24 October 2019
By Göran R Buckhorn
Paul Bircher, Olympic oarsman in the British eight who took a silver medal in the 1948 Games and was a three-time Boat Race winner for Cambridge, died on 6 October 2019. Bircher was the last of the surviving members of the Olympic silver crew.
Paul Bircher was born in Kensington, London, on 11 December 1928. He was educated at Radley College and rowed for the college in the Ladies’ Challenge Plate at Henley Royal Regatta in 1947. The following year, Bircher went up to Christ’s College, Cambridge, and was picked for the Light Blues’ boat for the 1948 Boat Race.
The race got a bad start for Bircher and Cambridge as he caught a crab just after the start, which gave Oxford a half-length lead. However, the Light Blues managed to collect themselves and in the end they won by five lengths in a record time of 17 minutes and 50 seconds. The Manchester Guardian’s rowing correspondent was surprised and wrote that it was ‘strange that Cambridge had never shown anything like this form in practice’.
As 1948 was an Olympic year, with the games held in London and the rowing in Henley, the winning Cambridge crew were selected to represent Great Britain in the eights, even though rowing as Leander in the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley, the crew was beaten in their first heat by Thames RC. In the Olympic row, Cambridge’s A.B.C. Harrison, who was an Australian, was replaced by Brian Lloyd and P.A. de Giles was replaced by Paul Massey. In the cox seat, Cambridge’s K.T. Lindsay had to leave for ‘the indefatigable’ Jack Dearlove, of Thames RC, who, at age 37, in the three-boat final, steered the British boat to a silver medal. USA took the gold medal and Norway the bronze. Dearlove was a remarkable man who had lost his right leg in an accident. However, this disability never stopped him from living an acting sporting life.
Bircher was the only returning Cambridge oarsman for the 1949 Boat Race, though he was joined in the crew by the Olympic silver medallists Lloyd and Massey. The race is famously known for a remark that BBC commentator John Snagge uttered when the engine on the launch he was on failed during the race: ‘I can’t see who’s in the lead, but it’s either Oxford or Cambridge’. The Light Blues won the race by a quarter of a length, the narrowest margin of victory since the famous ‘dead heat’ in 1877.
The three Olympic silver medallists were back in the Cambridge boat for the 1950 Boat Race, which the Light Blues won by three-and-a-half lengths in a time of 20 minutes 15 seconds. This was the race that saw a future member of the Royal Family in the Cambridge crew as coxswain, Antony Armstrong-Jones, who later married Princess Margaret.
Here are some moving pictures from the 1950 Boat Race:
The years Bircher rowed for Cambridge in the Boat Race, he also competed at Henley. In 1949, he rowed for his college in the Ladies’, but the Cambridge college crew were beaten by First and Third Trinity, Cambridge, in their first round. At the 1950 Henley, Bircher rowed both in the Grand and in the Steward’s Challenge Cup. In the latter cup, the crew reached the final, but they were beaten by a Danish crew from Hellerup Roklubb. In 1951, Bircher was back in the Steward’s, but racing for Royal Engineers. The military men lost to London RC in their first heat. But finally, rowing for Leander at Henley in 1953, Bircher’s eight won the Grand by beating Union Sportive Metropolotaine, France. The following year, Leander, with Bircher in the 5 seat, beat Lady Margaret, Cambridge, on their way to the final, but there they were defeated by the mighty Russians from Krylia Sovetov, USSR.
For the Thames Water London Youth Games Regatta in June 2012, Paul Bircher was interviewed together with Olympic gold (2008) and silver (2012) medallist Mark Hunter:
Robert Treharne Jones, of Leander Club, sent a nice addition. Robert writes: Paul Bircher was the Senior Member present at Leander’s bicentenary banquet at the London Guildhall last year. I had the pleasure of MC’ing the parade of Leander Olympians onto the stage, the climax being reached when Pete Reed pushed Paul on stage in his wheelchair. (Many thanks to photographer Peter Holland for allowing HTBS to use the wonderful picture of Bircher and Reed.)
Paul Bircher, born 11 December 1928, died 6 October 2019.