Greg Denieffe: Jack Beresford – The Early Years, Part 1

Jack Beresford is one of the most famous of oarsmen in the history of rowing although it is now 35 years ago he died, in 1977. In a three-piece article HTBS’s Greg Denieffe writes about Beresford and the school that made him a man and an oarsman, Bedford School. Greg writes,

There is a wonderful entry by Christopher Dodd for Jack Beresford in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB). If you have a British library card you can access the online edition for free. Like most reviews of Jack’s life, it concentrates on his remarkable rowing career with Thames Rowing Club and his five Olympic medals. HTBS readers will be familiar with his long international rowing career (1920-1939) and his ten Henley medals, two Olympic silver medals (1920 and 1928) and three Olympic gold medals (1924, 1932 and 1936).

The first paragraph of the ODNB briefly covers Jack’s early years:

Beresford, Jack [formerly Jack Beresford Wiszniewski] (1899–1977), oarsman, was born at 36 St Mary’s Grove, Chiswick, Middlesex, on 1 January 1899, the elder son and eldest of the three children of Julius Beresford Wiszniewski (b. 1868) and his wife, Ethel Mary Wood. *His father, Julius, was taken to Britain from Poland by his governess at the age of twelve, and became a furniture manufacturer. Jack was educated at Bedford School, served with the Artists’ Rifles in 1917, was commissioned in the Liverpool Scottish regiment, and was wounded in the leg in northern France in 1918. At school his sporting ambitions were directed at rugby, but prescribed physiotherapy of rowing a dinghy at Fowey, Cornwall, turned him to rowing. He then entered his father’s business, and began working at the furniture factory Beresford and Hicks, of Curtain Road, London.

LONDON – Roots
In 1903, Jack and his parents moved to The Belfairs, 19 Grove Park Gardens, Chiswick, London W4 3RY and lived there throughout his youth, during his time as a boarder at Bedford School, and throughout his glittering rowing career and up until his marriage in 1940. According to Gillian Clegg, compiler of, the house, the largest in Grove Park, was built in 1898 with its own coach house and rooms above.

English Heritage erected a blue plaque on the wall of the house to commemorate his time at this address. There is a photograph of the house on their website. His birth place lies a few streets away. Thames Rowing Club hosted the unveiling of the plaque in 2005.

BEDFORD SCHOOL – The making of a man
In 1913, Jack started at Bedford Grammar School and whilst there learnt to row, was elected “Captain of Boats” and stroked the first eight. His preferred sport was rugby and he made the first XV in the 1915-1916 season. They played 14 games winning seven and losing seven. Their coach H. A. Henderson quoted in the school journal summed up the season: “We finished the season a better side than we began… We are not now a dangerous side, but we are useful combination. The team is a very young one” (The Ousel, 25 March 1916).

The captain that year was the full back Basil McFarland who later played international rugby for Ireland (1920–1922). He retained the captaincy for the 1916-1917 season but as Bedford had done many times before, they changed their captain for the Easter Term and Jack took over for the rest of his time at the school. The overall results for 1916-1917 mirrored those of the previous year (P14, W7, L7). Owing to frost and raised railway fares the Easter Term was reduced to a single game against a Rolfe-Rogers XV which Bedford won 49-0. Five of the team gained representative honours during season “B A T McFarland, C K Davies, J Beresford, St J B Nitch and E R Peachey played for the Public Schools in the Christmas holidays” (The Ousel, 6 December 1917).

Jack’s exploits with an oar will be of more interest to readers of HTBS. Bedford School Boat Club was founded in 1861 and made its first appearance at Henley in 1879: they won the Public Schools’ Challenge Cup twice (1880 and 1881) rowing as Bedford Grammar School. The school’s next success at Henley would be as the first winners of the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup in 1946. The PE was retained in 1947 and again in 1948 and won for a fourth time in 1951. The First World War put an end to Henley Royal Regatta for five years and Jack did not get to race there for Bedford. Aylwin Simpson writing in his 1986 book Winning Waters, The Homes of Rowing had this to say about the situation:

Important as Henley was, the main event of the year for Bedford started in 1895 with its annual race against Shrewsbury School, rowed alternately on the Great Ouse and the Severn.

By 1916 Jack was stroking the 1st VIII and the race against Shrewsbury took place on the Severn on 22 June. The event that year also included a race for 2nd VIIIs and Shrewsbury produced a race card which gave the crew names and weights and the results of all previous races back to 1895.

In 1919, L. Cecil Smith edited a publication titled Annals of Public School Rowing. The chapter on Bedford School was contributed by the Rev. W. M. Askwith and this is probably the source of the above quote by Aylwin Simpson. However, the earlier work has an important insight to the quality of the Bedford crew of 1916:

In 1916 a challenge came from Eton to row them either at Eton or Henley in a boat borrowed from them, or on the Ouse. Bedford accepted for the last-named course, having already been away to Shrewsbury, but owing to the impossibility of fixing a mutually convenient date the race fell through. The Bedford crew of that year was without doubt the best on record, and would certainly not have disgraced itself even against such redoubtable antagonists. 

Bedford won the race by 8½ seconds in a time of 5.25 and Rev. Askwith also gave the result of the race for 2nd VIIIs:

In 1916 the second eight went over to Shrewsbury and beat the Shrewsbury second eight, but this fixture is not generally feasible.

The results of the Bedford School ‘In House’ fours and pairs events are also listed in the 1919 publication and the crew of R. C. L. White (bow) and J. Beresford (stroke) coxed by E. W. Parkes won the 1916 Crosbie Challenge Pair Oars. There was no race against Shrewsbury in 1917, the year Jack left Bedford, and therefore his 1916 exploits may be assumed to be his highest achievements on the water for the school.

The Ousel, The Journal of Bedford Grammar School, covers in great detail the progress of the Boat Club and from this we get a detailed picture of Jack’s progress as an oarsman. He was not in the 1st VIII in 1915 when Bedford beat Shrewsbury by 3½ seconds on home water and he gets his first mention in the ‘Rowing Notes’ section in February 1916:

The weeding out process is gradually taking effect, and it is now possible to make a guess at the probable composition of the Eight for next term, subject always to surprises and disappointments caused by the racing capacity displayed in the House Fours.

BERESFORD’S style is more suited to a pair or sculling boat than to an eight. If he can learn to mark the beginning more firmly and clearly, not to bend his arms too soon, and so to hold out a longer finish, he might make a good seven. He races well, keeps good time, and has a really good idea of watermanship.

In total, the rowing profile of 18 boys is given together with a short report on the number of crews on the water since the previous September and the type of work (some fixed seat) that the boys were doing. (The Ousel, 26 February 1916).

The ‘Rowing Notes’ section of the 25 March 1916 edition of the journal previews the House Fours:

While frost and snow, rain and mist have imposed unwilling activity on mere landsmen, the House Fours have carried out their regular work in spite of considerable discomfort. Successive floods have given opportunities for rowing on livelier water than is usual on our river, and this ought to be a distinct advantage to next term’s Eight.

Each House Fours chances are previewed:

CRESCENT have W. Waldecker (bow), S. Waldecker, Schofiel, Beresford (stroke). They appear to be going in for the so-called ‘Sculling Style.’ They are fairly well together and taking to the eye, but seem to lack the drive of some of the other crews. In practice they already owe a great deal to Beresford, and the races may prove that the debt is still greater.

Following the races the journal reported:

CRESCENT showed to distinct advantage in both their races. It was easy to do this in their heat, but they deserve great credit for the way they kept their form and length when rowing a losing race in the Final. Beresford showed good watermanship and improved rhythm, but if he is going to row stroke in a light eight he must learn to show his crew a much marked beginning.

The report concludes by confirming “The Shrewsbury race, on the Severn, has been fixed for Thursday, June 22nd. If all the likely heavy-weights can acquire the necessary quickness and polish, the crew will probably be one of the heaviest that has ever represented the School”. (The Ousel, 5 April 1916).

The focus was now on the forthcoming race with Shrewsbury and May’s journal reported:

The Eight started practice for the Shrewsbury race on Friday, May 5th, in the following order: …. J. Beresford (stroke). On May 10th, the 1912 light ship was used, and there was comparatively little rolling, although, owing to the want of smartness at the beginning, the boat was running away from them a good deal.

BERESFORD is a better hand at moving a boat than he is at stroking one. He has done so much rowing that many of his faults appear almost incurable. The success or failure of the crew largely turns on whether he can learn to give them the necessary steadiness and ease in the swing forward, followed by a crisp and decided “attaque.” (The Ousel, 24 May 1916).

In the June journal there were reports on various timed pieces, and despite a poor performance on 22 May, described as probably the slowest and worst piece of rowing by the School crew for many years, by 2 June they had improved enough so that over the course from the Town Bridge to the Three Trees the previous record was broken by 2½ seconds. The report went on to add that “Beresford and Simpson received their Colours on May 23rd”. (The Ousel, 9 June 1916).

The School journal of 8 July dedicated four pages to the Shrewsbury races. It covered the final preparations on the Ouse and the travel arrangements as well as detailed race reports on both the 1st and 2nd VIIIs.

Along the straight and round the second bend we steadily increased our lead, finally winning, with something to spare by 8½ seconds. The time, 5 mins. 25 secs., was distinctly fast considering that the wind was against the crews until they rounded the final bend.

The School crew rowed right at the top of their form, and Shrewsbury critics confirmed the impression given in the last few days on the Ouse that they are the fastest crew that Bedford has turned out.

Beresford stroked his crew with judgment, he gave them time both at the finish and on the swing forward, and seeing that he had the race well in hand never bustled his crew at any part of the course. (The Ousel, 8 July 1916).

Bedford School 1st VIII – J. Beresford at stroke


At Shrewsbury, 22 June, 1916.

The next publication of The Ousel on 27 July, 1916, had a real gem of a supplement; a group photograph of the combined Shrewsbury and Bedford crews that raced on 22 June 1916. Jack Beresford proudly wearing his 1st VIII blazer, collar turned up. No names are given, but none are needed to identify him. One can assume that many of those photographed did not see the end of the Great War that would engulf the world a couple of years later.

Jack Beresford aged 17.

The same issue gives the results of the heats and final of the School Senior Pairs held on 10, 11 and 12 July. As mentioned above Jack and his partner R. C. L. White coxed by E. W. Parkes won the event after racing a heat, semi-final and final over the three days. “The winners were a good pair, and had they been pressed would have beaten the 2.45 done in 1910”.

Under the heading “1st VIII Characters, 1916” the journal has this to say about Jack:

J. BERESFORD (stroke). – A really fine waterman, a strong oar, and when it came to racing, a good and level-headed stroke. In practice, especially in the early stages, he was inclined to try much too fast a stroke, and, in addition, he never had any idea of counting his rate of striking. At the end of practice he was showing his crew the beginning fairly well, and was driving out a fairly long finish, but even then he must have been a difficult stroke to follow.

This edition of the journal has one final mention of Jack Beresford: another victory too, not his most famous but perhaps his most unusual. He coxed CRESCENT to win the House ‘Junior’ Eights beating both ASHBURNHAM in a heat and ST. CUTHBERT’S in the final. (The Ousel, 27 July 1916).

AFTER BEDFORD – Gone but not forgotten
On leaving school he served in the First World War in France where, still a teenager he was shot in the leg. This ended his rugby career and after the war he concentrated on rowing. He joined Thames Rowing Club and his first year there (1919) is described in Geoffrey Page’s 1991 book Hear the Boat Sing: The History of Thames Rowing Club and Tideway Rowing as follows:

Although he did not compete at Henley that year, Berry’s son Jack was beginning to make his mark. He had stroked the Bedford School during the war and had later been wounded in the leg on active service. At 19 [sic] he made his first appearance at Marlow, winning the junior sculls. He followed this up by winning the junior-senior event at Kingston and the senior event at Molesey. He stroked a four and a Thames Cup eight, both of which won at Staines.
The following year, Jack won his first Diamond Challenge Sculls at Henley and his first Olympic medal in Antwerp and the rest, as they say, is history. He was a very proud ‘Old Bedfordian’ and the oak sapling presented to him after his victory at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games was planted in the school grounds. You can read an earlier HTBS post about the Bedford School ‘Hitler Oak’ here.

In 2011, Bedford School Boat Club celebrated their 150th anniversary with a ball on the 5 March, and on display were the cased medals won by Jack Beresford which were on loan from the River and Rowing Museum at Henley-on-Thames. A games room was also named in his  honour  and The Old Bedfordian club reported the occasion in the June 2011 edition of their journal OB Review:

Until Sir Steve Redgrave CBE powered across the finish in Sydney, OB and Pemberley House boy Jack Beresford (13-17) laid claim to the world’s greatest oarsman title, having won three gold and two silver Olympic medals in successive Olympics. But Jack wasn’t the only Beresford to row or the first Beresford at Pemberley (see note below). With both his OB father and nephew Michael Beresford (47-53) Olympic oarsman, the Beresfords are thought to be the only family in history with three generations of Olympic finalists in the same discipline and to have won c.1000 top class races between them. Michael returned to Pemberley in March with his wife, Roma, to help celebrate the opening of the Jack Beresford Games Room and to attend the Bedford School Boat Club 150th Anniversary Ball.

Jack’s son, John, was also invited but he was away for the anniversary, which, John writes, “was a great pity as I also was Captain of Boats in 1964. My cousin Michael took my place in opening the Jack Beresford Games Room at Pemberley, but I have been able to give them some pictures, sculls etc.”

Note – Bedford School has six houses. Each house consists of a day house and a partnering boarding house. Whilst these are the official house names, it is common for boarders to refer to their house by the name of their boarding house. Jack’s house was officially called ‘Crescent’. The day house is situated in a two storey building towards the south of the school site. The boarding house ‘Pemberley’, is situated just off site on Pemberley Avenue. The house colours are black and white.

Beresford Road, Bedford, England.

In 1947, Bedford Borough Council adopted as public highway; Beresford Road. It is very close to The Embankment which runs alongside the stretch of the river Great Ouse on which Jack learned to row. According to the council, the road would have been built shortly after the Second World War and was named in honour of Jack Beresford although they could not say exactly how the name came about.  On 12 August, 2012, Bedford local paper, Bedfordshire on Sunday printed an interesting article about Jack with the title ‘Historic Olympic hero shouldn’t be forgotten‘. It is a sentiment that I, and many readers of HTBS wholeheartedly agree with.

Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.

*See information about Julius Beresford here.

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