1950 British Empire Games: “A Flying Visit”

Richard Burnell’s unpublished book “A Flying Visit”.

17 March 2021

By Richard Burnell

Elizabeth ‘Tizzy’ Burnell has allowed HTBS to publish an extract from her father, Richard Burnell’s unpublished book A Flying Visit. Here is his account of the English eight’s race on the Parramatta River in Sydney after the 1950 British Empire Games in New Zealand. At these games, Australia won, New Zealand came second and England third in the eights.

We were due to spend the night and the whole of the next day in Sydney, where the athletes were to take part in an Athletics Meet, and we in a ‘twilight’ Regatta on the Parramatta river. This latter was not part of our original plan. But soon after the race at Karapiro the manager of the Australian team had received a telegram enquiring whether we would compete. As it seemed boorish to refuse we agreed, but I explained that we would not be a serious international crew by the time we reached Sydney. Two of our members had changed places with two athletes on the sea party, and were left behind in New Zealand. And the rest of us would not have been in a boat, or any sort of training, for two and a half weeks. The Australian team manager assured us that the regatta would be an excuse to get Sydney rowing men together to meet us, rather than a serious contest. But the reply he sent to the telegram, if Nelsonic in its touch, was hardly explicit. “England accepts” he wired! Knowing the Australians’ propensity for taking their sport seriously, England developed very cold feet during the journey from Auckland to Sydney.

One of the minor drawbacks to flying West is the time factor already mentioned. Arrived at what seemed to be the end of a long day, and wanting nothing so much as a bath and an evening meal, we were met by people who seemed to think it was only just tea time. And the upsetting thing, of course, was that they were absolutely right. But the Australian Customs at Rose Bay had evidently been told to be kind to us, and this time they raised no difficulties over our assorted contraband. What did not please us so much was to be told that we were scheduled to take part in a march through the city next morning. This time I fear we were not so amenable. Personally I was willing to take the part of the captive in golden chains at what was obviously to be a Roman Triumph; or I was prepared to be sacrificed on the alter of rowing fellowship on the Parramatta. But parade in the morning, and then row afterwards I would not. A compromise was reached in the end, by which some of us were to attend the reception, but not the march. Unfortunately by the time this was settled half our party had been whisked off in buses to their various hotel, and nobody really knew what the plans for the next day were.

Friday 17th February
Friday did not dawn auspiciously for me, in my capacity as captain of the crew that was to race in the evening. When I finally dragged myself wearily from bed, it was to find my room mates still sound asleep, and looking anything but oarsmen spoiling for a race. A search next door revealed that the occupants of the next room had already packed their bags and departed. Before I had finishing dressing the manager of the hotel had volunteered the information that it was too late for breakfast, and that she wanted our rooms in three-quarters of an hour, and furthermore that we could not leave any baggage in them. Being in no mood to trifle I said that we would obviously do without breakfast, but that as we had not been told to evacuate our rooms before lunch, and indeed were reckoning on resting in them in the afternoon, that was something she must sort out with B.O.A.C.

The prospects improved considerably with the arrival of the Australian coach, who took us off to surf bathe at Bondi Beach, and then to lunch. In the afternoon we did some hurried shopping, and then drove out to Sydney Rowing Club, resigned if not looking forward to our race, but wondering how many of the crew would turn up at the right time. There were a lot of people about, and by the time the first race started there were still only five of our crew present.

Jack Beresford (l.) and Richard Burnell at Karapiro. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Burnell.

I told Jack Beresford that he would undoubtedly have to row, and that I assumed that a man who could win an Olympic title at 37 could still beat the Australians at 51. He went into the crew at 2, and Antony Rowe, who was our sculler and spare man, went in at bow. That filled the vacancies caused by the two men we had left behind in Auckland. We had only one race to row, and by the grace of God we had had the foresight to stipulate a maximum of half a mile. Our opponents were to be the fastest crews from the two preliminary heats. With some trepidation we watched them paddle down to the start. None of them were anything like so formidable as the Australian Empire Games VIII, but still they were not to be trifled with. And trifling was just what we appeared to be doing, with an incomplete crew, about to set out in a borrowed boat.

When the time came to go afloat the prospects seemed even bleaker. The boat we borrowed was small, and we were big. There was scarcely room to keep the oar handles clear of our knees. As our cox and Hank Rushmere, our 4, had still not turned up, we borrowed a cox from Sydney R.C., Pater Tuiton, and Vic Middleton, the Australian spare man, came into Rushmere’s place. Hiding our discomfort as best we could we paddled down to the start, keeping as far as possible from the other crews, so as to retain at least the psychological advantage of remaining an unknown quantity. The start was to be ‘flying’, that is to say we were not to be held on stake boats, but all the crews were to come up in line, keeping as nearly level as each felt to be consistent with the starter’s shouted instructions. But the Australian, though he does take his serious sport very seriously, which is as it should be, still has room for a kind heart. This particular starter obviously knew of our misfortune in New Zealand, and also that we were starting this race too under a disadvantage. He was determined that we should not suffer further at his hands, and carefully nursed us along as the six crews came into line. He checked first one, then another; a final call from our cox brought us up in line, running forward nicely, and at the critical moment the starter’s gun rang out.

There was no room for cunning strategy in this race, for it was doubtful enough whether we would hold together for even the half mile. Miraculously we all started together, and went like the shot from a gun; no time to bother about anyone else, in fact no time to do anything but avoid catching a crab. We made no attempt to steady out, but just keep galloping as fast as we could. After about three-quarters of a minute I took a quick look at our opponents. We were on the left of the line; next door to us Sydney High School were about half a length down, and the two of us seemed to be forging ahead. At the quarter mile we were a length ahead of them, and the crews in the middle of the line were dropping back, except for one crew on the far side with white blades. Could we last the distance? So far all was well, but an untrained, semi-scratch crew could hardly keep up the pace we were going all the way. Gradually we drew clear of Sydney High School, and with the tension of the first minute beginning to wear off I became aware that the engine was starting to knock. Far away to the right the crew with white blades, whom I realised must be Leichhardt, were drawing clear of the rest of the field. The angle and distance made it difficult to judge how much we were ahead, but it was evident that the gap was closing. Our cox was yelling that it was the last minute now, and the crew, although faltering, rallied gamely to stroke’s last spurt. On and on we went, now struggling grimly to reach the finish at any cost. Suddenly a gun fired. It was over, and we had won. We had beaten Leichhardt by three-quarters of a length, with Sydney High School a length and a half further back.

First to greet us on the landing stage were members of the Australian Empire Games VIII, seemingly unaccountably pleased by their countrymen’s defeat. The reason, I learned later, was that Leichhardt had been their greatest rivals for the place at Karapiro, and, as usually happens, there was still a faction which maintained that they should have been chosen.  Naturally the Empire Games crew feared that if Leichhardt beat us badly, as they well might have, it would encourage this belief. Also it would inevitably have detracted from their fine performance in New Zealand. But I think it would be doing them less than justice to suggest that this was the main reason for their pleasure. No-one could have been more sympathetic about our misfortunes at Karapiro, and I am sure they were genuinely delighted that we had found some small compensation on the Paramatta. The fact that in doing so we had beaten their own main rivals merely added spice to their pleasure.

I do not want to convey the impression that this twilight regatta on the Parramatta River was a great triumph. In fact, bearing in mind my promise that this was not to be a book about rowing, I would not have described the race at all, if it had not been essentially a scratch affair with a social background. With the exception of Leichhardt we certainly ought to have beaten all the crews taking part, but still, with three substitutes and four or five first class hangovers in the boat, it was a heartening experience, and did quite a lot to boost the local prestige of English rowing. Certainly it made our brief sojourn in Sydney for us.

After the race there followed a barbecue on the grand scale, and a lot of rowing reminiscences with which I will not weary the reader. Later in the evening, when the embers of the alfresco grill were burning low, and the lights were twinkling across the water, a bus arrived to take us to the airport. We collected our stragglers, and said our regretful farewells. There were the usual promises to meet at the Melbourne Games in 1956, but most of us knew full well that this was the close of another pleasant interlude in our rowing careers.

Please also see Elizabeth Burnell’s article “Elizabeth Burnell: My Father’s ‘A Flying Visit’”
and Robert Treharne Jones’s article “The Burnell Albums”.

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