A 1954 Oxford Rowing Footnote

7 August 2020

By Göran R Buckhorn

HTBS editor Göran R Buckhorn digs around in the archives and finds an article for The Dry Season Bottom-of-the-Barrel Series. In 1954, Oxford were invited to row a 20,000-metre-long river race in Sweden.

In the 1954 Boat Race, which was the 100th in the series, Oxford won easily by four and a half boat lengths. Take a look at the race here:

Being that year’s winner, the Oxford crew was invited to row in Sweden in one of the longest river races in Europe, Göta Älvrodden. The previous year, the race had been organised for the first time for eights and was a 20,000-metre long race on a fairly straight course on the river Göta Älv between the cities of Kungälv and Göteborg (Gothenburg).

In the beginning of the 1950s, the Swedes wanted to create a long race to promote the sport of rowing. There was a race on Göta Älv in 1952 for coxed inrigger fours, but glancing towards London, the oarsmen in ‘Lilla London’ [‘Little London’] – as the people in Gothenburg sometimes refer to their city – desired something more like the Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge. One of the organisers, Reinhold Bråkenhielm, talked to the head of the Gothenburg Sport Federation’s rowing section, Bertil Göransson, to get his blessing to invite the 1954 winners of the Boat Race. Göransson was very positive to the idea.

Göransson was an active coxswain at the time and would steer the Swedish eight that reached the final in the Grand at Henley the following year. In 1956, he would cox a Swedish four to an Olympic silver medal and two hours later steer the Swedish eight to a fourth place.

In the spring of 1954, Bråkenhielm was working in London for a Swedish company. He contacted ARA’s Chairman Gully Nickalls, who arranged a meeting between the Swede and Oxford’s coach Jumbo Edwards and one member of the crew, Jim Gobbo of Australia. In the beginning of the talk, Bråkenhielm did not want to bring up the length of the course as it was three times as long as the course between Putney and Mortlake. He was afraid that it would scare off the Brit and the Australian. When Bråkenhielm eventually did tell them the length, both Edwards and Gobbo thought it was fine. If you can row almost 7,000 metres on the Thames, you can row 20,000 metres on a Swedish river, they seemed to think, Bråkenhielm once said in an interview for a Swedish rowing magazine.

In September, a week before the race, the Oxford crew arrived in Gothenburg, together with Jumbo Edwards. The local newspaper Göteborgs-Posten paid for the accommodations at the hotel Fars Hatt. When it was time for the race, Oxford had rowed the course several times. When they heard that the previous year’s winner, the local rowing club Kungälvs Roddklubb, had taken 57 minutes, 25 seconds to complete the race, the Oxfordians joked and said that the Swedish crew probably stayed somewhere along the course to have tea.

The first boat to cross the finish line in the 1954 race was Oxford. The winning time was 1 hour, 2 minutes and 29 seconds – if they stayed along the course for tea, no one knows. Due to different weather and current conditions, it is impossible to compare the times from one year to another. The race was followed by around 80,000 spectators and became an enormous success for the sport of rowing on the west coast of Sweden.

The 1954 Oxford crew depicted in the Boat Race programme.

Edwards never mentioned the trip to Sweden in his The Way of a Man with a Blade (1963), nor has it found its way into books about the history of Oxford rowing. This is quite understandable. After all, this is only a little footnote in the history of the Boat Race.

A slightly different version of this article was published on HTBS on 2 November 2009.

Ed. Update: The earlier published photo on top, which I thought was the 1954 Oxford crew, proved to be the 1955 Oxford crew. My apologies.

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