The Burnell-Perry Thames Dinghy; Or With Cerise Coloured Blades In Connecticut

Hart Perry sculling in his dinghy with the cerise coloured blades…

As has been mentioned before on HTBS, there will be a cocktail reception, raw bar, and silent auction in memory of Hart Perry on Friday 9 March between 5:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. (The auction will close on Saturday 10 March at 6 p.m.) The reception and auction will be held at the National Rowing Hall of Fame in the G.W. Blunt White Building at Mystic Seaport, 75 Greenmanville Avenue, Mystic, Connecticut. The cost is $100, and the proceeds from this event will be used for projects related to rowing history and the National Rowing Hall of Fame and rowing exhibits. To register for the reception, go here.

The highlight of the evening will be the auction of Hart Perry’s Thames pulling dinghy, donated by Gill Perry and the Perry family. Here is a description of the dinghy, “Corpus Leandri”: Length: 10ft.; Beam: 4ft. 2in.; Draft: 1ft. 3in.

This clinker-built boat was made in England possibly by Hobbs of Henley-on-Thames or Wyatts of Wargrave, probably in the 1930s, or maybe earlier (there is no boat builder plaque in the boat). There are some uncertainties about what kind of wood has been used, but a qualified guess is cedar on elm, six planks per side. The stern is mahogany whereupon is painted “Corpus Leandri” (the motto of Leander Club is “Corpus Leandri Spes Mea”). One sculling thwart, adjustable stretcher, stern seat and small bow seat, both with backrests in mahogany, and accompanying old velvet cushions. Two floorboards (2×2 floorboards), and a pair of bronze swivel rowlocks (oarlocks) and rudder with lines. Although the dinghy is in good condition, the thwart, floorboards, and inside will need to be re-varnished before the first outing of the season. The dinghy comes with Hart Perry’s sculls, and the blades are painted in Leander cerise.

The starting bid is $5,000. If you are not able to attend the silent auction in person, you are welcome to contact auctioneer Tom Sanford, who will accept your bids from 12 p.m. Friday 9 March to 6 p.m. Saturday 10 March via email or phone: t-sanford@sbcglobal.net or 860-319-6254.

This dinghy comes with a remarkable rowing history. It was bought by famous oarsman Don Burnell, but it is not known exactly when he obtained it. He most likely purchased it just before, during, or just after World War II.

Charles “Don” Desborough Burnell (1875–1969) was educated at and rowed for Eton College and Magdalen College, Oxford. He was an Oxford Blue and rowed in the winning Oxford crews in 1895, 1896, 1897, and 1898. Especially the 1897 crew seemed to have been exceptional, being called “the finest crew that ever rowed”. It was also at this time that Burnell was spoken of as “the strongest sweep in England”. As a member of Leander Club, he won several cups at the Henley Royal Regatta, including four consecutive victories in the Grand Challenge Cup from 1898 to 1901, and two in the Stewards’ Challenge Cup in 1898 and 1900 (he also won the 1899 Stewards’ rowing for Magdalen).

The “Old Crocks” in 1908, Don Burnell, “the strongest sweep in England”, in fifth seat.

For the 1908 Olympic rowing in Henley, Don Burnell was asked to race in the Leander crew, which was Great Britain’s “second boat” in the eights, the first one being that year’s winning Boat Race crew from Cambridge. The Leander crew, with Burnell at age 33 and another Magdalen oarsman, Guy Nickalls at age 42, was affectionately called the “Old Crocks”. In the final, the “Old Crocks” overpowered the Belgian eight from Royal Club Nautique de Gand to take the Olympic gold. During Word War I, Burnell served in the London Rifle Brigade, leaving the Army after the War had ended with the rank of Lt. Colonel; he would thereafter often be called “The Colonel”. In 1919, Don Burnell was elected a Henley Steward, in 1921 he coached Oxford, and from 1927 to 1930 he was umpire of the Boat Race. Burnell was President of Leander Club from 1954 to 1957.

In 1903, Don Burnell had married Jessie Backhouse (1877–1966) and they had two sons and two daughters. The most famous of their children, when it comes to rowing, was Richard “Dickie” Desborough Burnell (1917–1995). Dickie Burnell also rowed for Eton and Magdalen, and won his Blue in the losing Oxford boat in the 1939 Boat Race. After the War, Captain Burnell of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, stationed in northern Germany, managed to practice rowing at Hamburg Ruder Club, which fortunately was undamaged from the RAF’s bombings of the town. After coming out of the Army in March 1946, he established himself as one of the best scullers in England. Rowing for Leander, Burnell won the Grand and competed in the Diamonds in 1946, the same year he won the Wingfield Sculls – The British Amateur Sculling Championships and Championship of the Thames. Though working for the British Council, in 1946 he also began on a freelance basis to write rowing articles for The Times.

Six weeks before the 1948 Olympic rowing, again in Henley-on-Thames, Dickie Burnell was teamed up with another successful sculler, Bert Bushnell (Wingfields winner 1947), to represent Great Britain at the Olympics in the double sculls. At first Burnell-Bushnell seemed to be an odd couple. The 31-year-old Burnell, at stroke, was a giant at 6ft. 4in., while Bushnell, 26, in the bow, was only 5ft. 9in. But somehow they made it work. In an article many years later, Bushnell said: “I was on the bridge and ‘Dickie’ was in the engine room.” With some tactical rowing, they took themselves to the final, where they beat the powerful Danish double by two lengths. The day after, Burnell duly reported in The Times that he and Bert Bushnell had become Olympic champions in the double. Thereafter, Burnell continued on a more regular basis to pen rowing articles for the paper.

Having a father and a son being Olympic gold medalists in rowing is an exceptional family achievement. Later this year, for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, the BBC is going to air a film, Bert and Dickie, about Bushnell’s and Burnell’s 1948 Olympic triumph. Burnell continued to row after the Olympic Games and in the cerise colours of Leander, he won the 1949 Grand and the 1951 Double Sculls (with Pat Bradley) at Henley. He also captained the British eight at the 1950 British Empire Games (now called the Commonwealth Games) in New Zealand. The British eight, comprised of oarsmen from Leander and Thames RC, took a bronze.

Peter Burnell in his grandfather, Don Burnell’s dinghy, in 1954 or 1955. In 1962, Peter would win his Blue when he rowed in the losing Oxford crew in the Boat Race.

Dickie Burnell was not only a rowing journalist at The Times (from 1966 at The Sunday Times), he also wrote several books on how to scull and history books about the Boat Race, the Henley Royal Regatta, and Leander Club. His first, Swing Together: Thoughts on Rowing (1952), is a very personal book and a great read, and so is his Sculling with Notes on Training and Rigging (1955), which not only has photographs of his former sculling partner, Bert Bushnell, but also a marvelous photograph of his oldest son, the 14-15-year-old Peter in his grandfather, Don Burnell’s dinghy.

Before World War II, Don and Jessie Burnell lived in Wedmore, which was a fairly large house on Remenham Hill, going out of Henley towards Maidenhead. During the War, when they lived in a little terraced house in St Mark’s Road in Henley, they bought a plot of land in Wargrave, outside of Henley, where they began to build a house. Just after the War, the Burnells moved into the house, called Brentwode, whose garden was next to Hennerton Backwater, which was what the waterway was called from Wargrave to Marsh Lock at Henley. There the dinghy was kept in a hut, if it was not tied up on the “backwater”.

Three young Burnell children at the oars, Peter and Zandra at the stroke oar (port) and John at the bow oar (starboard), c 1955.

In June 1940, Dickie Burnell married Rosalind Garton, daughter of Stanley Garton, who had won an Olympic gold medal in the Leander eight in Stockholm in 1912. Dickie and Rosalind Burnell’s five young children, Peter, John, Edward, Alexandra (“Zandra”), and Elizabeth (“Tizzy”), and their cousins, loved to mess about in the dinghy, rowing it up and down the stream of “backwater”. “Towards Wargrave the backwater was rather overhung by willows and we had to duck our heads to get through, but downstream towards Henley it quickly widened out and joined the main River Thames”, Zandra Houston (nee Burnell) still remembers. She continues, “I learned to swim in the backwater at Brentwode, and used to be terrified of putting my feet down in the water as there was loads of weed and large fierce pike swimming about, but I think everyone swam in rivers in those days!” Peter would follow in his grandfather’s and father’s wake, studying at Eton and Magdalen, and rowing for Oxford in the 1962 Boat Race.

The Burnell Family at Brentwode: from left to right, Don Burnell, his wife Jessie, Zandra, Dickie, Dickie’s sister Janet (who was a professional actress, and quite a character, according to Zandra), and Rosalind. In the front row: Edward and Peter (John is missing in the picture and Rosalind is pregnant with Tizzy). Behind the photographer is the “backwater” where the dinghy was tied up.

When Don Burnell’s wife Jessie died in 1966, he sold Brentwode and moved in to live at Leander Club. It was there that Hart Perry (1933–2011), coach for Kent School in Connecticut, laid his eyes on the dinghy for the first time. Perry, who had become head coach at Kent in 1964, frequently took his crews to compete at Henley, and in 1968 he became a member of Leander. It was almost certainly around that time that he bought the dinghy from Dickie Burnell. In 1969, Don Burnell died.

One of Hart Perry’s greatest successes as a coach for Kent came in 1972, when his Kent eight took the Princess Elizabeth Cup at Henley. Two years later, in 1974, Perry was the first non-Commonwealth citizen elected a Henley Steward. Dickie Burnell, who was President of Leander Club from 1988 to 1993, passed away in 1995 and was laid to rest in the family grave in Remenham, just down stream from Henley, where his parents were buried.

The Burnell Family grave in Remenham.

Perry was the first U.S. citizen to sit on Leander’s governing committee, and was instrumental in raising funds for Leander’s major renovation, in which the club’s bedrooms were named after prominent British and U.S. rowing schools and colleges. Perry brought the dinghy home to Connecticut, where he and his children enjoyed many outings on the Housatonic. When Perry left Kent School to settle in North Stonington, Connecticut, the dinghy naturally came along.

For more than 50 years, Perry lived a life in rowing: he rowed, coached, and served as an official in both national and international events, in two Olympic Games, 18 World Rowing Junior Championships, and 10 World Rowing Championships, and for decades he was working with Juniors within FISA, the international rowing federation. He was the president of the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen, the predecessor organization to USRowing, and after he stepped down from that position, he became the driving force to raise money for U.S. athletes to compete in international regattas. Hart Perry was inducted into four rowing halls of fame, including the National Rowing Hall of Fame in 1990.

Already from the start, in 1956, he was involved with the National Rowing Hall of Fame, and for decades he worked hard to establish a physical place for “the Hall”, especially since he was elected the Executive Director of the National Rowing Foundation (NRF), which is the organization in charge of inducting members into the Rowing Hall of Fame. In spring 2008, Perry finally saw a dream come true when the NRF’s National Rowing Hall of Fame opened in the G.W. Blunt White Building at Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut. During the years, he received several awards; in 2009, he and his wife, Gillian, his right hand, were awarded the USRowing Medal, and on January 20, 2011, he was awarded FISA’s World Rowing Distinguished Service to Rowing Award at the World Rowing Coaches Conference Gala at the River & Rowing Museum in Henley. Arriving home from England, Perry took ill and died shortly thereafter, on February 3, 2011.

I would especially like to thank Zandra Houston (nee Burnell) and her siblings for their memories about the Burnell dinghy and for providing information about their father and grandfather, and allowing HTBS to post photographs from the Burnell family photo album. Thanks also to Dr. Robert Treharne Jones, press officer at Leander Club, for information. I am also grateful to rowing historian and Leander member Tom Weil for valuable in-put and a final “editorial clean-up.

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