The View from Henley Bridge
23 July 2021
By Greg Denieffe
The final part of Greg Denieffe’s 1908 Olympic Regatta trilogy looks at the 81 competitors that raced in the four events in search of Olympic Gold.
The Single Sculls
In the single sculls, nine competitors went to the start: Canada, Hungary and the UK entered two boats each, with Belgium, Germany and Italy entering the others. The first round consisted of one heat between von Gaza (Germany) and Killer (Hungary). The official result was that the German won ‘easily’. However, the race was not rowed out as Killer did not live up to his name and pulled into the bank as soon as von Gaza crossed the finish line. An uneventful race per se, but the two competitors provide us with one of the more interesting photographs of the regatta. von Gaza has featured on HTBS several times before, including a March 2021 article by Göran R Buckhorn: “Bernhard von Gaza: Olympian, Champion Sculler, Writer and Soldier”. Neither sculler had a long life: von Gaza was killed in WWI in September 1917, aged 36; Killer quit this life in December 1926, aged 45.
Of the four quarter-finals, only von Gaza’s race against Scholes of Canada produced much of a race. Scholes led to halfway and once overtaken, stuck with von Gaza to the finish, losing by a length and a half. In the other races, Levitzky (Hungary) beat Gino Ciabatti (Soc. Canottieri “Arno”, Pisa, Italy) easily; Blackstaffe (UK) beat Blower (Canada) by a distance, and McCulloch (UK) had a similar result against Jozef (Joseph) Hermans (Cercle des Regates de Bruxelles, Belgium).
The two semi-finals were also disappointing races. McCulloch beat Levitzky easily, and Blackstaffe outclassed von Gaza who stopped sculling, perhaps because of problems with his foot stretcher [Official Report].
The final between Blackstaffe and McCulloch was a magnificent race. The Official Report noted that “It was impossible to pick the winner at any time up to the last fifty yards.” Blackstaffe, who was forty years old, outsprinted the Melbourne-born McCulloch to gain victory by a length and a quarter in a time of 9.26.
Alexander McCulloch’s other claim to fame is that he was the subject of a painting by John Singer Sargent. McCulloch was on a trip to the Sundal Valley in Norway with his father, George McCulloch, and Sargent. Alexander McCulloch was about 14 years old at the time of the painting.
Only four pairs went to post: Leander Club supplied both British crews, Argonaut R.C. and Deutschland Berliner R.C. the Canadian and German pairs. The two semi-finals were poor races with the local crews easily beating their opponents.
The all-Leander Club final was won by Fenning and Thompson by two and a half lengths, but they did not extend themselves greatly. Their winning time of 9.41 was fifteen seconds slower than that of Blackstaffe in the sculls final.
Like the pairs, the fours event was a straightforward affair: four entries in total, requiring two semi-finals and a final. The rules did not allow crews from the same country to meet in any race other than the final. Thus, the two UK crews faced the Canadian and the Dutch crews in the semis. Magdalene College, Oxford, would certainly have been favourites to add the Olympic Title to the Stewards’ Challenge Cup they had won at Henley Royal Regatta a couple of weeks earlier.
They drew Argonaut R.C., Canada, and after a hard-fought race, Magdalen College crossed the finish line two and a half lengths to the good in the excellent time of 8.34. The four Canadians also raced in the Canadian eight.
In the second semi-final, Leander Club boated a crew made up of a stern pair of Fenning and Thompson – soon to be Olympic Champions in the pair – and Philip Filleul (Bow) and Harold Baker (2). Their opposition was the only Dutch entry at the regatta. The Dutch crew had steering problems from the off, and at halfway went into the booms. Leander waited for them to get clear and then rowed away to win decisively by several lengths. The Dutch crew’s erratic steering was probably down to the fact that they were more used to having a cox on board as this photo of them taken in 1907 shows:
Leander raced well in the final and was only a length in arrears at halfway. Magdalen College steered a perfect race and matched their semi-final time of 8.34 to win with a half-length of clear water.
The original entry for the eights included two crews from Italy; both withdrew before the draw. Of the six crews remaining, two received byes into the semi-finals and the draw placed them both (Belgium and UK1 – Cambridge University) on the same side. The other four crews (Canada, Norway, Hungary and UK2 – Leander Club) raced on the other side of the draw.
The Belgians were familiar with the Henley course, having won the Grand Challenge Cup at Royal Regatta in 1906 and in 1907 (obviously, not the same crew). Foreign crews were barred from the 1908 regatta and so, if they had wanted to, they would not have been able to defend their title. Cambridge University Boat Club beat their rivals from Oxford by two and a half lengths in the 1908 University Boat Race and was select as the UK’s first crew. Leander Club was chosen to put a second crew together – Britain’s rowing reputation depended on them defeating the Brave Belgians.
In the first heat, Canada raced Norway – details from the Official Report: “Both started at 39 with a good following wind which blew slightly off the bushes at the start. Canada led at once and kept a fast stroke going for longer than Norway, which resulted in their getting nearly two lengths by halfway; Norway made tremendous efforts from this point, but their strength and courage did not produce an equivalent in pace, and the Argonauts won by 2¾ lengths.”
The second first-round contest pitted UK2 – Leander Club against Hungary. Perhaps more by luck than design, the Leander crew got this extra race which helped them gel. No amount of training would have prepared them properly to take on the best that Belgium could produce. That honour fell to the Cambridge crew in the semi-final. Official race report (may have been written by a Leander Old Boy): “The English [my emphasis] crew started at 41 to their visitors’ 40 and led after the first ten strokes, but on reaching Remenham they were able to drop to 34 and still be two lengths ahead at halfway. Hungary never relaxed their efforts but went after the leaders with the greatest determination. The gap, however, was never reduced, and Leander, rowing beautifully together with a reserve of power and pace that was most exhilarating to observe, won by about two lengths without extending themselves.”
The winners of these two heats met each other in the first semi-final on Thursday 30 July. At 1.30 pm, the starter dropped his flag and the Canadians shot off at 43 strokes per minute hoping to gain an early lead. Leander at 40, did not let them get away and at halfway had a little over a length of an advantage. Despite several pushes by the Canadians, for which they were warmly applauded, Leander controlled the rest of the race won by a length.
An hour and a half later, Belgium and UK1 – Cambridge University Boat Club – set off to determine who would race Leander in the final. Cambridge has one change in personnel to their Boat Race crew, Eric Fairbairn was replaced by Henry Goldsmith. In addition, there were several seat changes in an effort to find a winning formula. The race report is harsh on Cambridge who were the only home entry to fall to overseas opposition:
Any advantage which the Belgians may have had from the slight bend in their favour in the first part of the course was counterbalanced by the wind off the bushes. They started at 43, but Cambridge University were faster at 40, and both boats went dead level all up the island. They still fought for the lead the whole way to Remenham, where the Belgian canvas was a few inches in front. Here the English faltered a trifle, but Douglas Stuart and John Burn pulled them together again, and Cambridge were soon going great guns and racing splendidly. But the Belgian crew was the more perfectly together, and therefore managed to get a lead of about 20 feet at halfway and to increase it afterwards, for they were not so exhausted by their previous efforts as the Cambridge crew, who showed unmistakable signs of staleness, and in a short time began to go to pieces. There was clear water between the boats after a mile and a quarter had been rowed, and here Stuart’s spurt took the last ounce out of his men, who worked with great determination, but were no longer rowing together. The result was that when the strain came the crew disintegrated, but they never stopped shoving till the flag fell. The Belgians won by a length and a third.
Quite what exhausting ‘previous efforts’ Cambridge had endured is known only to the author of this report; the 1908 Boat Race was held on 4 April.
The highlight of the regatta was the final of the eights, an international race worthy of the name. On the Buckinghamshire Station, Leander Club – the so-called ‘Old Crocks’ or ‘Ancient Mariners’ on account of the 41-year- old Guy Nickalls and the 36-year-old Don Burnell. On the Berkshire Station, Belgium – reigning European Champions with their Henley pedigree already established.
The race report can be found on pages 247 to 249 of The Fourth Olympiad – BEING THE OFFICIAL REPORT – The Olympic Games of 1908. Follow this link to read it in full (type ‘287’ into ‘Search this record’ if it does not open directly).
This excerpt gives a flavour of the report:
[…] the Belgians started at their full pace and perfectly together, rowing 12, 23, and 43. Leander, showing beautiful precision and great power, went off at 11, 22, and 42. Only, however, by about six inches did the English crew keep ahead until they had passed the island, up which both eights went at a tremendous pace and nearly dead level. But Leander were gaining about an inch at every stroke, and by the first signal they had half a length in hand. Belgium spurted suddenly at about half a mile from the start. Leander answered them at once in no uncertain fashion, and Bucknall’s timely quicken brought his men three-quarters of a length ahead at halfway, which the leaders passed in 3 min. 45 sec. Once more the Belgian stroke made a great effort, and his men responded gamely, but it took too much out of them. They had faltered once before and recovered themselves with the greatest courage. This time they rolled badly, and for a moment seemed to go to pieces. Like a flash the English crew went away from them, and, with a quarter of a length clear water between the boats, at last Leander were able for the first time to take a much-needed “breather” at a long and hard 35, which they rowed in very good style all through. … [The Belgians] spurted again and again as they neared the grandstand, but human nature could do no more.
Leander won by two lengths in the splendid time of 7.52. The crew contained three men born outside of England: Gladstone (Wales), Kelly (Australia) and Bucknall (Portugal). The crew fared no better than Cambridge in WWI. Kelly, Sanderson and Maclagan perished in the War.
In August, the Belgians added the 1908 European Championship title to the ones they won in 1906 and 1907. In 1909, they returned to Henley Royal Regatta and won a third Grand Challenge Cup.
Of the 81 competitors filling the 87 seats at the Olympic Regatta of 1908, pictured above are 76 of them. Missing are the following: Gino Ciabatti (Italy 1x), Jozef (or Joseph) Hermans (Belgium 1x), Willie Düskow (Germany 2-) and Leander Club’s, Philip Filleul and Harold Baker (4-).
The numbered pictures are taken from The 1908 Olympic Games, the Great Stadium and the Marathon – A Pictorial Record (2008). Most of the clipped (and poor quality) pictures are from the 1 August 1908 edition of Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News.
Read part I here.
Read part II here.