The Rowing Lauries

One of the most popular TV-series in America right now is House, where the British actor, Hugh Laurie, plays the very rude but brilliant-minded Dr. Gregory House. I have been a fan of Laurie for a long time, and although I enjoy watching him in House, as a P. G. Wodehouse reader, my favourite TV-series, with Laurie in the lead role, is Jeeves and Wooster. In an interview with the magazine Parade in April 2009, Laurie says that his father was a respected doctor, but that he, Laurie the younger, has “made a lot more money as a fake doctor than my father ever did for all his hard work.”

Like his father, William George Ranald Mundell Laurie – “Ran” Laurie, for short – Hugh Laurie rowed for Cambridge getting his Blue in 1980, where his boat lost to Oxford with a trifle of 1,5 metres. Click below to see a couple of seconds of that race:

Hugh Laurie also competed at the Junior World Championships in 1977, and at the Henley Royal Regatta in the coxless pairs in 1980. About the last race, and his “fascination with Henley”, he wrote a very funny article in, I think, The Sunday Telegraph on 2 July 1990:

“The last time I raced at Henley was in 1980, in the final of the Silver Goblets. It was a very bad year to pick. The regatta had been overrun by the American Olympian squad who were looking to kick some sand into English faces after their boycott of the Moscow Games.
With my partner, James Palmer, I squared up to two brothers by the name of Borscheldt, [sic M. & F. Borchelt] who were 19 feet tall and made entirely of Kevlar. Or maybe they were called Kevlar and made of Borscheldt, I can’t remember. Anyway, they were munching canapés on the flight back to Boston by the time we finished.”

If Hugh Laurie is now a famous actor, his father will still be the more famous oarsman of the two. Ran Laurie, born in 1915, rowed in three victorious Cambridge boats, 1934, 1935, and 1936. Laurie stroked the two last ones to easy wins. Jack Wilson, who would become a great friend of Laurie’s, was in the same three crews. When Laurie stroked the British eight to a fourth place at the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936, with Wilson not in the boat, Laurie “attributed the difference between first and fourth place at the Olympics to Wilson’s absence from the crew,” Christopher Dodd writes in his obituary of Ran Laurie (The Independent, 10 October 1998).

Both Laurie and Wilson joined the Sudan Political Service in 1936. Two years later, in 1938, when both men were on leave, they entered the Silver Goblets at Henley for fun, and won the final easily. Laurie had earlier won the Grand Challenge Cup for eights at Henley in 1934. Laurie and Wilson both stayed in Sudan during the Second World War, but when they both came back to England with their families, they returned to Henley in 1948 for a second go at the Silver Goblets – and won easily again! As Henley was a qualification regatta for the Olympic rowing events in Henley later that year, the “Desert Rats”, as they came to be known, suddenly found themselves representing their country at one of the prime rowing races in the world. They trained at Cambridge for four weeks – and drew extra food rations – and in the Olympic race they managed, according to Laurie, to have “the best row we ever had” winning the Olympic title with a length.

Their shell is now on display at the River and Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames. It would take 40 years before another British boat would take an Olympic gold medal in the coxless pairs, this time the winners were Steve Redgrave and Andy Holmes in Seoul in 1988.

Jack Wilson, born in 1914, died a year before Ran Laurie, in 1997. As a matter of fact, Wilson was born in Bristol, Rhode Island of British parents. Next time my family and I drive through Bristol, I will take off my hat in respect.

5 comments

  1. The whole story over the two generations is quite something ; among many other titbits either Wilson or Laurie was stabbed through the thigh by a spear whilst on duty in the Sudan (and supposedly naerly died), and the reason for the remarkably close finish in the 1980 Race was that the Oxford bowman collapsed with about a mile to go , having hidden a viral illness in the week before the Race.

  2. Would you mind posting the entire text of the July 1990 article that Hugh Laurie wrote….It would be great to read the whole thing.

    thanks.

  3. I would very much like to post Hugh Laurie’s article. However, to re-publish the whole piece, I would need both Mr. Laurie’s and “The Sunday Telegraph’s” permission. I will post the beginning of the article, and if you are terribly interested in the entire thing, I would be happy to take a copy and send it to you by snail mail. Send an e-mail to my work e-mail: goran.buckhorn@mysticseaport.org

  4. Thank you very much, Göran, for these entries. I'm an American living in Sweden and a huge House/Hugh Laurie fan. I'm very intrigued by the life and times of Ran Laurie. It's easy to understand why Hugh revered his father so much. I would also be interested in the entire article, if that's okay? Tack så mycket!

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