James Gobbo: President of OUBC – But Not of Australia

James Gobbo as depicted in the 1954 Boat Race programme.

9 October 2019

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch finds that Sir James Gobbo has Something To Declare.

It is no reflection on the achievements and abilities of James Gobbo that relatively few people outside of Australia will know of him. The Melbourne University Press, the publishers of his autobiography, Something To Declare: A Memoir (2010), gives this précis of the life and career of Sir James Augustine Gobbo, AC, CVO, QC:

Sir James Gobbo is an exemplar of Australia’s multicultural society. Australian-born but spending his early childhood in Italy, he returned with his family to Australia at the age of seven. In time, he would become a Rhodes Scholar, successful barrister, Judge of the Supreme Court and Governor of Victoria.

In these engaging memoirs, Sir James reflects for the first time on his involvement with immigration reform and as Founding Chairman of the Australian Council of Multicultural Affairs and Chair of the Australian Multicultural Foundation, and as President of… the largest Italian community organisation in Australia. Alongside these achievements, the book traces Sir James’s extensive contributions to areas as diverse as artisanship training, the Australian honours system, hospital administration and philanthropy.

Shining through his account is Sir James’s profound gratitude to the people who made his journey so rewarding and gave him the chance to succeed.

James Gobbo’s autobiography, first published in 2010. ‘Gobbo’ is an Italian surname meaning ‘hunchback’.

In his foreword to the book, Sir Zelman Cowen, the former governor-general of Australia, wrote that, had the republic referendum succeeded in 1999, he thinks that James Gobbo would have made an excellent President of Australia.

Chapter Five of Something To Declare deals with his time at Oxford. Interestingly, it is titled Rowing at Oxford, not Studying at Oxford (though he spent time with books as well as boats). It deals with the pre-sponsorship Boat Race when the coaches were gentlemen amateurs and most of the rowers were undergraduates. It also examines the difficulties in getting the trinity of a rowing Blue, a good degree and a well-rounded university experience (this tricky balancing act was also examined by Richard Hillary in my recent post on the oarsman, writer and fighter pilot).

When Antonio and Regina Gobbo and family returned from Italy in 1938 to run a cafe in Melbourne, they brought with them their children, the ambition of immigrants and one of Australia’s first espresso machines. Second son, seven-year-old Giacomo (James), spoke no English but the academically gifted young boy learned fast and in 1944 was accepted into Melbourne’s Xavier College.

The Xavier College crew that won the 1948 Victorian Head of the River. Gobbo is at ‘3’.

At Xavier, Gobbo took up rowing and was in the winning crew for the 1948 Victorian Head of the River, a contest between eleven independent public schools in the state of Victoria. He continued rowing when he went to Melbourne University in 1949 and was in the 1951 and 1952 Varsity Eights.

In 1951, Gobbo applied for a Rhodes scholarship for postgraduate study at Oxford University. Initially, the man who would become one of the leading advocates for a multicultural Australia was hesitant, fearing that his Roman Catholicism and Italian origins would go against his application (some interpreted the ‘White Australia’ policy rather broadly). Despite a guarded answer regarding the relationship of church and state in his interview for the scholarship, Gobbo was chosen as Victoria’s Rhodes Scholar. He did not tell his college crew but, when they came back from an outing, the news was revealed by a waiting squad of photographers. His fellow oarsmen threw him in the Yarra River in celebration.

Magdalen Tower (a part of Magdalen College) and Magdalen Bridge shown in a postcard from the 1950s. It is customarily pronounced ‘Maudlyn’ (as is the Cambridge college, though this is spelt ‘Magdalene’).

On arrival at Magdalen College, Oxford, in September 1952, there were some strange things for a young Australian to get used to. Class divisions in England were still sharp and dress and speech labeled people as to their social status. Post-war austerity was still evident and each student had to carry their own little ration of butter and sugar into breakfast. However, Gobbo soon settled into Oxford’s academic, social and sporting life. While his parents may have introduced some of the first espresso coffee to Australia, he may have introduced one of the first barbecues to Britain when he got a reluctant college chef to hold an English approximation of a ‘barbie’ by the river outside the Magdalen boathouse (chef insisted on pre-cooking stuffed piglets in his kitchen and then symbolically roasting them outside on open spits).

Gobbo’s original plan had been to do a three-year preliminary law course in two years and then do a postgraduate law degree in his third year. Rowing changed all this. Gobbo was selected for the trial squad for the 1953 Blue Boat but did not get in, ending up as the spare man – even though a Times report of December 1952 said that he ‘looked effective’. He blamed this partly on the fact that he went from Australia to Oxford via his family’s home town in Italy (Cittadella, near Venice) and was fed too many risottos ‘and much other wonderful food’ by his extended family (in the December 1952 Trial Eights list, his weight is given as 86 kg, but five months later, the Eight’s Week programme had him at 80 kg). In the chapter, ‘Rowing at Oxford’ he wrote:

If I had got my Blue in my first year, I probably would have carried on with my original plan and concentrated on my studies in my second year. But ‘Bill’ Williams, the warden of Rhodes House, said that, as in the second year it was possible that I was going to be selected for the Oxford crew, I should take the usual three years for my course and row in my second year… In other words, the advice was not as might be expected, ‘Look, you must concentrate on your studies’. The advice was, ‘This is a wonderful experience: you should not pass it up’. So I rowed in the (1954) Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race, which happened to be the 100th Boat Race and which Oxford won. It was a great experience to be in the crew, let alone the winning crew.

The 1954 Oxford crew as characterised in the official programme.
The 1954 Oxford Crew with Gobbo at ‘3’. “The Times” of 2 December 1953 said that ‘Gobbo is a constant worker in the middle of the boat’.
The four Australians in the 1954 Oxford Crew. Left to right: JA Gobbo, EV Vine, EOG Pain and JG McLeod. Picture: australianrowinghistory.com.au
A magazine picture showing seven of the 1954 Oxford Crew ‘enjoying their bedtime milk’. Gobbo is in the centre.

Gobbo quotes an extract from The Manchester Guardian published on the day of the race. Sadly, this type of rowing journalism has mostly passed:

May it not be without significance that at No. 3 in the Oxford boat the oar is pulled by one J.A. Gobbo, whose family claims descent from the Venetian Gobbos… His unusual name carries a message of crucial significance for the crew. If his colleagues have consulted – as doubtless they have – their ‘Merchant of Venice’ they will have found the passage, ‘Good Gobbo, use your legs, take the start, run away’. It is particularly apposite. Legs must, of course, always be used, and not only by Gobbo. At this Oxford are better – much better – than they were a fortnight ago. But, ‘take the start. Run away!’ Just this they must do.

The 1954 Boat Race approaching Hammersmith Bridge. Oxford led by a canvas.
The race at Barnes Bridge. Oxford led by four lengths and went onto win by four-and-a-half lengths.

At the end of 1954, Gobbo was urged to stand for the office of President of Oxford University Boat Club (OUBC).

Again I went to the warden of Rhodes House (‘Bill’ Williams) for advice. He said, ‘You should take it because it is an experience you will never forget. Since you are going into practice as a barrister…. the precise grade that you will get of academic results is not crucial. This experience will be very valuable. It will serve you well in public life after this….’ So I rowed the following year, 1955…. The President, who is also a member of the crew, actually selects the coaches and later selects the crew on the advice of the coaches… (There) was much letter writing and administration. It was almost a full-time job. The people and life skills of the office were of a kind that could seldom be secured in any other way.

A “Times” newspaper report of 26 January 1955 illustrating the sort of thing that President Gobbo had to deal with.
Edgar ‘Bill’ Williams, Warden of Rhodes House 1952 – 1980, pictured in 1942. He did not only give good advice to Gobbo. In his memoirs, Field Marshall Montgomery describes how Williams, his Chief of Intelligence, pointed out a crucial weakness in the deployments of enemy forces ‘which paved the way to final victory at Alamein’.

The head law tutor at Magdalen was Dr John Morris. He warned Gobbo that he risked ‘falling between two stools’, trying for a First and a Blue but getting neither. Morris also advised all his students to stop work and relax on the weekend before exams. Gobbo may have taken this suggestion too literally and went with the Oxford Crew to row in a commemorative regatta in France a few days before finals. Morris was not pleased and the dressing down that the errant oarsman received on his return did little to improve his existing exam apprehension. In the end, however, Gobbo got a good second-class mark with first-class honours in some subjects. The don who was treasurer of the boat club sent him a note:

You seem to have let the side down! It has long been understood that members of the Blue Boat and especially the President should receive a ‘rowing’ third, but you go and get a second and a rather good one at that. I shudder to think what the repercussions may be.

The 1955 Oxford Crew in practice at Wallingford pictured by “The Illustrated London News”. Gobbo, in his characteristic rowing pose, is at ‘3’. On the day, ‘great power’ triumphed over ‘technical superiority’.
The 1955 Oxford and Cambridge crews as portrayed in the official programme.
The five Australians in the 1955 Oxford Crew: EV Vine, EOG Pain, JA Gobbo, JG McLeod, and RH Carnegie.

Gobbo’s autobiography does not talk about the 1955 Boat Race, the year that he was President. Possibly he did not want to bore the non-rowing reader, possibly he did not want to remember that, while it was a close race to Hammersmith, Cambridge eventually won by 16 lengths in a time of 19 minutes 10 seconds, the second largest margin of victory in the history of the event.

To be fair to Gobbo, he also misses out mentioning his part in some of Magdalen’s rowing successes of the early 1950s and he spends much time giving credit to the boat club’s coach, Peter Haig-Thomas. After the Second World War, Magdalen had recruited undergraduates with brains not brawn, and college rowing had suffered as a result. However, Haig-Thomas, a coach of the old ‘Orthodox’ school and then in his 70s, revived it.

Peter Haig-Thomas pictured outside Leander.

Peter Haig-Thomas’s success as a coach at Magdalen was little short of extraordinary. Magdalen in 1953 went Head of the River and won the (University) fours and pairs – and also the (Visitors) at Henley Royal Regatta. The secret of his success was not rigorous and long training, nor was it motivational speeches. He avoided both… His secret was clear focus on the entry of the oar into the water. It was to be hard and crisp, but without losing length in the water by merely rowing in the blade hard, as was the teaching of his long-term rival, Steve Fairbairn.

Peter Haig-Thomas was, to say the least, a character. Gobbo has some splendid stories about him and they will be featured in a forthcoming separate post on ‘PH-T’.

Gobbo pictured in 1955.

For details of Gobbo’s part in Magdalen’s rowing successes during his time, I had to consult Mark Blandford-Baker’s Upon The Elysian Stream: 150 Years of Magdalen College Boat Club, Oxford.

In 1953, Gobbo rowed at ‘7’ in the Magdalen First Boat in the March bumping races known as ‘Torpids’. On the first day they made history by becoming the first crew to over-bump in the first division. They made four more bumps over the next four days and ended up fourth on the river. Most of this crew, including Gobbo, were available for the May bumps known as Eights Week or Summer Eights, and Magdalen went Head of the River for the first time in 21 years. To aid the ensuing celebrations, the Thai cox from the 1932 Magdalen Head crew and the 1933 Boat Race crew, C. Komarakul-na-Nagara, arrived from the embassy in his Rolls-Royce full of cases of Champagne. The Headship was retained the next year, 1954, with Gobbo still at ‘7’.

“The Times”, 28 May 1953. The Rowing Correspondent was, presumably, Richard Burnell, who damned his old college with faint praise.

Together with David Wells, Gobbo won the OUBC Pairs in 1953 and 1954. In the OUBC Fours of 1954, Gobbo, DP Wells, TGM Buckley and RM Van Oss dead-heated in the final.

In a particularly notable piece of modesty, Gobbo does not mention that he was in the Magdalen four that won the Visitors’ Challenge Cup at Henley in 1953. The Times of 6 July said ‘Magdalen, a strong though rather rough crew, beat King’s College, Cambridge, fairly comfortably…’ Also in the crew were PGPD Fullerton, DP Wells and JH Richards. They can be seen winning the final one minute into the newsreel film below.

In 1955, Gobbo, rowing for Leander, doubled up at Henley, entering both the Silver Goblets (coxless pairs with Christopher Davidge) and the Stewards’ (coxless fours with Davidge, JG McLeod and RH Carnegie). He joined Davidge in the pair only two weeks before Henley when DN Callender dropped out through injury. He reached the final in both events but won neither, losing both to Soviet crews manned by full-time oarsmen. If it was any compensation, The Times said that ‘Certainly Leander had the best English four and the best English pair at Henley this year’.

Man at the top: Gobbo (left) with Bob Hawke, the Prime Minister of Australia from 1983 to 1991.

After Oxford, James Gobbo went on to do many things of greater benefit to mankind than to make a long, thin boat move quickly by means of oars. Notably, he become a Supreme Court Judge and a State Governor and made a big contribution towards the growth of Australia’s multicultural policy. He was appointed a Knight Bachelor in 1981 and made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1993. He has also been awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy, and the high Vatican honour of the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Gregory.

Those clever Oxonians that elected James Augustine Gobbo as President of Oxford University Boat Club in 1955 clearly thought that he had many talents. As his later life proved, they were not wrong.

Update on 17 November 2021: Sir James Gobbo died on 7 November 2021, aged 90. Following his death, the Hon. Linda Dessau, Governor of Victoria, described Sir James’s life as “an example to all Australians of service to the community, love of family, devotion to faith and the rewards of hard work.” Sir James is survived by his wife of more than 60 years, Shirley, and their five children.


  1. Wonderful article about Gobbo.

    In the paragraph describing his coach, Peter Haig-Thomas, success at Magdalen, I suspect a word is missing, though I could be wrong. “His secret was clear focus on the entry of the oar into the water. It was too hard and crisp, but without losing length in the water”. In the second sentence should there be the word “not” inserted as third word, to read, “It was not too hard and crisp” ?

    Otherwise it seems a slightly awkward construct.

  2. Thank you ‘Maverick’. It should read ‘It was to be hard and crisp, but without losing length in the water’. The text will be/is corrected.

    I am in touch with PHT’s grandson and, in the near future, I will be producing a long and perhaps original piece on this great character, a man who was deeply involved in rowing from the late 1890s until his death in 1959.

  3. I balked at the same phrase, but would have thought that it makes more sense to delete the “too”. In other words, the catch should be firm, completed and set at full reach – the waterman’s catch, if you will – rather than with slippage from a premature pulling effort that would only take full effect some distance into the stroke.

  4. My dad, L. A. F. Stokes, OUBC President in 1952, comments about the 1955 race: “I remember Jim Gobbo very well, as I coached his crew, which was a very good one. Unfortunately halfway through the race, the no 6 man lost consciousness and became a passenger, which is why Oxford lost by such a huge margin. I had no idea that he had such a distinguished career.” He says they were a very fit crew – on one of their outings he got them to row all the way from Putney to Wapping and back – and was sure they were going to win.

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