Blue to the End: Cyril Burnand and the 1911 Cambridge Blues

The 1911 Boat Race, with Cambridge behind.

28 March 2018 

HTBS is happy to introduce a guest writer to the web site, Alice Morrey. She is a post-graduate at the Bristol University with an interest in 19th-century monasticism, architectural memory and religious history. Alice is currently working on the life of Dom Edmund Ford and his personal perception of the building of Downside Abbey. Linked to her background as a rower and cox for Minerva Bath, she is also working on the collection of C. F. Burnand, the Cambridge rower and Old Gregorian. Alice writes:

C. F. Burnand racing in the First Trinity eight in the Ladies’ Challenge Plate v. New College at the 1910 Henley Royal Regatta, a race the Cambridge crew won. However, they lost their second race against Eton College, who later became the overall winner of the Ladies’ that year.

The portrait of a young man in Cambridge Blue stares down from its position in Downside School, a seemingly innocuous part of its 200 year history. However, this remarkable young man certainly left his mark, not only in the school, but in the rowing world as well. Cyril Francis Burnand, born on 31 May 1891, the grandson of Punch editor Francis Burnand, attended the school between 1903 and 1910, leaving for a place at Trinity College, Cambridge where he would be quickly swept up in boat race fever. Cyril carefully documented each and every race in two large scrapbooks, currently held in the Downside collection, and it is thanks to these that we know so much about his rowing career.

Cyril learnt to row on the Thames, along the Goring Temple stretch, which he returned to after every school term to compete in a single and the pair during the annual summer regatta. This is obviously where he received his early rowing training as the school was (as indeed is the case today) without a boat club, and the young Cyril had to content himself with football, rugby and an active role in school theatre productions. After gaining entry to Cambridge, Cyril quickly settled into college life, where he was an active member of many societies, continuing the theatre work he began at Downside, alongside rowing for the First Trinity Boat Club.

Photo of Cambridge Boating at Leander Club, London, with Burnand 2nd left down towards the stern.

A heady mix of social activities and rowing training eventually came to a successful bid for the Blue boat, and along with fellow First Trinity rowers F. E. Hellyer and J. B. Rosher, Cyril was selected for the 68th Boat Race. He was in good company on the start, with some notable alumni: Eric Fairbairn whose uncle Steve would go on to found the Head of the River Race, which occurs to this day on the Thames. The boat also contained Sidney Swann, who would go on to row in the 1912 Olympic Games as part of the gold medal winning eight – the only Cambridge man in that Olympic eight. Cyril had already been noticed by Leander as a useful rower, having gained selection for the club from his time racing for Trinity in the May Bumps, which was one of the qualifying races at the time. As such, Cyril’s boat at First Trinity being one of the premier boats on the river. It seems that university life did not enable him to actually row for Leander, as he does not appear in any of the club’s crews, but must have been a great point of pride for him.

The Boat Race itself is one for the history books for several reasons. It had a number of innovations and achievements attached to it, several of which can be claimed by Cyril himself. He was the only Catholic in the 1911 boat, indeed the first professed Catholic to take part at all, and the first Old Gregorian to take part in the Boat Race. In fact, there are several reasons why the race is one of note, which would not be matched until peacetime was resumed.

C. F. Burnand, “Tatler” promotional photo 1911.

It was also the first race to be viewed from the sky, a novelty to most spectators, who had to help start the plane which then provided the first overhead photographs of the Boat Race. The race was also to be watched by royalty from the umpire’s launch. The future King Edward VIII (then the Prince of Wales) and his brother Prince Albert sat in a launch behind the two racing crews. Unfortunately for Cyril, who probably saw more than he would have liked of the royal couple, Cambridge lost the race. Oxford won by two and a half lengths in front, in a winning record time of 18 minutes and 29 seconds.

The newspapers did note, however, that the best rower in either crew was Cyril, which must have been a small comfort in the dark days that follow such a loss. There were also several innovations in the type of boats used in the 1911 Boat Race that are noted in the reports of the race, although Cyril is fleeting on details, suggesting a familiarity with the equipment that surely comes with regularity of use, and it is mentioned in the newspapers that the rigging on these boats was the first to use swivelling oarlocks.

Post Boat Race training in the pair on the River Cam, Burnand in Stroke.

Sadly, Cyril would not compete in another Boat Race, despite being elected President for the 1912 campaign. The newspapers in the preceding weeks cry their dismay at a mystery illness that has befallen the Cambridge President, who ‘on doctor’s orders’ was advised to give up his seat. Cyril would instead be kept busy coaching the Third Trinity crew and a Trinity Rugby crew, who would enjoy success at Henley the following summer, as would Cyril. This would be perhaps a lucky instance, for the 1912 race was beset with difficulties, and adverse weather conditions meant that both boats got waterlogged and it was eventually declared a ‘non race’ by umpire Mr Pitman, despite Oxford managing to complete the course.

Cyril also raced at Henley in 1912, again for the Ladies’ Challenge Plate. First Trinity won their first heat against Shrewsbury, but lost to Jesus College, Cambridge in their second heat.

Cyril’s career as a notable rower was to be drawn to a close with the outbreak of the Great War. After finishing university, Cyril went up to Nottingham as an engineer in the East Midlands Railway and joined Nottingham Rowing Club. In 1913, Cyril joined the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards as a Lieutenant and was stationed on the front lines in France. During this time, he continued to collect items for his albums, including the Christmas cards sent to those fighting from King George and Queen Mary, and that of Princess Mary. Unfortunately, this was to be the last pages that Cyril would manage, for on 11 March, Cyril’s regiment came under heavy fire at Neuve Chapelle. Here Cyril would fall, aged just 23. He is remembered in the final pages of the photo albums by his friends and family, amongst which is a letter of great affection from his supervisor at the Railway, and one from his headmaster, Abbot Leander Ramsey at Downside. Cyril is commemorated at Downside, Trinity Chapel Cambridge, Leander Club, Nottingham City Memorial and Rowing Club and in France.

All photographs reprinted with kind permission of the Downside Trustees. With many thanks to Leander Club and the River & Rowing Museum for all their help in researching this article.

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