The Bournes: 2 – ‘The Ugly Stroke’

Bob Bourne, stroking the dark blues in 1910.

In my column for April in British Rowing’s Rowing & Regatta, I am telling the story of the historic race between Oxford and Cambridge in 1912, or maybe I should write, their first race in 1912; there was also a second race, on 1 April, which Oxford easily won.

It was during the first race, on 30 March, that both the light blues and the dark blues sank. Well, actually when Cambridge really sank, outside of Harrods, Oxford did get waterlogged coming out of Hammersmith Bridge, but went over to the Surrey shore where they emptied out the water. Back in the boat, and after a couple of strokes, the umpire’s launch showed up and Fred Pitman, the umpire, declared a ‘No-Race’. And here the famous Robert Croft Bourne (1888-1938), the stroke in the dark blue boat, comes into the picture again. Years later, the Oxford cox, H.B. Wells, would give his account of this race, saying that “I will not repeat what Bob Bourne said to me when he heard this.” A good guess would be that Bourne said sometimes in the lines of his ‘GDBM’, which was discussed in yesterday’s entry.

Bourne did tell the crew to begin to paddle again. Umpire Pitman lost his temper seeing this and shouted: “What are you doing Oxford? Where are you going? Didn’t you understand that I have declared ‘No-Race.’” Bourne shouted back: “We are going to Mortlake,” and after a short pause, he added, “because our clothes are there.” And off to Mortlake the Oxford crew went, Bourne making a point that it was possible to row the full course.

Not many had high hopes for Bob Bourne as a stroke in his first Boat Race, in 1909. He had not really distinguished himself at Eton as a good ‘oar’. To borrow Gordon Ross’s words in his book The Boat Race (1954): “[Bourne] was of slight build and of moderate physical strength; he never weighed much over eleven stone, and even in 1909 that was a light weight for a Blue. Nor was he an attractive oar to watch; he had an exaggerated reach forward and a long and ugly lie-back at the finish; and there were some who thought that the choice of him to stroke the Oxford crew of 1909 was due largely to the fact that his father was the coach.”

But Bob Bourne proved them all wrong. He stroked the dark blues to victory in 1909, and in 1910, 1911, and 1912. Bourne was gravely wounded during the First World War, in August 1915 at Suvla Bay in the Dardanelles, which stopped his career at the oar. After the war, he went into politics, and was elected a Conservative MP for Oxford in 1924. In 1938, at the age of 50, Bourne suddenly died while walking in Scotland. Ross writes “the long-delayed effects of his war wounds caused a collapse of his heart.”

Next entry will be about Bob Bourne’s legendary father, Dr. Gilbert Charles Bourne.

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