John Millbourn, Oarsman, Coach and Regatta Administrator, Dies

John Millbourn, at Henley Royal Regatta.

9 November 2021

By Robert Treharne Jones

John Millbourn, who died earlier this year at the age of 87, was a father, engineer, schoolteacher, farmer, sailor, traveller, oarsman, rowing coach, and regatta administrator. Here Robert Treharne Jones paints a portrait of his life.

John Millbourn was born in Reigate, Surrey. Following Common Entrance in 1946, John was sent to Cheltenham College, where he learned to row. Following two years’ National Service in 1951, John went up to read geography at Trinity College, Oxford, where the legendary Christopher Davidge was already making his mark as stroke of the Blue Boat.

Christopher Davidge, president of Oxford University Boat Club, who deemed that Trinity were not good enough to row at Henley Royal Regatta.

John became Captain of the Boat Club at Trinity, but Davidge, who was then President of OUBC, determined the Trinity crew would not row at Henley ‘because they were not good enough’ although John was selected for Isis in the (then unofficial) reserve crews’ Boat Race. In addition, Davidge invited John to join the burgeoning group of future internationals at Barn Cottage, so John sculled all the way from Oxford to Henley, spending the single overnight stop on the grassy riverbank at Shillingford!

John Millbourn sculled from Oxford to Henley to join the elite group at Barn Cottage.

During his time in Henley, John competed in the Head of the River Race with not only Davidge, but also the Australian Stuart ‘Sam’ Mackenzie, who would go on to win the Diamonds for six straight years, and another top sculler, Sid Rand, who had won silver in single sculls at the Empire Games in 1954.

In 1958, John joined Spencers of Melksham, an engineering business developed and chaired by his father, Sir Eric Millbourn, and he was sent out to South Africa. There, John not only gained overseas experience of the business, but was also able to row on the Wemmer Pan, the lake on the outskirts of Johannesburg that was home to a number of rowing clubs. During his three-year stint in the country, there was even talk that John might represent South Africa in the Olympics, but the idea never reached fruition. Whilst in South Africa, John and his first wife Sue welcomed the arrival of twins, Anna and David.

Back in the UK, he spent the next eight years at the company’s UK base in Wiltshire, where he was able to row at Bradford-on-Avon. During this time, John and Sue had a second daughter, Katie. But his heart was never really in the business, so a one-year teaching attachment at Monkton Combe kindled his interest, and his friend Desmond Hill, who taught at St Edwards School, suggested that he change careers.

Hill had founded the National Schools Regatta some twenty years earlier, and John was involved in various aspects of the administration, including time on the committee, throughout his life. John also umpired at the regatta on many occasions and was one of the first in the country to get a multi-lane qualification following the regatta’s move to Holme Pierrepont in 1973.

In 1969, John was back at Trinity to get his Dip. Ed. and, more importantly, to coach the college’s first eight. Thereafter, he moved to London and married his second wife Patricia. After a brief stint at St Paul’s School, he moved to Emanuel School, where he would spend the next five years, teaching geography and coaching rowing, including one eight which included a set of triplets!

In 1974, it was time for another move, this time to City of London School, which was high on academic achievement but less sporty. John kept the rowing going singlehanded – the school had a bay at London RC, but despite overseas trips to the Head of the Amstel, and to Israel, the sport at the school folded completely after John retired in 1993.

City of London School – High on academic achievement but less sporty.

During his time at City of London, John took a sabbatical to race in the one-off Parmelia Race from Cape Town to Fremantle with Giles Chichester (son of Sir Francis) on Gypsy Moth V. A keen and accomplished sailor, John had learned sailing at a young age on his father’s ketch Nocturne. After the race, he sailed the yacht with Chichester from Fremantle to Hong Kong where, for a short period he taught English to the Gurkha regiment and their families before travelling around China. He went on to own and sail two dayboats on the Solent, based at Bucklers Hard on the Beaulieu River.

At Henley Royal Regatta, John was one of the very first Chairman’s Assistants to be appointed by regatta chairman John Garton. With all the authority of Stewards, but less of the kudos, these men (then) were appointed to take on tasks that the Stewards could not, either because they were too few in number or because they lacked the necessary skills. John spent many years in that role, mainly as an Aligner or Finish Judge, from which vantage point he was able to cast a critical eye over the competing crews.

During his life, John travelled all over the world, covering Europe, Africa, India, Asia and the Americas. As well as taking the Trans-Siberian railway from St Petersburg to China via Mongolia, he also visited the mid-Atlantic islands (Ascension Island, St Helena and Tristan du Cunha) on their supply ship.

For some forty years, John’s retreat was the farm he bought at Ashmore on the Wiltshire/Dorset border, where he would involve himself in the local community and take a real interest in the farming and country life. But the results of a serious car accident some eight years ago, and the death of his fourth wife, Maggie, unsettled this rural idyll, so earlier this year he made the difficult decision to move to Henley, to be nearer his family, and the epicentre of the sport which had been such a major part of his life. It was unfortunate that the physical and psychological effects of such a move unsettled him further, and when elective surgery proved necessary the post-op complications dealt a final blow.

John Adrian Millbourn, born 13 June 1933 in Surrey, died 10 June 2021 in London, is survived by his sister Suzi in South Africa, his three children, Anna, David and Katie, six grandchildren, and by his niece and nephews in South Africa.

One comment

  1. I have only just seen your excellent tribute to JM. He was a good rowing and family friend to the Kings, the iinitial contact dating back to HRR and the Stewards Enclosure social scene in the late 50’s.It is extrordinary to think that because of Davidges somewhat dictatorial adamcy about the Trinity Ox crew of John’s time, he never raced in the Regatta!
    Later, in the 60’s I was to know him more through a mutual association with Davidge and Leadley ( with whom I rowed at BMS).He coached my son Miles at Emanuel School and at that time recruited me as MO to Desmond Hill’s rapidly growing National Schools, as well as the Schools’ HoR.
    Having taken to the Water again, after a 15 year abscence, he encouraged me to join the very successful LRC Vets squad. We rowed and competed ( and won ) in many Heads and Regattas – including the FISA Vets -. of the 70’s. He was a tireless man in all aspects of life, who contributed hugely to the Sport.

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