British Empire Games Rowing in 1950

The combination of oarsmen from Leander and Thames RC represented England at the rowing regatta at the 1950 Empire Games: bow A.S.F. Butcher (Thames RC), 2. P.A de Giles (Leander), 3. W.A.D. Windham (Leander), 4. H.W. Rushmere (Thames RC), 5. R.D. Burnell (Leander), 6. P.C. Kirkpatrick (Thames RC), 7. M.C. Lapage (Leander), stroke P. Bradley (Leander) and cox J.P. Dearlove. Photograph by G.F. Louden (in Richard Burnell’s Swing, Swing Together).

On 31 August, Tim Koch wrote on HTBS about Jack Dearlove, ‘The Indefatigable Jack Dearlove’. Jack, who had lost a leg in an accident, showed the same fighting spirit as today’s rowers at the Paralympic Games in London. Jack coxed the Great Britain eight to an Olympic silver medal in 1948 and a bronze medal at the Empire Games in 1950. This is a short story about the 1950 Empire Games’ rowing regatta on Lake Karapiro in New Zealand.

The first British Empire Games (now called the Commonwealth Games) were held in 1930 in Hamilton, Ontario, by, as Hylton Cleaver writes in his A History of Rowing (1957), “a group of keen sportsmen and great believers in the Empire”. That year’s winner of the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley, London RC, beat a strong eight from New Zealand by half a length. Bobby Pearce, then still sculling for Australia, became the first Empire Champion in the single sculls, beating Jack Beresford of Thames RC. There seems to have been an Empire Games in England in 1934, but without rowing! So, at the next Empire Games where rowing was included, in 1938, a combination eight of oarsmen from London, Thames, Oxford and Cambridge overpowered an eight from Australia. And then came the War.

After a successful race in the 1949 Grand Challenge Cup final at Henley Royal Regatta, Leander captain Richard Burnell was asked to gather a crew for the British Empire Games, which were to be held in Auckland, New Zealand, in February 1950. Knowing that not all of the members of the Grand Cup winning Leander crew would be available, Burnell began looking around for other ‘outstanding men elsewhere’, as he writes in “The Empire Games Crew, 1950”, which is a chapter in his book Swing Together: Thoughts on Rowing (1952). He did not have to look very far. In 1949, Thames RC had taken the Grand Cup at Henley, and some oarsmen from that crew were eager to swap out the English winter for a much warmer climate on the other side of the world.

In the beginning there had been 17 oarsmen invited to the practise, including also two each from London RC and Kingston RC, but on 23 October, 1949, the selected eight looked as follows:

Bow A.S.F. Butcher (Thames RC)
2. P.A de Giles (Leander)
3. W.A.D. Windham (Leander)
4. H.W. Rushmere (Thames RC)
5. R.D. Burnell (Leander)
6. P.C. Kirkpatrick (Thames RC)
7. M.C. Lapage (Leander)
Stroke P. Bradley (Leander)
Cox J.P. Dearlove (Thames RC)

Added to these nine men were two spare rowers: A.D. Rowe (Leander; who was also in the single sculls) and M.H.N. Plaisted (London RC). Team Manager during the trip was Jack Beresford.

At first, the crew had been coached by Wing Commander Hellyer – of ‘syncopated rowing’ fame – but his doctor put a stop to him participating in winter coaching, and instead ‘Gully’ Nickalls stepped in to coach the eight. Burnell writes that Nickalls’s approach to coaching a crew was, ‘that a crew should first achieve a true rhythm and length in its paddling, and then translate this into its rowing’. However, Burnell states there was not really the time to work this way. He writes:

‘A certain amount of speed has got to be achieved in order to race, and if a crew is held back in order to perfect its length and rhythm in paddling, there is a distinct danger that it will not be ready in time to race. […] When we left England our paddling was really good, and on numerous occasions we disappointed the critics by paddling beautifully and then becoming rushed and scrappy in our rowing.’

The 1950 Great Britain Empire Game crew. Burnell, sixth from left in a dark scarf, kept a ‘captain’s log’ during the crew’s practise in England and later on Lake Karapiro. Picture © John Dearlove.

Burnell kept a ‘captain’s log’ during the crew’s practise at Henley, the trip to New Zealand and the practise there, and parts of it are published in “The Empire Games Crew, 1950”. The team left England on 23 January, 1950, and when they arrived they heard that their boat had not arrived yet, so they had to borrow an old Sims. The long trip took its toll on the English crew, who also had problems with the diet. Eventually, their own boat arrived and also the riggers. But at the race, on 6 February, it did not really help, ‘the race was naturally a bitter disappointment to us all’ Burnell states. The Aussies won – ‘they were strong and well together, and rowed in something very like our own English Fairbairn style’, he writes.

In the Australian boat rowed: bow R.N. Tinning, 2. P.A. Cayzer, 3. A.P. Holmes, 4. B.H. Goswell, 5. R.L. Selman, 6. E.O. Longley, 7. E.O. Pain, stroke A.W. Brown and cox J.E. Barnes. New Zealand’s crew was young, a little inexperienced, but ‘exceptionally tough’ and had rowed on Lake Karapiro for several weeks. They raced hard and almost overcame the Aussies. New Zealand’s crew: bow E. Smith, 2. B. Culpan, 3. D. Rowlands, 4. G. Jarratt, 5. M. Ashby, 6. W. Tinnock, 7. K. Ashby, stroke T.C. Engel and cox D. Adams. English sculler A.D. Rowe came in second after M. Wood, the reigning Olympic Champion from Australia. The bronze in the single sculls was taken by I.R.G. Steven of South Africa. T. Hegglum of New Zealand came in fourth.

There were some lessons to be learned after the Englishmen’s trip to New Zealand, which Burnell also recognises in a follow-up chapter in his Swing Together.

More about the British Empire Games Rowing tomorrow, 7 September.

One comment

  1. A footnote for rowing nerds: This crew used 'fixed pin' (as opposed to 'swivel') rowlocks at Henley and in New Zealand. They were the last crew to win the Grand using these.

    Tim Koch.

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