, however, gained recognition as an oarsman, for in 1889 he was a member of the Christ Church crew which won both the Ladies’ Plate and the Thames Challenge Cup at Henley.
The next year, 1890, he was chosen to stroke the Oxford boat in the University Boat Race. By now he was – for his day – physically huge, standing 6 feet 3 inches tall, and weighing 13 stone. (His size undoubtedly contributed to his nickname, in rowing circles, and with the public, of “Flea”). To the delight of its supporters, Oxford won the race; they had been defeated in the previous four encounters. Fletcher went on to become only the third man in Boat Race history, to that time, to win the Boat Race four times; he did so every year from 1890-1893, in the last year being President of the Oxford University Boat Club. (Although there is no official record of this, it is safe to assume that Fletcher also served as President of the Christ Church Boat Club).
He also distinguished himself by winning three crew rowing events at Oxford, and a further five events at Henley Royal Regatta, the Grand 3 times and the Goblets twice. He was thus one of the greatest oarsmen of his day, and indeed in the history of British rowing.
In 1894 Fletcher was invited to become a coach of the Oxford Boat Race crew, and he coached the university for seven years between 1894 and 1906. For the 1898 race he was accorded a rare honour; he was invited by the Cambridge President, Dudley Ward, to coach the Cambridge crew. Only three Old Blues in the history of the Boat Race had ever before coached both universities. Fletcher undertook the coaching of Cambridge for 1898 from the start to the finish of preparation. On the day of the race, due to abnormal storm conditions, the Cambridge boat was half full of water only four strokes into the race, and Oxford won easily. The next year, 1899, however, with Fletcher again the Cambridge coach, Cambridge won comfortably by 3¼ lengths, their first victory for 10 years.
Fletcher had taken a respite from coaching in 1894, for in November that year he had left England on an expedition to Tibet, led by his uncle. The expedition was fraught with difficulties and danger. In order to have a chance of reaching Lhasa without being detected and turned back by Tibetans, who were antagonistic towards any penetration of their capital by foreigners, the party had to avoid all known tracks and routes where they might encounter local people, and, with no map to guide them, find their way hundreds of miles across the mountainous and bleak Tibetan Plateau, averaging over 16,000 ft. above sea level – higher than Mont Blanc. They needed to be self-sufficient in food for several months, food for themselves, and also for the large party of drovers and bearers they needed, and – they started with a train of over 150 pack animals – for the animals as well.
There is no space here to record the perils of that journey. Suffice it to say, they got to within 43 miles of Lhasa before being turned back by armed Tibetans. Instead of being allowed to cross into India by the short route available, they were made to journey once more across unmapped Tibet in order to reach the British territory of Ladakh, which bordered Tibet to the west. The party finally reached the Sind valley of Kashmir, and India, almost a full year after they had left England. On his return, Fletcher was recognized by being made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He had kept a diary of the whole expedition, and on November 26, 1896, he presented a paper, “A Journey toward Lhassa”, to the Liverpool Geographical Society.
Upon the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899, Fletcher was quick to volunteer for army service. His father had been commissioned in the Lancashire Artillery Volunteer Corps. Fletcher himself had been a member of the Eton College Volunteer Corps. He obtained a commission as a lieutenant in the Lancashire Hussars, which became No, 32 Company of the Imperial Yeomanry, and sailed for Cape Town.
In South Africa he won military honour for his action, in December 1900, in leading the defence, by a small party of men, of an isolated farmhouse, located outside Colesburg in Cape Colony, and used as a valuable ration depot, against a surprise attack by some 300 Boers, in a fierce and desperate encounter lasting through the next night. Fletcher, who twice rejected written demands to surrender, succeeded in holding off the Boers, who finally abandoned their attack. Fletcher was awarded the D.S.O., an honour second only to the Victoria Cross for distinction on the battlefield. He returned home in June 1901, followed shortly by his brother Geoffrey, who had also served in the war.
Upon his return Fletcher resumed, as noted, coaching for the Oxford University Boat Club, but he was also, by then, a leading figure in the administration of rowing in England. He had been elected a Steward of Henley Royal Regatta in 1899, and the following year was elected to the Committee of Management which organizes the Regatta. In 1904 he was appointed a Regatta Umpire, continuing in this capacity until 1914. In 1908 he was one of a committee of ten responsible for organizing the rowing Olympics (the London Olympics took place that year).
Over the years Fletcher had remained keenly interested in, and involved with, the Christ Church Boat Club. For example in 1902 he gave advice to the Torpid crew, and to the Club President, Priestley. That year he coached the Eight which rose to 10th on the river. The following year, he again coaching, the Eight gained four more places, and in 1904 three more, to finish third. He continued in 1905 and 1906, in which year the House, again in third place on the river, having lost a place in 1905, got to the Final of the Ladies’ at Henley.
The Boat Club’s Captain’s Private Log Book 1860-1909 reveals that in 1906 Fletcher also took the First Torpid on several outings, and introduced an experiment with the oars, shortening the inboard length and reducing the width of the blades slightly. Although the experiment proved inconclusive, it marks the beginning of Fletcher’s development of what came to be known as the “Christ Church Style”.
With the Belgians’ win in the Grand in 1906, the first time the event had ever been won by a foreign crew, and given the amazing rate of striking they achieved, the supremacy of English “orthodoxy” in rowing style was in question. Fletcher continued developing his experimental approach, and in Eights Week 1907 his new style came into its own; the House Eight went Head of the River for the first time since 1849 and entered for the Grand at Henley, losing the Final to the Belgians by only one length.
The essence of the “Christ Church Style” is thus expressed by Sir William Gladstone:
The Style was introduced by W.A.L. Fletcher, a great coach of University crews in his own right. Evolving the ideas of Warre and de Havilland, he appreciated that with the longest existing (16”) sliding seat, the “quick catch” so vital to the
English style might best be achieved by a broader blade and s shorter oar, with a relatively longer inboard length, than by an excessively long body swing with a long oar and thin blade which had seemed the best combination for many years in spite of its tendency to “pinch” the boat and reduce the strength which could be applied at the beginning.
(For Sir William’s full exposition of the “Christ Church Style”, please refer to his article in Christ Church Boat Club Crew Composition and Racing Results 1946-1993, obtainable through the Society).
In 1908 the House retained the Headship of the River and again entered for the Grand. This year, however, because the 1908 London Olympics were to take place, with the rowing events scheduled to take place at Henley two weeks after Henley Royal Regatta, the Stewards decided that foreign entries for the Grand would not be accepted. So the Belgians did not compete, and neither did the two crews chosen to represent Great Britain in the Olympics. Nevertheless, there were ten entries for the Grand. The House crew was weakened from its Eights Week strength because three of its members were engaged in Olympics training. But, after victories in two heats, they met and overcame Eton, who in their heats had overcome two Cambridge colleges and Thames, in the Final.
This was the House’s greatest triumph at Henley up to that time, and indeed its greatest triumph to the present time, and the success can be attributed to the technique developed by Fletcher. It was, too, a success for Oxford rowing, for Oxford crews had only won the event twice, in 1882 and 1897, since 1871. But the Oxford rowing establishment, led by successive Presidents of the OUBC, was not pleased with the threat to tradition posed by the upstart ‘damnable Christ church style which has spoilt Oxford rowing for the moment’. (These words were written in 1908). From 1909 a shift back to orthodoxy occurred in Oxford rowing and Fletcher’s involvement with House crews appears to have become less.
There is no doubt, as the Captain’s Private Log readily attests, that Fletcher was popular with the Boat Club leadership and with its crews. Reference after reference speaks of the gratitude felt towards him for his contribution. And his interest in Christ Church and Christ Church men was not limited to rowing either. After his death a Student of Christ Church wrote in The Oxford Magazine:
Never in her long and varied history has Christ Church had a more loyal member or one more devoted to her best interests,
With 1914 came the start of the Great War. Fletcher, all of whose brothers served in the war, became adjutant of the 2/6th Battalion of the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment, of which he assumed command in 1915. In February 1917 the battalion moved to France, and for the rest of the war served in various sectors of the front line. On July 18, at Armentières, it suffered heavily in one of the first German attacks employing mustard gas. Fletcher himself, tireless as always in looking after his men, was badly gassed and was hospitalized. On July 23,1918, he reluctantly relinquished his command at his own request, having, in the words of the battalion’s historian ‘never been able to recover his old vitality’ and being at risk of having a breakdown. He returned to England hoping for a home command, but, of course, the war ended on November 11. Fletcher had been twice mentioned in Haig’s dispatches, and had been created a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour.
He soon became active again in rowing administration, and was elected Chair of the Henley Committee of Management for 1919, responsible for organizing what was to become the ‘Peace Regatta’. Four days after his election, he was dead, “Spanish influenza” having turned to bronchio-pneumonia, against which his lungs, weakened by the mustard gas attack, had no defence. He was 6 months short of his 50th birthday.
He had lived a very full life, facilitated by the absence of any need to earn a living; big-game hunting was one of his recreational pursuits. He had inherited a small fortune in 1914 upon the death of a third cousin of his mother; he left in today’s terms, something like five million pounds. He never married. During his coaching career he had continually earned deep gratitude from the crews he supervised and his obituary notices unfailingly praised his rowing and coaching prowess, while emphasizing, too, his integrity and other fine qualities as a man.
Fletcher would have been, above all proud, in death, of a bronze memorial tablet, featuring a profile of his head, in his prime as a University coach, and wearing his Oxford University Boat Race cap, erected in his memory in the Oxford University Boat House, and with an inscription ending with:
This Tablet is Placed Here by Rowing Men of Both Universities.
Fletcher – middle row, seated second from right – in the 1893 Oxford crew.
Gerald Parkhouse’s biography of Fletcher, ‘Flea’, the Life of W.A.L. Fletcher, is currently under consideration by a number of publishers.