Frederick William Strange – Founder of Modern Sports in Japan by Gillian Clegg

Rowing has been an important part of life in Chiswick since the middle of the 19th century, so perhaps it is not surprising to discover that the man dubbed ‘the father of Japanese rowing’ honed his skills on the Thames in Chiswick and Hammersmith. So revered in Japan was Frederick William Strange that he was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays.

Strange was born in 1853, one of the eight children (although three died young) of James Thompson Strange and his wife Martha née Kemp. Their father was a mathematics teacher who changed direction to become a publican and a successful wine merchant with premises off Tottenham Court Road. James Thompson died in 1869 and in 1870 the family (by then reduced to Martha with four sons and one daughter) moved from the West End to Chiswick.

The Strange family home, Oxford Lodge, south of the station, detail from the lithograph advertising the new estate in 1867

Their address was Oxford Lodge, Spencer Road in the new development of Grove Park. Oxford Lodge has now gone – the flats called Burlington Court have been built on its site – but it was one of the first, and grandest, houses to be built in this development of large houses set in spacious grounds, with access to the river ‘for gentlemen to enjoy the sports of rowing and fishing’.

Maynard’s letter-heading with his premises, downstream of Strand on the Green. Here F W Strange first became interested in rowing

The Strange boys were not slow to take advantage of the facilities. They joined the Grove Park Rowing Club and hired boats from the brand new Devonshire Boat House, opened by Frank Maynard in 1871 . Maynard built and repaired boats, hired them out and maintained boats for owners.

The name of Strange occurs in five entries in Maynard’s Expenses and Accounts Diary for 1871. On 31 January: ‘Rec’d from B Strange 17s 7d for hiring a boat’ (B Strange was Frederick’s elder brother Orlando Bailey). On 25 March: ‘Strange, damag’d Cover to Sg Bt’, i e one of the brothers had damaged the fabric deck to a single scull boat for which he was charged £1. The next day one of the brothers paid £7 to hire a single scull boat for the season. On 4 May a Mr Strange hired a single scull for £5. In The Rowing Almanac there are mentions of the three younger brothers taking part in Grove Park Rowing Club regattas from 1871 to 1873 – James Walter the eldest brother, a wine merchant, was probably otherwise occupied. Frederick William was mentioned as a sculler and a sweeper, Orlando Bailey as a sweeper and Frank Hastings as a coxswain, so it is probable that the references to sculling boats all refer to Frederick William. A single scull is a difficult boat to handle, so he was developing his skills. The entry on 19 May reads: ‘Fetched Mr Strange’s Boat from Steamship’ which suggests that the boatyard was unable to construct the type of sculling boat Strange required so it was built elsewhere and delivered by a Thames steamship.

In 1873 the Strange family moved from Grove Park to Hammersmith and Frederick joined the very competitive North London Rowing Club which, despite its name, was based at Biffen’s Boathouse, Lower Mall, Hammersmith. The Rowing Almanack shows that he took part in several regattas and suggests that his skills as an oarsman had improved, as he won two sculling races in 1874 and was considered one of the club’s top scullers.

Pastures new
After Frederick turned 21 in 1874 he became eligible for an advance of the inheritance from his late father’s estate. He lost no time in booking a passage to Japan, arriving in Yokahama on the P & O Ship Orissa on 23 March 1875. Within 19 days he had found a job as an instructor of English in the Tokyo English School, which later became the preparatory school for the University of Tokyo, probably with the help of Dairoku Kikuchi whom he had met at University College School.

Bas relief portrait of F W Strange on his memorial in the grounds of the University of Tokyo

Why Japan? It was quite common for young Victorian gentlemen to seek their fortunes overseas, mainly in the Colonies – as administrators in India, farmers in Canada, gold prospectors in South Africa etc – but less usual for them to try their luck in a poor country like Japan which was only just emerging from 200 years of self-imposed isolation from the West and where foreigners were still regarded with suspicion and hostility.

It is thought that Strange chose Japan because of contacts he had made at school. In 1868 Frederick had been sent for two terms to the University College School, London before continuing his education as a boarder at Thanet Collegiate School in Kent. His classmates at University College School included Shoichi Toyama and Dairoku Kikuchi. These boys, along with 12 others, had been sent to England to study by the ruling Shogunate which, in its later years, had recognised Japan’s need to master more advanced Western technologies. Both Shoichi Toyama and Dairoku Kikuchi later became presidents of the University of Tokyo and Ministers of Education in Japan.

At the time Strange arrived in Japan, sports were an incomprehensible mystery to the Japanese and there was thus no tradition of sports training in schools. Presumably Strange persuaded his pupils to take part in sports as an extra-curricular activity. As a member of the foreign community, Strange continued to row, taking part in the Amateur Regatta of the Yokohama Rowing Club in 1877. Later he became Captain of the Tokyo Cricket Club; he also played football and baseball.

But by the 1880s Japan was modernising and profound changes were taking place. The Meiji regime which had overturned the Shogunate recognised the need to improve the health of the nation and produce ‘strong soldiers’, and sports were made compulsory in elementary schools.

Frederick William Strange was the right man in the right place at the right time. He was the author of the first sports book to be published in Japan. Entitled Outdoor Games, it covered hockey, football, tennis, cricket, baseball and various athletic sports but not rowing. He taught students sportsmanship while coaching them. In 1883 Strange played a leading role in organising the first major athletics meeting of the University of Tokyo and its prep school, drawing up the programme, setting the rules, preparing the sports equipment, publicising the event and coaching his students in running, jumping and putting the shot. The meeting was supervised by Dairoku Kikuchi, Strange’s erstwhile classmate, and was a great success, featuring in many newspapers and educational magazines.

Strange was also instrumental, in 1883, in setting up a supervising body for rowing, which was becoming popular, with many rowing clubs springing up at the University. This body, called Sokagumi, controlled who could use the limited number of boats available. Sokagumi collected donations to build new boats and Strange was instrumental in their design, using the experience he might have gained at Maynard’s boathouse in Chiswick. In 1884 the Sokagumi organised the first regatta for the University of Tokyo, with Frederick Strange’s overall co-operation. The event caused a great deal of excitement, with the banks of the river crowded with spectators. The next autumn he arranged a race between the team of the University of Tokyo and the team from the Yokohama Amateur Rowing Club, who were foreign oarsmen, mainly English.

Next, an organization to encourage students to play sports regularly was needed, to provide them with sports equipments and facilities, and to organize matches and competitions for them. Strange worked with Sokagumi to create this sports organization, which was called ‘Undokai’. Other universities and schools all over Japan followed suit in establishing sports organizations, and now sports are played regularly in Japan and regattas held frequently.

Senior and retired oarsmen at the grave of F W Strange where they gather every July on the anniversary of his death. Photo by Kozo Takahashi

In 1888 the Japanese government awarded F W Strange the 5th Class of the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays (introduced in 1875) in recognition of his contribution to sport. At that time many foreigners who contributed to the modern-isation of Japan were rewarded with this Order. F W Strange was awarded the 5th class; had he lived longer and continued his work for sports, he might have been promoted to a higher class of the Order.

However, tragedy struck in 1889 when he died of congestive heart failure aged only 35, leaving his wife, Edith, and two small children. Strange died on Friday 5 July and two days later several hundred people, including the Minister of Education and other government officials, professors and teachers from the university and school, and many of his students all in uniform, gathered to pay their respects as his coffin was taken from his home after a brief funeral ceremony. He was buried in Aoyama Cemetery, Tokyo, and every year, on the anniversary of his death, senior and retired oarsmen gather to clean his tomb and lay flowers on it.

In 2009, being the 120th anniversary, a special event was held with some 90 representatives from rowing and sporting associations, in gratitude for F W Strange’s contributions to sports in Japan, and to keep his memory alive.

Acknowledgements and sources
The author would like to thank the following people for providing the information for this article: Kozo Takahashi, member of the Concordia Rowing Club; Dr Richard Lewis, member of the Alexandria Community Rowing Club; Ms Rae Fether, descendant of Frederick William Strange’s brother James and Strange family genealogist (see for more on the Strange family)

The following are all held in the Local Studies Collection at Chiswick Library:

Uncatalogued collection of papers from Maynard’s Boatyard

Lewis, Dr Richard & Fether, Rae F W Strange’s Participation in Sports after his Education and while a Resident of Grove Park (Chiswick) and Hammersmith on the Thames River, England, age 17 to 21 (1871-74). Unpublished manuscript, undated.

Takahashi, Kozo A Great Missionary of Modern Sports in Japan. Unpublished MS, 2007

Takahashi, Kozo ‘The Man who Spread Sports over Japan’ Rowing No 479, Apr/May 2008, published by the Japanese Rowing Association

Gillian Clegg is the author of Chiswick Past, The Chiswick Book and the website


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