Donald Gollan: The Nearly Man

Donald Herbert Louis Gollan (1896 – 1971)

8 February 2021

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch on a forgotten sculler who may have overcome a disability but who could not defeat a legendary opponent.

The place of luck in sporting success is often debated. Many athletes have been quoted as saying words to the effect that, ‘The more I train, the luckier I get’. Whatever the truth of this, the history of sport is full of instances of talented and hard-working individuals or teams who are unlucky enough to be competing at the same time as truly exceptional opposition. In recent times for example, those pairs who constantly raced the combination of Eric Murray and Hamish Bond must have felt ‘unlucky’ to be rowing against the two Kiwis during their eight-year unbeaten run of 69 races between 2009 and 2017.

Going back many more years to the 1920s, there was a talented but now little-known British sculler who had the misfortune to be at his peak at the same as the remarkable and better remembered Jack Beresford.

Famously, Jack Beresford was the greatest British rower of the pre-Redgrave era. Between 1920 and 1936, he won five medals (three gold, two silver) at five Olympic Games in succession, ten Henley medals, seven Wingfield Sculls Championships and the Philadelphia Gold Cup twice. On form for the 1940 Olympics, his career was only ended by the outbreak of the 1939 – 1945 War. If Beresford decided to stay with his first love, rugby, or had a German machine gunner got a better aim in 1918, many of his medals (the domestic ones at least) would have been won by a man who was always metaphorically and literally in Jack’s wake: Donald Herbert Louis Gollan.

Henley, 1925: After beating Donald Gollan in the Diamond Sculls final, Jack Beresford receives his third Pineapple Cup.

DHL Gollan, born in 1896, was three years older than Beresford. He was the son of Spencer Herbert Gollan (1860 – 1934) who was a very well-known and talented all-round sportsman both in his native New Zealand and in Great Britain, successful in rowing, sculling, running, swimming, boxing, shooting and the racquet sport, ‘fives’. He had inherited his father’s 33,000-acre sheep farm at Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, at the age of 27 and so could afford to indulge his interests.

In 1901, Spencer Gollan (bow) and the professional scullers, George Towns (2) and Tom Sullivan (stroke), set a record by sculling a treble the 102 miles from Folly Bridge, Oxford, to Thames Rowing Club, Putney, in 13 Hours and 56 minutes.

In 1893, Spencer Gollan was in the Thames RC crew that won Henley’s Thames Cup. In 1903, the Cambridge alumnus lent CUBC a short 55-foot eight designed by Tom Sullivan and himself for use in that year’s Boat Race – which the Light Blues won. In 1910, Gollan was the umpire in the World Sculling Championship match between Richard Arnst and Ernest Barry held on the Zambezi. Along with Tom Sullivan, Spencer very ably coached son Donald during his sculling career. In particular though, Gollan Senior excelled at both amateur golf and as a race horse owner.

In 1904, Spencer Gollan won the popular handicap steeplechase, the Grand National, with ‘Moiffa’ – a steed that deserves an article of his own. The New Zealand born horse was shipwrecked en route to England and was presumed lost. However, he had saved himself from the wreck and swam to a small Irish island where he was eventually found. Moiffa won the National a few months later and was eventually sold to Edward VII. He was later ridden by Lord Kitchener at George V’s Coronation.

Donald Gollan was educated by private tutors and his sporting career seems to have started with competitive swimming. Between the ages of 16 and 19 (1912 to 1915), he won many races with the Serpentine Swimming Club based on the lake in London’s Hyde Park. He combined this with sculling and the first record of him rowing is in June 1914, when he was successful in the Junior-Senior Sculls at Marlow, a high-class win at a high-class regatta. The Bucks Herald wrote, ‘Gollan sculled splendidly and gained an easy win…’ A week later, he took on the best that the country could offer and raced in the Diamond Sculls at Henley.

In the first round of the 1914 Diamonds on 1 July, Gollan, weighing in at 11st 12lbs and rowing for Thames, defeated RWM Arbuthnot of Third Trinity, Cambridge, by 3/4 length. He lost in the second round to the experienced Trinity Hall sculler, Colin M. Stuart, but The Times noted opaquely that, ‘(Gollan) had been indisposed but raced pluckily’.

In the first round of the London Cup on 9 July, Gollan was again beaten by Stuart (by 2 1/2 lengths), but he did finish two lengths ahead of EDP Pinks, the runner-up in the 1913 Diamonds. Despite coming in behind JL Tann and RC Bourne in the preliminary heat of the Wingfield Sculls on 13 July, it was a very promising start for the 18-year-old. However, at the end of July 1914 the world changed forever.

The Henley of 1st – 4th July 1914 was the last before the 1914 – 1918 War.

The superbly fit Donald Gollan was presumably excused from war service as he was born partially deaf. In the language of the time, he was called ‘deaf and dumb’ or ‘a deaf mute’, both now outdated and offensive terms. ‘Dumb’ in the archaic sense meant ‘silent’ because Gollan chose to communicate by means other than by speaking – as many deaf and hard of hearing people still do.

Following the end of the war, in 1919 Gollan entered the Kingswood Sculls, the equivalent of the Diamond Sculls, at the special Henley Peace Regatta. He had put on 12 pounds since 1914, but he was defeated in the first round by Major P. Withington of the U.S. Army, the American getting through to the semi-finals.

In early October 1919, Gollan went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, and joined First Trinity Boat Club. By 12 November, The Times reported that he was in the ‘7’ seat of the Trial Eights ‘A’ Crew, in contention for the CUBC boat for the 1920 Boat Race. The vital race between the ‘A’ and ‘B’ Crews was held at Ely on 3 December but Gollan’s crew lost by 2 1/2 lengths and he was not chosen for the Blue Boat.

In November 1919, Gollan won two heats of the Colquhoun Sculls, the then prestigious Cambridge University sculling competition, to reach the final. Steered by hand signals from the bank, he lost to AA Swann by 1 1/2 lengths. The Cambridge Review report on the race noted two problems that Gollan would encounter again in the future – steering difficulties and an usually good opponent:

(Gollan) gave Swann a splendid race and the finish would have been still closer but for his difficulties in steering. We think Gollan was good enough to win most years, but in Swann he met an exceptionally good sculler, older than himself and long practised.  

The “Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News” report on the 1919 Colquhoun Sculls.

Gollan also boxed while at Cambridge and later, in 1922, he reached the heavyweight final of the Amateur Boxing Association Championships.

In 1920, Gollan raced in the colours of First Trinity, but from 1921 to 1926 he competed for Leander. Presumably, this meant that he had left Cambridge by 1921.

Tables can be boring, but they can impart a great deal of information in an easily digestible way. Those below show how Gollan was thwarted by his nemesis, Beresford, throughout his career in the single in the three events that then made up the ‘Triple Crown’ of sculling: The Diamonds Sculls, The Wingfield Sculls and the Metropolitan Regatta’s London Cup.

Gollan’s record in Henley’s Diamond Sculls.
1921: Gollan pictured after unexpectedly losing to Frits Eyken in the semi-finals of the Diamonds. Previously, the “Nottingham Evening Post” had said that Gollan had made ‘exceptional improvement’ and that he may ‘seriously challenge the supremacy of (Beresford)’. In fact, Eyken beat Beresford in the final, though only because Jack stopped sculling when the Dutchman hit the booms and waited until his opponent was clear to start racing again.
1922: Gollan pictured in training for the Diamonds under the instruction of the great professional, Ernie Barry. He was knocked out in the first round by Beresford.
1923: Gollan’s best Diamonds campaign. He caused a sensation when he beat the favourite, Walter Hoover of Duluth, USA, by 3/4 length in the first round. Hoover (shown here closest to the camera) had a peculiar but effective style. In the previous year, the American champion had easily beaten Jack Beresford in the final of the Diamonds by more than 30 seconds.
1923: The “Pall Mall Gazette” and the “Daily Herald” mark Gollan’s first round win against Hoover.

The Yorkshire Post said of the finish of the Gollan – Hoover race:

The winner has an unhappy affliction of his hearing, and so the cheering was gracefully accompanied by a prodigious waving of caps.

1923: In the semi-final, Gollan continued to impress by beating the Canadian HA Belyea, who had won the Canadian Henley Singles Scull Championship in 1921 and 1922. It was a shock when Golan lost the final to the inexperienced and unknown London RC sculler, Morris K. Morris.
1926: Gollan’s last attempt at the Diamonds. He was beaten by the eventual winner, Beresford, on the first day. Picture: Thames Rowing Club Archive.
Gollan’s record in the Wingfield Sculls. The Wingfields were called ‘The British Amateur Championship’ but the event was less keenly contested than the Diamond Sculls.

In the 1921 Wingfields, Gollan crossed the line at Mortlake first, but he was then disqualified for fouling Beresford at Hammersmith, putting a crack in his boat which became waterlogged. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph wrote that ‘Gollan twice steered clean over Beresford, who had to stop. The failure of Gollan to keep to his proper course was a matter of regret, for the race up to the point of the foul was a very fine one, and (Gollan) appeared to have a very good chance to win’.

1923: The Wingfield Sculls approaches Hammersmith Bridge with Beresford leading Gollan and going on to win. The result had been the same in the previous year – with both men breaking the course record.
The London Cup was the least contested of the three Triple Crown races and it carried less prestige as time went on.

The London Cup of 1923 was the only time that Gollan ever officially beat Beresford. It was a rather hollow victory however, as Beresford was disqualified for fouling. The Times wrote, ‘If Beresford had steered a better course he probably would have won, for he had just taken the lead’.

Gollan had another victory of sorts over Jack Beresford in 1923. At the De Hoop Regatta in Amsterdam, the Swiss sculler Bosshard beat a tired Beresford (who had been doubling up) in a heat of the senior sculls. Gollan was the beneficiary of this, defeating Bosshard in the final.

In his book, the well-titled Hear the Boat Sing: The History of Thames Rowing Club and Tideway Rowing (1991), Geoffrey Page wrote:

In the spring of 1927, Jack Beresford suggested tactfully to Spencer Gollan that his son’s future as a sculler was limited and that rowing in an eight may bring out the best in him. The old man leapt at the idea and in no time at all Donald was installed at five in the Grand eight.

Certainly, by the end of the 1926 season, Gollan was 30 and must have realised that he was unlikely to ever satisfactorily beat Beresford – who showed no signs of slowing down or retiring. Perhaps his last race in a single was at the Vesta Dashes on 2 June 1927 when he was beaten in the preliminary round by the 21-year-old Hugh ‘Jumbo’ Edwards (who, in turn, lost to Beresford in the final).

Gollan’s decision to use his remaining ‘best years’ to return to racing under Thames colours in sweep fours and eights proved a good one; the next two years brought him four Henley wins and an Olympic Silver medal. Even better for a Thames man, three of those wins were against neighbours and old rivals, London.

Thames beat London in the Grand, 1927. Gollan is at ‘5’. Picture: Thames Rowing Club Archives.
Winners of the Grand, 1927. Gollan standing, second from left. Perhaps he was lent a Thames blazer for this picture, he seems to have been attached to his Leander blazer and tie. Picture: Thames Rowing Club Archives.
Thames beat London in the Stewards, 1927. Gollan is at ‘3’. Picture: Thames Rowing Club Archives.
Winners of the Stewards, 1927. Gollan second from left. Picture: Thames Rowing Club Archives.
Thames at the presentation of the Grand Challenge Cup in 1928. They beat First Trinity in the final. Gollan, who rowed at ‘5’ is fourth in line. Picture: Thames Rowing Club Archives.
Thames beat London in the Stewards, 1928. Gollan is at ‘3’. Picture: Thames Rowing Club Archives.
The Thames eight that represented Great Britain in the eights at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. After they had earlier raced at Henley, some had described them as the fastest crew that Britain had ever produced. This may have been hyperbole; they lost a hard-fought final to the USA by 1/2 length. Gollan was at ‘5’. Picture: Thames Rowing Club Archives.

Returning to 1927, Thames had won four events at Henley in that year, the Grand, the Thames, the Stewards’ and the Wyfolds. Geoffrey Page wrote of the aftermath:

There were a lot of happy Thames men after this Henley, but none more so than old Spencer Gollan, who has so patiently coached his son for so little reward for so long. Donald had been unlucky in that such an outstanding sculler as Jack Beresford should have been on the scene during his own sculling days and it was fitting that it was Jack’s persuasiveness that finally brought Donald his long-sought Henley medals.

It is appropriate to speculate on why Donald Gollan was a ‘nearly man’ in sculling but not in sweep rowing. Page is the person most qualified to have a view on this; the oarsman, journalist and coach was a lifelong member of Thames (his father, Freddie, five times TRC captain, signed up the six-week-old Geoffrey as a cadet member in 1929). In his Hear the Boat Sing, Page stated why he thought that Gollan came close – but not close enough – to defeating his old adversary, Beresford:

Gollan…. never knew how to cope with his rival. Beresford, on the other hand, always knew what to do to beat Gollan. The latter, weighing over 13 stone, was magnificently built and ably coached by his father…. who used hand signals since his son had been born deaf…. Beresford said that if Gollan could have pushed himself when it mattered he could have beaten anyone, but he never could and Beresford knew exactly when to apply the pressure to settle the issue.

One example of many of what Page meant was from Marlow Regatta in 1926. In the Senior Sculls final, Gollan led Beresford for most of the race, underrating him by three strokes per minute for much of the time. Just before the finish however, Beresford spurted but Gollan did not respond and lost by three feet.

Jack Beresford: A very tough man and a very tough man to beat. However, in his absence, Gollan was the person to watch. In 1922 for example, Beresford did not enter the upriver regattas and Gollan won at Marlow, Staines and Kingston. Picture: Thames Rowing Club Archives.

An example of what could happen when Gollan was able to row a race with confidence was in the Yorkshire Post’s report on his great victory in the 1923 race against Hoover in the Diamonds:

(Hoover) started unevenly… and fouled a boom. This happened at a stage when Gollan is usually not too sure of himself and therefore when he found himself leading he seemed to be inspired, rowing the rest of the distance finely, to win a rousing ovation.

I think it is reasonable to suggest that Gollan’s inability to read and react to an unfolding race was in large part due to him having limited hearing. It was only when he moved into the centre of crew boats, where race decisions are made by the cox or the stroke, that he had great success, notably winning the Grand and the Stewards at Henley in 1927 and 1928, and a Silver in the 1928 Olympic Eights.

After the 1928 Olympics, Gollan retired from competitive rowing and led the life of a country gentleman. He and his wife, Esme, shared an interest in horse racing and breeding dogs.

I began by talking about luck. Donald Gollan was certainly unlucky to be sculling at the same time as the remarkable Jack Beresford. Also, it would normally be accepted that he was also unlucky to be born partially deaf. However, as his hearing problems excused him from service in the First World War, it is quite likely that this condition saved him from injury or death. Luck can be good or can be bad – but it is not always possible to be sure which adjective applies.

One comment

  1. Greg Deieffe has contact me saying that the strange story about the racehorse ‘Moiffa’ surviving a shipwreck is not true and he seems to be correct. My source was an obituary of Spencer Gollan published in the ‘Dundee Courier’ in 1934. Wikipedia, usually the source of such untruths, says:

    The popular story that Moifaa survived a shipwreck before winning the Grand National is not true. Another contender in the 1904 Grand National, an Australian-bred gelding named Kiora, did survive a shipwreck off the coast of Cape Town in October 1899, where he was found standing on a rock near the site of the wreck. Another horse on board named Chesney allegedly swam a great distance to shore.

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