Sue Bushnell: Bert’s Blades

Bert Bushnell’s well-travelled blades.

19 August 2020

By Sue Bushnell

Next in HTBS show-and-tell series is Sue Bushnell, who writes about a couple of blades which belonged to her farther, Olympian gold medallist Bert Bushnell. Among other races, he won the gold medal in the double sculls together with Richard Burnell in the 1948 Olympic Games.

Such an interesting word, “blade”. It conjures up an image of a dashing young man about town, a Regency buck, somebody sharp and witty. Or alternatively, it’s also the flat, wide section of an oar. I once asked my father Bert why a blunt piece of wood would be called a blade, and he said it was so you could cut through the water with it when you sculled.

In the house in Maidenhead where I grew up, oars were a pretty run of the mill object. My sisters and I all had our own small oars with which our grandfather taught us to scull in the small creek at the bottom of the garden. There were always some spare ones hanging around in the garden shed. My father’s boatyard was full of them.

And, of course, there were the two pairs which hung high on the wall at opposite sides of the hall. One pair were the winning blades which had propelled Bert to victory in the 1947 Wingfield Sculls and also seen action in international regattas in Buenos Aires and Montevideo and the final of the Diamond Challenge Sculls in 1948 when he was beaten by his Aussie mate Merv Wood. The other pair were from his gold medal win in the 1948 Olympic double sculls with Richard Burnell.

For years I never really noticed these oars or gave them a second thought. They were just part of the furniture in my parents’ house. Occasionally, my mother would complain about how difficult it was to dust them. My sisters and I were far more interested in the trophy cabinet on the upstairs landing, full of shiny cups and medals which were easily accessible for us to play with. Sometimes we used to stage the Olympics in the back garden and invite our friends round to play obstacle races over the apple trees, and we would use the medals from the cabinet during the subsequent award ceremonies. Strangely, although we had an actual Olympic gold medal at our disposal, we used this to present to the runner up, as we were all agreed the Wingfield Sculls medal was a far flashier and therefore more befitting winning trophy.

Bert Bushnell and his Olympic blade, in 2009.

After he retired, my father lived in Portugal for 20 years, and by the time he returned to the UK, the blades from the hallway had diminished in number to just one of each, and had been cut down in length to a more manageable size. He said he could keep them by the front door and use them as a weapon if needs be. It’s hard to know what kind of emergency would necessitate an octogenarian fending off intruders with a paddle, marauding Vikings taking the Thames Valley by storm perhaps, but fairly typical of my father to find a practical (if outlandish) use for things.

When my father died in 2010, the blades found their way into my possession. They are of huge sentimental value to me because they remind me of my childhood, and of Bert, and of his not inconsiderable success as an oarsman. The Wingfield blade is showing its age and appears to have been glued together at some point, but I like to think it wears its battle scars with pride, and after all it is a very well-travelled oar, having cut through the waters of the Tigre and the Rio de la Plata in addition to seeing service on the upper reaches of the Thames as well as the Tideway. I keep both blades next to my fireplace and it’s always comforting to know that they are easily accessible and can be used as a weapon, if needs be.

7 comments

  1. When my wife, son and I moved to Sewanee, Tennessee, a place not known for rowing prowess, I unexpectedly met a fellow oarsman, Dr. Brown Patterson. Brown is now a retired history professor but had earned his oar as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He had been a tennis player at the University of the South, but once in England, he took up rowing. His eight won the University Championship. His oar with the names of his teammates hangs proudly in his study.

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