Alan Burrough: Gin and Bear It

Alan Burrough, the new Cambridge President, profiled in a magazine of November 1938.

11 January 2023

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch on one of the generation who believed that they “Mustn’t grumble.”

Whenever someone claims that they are suffering from “stress” because a picture of their lunch did not receive many “likes” on social media, I cannot help thinking of people like Alan Burrough, a man of exceptional determination and resilience in life, in business, in rowing and in war.

Admittedly, for most of his rather privileged life, Alan Burrough (1917 – 2002) probably had very little to be “stressed” about. He was born into the wealthy “Beefeater” gin distilling family, brought up in leafy Epsom, sent to the prestigious St Paul’s School, Hammersmith, where he rowed in the First VIII at Henley in 1934. After leaving school, he worked in the family firm and won the 1936 Tideway Head of the River Race with Thames Rowing Club before going up to Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1937. 

Alan Burrough, far left, does some weight training watched by the 1939 Cambridge Crew.

In Burrough’s obituary in The Guardian, Chris Dodd wrote:

His Jesus College crew rowed over as Head of the River during his Cambridge years, 1936-39, reached the final of the Grand in 1937, and won the 1938 Norwegian national titles in eights and coxed fours. Burrough got his first university blue in the 1937 Boat Race, but was surprised how complacent Cambridge had become after winning thirteen boat races on the trot, the longest winning sequence to date. He said that the best people had not been selected, and that the only contribution by Jack Beresford, the great Olympic sculler who was one of the coaches, had been to install a beer barrel in the boathouse. Oxford ended the Cambridge run of wins in 1937, and beat the Light Blues again in 1938. When Burrough was elected president for 1939, he engaged his old school and club coach, Freddie Page… Burrough’s Cambridge crew won by four lengths.

The victorious Cambridge Crew of 1939.

When war broke out in September 1939, Burrough immediately volunteered for the Royal Artillery, was commissioned as an officer in June 1940 and embarked for Egypt in 1942. His unit was sent forward in tanks to strengthen the front at El Alamein, but within twenty-four hours of going into action for the first time, he was hit by shrapnel. Recovered, a few weeks later he was again wounded, this time by a bullet in the left shoulder. His recovery was again swift – but his third hit on 15 January 1943 at Wadi Zamzam during the advance on Tripoli was to be more serious. 

A British tank crew near Tripoli, Libya, 25 January 1943.

In The Boat Race (1956), Gordon Ross takes up the story:

[Burrough] was Captain of a tank at Wadi Zamzam… The tank squadron he was supporting as an artillery observation officer ran into a trap. His tank was hit several times, as were the others. Finally, Burrough’s tank was hit… by a shell which beheaded the driver, wounded most of the crew and blew Alan’s leg off below the knee.

The tank… caught fire, and those of the crew who could move tried to get out… Burrough, not realising the loss of his leg, scrambled out… His first thought, having no regard for his own wounds, was the possibility of someone remaining inside… Back he went and brought a man out alive… the poor fellow tried to crawl away but was machine gunned and killed.

Alan… for fear of being shot if he moved, lay still for six hours until night-fall, not even attempting to apply a tourniquet to his leg. Eventually he was picked up and taken back to the Regimental Aid Post where he was temporarily patched up and sent at once to Cairo. Now in a grievous state he was considered unlikely to survive…

First aid, 1940s style.

[In hospital in Cairo] bed-sores resulted in his losing half one buttock. When he began to recover due to amazing resilience and fortitude, he was transferred to South Africa. [Here] he found a sculling boat… and calmly went out for a scull… 

[Back in Britain] he refused demobilisation and was attached to GCHQ Home Forces… In the spring of 1944 he ventured out in a pair with his brother John… [The] partnership was never allowed to mature; brother John, serving in Coastal Command, was killed soon afterwards. Alan persisted in his come-back as an oarsman and in 1946 was elected Captain of Thames…

Burrough was due to row in the Thames RC Stewards Four and Grand Eight at Henley in 1946, but, in the words of Gordon Ross:

Whilst training at Henley [Burrough] was hopping around the changing room on his one leg when he tripped and broke the big toe of his good foot [only foot TK]… Although he dropped out of the eight, he did actually row in the Stewards Four, short of a leg, half a buttock and a broken toe. 

The Stewards Four lost to Leander by half-a-length. Burrough then formed a pair with Ronald “Sparrow” Morris for the Goblets at Henley in 1947 and 1949. They reached the final in 1949, losing to another Thames pair. In the European Championships at Lucerne in 1947, they came fifth. 

Burrough and Morris.

In later years, Burrough was best known in rowing as the chief organiser of the University Boat Race and as President of Thames Rowing Club. In 1987, he bought the 999-year lease of Temple Island, at the start of the Henley course, and made a gift of it to the regatta. Also in 1987, Beefeater Gin became the second company to sponsor the Boat Race.

Chris Dodd:

[Burrough] became a director and chairman of [Beefeater Gin distillers] James Burrough Ltd, playing a big role in the company’s export trade. He substituted sailing on the Hamble and the Solent for rowing, but maintained close contact with his first sport. He was elected a Steward of Henley in 1951, and was on the Management Committee from 1960 until 1985. Burough lived with his first wife Rosie, and their three adopted children, in a house on the river at Henley, where their garden faced the finish line, and during regattas he ferried guests between house and enclosure in his elegant slipper launch, Bamboozle.

Burrough was the owner of Corbiere, the horse that won the 1983 Grand National steeplechase. Corbiere’s trainer believed the steed to have great courage; he was the only horse who kept running during a hailstorm. Perhaps Burrough recognised a kindred spirit?

Alan Burrough and Bill Windham at Henley, 1955.
Princess Margaret, Lord Snowdon and Alan Burrough outside Thames on the occasion of the 1962 Boat Race.
The Burroughs at home in 1963.
The Burrough’s house at Henley marked “X”.
The Boat Race was sponsored by Beefeater Gin between 1987 and 1998.

In all, Alan Burrough raced at Henley ten times, the first with St Paul’s in the Ladies’ Plate in 1934 and the last with Thames in the Goblets in 1949. He reached six Henley finals but did not win any. His first seven Henley races were with two legs, his last three were with one. He did not seem “stressed” by any of this.

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