Kelly-on-Thames, Part 2: The Father’s Son

An unknown man, Kell and Jack outside their Henley hotel, the Red Lion, in 1946. The exterior has changed very little but its then shabby state was very symbolic of Britain after five years of war.

16 May 2017

Tim Koch continues with his look at the Kelly family and their relationship with Henley:

Few at the first Henley after the war in 1946 could have doubted that Kelly Senior and Kelly Junior were both very wealthy and very serious. Unusually and expensively for the time, they flew into London by aeroplane, arriving a week before the start of racing. Travelling from the land of plenty to austere and rationed post-war Britain, they also brought bottled water and frozen steaks. Possibly the locals did not begrudge them their beef, but they may have been insulted that the damn Yankees did not trust their water supply. A splendid series of pictures taken before the regatta started captured Jack and Kell’s sense of anticipation.

In the regatta boat tents. Jack had ordered Kell a new scull from Sims of Putney especially for the race and I assume that this was it. I do not know who ‘Margann’ was but the American Pocock boat that he used the next year was called the ‘V-Grace’.
Getting ready for a practice outing on the Henley reach.
Out of the boat tents.
In 1946, Kell rowed for the U.S. Navy.
Kell afloat opposite the boat tents. The fact that he was wearing gloves may have been an indication that he was not as well-trained as he might have been.
Instead of coaching from the bank on a bicycle, millionaire Jack hired a launch to follow Kell. He also used a new and expensive innovation, an electronic megaphone.
Approaching Temple Island, neglected and overgrown throughout the war.

Kell won his first heat easily, beating a British club rower by four lengths. In the semi-finals, he raced fellow American, Art Gallagher, eventually beating him by three lengths in a hard fought race. Afterwards, The Times felt that Kelly was ‘obviously tired’ and that:

Unless he springs a surprise… it is hard to see how he can beat the French sculler, J Séphériadès (who) won his heat… with great ease … almost a minute faster than Kelly won his…

Good luck! Kell goes out to race.

The Times was proved correct and it reported the final thus:

Kelly obviously went all out to get the lead, but he could not shake off the Frenchman, whose (half way) time was 3 min 56 sec, only six seconds outside the record, and that on anything but a record breaking day. Kelly pushed him very hard up to the enclosure, where Séphériadès got away to win by three lengths.

The end of the Kelly’s Henley dream for 1946. Séphériadès was actually a Greek who worked in Paris, and he and Kell became good friends.

Henley Royal Regatta, 1947

On his return to the United States, Kell enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. Much to the dismay of the Penn coach, Rusty Callow, Jack forbade Kell to row in the freshman eight and made him stay with sculling. However, this paid off when he won in the single at the 1947 U.S. Nationals and by June the Kelly family had booked to go to Henley.

Henley, 1947. Jack and his wife Margaret, daughter Grace (17), son Kell (20), and daughter Lizanne (14). The press were fascinated by the glamorous family, incongruous in dull, post-war Britain.

Séphériadès did not defend his title and race conditions on the Henley reach, a strong flow and a headwind, favoured big men such as Kell, who weighed in around 14 stone/200 lbs/90 kgs. He had an easy victory in the first round, beating a Belgian by four lengths. In the next round, Kell had a two-length lead by the half-mile and his opponent soon folded, leaving him to paddle to the finish. In the semis, the American challenger met Bert Bushnell of Maidenhead. Bushnell was Britain’s best hope but he was giving away 2 stone/26 lbs/13 kg to his opponent and perhaps it was no surprise when Kell underrated the Briton throughout the race and won by four lengths. Bert later gained some compensation for his defeat when he went out on a date with the beautiful Grace (a price above Diamonds perhaps)?

Kell, Grace and Lizanne.

The final was against Carl Fronsdal of Norway who was an unknown quantity as his route to potential glory had been an easy one. As it turned out, Kell was undoubtedly the faster sculler and was two lengths up after 350 metres. However, he must have been desperate for his victory to be certain and he kept the pressure on, winning ‘easily’ by eight lengths.

A memorable 4th July for the Kelly family.

The Times wrote:

Kelly has defiantly improved since last year, particularly in the sureness of his blade work. He is very strong, has room for a lot more improvement, especially in length, and should be even more formidable next year.

‘Next year’ was to be an Olympic year – with the rowing to be held at Henley-on-Thames.

Olympics, 1948

Grace and Kell on board the ship taking them to Britain and the 1948 Olympic Regatta. Grace had just started acting classes in New York.

Kell won his opening heat over the shortened Henley course, buoyed into three lanes for the event, but he was to go no further. The Times, which had earlier thought him in ‘excellent form’, reported:

Saturday’s racing was thrilling from first to last and full of surprises. The unexpected defeat of the favoured J. Kelly, of America, in the single sculls – when Risso of Uruguay, a length and a half behind him with 150 yards to go sprinted, caught, and passed him to win by three feet, both men being completely rowed out – was the race of the day.

Film showing Kell’s last minute defeat (in a rainstorm) starts at 27 seconds here.

Kell is supported after narrowly losing to Risso, the eventual Silver Medalist.

Kell went to three more Olympic Games; he sculled in the single both at Helsinki in 1952 and at Melbourne in 1956 and he was in the double at Rome in 1960. He won a bronze in Melbourne, unfortunately meeting two teenage prodigies, Ivanov of the USSR and MacKenzie of Australia. Perhaps his greatest Olympic achievement was putting together the eight from Vesper Boat Club that won the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Rome, 1960. Kell is wearing the famous slogan of the family business on his T-shirt. Grace (second left) was by then both Hollywood and Monacan royalty.

Henley Royal Regatta, 1949

If Kell read The Times on 27 June 1949, he would have been pleased that the newspaper considered that:

The Diamonds can hardly fail to go to JB Kelly if his form is anything like up to standard. AD Rowe, the only English sculler who might have challenged him seriously, is rowing in the Trinity eight.

Kelly had an easy first round win against a club sculler from Agecroft and got a bye in the second round due to the withdrawal of Bert Bushnell, who wished to concentrate on the double. Well rested, he had a good semi-final. The Times:

In the Diamond Sculls, JB Kelly, University of Pennsylvania, beat the Dutchman, CT Neumeier, by three lengths. He equalled the 1938 record to Fawley of 3 min 51 sec… and it seems a pity that he eased up in the second half for the conditions may not be so fast today. I think Kelly has the speed for records, he is sculling perfectly.

The final proved no problem for Kell and he won his second Pineapple Cup ‘easily’ against fellow American and Philadelphian, JH Trinsey.

Other Kellys, other Henleys

Grace and Kell making a private visit to Henley in 1965, a newsreel is here.
Princess Grace and, to her left, her husband, Prince Rainier, follow a race from an umpire’s launch at Henley in 1965.
Prince Albert became the reigning monarch of the Principality of Monaco on the death of his father, Prince Rainier, in 2005. He is pictured here rowing at school in the early 1970s.
On a visit to Philadelphia on 24 October 2003, Prince Albert (at ‘4’) and a group of Kelly relatives took out an eight from Vesper Boat Club for a row on the Schuylkill. Although an enthusiastic sportsman, Albert has not inherited his uncle’s or his grandfather’s rowing talent.

In 1981, Grace was invited to present the trophies at the Regatta and in 2003, the prize for the Women’s Quadruple Sculls was named the Princess Grace Challenge Cup in her honour. In 2004, Grace’s son (and Kell’s nephew) Prince Albert of Monaco made the presentations at the prize-giving ceremony. After these gestures, the passing of 80 plus years and three successful ‘revenge races’, perhaps there is finally closure over the great rejection telegram of 1920?


  1. Trivia- back in the 50’s and 60’s, all Vesper shells had names that began with V. i.e. Vim, VIP , etc. Some were modified i.e. V- Exley, V- Grace.

    Love your stuff.

    Bob Madden. 603-440-3378. Sent from my iPhone


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.