The 1956 Winning Letter

Detail from Cosmo Clark’s painting for London Rowing Club’s centenary in 1956. P. N. ‘Farn’ Carpmael, the ‘letter writer’, is in the stroke-seat. From the cover of Chris Dodd’s book celebrating London RC’s first 150 years, ‘Water Boiling Aft’ (2006).

27 May 2016

Göran R Buckhorn writes:

British Rowing, the governing body of rowing in Great Britain, just released its sixth video in the series called “Row to Rio”. The titles of these promotion videos are #1 Dreams; #2 The Ultimate Test; #3 Voices; #4 Seats; #5; and #6 Hearts – watch them on YouTube here.

There is a positive and enthusiastic tone in these videos which comes from decades of international success for British rowers. However, there was a different attitude towards the sport of rowing 60 years ago in Great Britain. After the splendid 1948 Olympic performances by the British oarsmen on their home waters at Henley, when Bert Bushnell and Dickie Burnell won gold in the double sculls, Jack Wilson and Ran Laurie won gold in the coxless pairs and the British eight took a silver medal, British rowing went astray in the 1950s. As a result of internal struggle within British rowing, with problems finding or agreeing on one rowing style to mention only one of the reasons why rowing in Great Britain went amiss, no Olympic medals in rowing were won during this decade (a few British crews came close, ending up in fourth places). Though, between 1950 and 1957, British rowers managed to pick up eight medals at the European Championships, including two golds in the eights in 1951 and in the coxless pairs in 1957; and one bronze in the women’s coxed fours in 1954. (In 1951, a British women’s eight had taken a third place at the European Championships, but these races for women were never counted as ‘official’ championships.) Despite that the European Championships had been rowed since 1893, they were a novelty for the rowers from Great Britain, as the country became a member of the International Rowing Federation, FISA, first in 1947, a membership that admitted crews from Great Britain to compete at the European Championships.

The lack of international and domestic – at Henley – success, counted in gold medals, was discussed repeatedly in British rowing’s governing body, ARA’s organ, Rowing. In 1954, Hylton Cleaver, editor of the magazine, announced a ‘competition’ where he wanted the readers to write a letter about how to solve or answer the question “What’s Wrong With British Rowing?”.

In the January 1956 issue of Rowing, Cleaver published the letter which won first prize, a letter written by P. N. Carpmael, of Cambridge University and London Rowing Club. The complete letter reads:

Several good crews have been produced in this country since the war but they have not been of Olympic calibre because

a) They have not practiced or raced together for more than a few weeks;
b) They have not tough, fittening, side by side work, with other good crews over an open typical 2,000 metre straight stretch of water. 

We must keep our own enjoyable domestic fixtures, but, after Henley, let a provisional eight be chosen, of the tallest and most capable oarsmen; a second eight, and any other club crew, would have the right to challenge this eight at any time after a month’s practice.

Thenceforth the best eight should be given weekly trials, off its home stretch of water, or an open and frequently rough 2,000 metre course against several other crews: on American lines of practice rather than on our time trials, on winding streams.

The crews should not be given too much day by day eight oar practice, but should have variety with pair oar, four oar and sculling practice, both to promote watermanship and avoid boredom. How necessary it is to maintain keen interest and enthusiasm: thus, plenty of walking and hill climbing, as relaxation, in different parts of the country.

In this way I am sure we have the men and the technique to win any class of event on the water. The four and pair, double and sculler could be trained on similar lines.

PN_CarpmaelCleaver writes that the jury for the competition was ‘unanimous about this letter’, and it was the jury’s hope that Carpmael’s suggestions should be adopted by the ARA selection committee. Cleaver continues to write: ‘It is not without significance that this analysis has come from one of the best known rowing men in this country, one who is a great club enthusiast, a magnificent oarsman himself, and a grand coach.’

Who, then, was this P. N. Carpmael?

Philip Nevil ‘Farn’ Carpmael (1908-1988) was admitted to Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1928 and was Captain of Jesus College Boat Club in 1929/1930. He was in the winning Cambridge crews in the Boat Race in 1930 and 1931.

Following is a short clip from Cambridge training for the 1930 Boat Race:

After joining London Rowing Club, Farn Carpmael was in the club crews that took the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley in 1931 and 1933; he also squeezed in a victory in the Stewards’ in 1931. About the latter four’s winning race, the Daily Telegraph’s George Drinkwater wrote: ‘Without hesitation I can say that their Stewards’ four was the finest coxswainless boat which has raced at Henley since I first went there thirty years ago. They were perfect together […]. Their length, their rhythm, and their power were superb.’ (A quote from Chris Dodd’s Water Boiling Aft; 2006).

After the Second World War, although a veteran, Farn Carpmael began sculling. At the age of 40, he won the Wingfield Sculls in 1948 and repeated the success the next year (his son, P. N. ‘Bobby’, would follow him and win the 1961 Wingfields). For the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Carpmael and his partner in the double sculls, Edward Sturges, lost the trials. So at the time of his ‘winning letter’ in 1956, Carpmael was indeed a well-known name in the British rowing world.

When London RC’s president Jock Wise, who HTBS wrote about yesterday, died in 1971, Carpmael married his widow, Anne, who was a keen rower herself. A few years later, Carpmael was elected president for London RC, a position he held until his death in 1988, at the age of 80.

About Farn Carpmael, Chris Dodd writes in his brilliant Water Boiling Aft – London Rowing Club: The First 150 Years, 1856-2006: ‘He broke down the barriers of age and seniority. He exuded the spirit and teaching of Fairbairn […]. He was a president who rowed because of the pleasure it gave him, who acted with simplicity and honesty in all he did.’

So what did Carpmael win after the magazine Rowing had chosen his letter as the winner in the 1956 competition? A £3 book token.


  1. Pharn was an absolute gent and your article epitomises much that was typical of British Rowing during the first 25 years post WWII. The £3 book token, excuse the pun, priceless !
    Incidentally , Pharn’s son Bobby rowed 5 in the Tideway Sculler’s School VIII of ’66. They represented GB in the World Champs at Bled that year. The crew contained many of the elements proposed in that winning letter of 10 years previous, not least the promotion of small boat training mixed with VIII’s racing. They finished 4th, 2 seconds adrift of the East Germans, and the best performance of a British VIII for 15 years. Lou Barry, the Sculler’s coach, carried on that small boat philosophy with much success for the rest of his career .

  2. Thank you Bailey for your input. I was desperately looking for information about what happened to Bobby Carpmael, but could not find anything during yesterday, when I researched and wrote this piece.

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