Colin Porter: A Rebel with a Cause

A ‘tough’ Colin Porter, one of Oxford’s coaches for the 1958 Boat Race – a race the Dark Blues lost.

28 January 2021

By Chris Dodd

A bit late, news reaches HTBS that British oarsman and coach Colin Porter died in August last year at the age of 89. He was ‘hot on training’, Chris Dodd writes.

Colin Porter, who has died in Australia on 21 August 2020, came to prominence as the national serviceman in command of rowing at RAF Benson, winning the Thames and Wyfold cups at Henley in 1953. Porter the oarsman never struck international gold, but his crews shook British rowing and the ARA to its ankles. He broached the Head and the Grand, coached National Provincial Bank to unheard-of success and founded his own squad, Barn Cottage, before driving Thames and then Molesey to excel. The poacher was appointed gamekeeper when he became chairman of selectors.

The 1958 Barn Cottage Boat Club crew that won the coxed fours at the Empire Games and coxless fours in the Stewards’ at Henley. Mike Beresford (bow), Simon Crosse, (2), John Vigurs (3), Colin Porter (stroke) and Richard Gabriel (cox).

Porter was short on technique but hot on training. According to historian John Hall-Craggs, Porter was ‘a hideous looking oar, but he was tough. He made his crews really sharp’. His sometimes partner in revolt, the Oxford and London RC coach Jumbo Edwards, described Porterism as ‘the cult of hard work and fitness to the exclusion of almost all else.’

Porter, who rowed at King’s School Canterbury and University of London, delivered the story of Barn Cottage to a history forum at the River & Rowing Museum in 2007. He described his coaching methods in Rowing to Win in 1959, and his career as a hydraulic engineer and environmentalist in Britain and Australia in his 2004 autobiography, A Very Public Servant.

In 1967, Porter married Christine and two years later they emigrated to Australia, where Porter worked in the hydraulics business in Sydney and later Melbourne. In 1976, Christine and Colin Porter, together with the two daughters and one son, moved to Perth, where Colin could launch his sculling boat from his back garden.

Two books showing two sides of Colin Porter.

The Rev Ian Thomson wrote of Colin Porter in The Observer: ‘like a lamppost on a dark night he stands quiet and secure, dispelling gloom and watchful of the dawn.’

Colin F. Porter, born 11 October 1930, died 21 August 2020.

(Update: The caption for the image with the Barn Cottage BC crew has been corrected according to Bob Wilson’s comment on 28 January.)

4 comments

  1. The crew order in the photo caption is incorrect; Mike Beresford is at bow, Simon Crosse at 2, John Vigurs at 3 and Colin Porter is at stroke.

    I knew them from their time at Molesey and from 1959 to 1961 sculled with Colin and Mike at the Norfolk Long Distance Sculling Championship, taking our boats on Colin’s car. On one occasion, Colin took a wrong turn at a roundabout and realising his mistake after a few miles and needing to turn back, backed into the entrance of a field where we waited for a lorry to pass. To our horror the lorry clipped the bow ball on Mike’s boat, shattering its first three feet. We collected the broken pieces and the next morning re-assembled the boat with the help of several rolls of thin sticking plaster. Mike competed with no apparent difference to the speed of the boat, which later received proper attention. This incident shows one of the advantages of timber boats in that, with proper care, they can go on for decades, whereas modern ‘plastic’ boats tend to be short-lived, unloved and eventually wind up in some landfill.

    Bob Wilson

  2. Colin Porter was a contentious individual at the best of times and, for any Brit oarsman of the 50’s/60’s, an heroic one as well.
    Unfortunately his Chairmanship of the Selection Board especially with regard to the ‘68 Olympic nominations left a sour taste in the mouths of many of his, one time, admirers. His subsequent emigration to Australia, and exit from the sport in Britain, did nothing to improve matters.
    Success in the sport of Rowing tends to breed self belief, determination and , hopefully, fair play in an individual. For some , Colin personified this ideal, for others he was its antithesis.
    Therefore, it was disappointing but, not surprising , that at the time of his death , so little publicity was given to his passing. No acknowledgment by British Rowing nor obituary in the Rowing press, it is welcome to read Chris Dodd’s belated words now.

    • Colin Porter will be remembered for what was, in his time, a fanatical emphasis on fitness. This brought him remarkable success both as an oarsman and a coach. Many feel that was the beginning of the long road to our Olympic Golden Years.

      Your correspondent says he became Chairman of the Selectors and I know others who joined him, all with the aim of improving the selection process, having seen the need for change.

      Colin emigrated to Australia in 1969, just over fifty years ago. He has been described as a modest, shy and private man, and that is how I remember him. Following from this the family did not inform the media of his death. The news only came subsequently via a contact in Australia.

      Hugh Dulley

Leave a Reply to HTBS Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.