A Look Back at Newspapers of Old and their Rowing Correspondents

An old photograph of members of the staff at Independent on Sunday.
An old photograph of members of the staff at the Independent on Sunday.

25 February 2016

Göran R Buckhorn writes:

In mid-February, Moscow-born Evgeny Lebedev, owner of the Evening Standard and Independent Print Ltd, which publishes the newspapers The Independent, the I and the Independent on Sunday announced that he had sold the spin-off I to the Johnston Press (for £24m) and that the printed editions of The Independent and Independent on Sunday will close in March. Both papers will, however, continue in a digital format. According to an article in The Guardian, Lebedev and his father, Alexander, a former KGB agent turned billionaire who bought The Independent and Independent on Sunday for £1 in March 2010, have pumped in £65m into the Independent titles. But now the papers have come to an end, at least as printed titles, which is a real pity.

The Independent, popularly known as the Indy, was launched nearly 30 years ago, in October 1986, by journalists Stephen Glover, Andreas Whittam Smith and Matthew Symonds, who had resigned from The Daily Telegraph to create a new quality newspaper. It was important to them that the paper should be independent, or as Andreas wrote: “We will both praise and criticise without reference to a party line.” Later, Glover wrote a wonderful book about their newspaper endeavour, Paper Dreams (1993) –  a book I am reading right now. Read an account about the newspaper’s launch by Glover here.

Rowing journalist and writer Chris Dodd, a contributor to HTBS, started out as a rowing correspondent at The Guardian but moved over to write rowing articles for The Independent in 2004, where he stayed, he writes, “until the said title, to its shame, lost interest in rowing.”

I have also had a career as a journalist (of some sort) at a liberal, independent newspaper in my native country of Sweden – a very short career, I might add. Being bored working as an editor at a book publishing company, I got the opportunity to work at a large newspaper for three summer months at the Editorial Desk. Now, to be honest, I would have been better off at Culture or writing a few articles about rowing for the Sport section, especially as the editor for Editorial, in my eyes, was a frightful man. To my surprise, he wrote very well-balanced articles, while he ran his department with an iron fist and put the fear in me and the rest of the Editorial staff.

I did fairly well in the beginning, but I think it all started go downhill when I, in a signed piece about British PM John Major’s visit to Stockholm, threw in a part about the Swedish sculler Maria Brandin’s historic win of the Princess Royal Challenge Cup, the first victor in this single sculls event at Henley Royal Regatta, which I thought was important news from PM Major’s country. To my dismay, the editor scrapped this part in my article before it went to print.

FarewellMajorAfter three months in the lion’s den, I was happy to get off with no more than a fright. The experience left me, nevertheless, so traumatised that in the future I began writing freelance culture articles for the other large publication in the city, a social-democratic newspaper (a Swedish The Guardian), which in 2000 met the same fate as The Independent and Independent on Sunday will meet in March – except there was no online edition to fall back on for the Swedish paper.

Ever since papers have been printed, there have been those which have faltered, going quietly, or not so quietly, into the Newspaper Heaven.* While I was following the fate of the Independent titles for the last couple of weeks, I happened to stumble over an interesting article in an old issue of British Rowing Almanack about British newspapers and their rowing correspondents. I think many readers of HTBS would enjoy reading the article, which gives a certain flair of a bygone era.

It is with the permission of British Rowing, HTBS re-publishes the article by Charles W. Rowe from the 1964 British Rowing Almanack. The illustrations in his piece have been added by yours truly, who also has corrected minor printing errors in the article.

“A Lifetime with the ‘Rowing Press’”
By Charles W. Rowe

Oarsmen are sensitive people and when they have been criticised they often wonder who has the temerity to do so.

As I have spent a lifetime with the “Rowing Press,” perhaps I can enlighten them with some of the names of the pressmen I have come into contact with when reporting rowing events over the years.

“Henley Royal Regatta” by Lucien Davis.

I first entered the Press Box at Henley Royal Regatta in 1908 as a very junior assistant to the late Ernest Bland, who was then Editor of a now defunct Henley paper.

In 1908, we had two Regattas at Henley, the Royal at the beginning of July and the Olympic Regatta at the end of the month. The weather was very hot for the Royal Regatta and quite nice for the Olympic. Racing at the Royal took place on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, there being 10 races on Tuesday, 18 on Wednesday, 12 on Thursday and 8 finals on Friday, a total of 48 races. Last year (1963) there were 67 races on the first day of the Regatta, showing how much the Regatta has grown. How leisurely life was in 1908.

For the Olympic Regatta, the course was extended by 330 yards, making the distance 1 ½ miles. The countries represented were the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Belgium, Norway, Holland and Hungary [Rowe is here omitting Gino Ciabatti, of Italy, who competed in the single sculls]. Racing was spread over four afternoons, there being only four finals on the Friday. The United Kingdom won all four events, eights, fours, pairs and sculls. The Belgians (in the eights) were the only foreign crew represented in the finals.

In those days Henley was a very different affair to what we know today.

The Enclosure was only about a quarter the size of the present one and there was a small wooden stand, holding about 120 people, which I bought after the First World War, from the local contractor, on behalf of the Henley Football Club, of which I was then Hon. Treasurer. The reason the Enclosure was so small was because nearly everyone used to watch the Regatta from the river, as can be seen from many old photographs. The booms lining the course near the winning post were crowded with craft of all descriptions, and it would have been possible to walk across the river on the punts and skiffs.

On their first visit to the Henley Royal Regatta as reigning Sovereign and Queen in 1912, George V and his Mary were rowed to the Royal stand by eight watermen in Queen Mary’s shallop, “an unforgettable spectacle it made with everyone standing up in their punts and skiffs and holding their paddles or sculls aloft.” From the Thomas E Weil Collection of the National Rowing Foundation.

I well remember that when their Majesties, King George V and Queen Mary visited the Regatta on “Finals” day in 1912, what an unforgettable spectacle it made with everyone standing up in their punts and skiffs and holding their paddles or sculls aloft, when the Royal Barge came down the course. The Royal Barge was rowed by the King’s watermen, with the late Bill East at the helm. Later, the King and Queen followed the final of the Grand (won by Sydney R.C., Australia) in the umpires’ launch and the Queen presented the prizes to the successful competitors.

To return to 1908, the Press Box ran parallel with the bank, near the winning post, and just inside the Enclosure. All press copy was either sent by telegram or in special envelopes, by train. The General Post Office used to send a special staff from London to deal with the telegrams and they were sent direct from the tent at the Regatta to London. I think that the charge for press telegrams was 60 words for 1/- [shilling] before 6 p.m. and 100 words for 1/- [shilling] after 6 p.m. Telegraph passes were issued by all the papers and agencies.

Press Box 2013 2
The Press Box of today, from the 2013 Henley Royal Regatta. Photo: Tim Koch.

Nowadays press telegrams are very seldom sent and all reports are telephoned directly to the papers concerned and as many of them have their own telephones in the Press Box, the service is very much quicker than formerly. The mobile Post Office attends the Regatta, without any telegraphists.

My task in my early days in the Press Box was to write out the telegraph passes; take the telegrams to the Post Office tent and also to take the press envelopes to the railway station to catch a train which left just after four o’clock.

Theodore Cook
Sir Theodore Cook

I suppose the leading figure of the rowing press in those days was Sir Theodore Cook, Editor of The Field. There were many more newspapers than today and amongst the dailies that have died in my experience are The Sportsman, Morning Leader, Daily Chronicle, Daily Graphic, Morning Post, and more recently, the News Chronicle. Evening papers of those early days no longer with us include, The Globe, Pall Mall Gazette, Westminster Gazette, and more recently The Star, whilst Sunday papers no longer published include the Referee, Sunday Chronicle, Sunday Dispatch and Lloyds News. There may have been others that I cannot remember.

Some of the stalwarts of the Press Box before the First World War with whom I had dealings were B. C. Cox (Daily Telegraph), Chas. Plummer (Sunday papers), “Kidem” Kent (Referee), Victor Mansell (Sporting Life), who was a timekeeper at the Regatta for a number of years, George Groves (The Sportsman), Alfred Davies (The Times, Daily Mail, Evening News) and C. E. Thomas (Lock to Lock Times).

Bush Johnstone
“Bush” Johnstone

After the First World War, other journalists who appeared on the scene included “Bim” Hodder (Morning Post), Tommy Duckett (Surrey Comet and various Sunday papers), Rennie Rogers (Sporting Life), Tommy Pimm of Twickenham, Conrad Skinner (Daily News and News Chronicle), “Seb” Earl (The Times) and of course the always remembered George Drinkwater (Daily Telegraph), Cedric Venables, who is still with us, took over the Morning Post until its absorption by the Daily Telegraph. Since the end of the Second World War, we have had Ernest Bland (Exchange Telegraph), Charles Tugwell (The Guardian), Jim Rogers (Sunday Times), “Bush” Johnstone and Tom Durand (Daily Telegraph), Hylton Cleaver (Evening Standard), George Blows (Associated Press, etc) and Percy Coleman (Henley Standard). The present generation of writers includes R. D. Burnell (The Times), Desmond Hill (Daily Telegraph), Sir Herbert Thompson (Sunday Times), Rev. G. I. F. Thomson (The Observer), John Hinde (Sunday Telegraph), Vernon Morgan (Reuters) and Keith Osborne (Evening Standard and Surrey Comet).

Richard “Dickie” Burnell of The Times (and later of The Sunday Times) showing his Olympic gold medal from 1948, when he and Bert Bushnell won in the double sculls.

Amongst the regular correspondents at the Boat Race are Maurice Hart (Evening News), Stanley Baker (The Guardian), Bill Martin (Press Association), Richard Evans (Evening Standard) and Pat Robinson (Daily Express). Many “amateur” journalists have also contributed articles on Henley or the Boat Race to the papers during the years.

As regards myself, I became a free-lance journalist on the death of Alfred Davis in 1924, when I took over most of his connections. Since that date I suppose that I must have written more about rowing than any other journalist. I have written for all of the Daily and Evening papers and for most of the Sunday papers, but my contributions have usually been anonymous, i.e. “From our Special Correspondent” or “By our Rowing Reporter.”

Papers do not devote as much space to rowing as they used to do. Between the Wars, The Times, often gave two columns of “intro” and a description of every race, with individual names of crews, at Henley Regatta and it often took up five columns. Nowadays their Rowing Correspondent is lucky if he gets one column, although there are four or five times as many people rowing than before the War.

In the early days it was often most difficult to get any information about Henley Royal Regatta or even of incidents during the racing. But nowadays the position is altogether different for we have a Press Advisory Committee (of which I am Secretary). We can get all the information we require and the Chairman of the Management Committee always comes into the Press Box to enquire after our comfort and give any further information we require on any point.


Göran R Buckhorn: The observant reader immediately noted the lack of female names in the article, not that women were not writers and journalists at newspapers at that time – they were not just rowing correspondents!

Luckily times have changed: one of the most well-regarded and skillful rowing journalists in the world these days is Rachel Quarrell, who took up the pen after The Daily Telegraph‘s Geoffrey Page, one of the truly legendary rowing correspondents, had passed away in 2002. Quarrell and Chris Dodd are now running Rowingvoice.

Rachel and Chris
Two of our times most distinguished rowing journalists, Chris Dodd and Rachel Quarrell, in the press launch at an event on the Thames in April 2015. Photo: Tim Koch.

For those interested in the British Rowing Almanack:

The 2016 British Rowing Almanack, compiled by Hon. Editor Maggie Phillips, will be published on 1 April. As usual it is packed with essential information for the keen rower and rowing supporter: tide tables, club contacts, blade colours, key rowing contacts, suppliers and much more. The Almanack is also British Rowing’s annual record of the season’s regattas, heads and club wins – to order your copy email info@britishrowing.org

*While finishing this article, Britain’s largest newspaper group Trinity Mirror announced on 22 February that the publisher will launch a new Monday-to-Friday newspaper, the New Day, on Monday 29 February. According to an article on BBC’s website, the New Day’s editor, Alison Phillips, said that today’s readers only have 30 minutes to read the daily paper and the New Day will provide them with “what they need to know”. The new paper will be politically neutral and will not have an editorial page. Phillips added: “We are trying to create a mood of optimism and positivity that is lacking elsewhere”. The New Day will have a social media presence but it will not have a website. I doubt it will have a rowing correspondent.

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