The Burnell Albums

The Richard Burnell collection includes two albums recording his entire rowing career, while another includes all his more recent press cuttings.

4 January 2021

By Robert Treharne Jones

A recent attic clearance has revealed a remarkable collection of rowing photographs, cuttings and other memorabilia belonging to Olympic gold medallist Richard Burnell (1917-1995), Robert Treharne Jones writes.

Richard Burnell partnered Bert Bushnell to win gold in the double sculls at the London Olympics in 1948, when the rowing events took place over the Henley course. Their exploits were brought to a wider audience in a 2012 feature film in which several Leander athletes took the role of body doubles for the leading players. The film was entitled Bert and Dickie, a name which caused irritation to the Burnell family as ‘Dick’ had never been known as ‘Dickie’ during his lifetime.

Burnell’s gold medal was unique as it repeated the success of his father, Charles Desborough ‘Don’ Burnell in the GB men’s eight some 40 years earlier. The Burnells’ double gold remains a rarity of father and son winning the ultimate prize in Olympic history.

The Oxford Blue Boat in 1939, featuring Richard Burnell at 5, is pictured with their diminutive cox, Hart Massey, at 5 st 2 lbs the lightest man ever to take part in the Boat Race.

Richard Burnell’s rowing career spanned some 20 years, from his early days at Eton, to Magdalen College, Oxford, and thence to Leander. Having hung up his blade for the last time he continued his career as a journalist, which he had started whilst still competing, when he had the invidious task of reporting for the national press on races in which he had just taken part!

Throughout his long and successful rowing career at school, university, and with the GB team, he was meticulous in keeping photographs, newspaper cuttings, programmes and records. Following his death in 1995, when he was interred in the family grave in Remenham churchyard, all these keepsakes were safely stored away by his widow, Rosalind, until her own death in 2010.

The records were inherited by Richard and Rosemary’s eldest son Peter, who rowed for Oxford in the Blue Boat in 1962, and it was when he moved house last summer that these items were brought to light again, with many members of the family completely unaware of their existence.

Having completed his competitive career RDB (back row, third from right) was elected Captain of Leander, where he oversaw his club’s success in the Stewards and the Grand in 1953 – the last occasion on which Leander won Henley’s premier event for eights as a club crew.

The collection includes two albums recording his entire rowing career, starting at Eton, where he made his first appearance in the Ladies Plate in 1934, and moving on to further coverage of Henley, the Bumps, the Boat Race, the Olympics and the Empire Games. Another album includes all his more recent press cuttings, as a rowing journalist with the Sunday Times, until the World Championships in Tasmania in 1990. There are notes and accounts from the Newspaper Press Boat Fund, the launch hired by the heavyweight press to follow Boat Race outings, as well as the race itself, before sponsorship covered that expense in the mid-1980s. Finally, there is the original typescript of his Leander history The Brilliants, completed by Geoffrey Page and published after Richard’s death.

These albums are not yet in the public domain, although it is planned that the press cuttings and Boat Race launch notes will be lodged at the River and Rowing Museum, while the Leander history manuscript will go back to the club, when the current restrictions allow.

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