The Cerebral Giant

Richard Desborough Burnell (1917 – 1995) pictured in 1948 and 1973. He won the double sculls with Bert Bushnell at the 1948 London Olympics.

7 January 2021

By Chris Dodd

The discovery of Richard Burnell’s press cuttings and photograph albums in a family attic, as reported in HTBS by Robert Treharne Jones on 4 January, reminded Chris Dodd of life and times on the road with the venerated correspondent of The Times and The Sunday Times.

Richard ‘Dick’ Burnell was among the last of the so-called ‘heavy’ correspondents. He pulled his oar through Eton, Magdalen, the Boat Race, Henley and the Olympic Games, and pushed his pen through The Times, The Sunday Times and a shelf of books. Outlining his career for his obituary in Regatta in 1995, I noted that he only paused to assist the Rifle Brigade and the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers to occupy northern Germany during the Second World War. He claimed to have played a small part in the liberation of Ratzeburg, a village east of Hamburg where the British and Soviet occupation zones met, a place beloved by Wordsworth and Coleridge which became the centre of Germany’s dominance of international rowing during the 1950s and 1960s.

1935: Richard’s Eton crew (right) are beaten by Trinity Hall (left) in the final of the Ladies’ Plate.

I joined the rowing press corps in the 1970s when the heavies – notably Richard, Desmond Hill of The Daily Telegraph and Geoffrey Page of The Sunday Telegraph – were in command, filling their notebooks with millions of words of stroke rates, split times and style notes. The next generation of rowing journalists was partly in awe of such industry but partly puzzled by the heavies’ reluctance to connect with the people they were reporting on. The heavies dispensed wisdom accumulated from their days as Blue or Purple oarsmen and coaches, whereas my generation of correspondents eschewed expertise for journalism. We asked awkward questions of coaches and rowers, and, I like to think, opened the sport to a larger and better-informed readership.

Richard began reporting rowing in 1946 and continued until 1990. He listed his recreation as cerebral argument and practised it wherever there was engagement to be had. I swear that neither Richard, Desmond nor Geoffrey ever conceded defeat in an argument in my hearing, whether debating the state of the nation or the price of a bratwurst during ten years of consumption at Lucerne regatta.

1939: Richard at ‘5’ in the Oxford crew and as a competitor in the Diamond Sculls at Henley.

Richard’s analysis sometimes abandoned him when Oxford University BC, for whom he rowed in 1939, was involved. When Oxford was beset by mutiny in 1987, he was incandescent with darkest blue rage, never mind what case the mutineers might have had. Burnell’s veins flowed with dark blue blood, and praise for anything tinged with light blue he squeezed through a mangle.

One of Richard’s notable achievements was to revive the British Rowing Almanack after the 1939-45 World War. He also founded the Newspaper Press Boat Fund by which the national newspapers bought a time-share in a launch to follow the Boat Race. The NPBF morphed into the British Association of Rowing Journalists (BARJ) once the Boat Race attracted sponsors.

Richard’s curriculum vitae suggests an almanack mind. His rowing life, his notebooks and books are awash with statistics and charts, which sometimes laid him open to the charge that he couldn’t see the wood for the trees. Just as in a social gathering where his height and bulk balked his desire to lose himself in the crowd, his pen moved uneasily among anecdote and quotes. His was the history of the minute book rather than the mutterings of the locker room, but his scrupulously gathered detail fed his readers and the rest of the press corps with a stream of irrefutables.

1948: Richard with Bert Bushnell at the Olympic Regatta.

His prose made up for its lack of surprise with enviable clarity, and when he could get his teeth into a meaty topic his analysis was masterful, as in his books on sculling or his explanation of the sliding rigger in The Times in the 1950s.

Notwithstanding the above, Dick was far from dry. He talked about the world and its ways with great humour, declaring that rowing existed to prove that life was unfair. He was inclined to champion the underdog and the underprivileged than support establishment or conservative stances suggested by his background and plummy voice. He appreciated the chance elements in life, fluttering at the nearest casino to every regatta course in Europe.

On one occasion, a casino visit was accompanied by less than cerebral argument. My introduction to the gaming tables of Vichy was terminated prematurely when Richard, my guide, was convinced that he was short-changed by a croupier. His indignations met ever-stonier faces on the relay team of ever-larger managers as we progressed under suppressed duress from chandelier-lit dignity to the black night.

1950: Richard (sixth from left) with the England crew for the Empire Games. Picture © John Dearlove.

Richard was a sucker for gadgets, pragmatic to a fault. Until it died some years before him, he arose like a genie from a small half-timbered Morris Estate car carrying his beloved ancient leather briefcase in which he kept felt tips, pencils, Wetnotes, binocs, stop watches, clipboard, cameras, galoshes, over trousers, brolly, cape, fur hat, motor-cycle visor to shield his specs, cigarette case and lighter, collapsible walking stick, notebook and hip flask.

Electronic technology beyond the telephone was not part of his world. I remember his look of utter amazement and delight when, logging on for the first time to the electronic messaging system at the Los Angeles Olympics Games in 1984, the computer congratulated him on his 67th birthday. He didn’t remember that he had supplied this information on his accreditation form several months beforehand.

It is particularly pleasing that Richard’s cuttings books should be joining Geoffrey Page’s in the archive of the River & Rowing Museum – covering half a century of competition.

1962, Three generations of Burnell Oxford oarsmen: Don Burnell (1895–1898), Dick Burnell (1939) and Peter Burnell (1962). Richard’s father, Don, won gold in the eights at the 1908 London Olympics. They are the only father and son to have both won gold medals in Olympic rowing. Picture from Richard Burnell’s book, “The Oxford Pocket Book of Sculling Training” (1962).

Mileposts in Richard Burnell’s rowing career:
1934-36 Ladies’ Plate with Eton
1936-39 Magdalen College Oxford
1939 Oxford Blue
1946 Won Wingfield Sculls and Grand with Leander
1948 Olympic gold in double sculls with Bert Bushnell
1949 Won Grand with Leander
1950 England Empire Games eight (3rd to New Zealand, Australia)
1951 Won Double Sculls at Henley with Pat Bradley

1946-69 Rowing correspondent, The Times
1967-90 Rowing correspondent, The Sunday Times
1957-67 Berkshire County Council chairman, highways and bridges committee
1965 Captain of Leander Club
1965 Steward, Henley Royal Regatta
1988-93 President, Leander Club
1989 President, British Association of Rowing Journalists

Some books by Richard Burnell:
History of Leander (with Harold Rickett, 1968)
The Brilliants: A History of Leander (completed by Geoffrey Page after death of author)
Celebration of 150 years of Henley Royal Regatta (1989)
Swing Together (1952)
Sculling for Rowing (1968)
The Complete Sculler (1968)
Fitness Afloat (1978)

Cerebral scribe, obituaries by Christopher Dodd and Geoffrey Page in Regatta 76, March 1995

One comment

  1. Interesting to discover that Richard served in the London Rifle Brigade, as my father was also in the LRB. Now wondering if I’d have got better write ups if he’d known this?!?. At UL we still fondly remember his piece that started “The continuing saga of the beast from the Chiswick deep” after a typically feisty ULBC Vs CUBC meeting

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