A 1954 Oxford Rowing Footnote

In the 1954 Boat Race, which was the hundredth in the series, Oxford won with four and a half boat lengths. Being that year’s winner, the Oxford crew was invited to row in Sweden at one of the longest river races in Europe, Göta Älvrodden. The previous year, the race had been organized for the first time for eights, and was a 20,000-metre long race on a fairly straight course on the river Göta Älv between the town of Kungälv and the city of Göteborg (Gothenburg).

In the beginning of the 1950s, the Swedes wanted to create a long race to promote the sport of rowing. There was a race on Göta Älv in 1952 for coxed inrigger fours, but glancing towards London, the oarsmen in ‘Lilla London’ [‘Little London’] – as the people in Gothenburg sometimes refer to their city – desired something more like the Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge. One of the organizers, Reinhold Bråkenhielm, talked to the head of the Gothenburg Sport Federation’s rowing section, Bertil Göransson, to get his blessing to invite 1954 winners of the Boat Race. Göransson, who was active as a coxswain and would actually steer the Swedish eight who reached the final in the Grand at Henley in 1955 and the Olympic final the following year, was of course very positive to bring Oxford over to Sweden.

In the spring 1954, Bråkenhielm was working in London for a Swedish company. He contacted ARA’s Chairman Gully Nickalls, who arranged a meeting between the Swede and Oxford’s famous coach H.R.A. ‘Jumbo’ Edwards and one member of the crew, Jim Gobbo of Australia. In the beginning of the talk, Bråkenhielm did not want to bring up the length of the course as it was three times as long as the course between Putney and Mortlake, being afraid that it would scare off the Brit and the Australian, but when he eventually did, both Edwards and Gobbo thought it was fine. If you can row almost 7,000 metres on the Thames, you can row 20,000 metres on a Swedish river they seemed to think, Bråkenhielm once said in an interview published in a Swedish rowing magazine.

In September, a week before the race, Oxford arrived at Gothenburg, together with Jumbo Edwards. The local newspaper Göteborgs-Posten paid for the accommodations at the hotel Fars Hatt. When it was time for the race, the Oxford crew had rowed the course several times. When they heard that last year’s winner, the local rowing club Kungälvs Roddklubb, had taken 57 minutes, 25 seconds to complete the race, the Oxfordians joked and said that the Swedish crew probably stayed somewhere along the course to have tea.

Well, first crossing the finish line in the 1954 race was Oxford. The winning time was 1 hour, 2 minutes and 29 seconds – if they stayed along the course for tea, no one knows. Due to different weather and current conditions, it is of course impossible to compare the times from one year to another. The race was followed by around 80,000 spectators, and became an enormous success for the sport of rowing on the west coast of Sweden. Edwards never mentions the trip to Sweden in his The Way of a Man with a Blade (1963), nor has it found its way into books about the history of Oxford rowing. This is quite understandable. After all, this is only a little footnote in the history of the Boat Race.

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