Bill Windham, RIP: A Great Oarsman

Bill Windham in the 5 seat of Cambridge winning crew in the 1947 Boat Race.

14 January 2021

By Robert Treharne Jones

The death of Bill Windham, at the age of 94, has deprived the rowing world of one of its most senior figures, Robert Treharne Jones writes. A double Cambridge Blue, multiple Henley winner, Captain of Leander Club, and GB international oarsman, Bill went on to become President of Leander and senior Steward of Henley Royal Regatta.

William Ashe Dymoke Windham was born in 1926 near Woburn, the son of Lieutenant Colonel Steuart Windham, a veteran of both the Boer and Great War. Bill was descended from an ancient Norfolk family whose members included his namesake William Windham, who served in William Pitt’s cabinet as Secretary of State for War 200 years ago.

Bill Windham

Bill was taught at home by his mother, Marjorie, who had set up a small school at home, from which he won a scholarship to Bedford School, where he learned to row. The sport was evidently in his blood, as his maternal great-uncle, WC ‘Willie’ Crofts, was twice winner of the Diamonds for Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1867 and 1869, and Bill was elected Captain of Boats at Bedford in 1944 before winning a scholarship to read engineering at Christ’s College, Cambridge.

“If the war had lasted a bit longer I would have gone into the Sappers or the Navy” he recalled last year. “We suddenly heard the good news that the war was over, at least in Europe – I was walking along the banks of the Cam at the time, and there was much excitement – a lot of hugging and kissing!”

An inauspicious start for Bill Windham in his first appearance at Henley, racing in the Danesfield Cup for Open Eights, in the first regatta after the war.

Bill first rowed at Henley for Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1945, and was one of the last survivors of the men who took part in that first regatta after the war, but he was always destined for greater things than his College boat. He rowed at 5 for Cambridge in the 1947 Boat Race, when his crew beat Oxford by 10 lengths, and he moved up to the 7 seat, behind David Jennens at stroke, for his second successful race in 1951. They were invited to race in Boston, USA, to celebrate the 175th anniversary of Paul Revere’s midnight ride to warn the militia of the approaching British forces during the American War of Independence, and Cambridge duly beat Harvard, Boston University, and MIT, to win a replica of the Paul Revere silver bowl.

Bill Windham (seated, far right) and the Cambridge Blue Boat of 1947 face the cameras on a snowy day before going on to defeat their old rivals.

Having gained a Double First in Mechanical Sciences, as well as a University Prize, Bill started a career with Arthur Guinness Son & Co. (GB) which was to last almost 40 years.

But his rowing career was far from over, and he raced many times at Henley for Leander, winning the Grand in 1949 and 1952. His final Henley wins came in 1953, when he was club captain and achieved a notable double in both the Stewards and the Grand, the last occasion on which Leander won the premier eights trophy as a club crew, rather than a GB composite.

The star-studded Leander crews of 1953, which won both the Stewards and the Grand, included club captain Bill Windham (seated, centre). From the Richard Burnell’s Albums.

Bill was also a member of the GB eight that won bronze medals at the Empire Games in New Zealand and the European Championships in Milan in 1950. The following year his crew became European champions in Macon, and his final international vest was at the Olympic Games in Helsinki, when his crew finished fourth behind the USA, the Soviet Union and Australia.

The GB Olympic eight, with Bill in the 7 seat, train at Henley before their departure for Helsinki 1952.

His career with Guinness took him to the St. James’s Gate Brewery, where he was able to continue his rowing connections as coach to many Dublin-based clubs, including Lady Elizabeth and Garda Siochana. Meanwhile he had been elected Steward of Henley Royal Regatta, where he served as a member of the Committee of Management from 1972, by which time his family had returned to the UK. At the time of his death, Bill had served 67 years and become the longest serving Steward in the history of the Regatta.

Bill will best be remembered at Henley, at least by younger members of the rowing world, as the long-standing timekeeper on Launch 1, where he formed a triumvirate with the late James Crowden and Adrian Cadbury. Countless members of the race reporting team, who shared space at the back of the boat, recollect his gentle, forgiving, style which contrasted with that of many of his fellow Stewards of the time! From this vantage point Bill was able to record many notable races, including the occasion when Hansa Dortmund beat the six-minute barrier in the final of the Grand in 1989.

Timekeeper Bill Windham prepares his notes on the way to the Start for the first race of the day, while the umpire, regatta chairman Mike Sweeney, makes his final inspection of the course, in 2001. Photo: Robert Treharne Jones.

For all the formality, the umpires’ launches were not without their humorous moments. During a filming visit to the regatta by Ruby Wax in the early 1990s, she was invited to watch a race from the chairman’s launch, where she was greeted by Bill and Adrian. Within minutes she had managed to persuade Bill to swap his Cambridge cap for her own scarlet feather fascinator, an occasion which is sadly not recorded on camera!

Bill and his wife Alison, nee Curtis, whom he had married in 1956 moved to Wales in 1987 and settled near Hay-on-Wye, where he immersed himself in country pursuits, running the local shoot, and fishing the local rivers, and he was appointed High Sheriff of Powys in 1996/7.

The Leander flag at half mast in honour of the club’s late President. Photo: Robert Treharne Jones.

Nevertheless his rowing commitments continued at a distance – he was elected President of Leander in 1993 and was able to oversee both the redevelopment of the clubhouse during his five years in office, as well as the landmark admission of women to membership.

William Ashe Dymoke Windham, born on 2 April 1926, died on 5 January 2021. He is survived by his wife Alison and their sons, Ashe and William, and a daughter, Emma.

One comment

  1. Though I never knew Bill Windham we have several second level connections. In the 1945 Danesfield Cup the man who rowed in the corresponding 4 seat for Magdalen College against Bill’s Christ’s College crew was John Gleave who coached my Pembroke Cambridge crews several times in the 1970s. John and Bill both rowed in the 5 seat, John for Oxford and Bill for Cambridge, in the 1947 Boat Race. Other men with Bill in the 1951 Cambridge crew were James Crowden, an alumnus of Pembroke and long time coach of Pembroke and Cambridge crews, as well as Charlie Lloyd who had gone to the same high school as me in Sydney. In the 1952 Olympics the Australian VIII that pipped Great Britain for the bronze medal included Phil Cayzer, a family friend in Sydney and for many years a coach at Sydney Rowing Club. The rowing world is smaller than you expect.

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