Keep it in the Family

Three generations of Burnell Dark Blues: Don Burnell (1895–1898), Dickie Burnell (1939) and Peter Burnell (1962). Picture from Richard Burnell’s book The Oxford Pocket Book of Sculling Training (1962).

6 April 2021

By Göran R Buckhorn

How is it to have Blue blood running through your veins, Göran R Buckhorn wonders?

On Sunday, we could witness the 166th men’s Boat Race and the women’s 75th race. Whether you like to see the Boat Races on the Thames or the Great Ouse, it felt good that the Oxbridge crews could meet again on the water, so we didn’t have another Boat-Race-less year like in 2020.

Since the men’s first race in 1829 and the women’s first race in 1927, many members of the same family have taken a seat in a Blue boat. Among the famous rowing families, we will find, for example, the Bournes, who rowed for the Dark Blues: father Gilbert Bourne (1882, 1883), son Bob Bourne (1909, 1910, 1911, 1912) and grandson Bobbie Bourne (1946, 1947). Another famous Oxford family is the Burnells: father Don Burnell (1895, 1896, 1897, 1898), son Dickie Burnell (1939) and grandson Peter Burnell (1962). Or the Nickallses and the Pitmans – for the latter family, I find it impossible to figure out who is related to whom as there were so many of them. (In one particular boat race at Eton, the winning eight had a crew of eight Pitmans!) On the Light Blues’ side, we have father Ran Laurie (1934, 1935, 1936) and son Hugh Laurie (1980), the Close brothers, the Fairbairns and the Swanns, to only mention a few.

Twice*, in the long history of the Boat Race, has a brother rowed against his brother. In 2003, David Livingston (Oxford) raced against his older brother James Livingston (Cambridge). Remarkably, in the same race, Ben Smith (Cambridge) met his brother Matthew Smith (Oxford). Two days before the race, Ben had to replace bow Wayne Pommen, who was injured after the boat collided with a launch during practicing a start. Matthew Smith was already picked to stroke the Dark Blues. It must have required great diplomatic skills by the Livingston and Smith parents before the race – which Oxford won.

There is a long list of fathers, sons, cousins, brothers, uncles, nephews and other relatives taking at seat in an Oxbridge boat.

There are also those oarsmen and oarswomen who have raced in Blue boats whose mother and/or father were not Old Blues, but were in an Olympic crew. Natalie Redgrave won the Women’s Oxbridge race in 2011, when it was still held in Henley. Natalie’s mother, Ann, represented Great Britain in the women’s eight at the 1984 Olympics (5th place in the final), and her father is of course five-time Olympic champion, Sir Steve.

The 2021 Cambridge women’s winning crew. No. ‘3’ looks especially happy. Picture from the BBC broadcast.

At the Sunday women’s race, there was another young woman who has celebrity rowing parents, although it might have gone under the radar for many viewers, particularly those in Great Britain, as the rower in question is an American. I’m not blaming you, because you might have been bewildered, just as I was, at the razzamatazz of the introduction of the rowers. I’m thinking of Cambridge’s rower at ‘3’, Abigail Parker, who was announced as having an Olympic champion as a mother and a father that coached at Harvard. A little vague if you ask me.

Abigail’s mother, Kathy Keeler, qualified for the U.S. rowing team for the 1980 Olympics, but as President Carter put a ban on travelling to Moscow, Keeler and the other athletes had to stay home. However, the U.S. women’s eight, with Keeler as stroke, got their revenge when they won the gold medal at the next Olympic Games, in Los Angeles. Abigail’s coaching father was none other than the legendary Harry Parker, who, before he became Crimson Coach, placed fifth in the 1960 Olympic single sculls final.

Abigail on her father’s bicycle at the 2002 Henley Royal Regatta. The Harvard crews won the Ladies’ Challenge Plate, the Temple Challenge Cup and the Britannia Challenge Cup. Photo courtesy of Peter Spurrier/Intersport Images.

Now, that’s having rowing running through your veins.

*Actually, should be three times – see Robert Treharne Jones’s article “The 1900 Boat Race: Brother Against Brother” on 8 April 2021.


  1. Goran, this year’s Cambridge men’s boat, included Ollie Parish, who’s father Matt won (from memory) 3 times for Cambridge (and incidentally also won the Grand with ULBC and was in the GB 8 for the Atlanta Olympics). Ollie’s rowing CV is already impressive and will likely overmatch his father’s.

    • Daniel,
      Thank you. Yes, I’m aware of the story of father and son Parish. However, it’s impossible to mention all father-son combinations through the ages of the Boat Race. The reason for my article was mostly to mention daughters Redgrave and Parker, the latter so I had an excuse to publish Peter Spurrier’s wonderful photo from the 2002 Henley Royal.

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