A Golden Age Captured in Monochrome

A composite picture of 1908 from a photo album belonging to the man on the left, Angus Gillan (1885-1981). On the right is his longtime friend, Alister Kirby (1886-1917). Together, they won many important races rowing for Magdalen, Oxford, Leander and Great Britain.

28 September 2021

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch looks through a family photo album recording a world that ended in 1914.

When looking at the reign of King Edward VII, 1901-1910, it is difficult to avoid being nostalgic for an era that none of us experienced and difficult to not use the hackneyed phrase “Edwardian Summer” (although the “summer” is usually extended beyond Edward’s death up to the outbreak of war in 1914). 

Sandwiched between the Boer War (1899-1902) and the Great War (1914-1918), Edward’s reign was a time when Britain was at its imperial height, enjoying years of peace and leisure when, in the words of Samuel Hynes, “women wore picture hats and did not vote, when the rich were not ashamed to live conspicuously, and when the sun really never set on the British flag.” 

In reality, serious leisure was the privilege of the few, something that was made possible only by the labour of the many – both in Britain and in its overseas Empire. The conventions of class and race were still rigidly defined and there was a place for everyone, and everyone knew their place. However, complacency among the British ruling class meant that there was a general failure to prepare for the changes that were on the horizon. As this failure was not repeated across the Atlantic, it was the United States and not the United Kingdom that would be the dominant power throughout the new century. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Edwardian Era is the last period in British history to be named after the monarch who reigned over it. 

Henley in the early 1900s epitomised the popular view of the Edwardian Era and, even today, the regatta attempts to maintain “the air of an Edwardian Garden Party”.

A reminder of what was a “Golden Age” for some recently appeared on eBay with a dealer in collectables offering for sale personal photographs (marked here with the spoiler “Blue Boy”) formerly belonging to Angus Gillan. Although he lived until 1981 and reached the age of 96, Gillan epitomised the popular view of the Edwardian age; he was from a privileged background, was educated at a private school and at Oxford, had a 30-year career as a colonial administrator and a retirement of public service motivated by noblesse oblige – plus, he was one of the great oarsmen of his day.

Gillan’s non-rowing career began after Oxford at the age of twenty-three when, in 1909, he joined the elite Sudan Political Service (SPS). Control of the Sudan was of vital importance as it enabled Britain to regulate the upper waters of the Nile. Only about one hundred and twenty-five British officials administered almost a million square miles of north-eastern Africa using absolute (if sometimes paternalistic) power. The SPS was famous for attracting Oxbridge sportsmen and the country came to earn the sobriquet of “the Land of Blacks ruled by Blues”. While this expression would not be acceptable nowadays, the name “Sudan” actually derives from the Arabic “bilād as-sūdān” or “the land of blacks”. Further, “Sudan” is the region, “The Sudan” is the country (though some style guides disagree on using “the”). 

Recruitment to the SPS was not by examination but by interview, something that naturally favoured those who were gregarious but academically challenged. Stereotypically, these recruits were “first-class hearties with third-class minds” but Gillan was better than this and served with distinction in the Sudan for thirty years, including appointments in the provinces of Darfur, Red Sea, Berber and Nuba. In 1927, he was appointed Governor of Kordofan Province and in 1934 he became head of the civil government in the Sudan. 

Many of the consequences of the British rule in the Sudan are still with us today – notably the annexation of Darfur to Sudan in 1916, violently binding several different ethnic groups within the Sudanese state and resulting in a civil war that has been ongoing since 2003.

On his retirement from the SPS in 1939, Gillan was knighted.

Sir (James) Angus Gillan pictured in the 1940s.

In retirement, Gillan was still busy. In the 1940s, he worked with the British Council extending its interests to promote cultural relations with Commonwealth and colonial governments. 

Lazy Internet posts frequently state that Gillan played “an important part” in the organisation of the 1948 London Olympics, but a simple reference to the official report following the Games shows that he filled a minor place on the reception committee. 

The 1950s were further spent in promoting Britain abroad when Gillan was active in the Royal Over-Seas League. For HTBS Types, however, Gillan’s greatest work was done on the water between 1906 and 1912.

Oxford’s 1907 crew on the balcony of London Rowing Club. Gillan is second from the right. He did not use his first name, James, and his Times obituary wrote, without explanation, that the rowing world knew him as “Mary”.

When Gillan went up to Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1906, its boat club was beginning a “golden age” of its own. He first appeared at Henley in 1906 in the Magdalen crew that lost in a heat of the Grand to the great Belgian crew, shock winners in 1906 and 1907.

In 1907, Gillan was in the losing Oxford boat but, by way of compensation, won both the Wyfolds and Visitors at Henley with Magdalen. The crew was put together almost as an afterthought but, coached by Harcourt Gold and Guy Nickalls, it was to row twenty-two races without defeat.

The Magdalen Four. Back, left to right: Duncan Mackinnon (3), Collier Cudmore (Bow), Guy Nickalls (Coach). Front, left to right: John Somers-Smith (Stroke) and Angus Gillan (2). Magdalen also won the Stewards in 1907 with the 41-year-old Nickalls at stroke. Guy, having not taken his degree in his youth, was still technically “in residence” and so could be part of the student crew.

In 1908, Gillan was not in the Oxford Blue Boat as he had severe influenza and the OUBC doctor told him never to row again. However, at Henley a few months later, Gillan and the Magdalen Four from 1907 again won the Stewards and the Wyfolds, setting a new course record in both, their Stewards’ record standing until 1925. Following this, the crew were asked to be one of the two British fours for the 1908 Olympic Regatta. In the final, they beat Leander to become Olympic Champions. Little more than a year earlier, they had been the college second four.

Famously in the 1908 Olympic Eights, Leander’s “Old Crocks” beat the Belgians who had won the Grand at the previous two Henleys. In an addendum to Gillan’s 1981 Times obituary, the rowing historian Eric Halladay wrote: 

(Gillan) rowed at a confused period in British rowing, many oarsmen and coaches having lost their confidence in the face of strong overseas opposition… The euphoria at the victory of the British eight at the 1908 Olympic Regatta was tempered by the knowledge that several of the oarsmen belonged to a previous generation… The young Magdalen four, however, were their heirs, demanding attention by their orthodox (rowing) style…

In the 1909 Boat Race, Gillan was at “6” in the victorious Oxford Crew, winning by three-and-a-half lengths.

Alister Kirby and Angus Gillan together in the 1909 Oxford Boat.
Oxford at Putney in 1909. As usual, Kirby and Gillan are together, second and third from the left.
Gillan at “6” in the 1909 Oxford crew. As shown, Oxford’s boat had “in line” seating while Cambridge had their seats “staggered”.

After leaving Oxford in 1909, Gillan was to spend the best part of the next thirty years in the Sudan but, when at home on leave, he continued rowing. At Henley in 1911, he won the Grand with Magdalen –  though I do not know how he qualified to be in the student crew, he graduated with a Third (an “oarsman’s degree”) in Modern History in 1908. Worse, he got a Fourth in the Arabic exam for the SPS. I am surprised that British colonialists actually made some attempt to speak a language of a country that they were ruling (though they were not monoglots – most could get by in Latin and/or Ancient Greek).

A picture from Gillan’s album: Magdalen beating Jesus College, Cambridge, in the final of the 1911 Grand. Gillan is at “4”.
A picture taken by Gillan from the river showing the boat tents at Henley in 1911.

In 1912, Gillan was selected for one of the Leander eights bound for the Stockholm Olympics. Prior to leaving for Sweden, the crew lost to Sydney RC in the final of the 1912 Grand at Henley – but beat the Australians in a heat of the Olympic Regatta a few weeks later. They went on to meet the other British representative, New College, in the final, winning by a length. Gillan thus became the first Briton to win two gold Olympic rowing medals.

Kirby (fourth from the left) and Gillan (fifth from the left) in the Leander crew that won Gold in the 1912 Olympic Eights. According to Eric Halladay, Gillan claimed that the crew had only around twenty practice outings.
The Stockholm RC boathouse. Olympic boats were stored in a marquee erected in line with it (on the right of the picture here). Another large tent pitched nearby provided dressing rooms for each nation.
Some of the Leander eight relaxing at Stockholm. Left to right: (Arthur) Stanley Garton, Henry Wells, Alister Kirby, Guy Nickalls, a waiter, Leslie Wormald.
Kirby, Garton, Nickalls, Well and Wormaid at Saltsjöbaden (the “Salt Sea Baths”), built as a resort, now a locality near Stockholm.
The six friends (Gillan behind the camera) parked under a rowing results board that was affixed to Nordiska Kompaniet (NK) department store in Stockholm.
The results board in close-up.
Gillan back in the UK for Henley 1913.
Leander at Henley, 1913.
Gillan’s medals as illustrated in Mark Blandford-Baker’s history of Magdalen College Boat Club, Upon The Elysian Stream (2008). I have drawn heavily on this work in my writings on Gillan.

All the rowing pictures offered for sale on eBay are shown above. By putting “Gillan” in the search box of the seller’s online shop, Chapman’s Collectables and Toys, over one hundred and fifty of Gillan’s other photographs can be viewed and purchased. A random few are reproduced below with permission. They are a charming insight into the lives of the lucky few who enjoyed the long summer between the ascension of a King and the assassination of an Archduke.

Alister Kirby (far left) and others in a 1908 studio mock-up of an airship.
Angus Gillan (second from left) and friends pictured in Edinburgh in 1912.
Out for a drive near Dunblane, Stirling, 1912.
Punting in Oxford, 1913.
Picnic at Abu Mena, Egypt, 1913.
Croquet at Forteviot, Perth and Kinross, 1917.
Gillan, the photographer.

The pictures offered for sale on eBay are not Gillan’s only photographic efforts and they seem to have been separated from a much larger collection. Gillan was a very keen amateur photographer and his extensive archive of pictures, papers, cuttings and recordings are split between Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, Durham University’s Sudan Archive, and the Imperial War Museum’s Sound Archive. The Bodleian has photographs taken in the Sudan in 1916 while Durham has 1,974 photographs in seven albums. These archives are primarily interested in Gillan’s work as a colonial administrator, but it seems possible that there are unpublished rowing pictures in these collections. It could be a treasure waiting to be unearthed.


  1. A very interesting piece and a reminder to all as to the power of these hidden archives. I noted Tim’s reference to lazy use of the internet and the way it supports the re-running/recreation of myths and legends – something we have noted a great deal in our work on Lord Desborough. Returning to the original material is key but of course it is time consuming and sometimes very hard work but the rewards are great.

  2. There are some other rowing connections in the Gillan album. A number of the photos show picnics at Hermiston in 1909 and 1913. Some of the descriptions refer to a “mill” at Hermiston. The building is in fact the country boathouse of St Andrew Boat Club. Although the Club’s main base is in Edinburgh, for nearly 100 years we had a second boathouse just outside the city. We have bought three photos for our club archives.

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