Blues, Brown, Boris, Bruce and Buccaneers in the Boat Race, Part I

The Oxford crew shown here are probably celebrating winning the 1989 Boat Race by 2 1/2 lengths, but it is possible they were actually marking the end of the decade in which the event finally moved into the modern age.

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 introduction of female coxes to steer the men’s race, Sue Brown being the first.
A remarkable run of ten consecutive wins for Oxford under the revolutionary coaching methods and coaching team assembled by Dan Topolski. 
A record run of six consecutive victories for the dark Blue Boris Rankov, leading to a rule restricting appearances to four. 
The breaking of the 17-minute barrier for the 4.2 miles (6.8 kilometres) of tidal course from Putney to Mortlake when Oxford completed it in 16 mins 45 secs in 1984. Oxford cox Seth Lesser (pictured) said that by Hammersmith Bridge, “I knew the record was on… We made another burn at St Paul’s School just to make sure.”
A verdict of eight lengths set by Oxford in 1981, a distance not achieved since 1878. Here, the 1878 Oxford Crew unknowingly sets a record that will last 103 years.
The engagement of Beefeater Gin as sponsor, a company with distinguished Boat Race connections. Here, 1988 Presidents, Chris Penny (a 1987 mutineer) and Jim Garman, display the Beefeater Trophy.
A cataclysmic outing for the press in 1985 when their launch Majestic trailed the trailing Cambridge boat by a margin big enough to deny the hacks on board the thrill of seeing the topless Kiss-o-Gram that greeted Oxford at the finish. Click here if you really want to see a picture of a puerile stunt on what clearly was a cold day.
A delay of a day when Cambridge broke their boat on a barge while warming up in 1984. It turned out that cox Peter Hobson had bow-breaking form, having pranged his college boat on the Cam. This was a baptism of fire for both Duncan Clegg, in his first year as race organiser, and for Mike Sweeney, the first-time umpire.
A mutiny in the Oxford squad caused by Cambridge breaching the Dark Blue ten-year run of victories. The mutiny became a cause célèbre that sparked two books and a film.

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.   

Bruce Philp at “3” in the victorious 1985 Oxford Crew.

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. 

Oxford 1985, possibly in the Head of the River Race. Philp at “3”.

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.’

Published on the morning of the 1985 Boat Race, “The Times” noted Philp’s quandary.
The Oxford that won the 1985 Boat Race by 4 3/4 lengths.
Oxford 1985, victorious at Mortlake.
Six weeks after the 1985 Boat Race, Jim Railton’s Times report clearly shows that Philp had won the trust of OUBC.

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’. 

Cambridge 1985 in training with Pritchard at stroke.

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.

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