Elizabeth Burnell: My Father’s “A Flying Visit”

The combination of oarsmen from Leander and Thames RC represented England at the rowing regatta at the 1950 British Empire Games: bow A.S.F. Butcher (Thames RC), 2. P.A de Giles (Leander), 3. W.A.D. Windham (Leander), 4. H.W. Rushmere (Thames RC), 5. R.D. Burnell (Leander), 6. P.C. Kirkpatrick (Thames RC), 7. M.C. Lapage (Leander), stroke P. Bradley (Leander) and cox J.P. Dearlove. Photograph by G.F. Louden (in Richard Burnell’s “Swing, Swing Together”).

20 August 2020

By Elizabeth Burnell

For the HTBS show-and-tell series, Elizabeth Burnell writes about her father, 1948 Olympic gold medallist Richard Burnell. Despite Burnell’s many rowing medals, his daughter tells the story of a non-rowing-related manuscript, which her father wrote during the trip to the 1950 British Empire Games in New Zealand.

I was born into a rowing family, so the sport has been part of my life for as long as I can remember, back to visiting Henley Royal Regatta as a small child, and the funfair, which is now part of Lion Meadow car park.

At that time, the rowing world, as I saw it, was full of the ‘old men of rowing’. So, I think I found much of it boring until I started to work at what was then the Amateur Rowing Association (now British Rowing) in the early 1970s, when suddenly a new, younger rowing world opened up.

I was finally able to share my father’s greatest passion, and the bond between us became even stronger. I have always been very proud of my father’s Olympic medal, as I have of my grandfathers’ medals. My father had stopped actively rowing long before I was born, so I knew him as a journalist, coach and author of books.

Quite some time after my father’s death, a new book came to light – typed on his trusty old typewriter. A Flying Visit (An account of a flying visit to New Zealand, with a great many armchair digressions) told the story from 22 January 1950 through to 21 February 1950 and covers the trip to and back for the Auckland British Empire Games in New Zealand.

It is not, however, a book about rowing. In the foreword of this book, my father explains that he covered the trip from a rowing point of view in his book Swing, Swing Together (1952). A Flying Visit is the story of a fantastic journey across the world – visiting the Pyramids, the Persian Gulf, India, Java, the Timor Sea and the Tasman Sea, plus the wonders of New Zealand.

The actual Empire Games, with the story of the lost VIII and the actual race, is there, including the frustrations of what might have been, but so are incredible stories of the places visited. The road trip with Pat Bradley (who coincidentally was married to my beloved godmother, Erica), as well as many tales told to them by the locals in all the areas they visited.

Richard Burnell in his latter years wearing the sweatshirt from 1950, ‘not a pretty look,’ Elizabeth Burnell writes.

It dips into history: the history of the Raj, reminiscences of meetings (mainly in bars!) with the local people who recounted the myths and legends of the regions they visited. There are even comments on the wonderful cerise Leander tie. During the war, General Miles Dempsey apparently gave my father permission to wear a Leander tie on the one day of the year he was under his command!

This typewritten manuscript is very close to my heart. It shows a side of my father he kept well hidden. It helped me understand him more, and marvel at his way with words. It brings him back to me, not that he ever really went away…


  1. Another strand to a fascing story that links 3 Bs; Burnells (I well remember the indomitable ‘Don’ at Leander), Bushnells & Beresfords.
    Thank you HTBS for bringing us together.

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