2 December 2022
By Chris Dodd
Chris Dodd finds Boat Race capers in the Eighties changed the rules for the Blues.
In retrospect, the 1980s was a decade of tidal change for the fixture originating in 1829 that has played an important role in shaping rowing into a sport, namely the Boat Race.
The decade of the 1980s saw:
The book by Patrick Robinson (True Blue) was a thumping read but largely fictional and there followed a not-so-brilliant film of the same name (though retitled Miracle at Oxford for the American market). Yanks at Oxford by Ali Gill, a college captain during the saga, attempted to put the record straight. In turn, the mutiny led to the appointment of professional coaches and the end of the umbilical cord between elected presidents and the coaches whom they invited to take time off to attend to the crew. For all of the above reasons, the Boat Race entered the decade of the 1990s looking considerably different from what it did in 1980.
I am reminded of all this by the untimely death of Bruce Philp at 59, a medical student in the 1980s who became the first oarsman to row for both universities. Philp lost in the 1982 and 1983 Boat Races wearing Light Blue and dropped into the winning reserve boat, Goldie, in 1984. Switching from Downing College to Worcester at the other place, he wore Dark Blue to win the 1985 race and lose the 1986 race – the latter a fatal result for Oxford when Cambridge busted Topolski’s run of wins, a phenomenon that brought on mutiny and traumatised Oxford’s rowing community.
Philp was the eldest son of Margaret née Hutchinson, a history teacher, and Sandy Philp, a GP in Brentford. He learned to row at Bryanston and progressed from Oxbridge to St Thomas’s and St George’s medical schools. He became burns consultant at Broomfield hospital in Chelmsford, a leading European burns unit, forged a career as an outstanding plastic surgeon, and was passionate about teaching junior doctors when he was director of training for plastic surgery at the London Deanery. He was also on hand for the Soho nail-bombing outrage and Paddington rail crash disasters, both in 1999.
According to Bruce’s brother Al, writing in the Guardian, Bruce was a flamboyant dresser, an obsessive reader (‘The best-read man in Oxford’ according to coach Topolski) and a huge music fan. He was 6 ft. 5 ins tall and wide with it, and he ran marathons, triathlons and iron man contests.
Putting on a darker shade of blue could not have been easy for a fixture that has generated needle at both universities for 150 years. ‘I thought it very courageous of Bruce to turn up at training sessions among people who regarded him as enemy,’ said Lynton Richmond, the President of OUBC in 1985. ‘He kept his sense of humour. When asked what his influences were, he named the notorious Cambridge Soviet spies of the age, Philby, Burgess and Maclean.’
The defeated Cambridge 1985 crew was stroked by John Pritchard, an international medal winner in his second Boat Race who was feared by many at Cambridge to drive the inexperienced men up in the bow end too hard. Indeed, the Light Blues’ prayer was amended to, ‘Please God, let us win the Boat Race but not with Pritch at stroke.’ But since coaches Alan Inns and Canadian Neil Campbell observed that Pritch set the stroke from the six seat anyway, they considered that he might as well set it from the stroke seat. Pritch brought more than setting a rhythm to the party, being described by one correspondent as effecting ‘precise and flowing strokes as if he was rolling an orange to the edge of a table and catching it before it rolls off’.
The ebullient, mustachioed and fighting fit law student retained his seat in 1986 as President, and drove a superb crew who called themselves the Thunderbirds to victory, thus raising cheer on the Cam and causing crisis on the Isis.
Tomorrow, Part II deals with the most cataclysmic Boat Race event of the 1980s – the 1987 Oxford Mutiny.