The 1937 Oxford Crew at Ranelagh

After one of Oxford’s first outings on the Thames for the 1937 Boat Race. From left to right: M.G.C. Ashby (bow), J.S. Lewes (president, 2), J.D. Sturrock (6), R.G. Rowe (4), D.R.B. Mynors (3), A.B. Hodgson (stroke), J.C. Cherry (7), J.P. Burrough (5) and G.J.P. Merifield (cox). For Boat Race Day, two of the oarsmen had been swopped out.

23 November 2020

By Göran R Buckhorn

Göran R Buckhorn borrows Mrs. B.’s gramophone to listen to an old record.

Jan Sturrock, 1937.

In the 1930s, it was common that before the Boat Race, the Oxford and Cambridge crews were portrayed in newsreels. It was the president of each crew who normally presented the oarsmen in his boat. The presentation sometimes became more humorous than serious, often with jokes about the oarsmen’s interests outside the boat or even his looks and features rather than how good he was at the oar.

One good example of this is Oxford president B. J. Sciortino when he ‘describes the exhibit’ in the following Pathe’s 1936 newsreel. (Please observe how he describes no. 6 in the crew, J.D. Sturrock, how ‘he got an enormous amount of brawn, most people think he hasn’t enough brain, but as he’s going into the Sappers that can’t be quite true…’ See the so-called Brawn versus Brain Debate, Tim Koch wrote about the other day.)

Here is the 1936 presentation of the Oxford crew:

The presentation of the 1937 Dark Blues might not reach the same height in jokes, but it is still funny and interesting:

One of the problems with filming a crew early is that it might not always be the same oarsmen in the boat on Boat Race Day. In the 1937 newsreel, David Mynors (who rowed in the 1935 race) is presented as no. 3, but in the race, R. Stewart had taken his place. A few weeks before the race, there was a second casualty: president Jock Lewes.

The Australian Jock Lewes became a beloved president for Oxford University Boat Club after the 1936 Boat Race. Bow man Mike Ashby wrote years later in his unpublished autobiography about his friend:

Jock Lewes

Oxford were fortunate to have elected Jock Lewes, a particularly fine President for 1936/37. He was an Australian, older, wiser and an experienced oarsman, moreover he was a fine and persuasive leader. He possessed what we now call ‘charisma’, that rare quality which inspires confidence and boosts morale. As from the very start of our preparations and training, he refused to recognise any possibility other than victory.

For the Olympic rowing in Berlin in 1936, the Oxford rowers John ‘Jan’ Sturrock and Conrad ‘Con’ Cherry had been selected to row for Britain. Lewes and Ashby, who had been elected secretary for O.U.B.C., also planned to take Oxford oarsmen to a regatta in Essen, Germany, to be held a couple of weeks before the Olympics. After the regatta, Lewes went to the Olympic rowing course at Grünau to watch the world’s best rowers compete.

Ashby wrote about Lewes’s trip to the Olympics:

The […] great triumph from Berlin was that Jock persuaded Jan Sturrock and Conrad Cherry, who had both rowed in the British Olympic Four [sic! ‘Jan’ Sturrock took a silver medal in the coxless four and ‘Con’ Cherry rowed in the eight that placed fourth], to stay up at Oxford another year for the worthy purpose of at last winning the Boat Race.

On 12 March 1937, only two weeks before the race, The Times reported that the Oxford president had taken himself out of the crew. The newspaper wrote:

After Minors [sic] was replaced by Stewart, however, with Ashby’s improvement, Lewes became unable to keep the boat straight against the strengthened bow side, and, reluctant as [coaches] Mr. Nickalls and Mr. Mallam must have been to recommended so fine a leader and hard a race to stand down, there was plainly no other course open.

From his and the crew’s point of view, Ashby wrote:

The problem of a boat being rowed round arises from the drag effect from the rudder, as cox corrects it. Unknown to the rest of us, it was decided to make a secret test, known only to Jock, Gordon [Merifield, the cox] and the coach, by doing a start without the cox guiding the rudder. The two bow oars were each doing their best but for tragically different reasons. As it was so close to the race, I knew that I was safe, but my colossal heave at the start was my normal. I was not going to be rowed round! After only ten strokes, cox called “Easy all”, as we were heading dangerously towards the south bank. Cox then ordered us to turn, we headed back to the boat house, where David Winser was already standing ready. To our astonishment and horror, Jock, our splendid President, got out and Winser took his place. Now he could only watch for the great victory for which he had done so much to achieve. Few people would have had the courage to impose such self discipline.

David Winser

David de Reuda Winser, known as David Winser, had rowed for Oxford both in the 1935 and 1936 Boat Races. During training for the 1937 race, he had been in and out of the Blue boat. One thing that Lewes lacked but Winser had was a ‘quicker beginning’ of the stroke, something that coach Gully Nickalls had the crew work on as soon as they came to practice on the Thames. And the swap proved to be the right move for Oxford. After 13 straight losses, the Dark Blues won the Boat Race on 24 March by three boat lengths without their president in the boat.

In 1940, David Winser published the short story “The Boat Race Murder”. As an Old Blue, he was the perfect author of the story. Here follows a part of the story how the Oxford crews, including the ‘second crew’, Isis, are having a champagne party at ‘Ranelagh’, or the Ranelagh Club, which was founded in 1878. It was a renowned polo club located at Barn Elms in south west London. For their Boat Race training on the Thames in London, the Oxford crew were housed at Ranelagh. The club closed before the Second World War, and the club house burnt down in 1954.

Here is a part of Winser’s “The Boat Race Murder”:

You must try and picture a fizz night at Ranelagh. Someone, the coach or some other old Blue, had suddenly produced a dozen bottles of champagne and the coach has said that the crew’s been going so well that it damn well deserves the filthy stuff. Actually, as he and everyone else knows, the main purpose of fizz is to stop the crew getting stale. But the tradition’s always the same: it’s supposed to be a reward for hard work. On this particular night the coach and an old Blue between them had produced two dozen bottles, because the second crew, the Isis, was coming over to dinner from Richmond.

Perhaps you can imagine the rest already. Solly Johnstore leaning back in his chair and laughing so hard at his own jokes that everyone else is laughing. Once I saw the president try to stop him making jokes because it was hurting him terribly to go on laughing so hard, but Solly didn’t stop. And then, after dinner, two crews milling about in the big games room, the president taking cine-camera pictures with an enormous searchlight affair, the Isis crew taking on the varsity at billiards and ping-pong, Ronnie playing the piano and someone singing, the gramophone playing “The Donkey Serenade”, Solly still making his incredible jokes, and somewhere over in the corner Melvin Green talking about rowing to Dr. Jeffreys, who coached the crew for the first part of training. The noise, and the general tohu-bohu, as Solly said, were both considerable.

There is no information when Winser penned this story, but from the above, it can be decided that he wrote the story in 1937 or later, maybe while he was studying at Yale University in the USA, where he stayed for two academic years, 1937/38 and 1938/39. “The Donkey Serenade”, which is mentioned in the story, was a song in the 1937 musical film The Firefly with Jeanette MacDonald and Allan Jones. The film was an adaptation of the operetta of the same name, which premiered on Broadway in 1912.

Coincidently, for an article by Tim Koch, published in April 2019, he sent along a photo of the 1937 Dark Blue crew, probably at Ranelagh. They look relaxed and ready to listen to a record on the gramophone. Is it “The Donkey Serenade”?

The 1937 Oxford crew. Left to right: J.D. Sturrock (6); M.G.C. Ashby (bow); R.G. Rowe (4); J.S. Lewes (president, was supposed to row at 2, but handed over the seat to D.M. de R. Winser); J.C. Cherry (7); J.P. Burrough (5); R.R. Stewart (3); A.B. Hodgson (stroke, sitting); and G.J.P. Merifield (cox, dropping the needle on the record). Photo courtesy of Tim Koch.

Sadly, five members of the 1937 Oxford crew lost their lives in the Second World War: Burrough, Cherry, Lewes, Merifield and Winser. In the case of Winser, it has later been revealed that he died of ‘friendly fire’.I would like to add a personal note to this article. One of my ‘rowing heroes’ is David Winser, oarsman, scholar, award-winning poet, novelist, writer and doctor in the 48 Royal Marine Commandos in the Second World War (see here). In late 2012, I developed a contact with Winser’s sister Bridget Thompson, born in 1922. Bridget, as she wanted to be called (not ‘Mrs. Thompson’), was actually David’s stepsister but to her and her four younger siblings David was a beloved older brother. Bridget adored him.

Soon after I had connected with Bridget, who lived in Ely, Cambridgeshire, I decided I wanted to write something about David. Bridget gave me permission to publish his short story “The Boat Race Murder” with comments and an essay about him. Ever since 2013, Bridget started to feed me stories about David’s life, and she gracefully shared his published poems, articles and stories with me. She was never opposed to those many e-mails I sent her with silly questions like, did David have a girlfriend, what kind of typewriter did he use? etc. I am still working on that essay about David.

In July, I was reached by the sad news that Bridget had died on 5 June, at age 97. Reading about her long, and not always easy, life in an obituary by her two children, Anne Newark and David Thompson, it hurts to become aware how ignorant I was about her own adventurous life.

To mention a few things: As a schoolgirl, Bridget played with Clement Attlee’s children. When it was time for her to go to university, the war had started, and she and a sister were evacuated to an aunt in Chadlington. Soon Bridget returned to London to help at her father’s law firm, living in a city with its daily air raids and bombardments. Her brother David was also living in London at the time, working in a hospital. The young woman Bridget shared a flat with was Helena Philby, sister of the infamous Kim Philby, and Bridget had, as the obituary reads, ‘run-ins with Kim Philby, Graham Greene, Jock Lewes.’ After the war, Bridget worked for the British Council, where she met Peter Thompson. They married and their children Annie and David came along. Later Peter Thompson worked at the BBC as a children’s TV producer. However, at the end of 1952, Peter left the BBC and moved with his family to a remote hill farm in Cornwall. However, Peter’s dream was not Bridget’s and after a divorce – and now a single mother – she eventually was back to the British Council and she worked there until her retirement.

While working for the British Council, Bridget was awarded the MBE for promoting cultural relations. Her obituary goes on saying that ‘She spent some years in what was then Czechoslovakia, as assistant cultural attaché. (In the Cold War at the time, the stereotypical cultural attaché was a spy, but she always denied any spying though her apartment was bugged, and she was routinely tailed.)’

After a stint as the assistant cultural attaché, Bridget worked very successfully on developing cultural relations with China. The list goes on and on, what Bridget achieved during her long life.

Now I miss our e-mail correspondence where we not only discussed her brother David but also Brexit, politics on both sides of the pond, family life (mostly mine) and whatever was on our minds. I am immensely grateful to Bridget for sharing stories about her brother’s short life. If I only knew then what I know now – I feel I should slap myself for not doing it – I would have asked her questions about Graham Greene and Kim Philby, too. But alas, now it is too late.

R.I.P., dear Bridget.

2 comments

  1. Goran,
    A most interesting and poignant story. You never fail to amaze with your ability to seamlessly weave one interesting tale into another. I always tell the youngsters in my present club, Shanklin Sandown R.C., that rowing, not only, is a great sport but is peopled with so many extraordinary and interesting characters, Bridget Thompson, if only by family connection, being a case in point.

    • Dear Lionel,Thank you.

      Yes, there were a few stories that I wanted to tell in this article. I was happy that Tim sent me the photo from Ranelagh with the 1937 Oxford crew gathered around the gramophone. David Winser is not in this picture, but Jock Lewes is, as he was still in the crew at this time. Winser was probably at Ranelagh as well (as a member of Isis), so he would remember the scene when he later wrote “The Boat Race Murder”. Of course, I could not write about Winser without also mentioning his wonderful sister, Bridget, who has been such an incredible help in my research about David Winser.

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