27 July 2018
Chris Dodd writes about his friend Rob van Mesdag.
Rob van Mesdag, who collapsed and died outside his beloved London RC on 18 July, was an accomplished journalist and art critic, as well as a sculler who wore club colours in four countries and represented two of them. I knew Rob from press box encounters at Henley and elsewhere, and in 1978, we shared a car for the daily drive from Hamilton to Karapiro at the world championships in New Zealand.
My memory of that time was that Hamilton was little more than a wide street with the press motel at one end, that the tiny hamlet of Cambridge near the lake was notable for its antiquarian bookshop, and that the facilities at Karapiro had been a building site manned by Don Rowlands and his volunteers until practically the day competition began.
Rob, an ostrich-like figure who in those days always wore his trousers at half-mast as befits someone who frequents the hard at Putney, was great company with whom to explore every pit stop that Hamilton had to offer. He wrote on aquatic matters for English and Dutch newspapers and magazines, and when the championships were over, flew to Indonesia to write about the maritime legacy of the Dutch empire, while I went off to report on the election campaign of the frightful ‘Piggy’ Muldoon.
In 1990, when I was writing The Story of World Rowing, Rob was living in Brussels and acted as my guide to the Belgian capital and its superb neighbourhood restaurants, as well as enlightening me on the rowing roots and the art of the Low Countries. I think it was there that he told me that his family – he was born in Hilversum in North Holland on 18 January 1930 – were chocolatiers, but he opted out of the business to be a journalist. Whatever, we historians are lucky that his career path led to lectures and appearances at rowing history forums (as outlined earlier by Greg Denieffe on HTBS). What he had to say was always worth hearing.
Rob rowed at St Andrew’s School, Delaware, in the 1940s and Trinity College Dublin in the 1950s. He represented Eire in the European Championships in 1951 and the Netherlands from 1953 to 1956, winning a bronze in 1955. He also won the Holland Beker in 1956 and was a member of the Netherlands Olympic team in Helsinki in 1952.
Other events graced by Rob included the Norfolk Sculls, the London crews in Venice’s Vogalonga, another place about which he possessed deep knowledge, and many appearances with the London Irregulars. He also competed in the Diamond Sculls at Henley four times, reaching the final in 1950 when he beat London’s John Pinches on 6 July to meet fellow Dutchman Tom Neumeier on the next day. Neumeier was the heavier by two stone, and Rob had the race of his life, winning by three feet. Although he lost the final to another London sculler, Antony Rowe, by three-quarters-of-a-length, he was awarded a palm for gallantry by the Rowing magazine of the day:
The Dutchman from Dublin is a highly temperamental sculler. His needle at the start was so obvious that it was almost a harpoon and along the island he appeared to make every kind of error. Yet in spite of his rough sculling and frequent washing out he managed to keep a consistently good run on his boat. Robbert won by 3 feet and could hardy get out of the boat.
That year was notable for another reason. The statue of the two-faced goddess on Temple Island, an iconic landmark at the start of the Henley course, was smashed and drowned. Rowing magazine adopted the voice of the Thunderer and raised pomposity to a new peak:
Selfish folly seeking a vulgar notoriety impelled some oafs to remove her from her pedestal… it was not an action demanding pluck, since the nearest police were over a mile away… no college crew was at hand to defend her as they would their banner… the island is owned by one old woman of 91.
Whether naïve or tongue-in-cheek, the writer described the incident as a shameful act without hint that a college crew just might have perpetrated it.
But of course, a college crew did perpetrate the act, making the mistake of using a borrowed punt to transport the kidnapped goddess in the darkness. The flat-bottomed conveyance flipped with its passenger on board. The culprits were Trinity Dublin, and when the Stewards leased the island in 1987, the president of said club, one Rob van Mesdag, paid for a new statue to be installed beneath the cupola of James Wyatt’s temple.. RIP.
Robbert Hendrik van Mesdag, born 18 January 1930, died 18 July 2018.
There will be a memorial service for Rob van Mesdag at All Saints Church, Fulham, on Wednesday 3 October at 2 p.m.