Between the wars, Exeter’s members mixed with royalty and stars of the rowing world.
In 1921, the college barge played host to Crown Prince Hirohito of Japan. Hirohito, who would become Emperor in 1926, was on a tour of Europe over the summer. Between political summits in London and Edinburgh, his party stopped at Oxford, where Eights Week was taking place.
The Vice Chancellor at the time was Lewis Richard Farnell, an ex-Rector of Exeter, who chose his college as the Crown Prince’s host on the river. Farnell was given the duty of firing the starting pistol, but appears to have been a peril with the weapon. The Captain’s Book records how:
It is doubtful how far Prince Hirohito […] did not consider the revolver as a menace to the crew rather than as an encouragement.
Following the visit, the Japanese gifted a gold medal, depicting the imperial seal, to the boat club.
The Norwegian Rowing Association marked its jubilee in 1925, and invited several crews to Christiania (Oslo) for a celebratory regatta. Balliol was the first choice for an English crew, given that Prince Olav was studying there. However, Balliol was only able to collect two rowers, and turned to Exeter for help.
The race took place in coxless fours against crews from Kobenhavns Roklub of Denmark and Christiania Roklub of Norway. The venue was to be the brutal Frogner Fjord, which was hundreds of metres wide and completely open to the elements. The Exeter/Balliol boat was in front at the halfway point, but a crab caught by a Balliol rower saw them finish two lengths behind the Danish victors. Afterwards, King Haakon received the crew warmly at his country house and hosted a dinner in their honour.
Balliol continued its association with the Norwegian royal family, educating Olav’s son – the present King Harald V – in the 1960s. Exeter improved its position on the river, rising to a peak of third in 1929.
In the build-up to Eights in 1927, Exeter was coached on the Tideway by Steve Fairbairn. Fairbairn’s influence on modern rowing is incomparable; he invented the modern technique involving a more fluid style and heavy use of the legs. At the time, however, many rowers were disdainful of the Australian, deriding his style as the “Fairbairn heresy”.
Fairbairn had been invited to Exeter on the initiative of one of its members, Stamberg, who was promptly nicknamed "Bottles" by Fairbairn on account of the empty beer bottles lining his window sill.
Sadly, Fairbairn was not impressed by Exeter’s performance during Eights Week. He wrote in the student newspaper:
Yet among this year’s Eights I saw only two crews using their legs; Exeter was not one of them: they have picked up the fads but not the virtues of Fairbairnism.