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Peter Mallory's Blog

By pmallory - Posted on 20 June 2012

5 November 2011

My wife Susan and I have just returned home to Los Angeles from our lovely trip to the Head of the Charles, to Florence, Italy and to Henley-on-Thames.

One of the high points of the trip for me was speaking at the Rowing History Forum at the River & Rowing Museum, just a short walk upstream from the Henley Bridge. Here is a short excerpt from the end of my presentation on how my book was conceived and took shape:

“ . . . and after seven long years of research and writing, I had to ask myself what was the point? In all those 2,500 pages, what exactly had I achieved?

"And I asked this of myself in all modesty.

“Upon reflection, I am proud to have collected oral history that might well have been lost forever had I not taken the time. That’s important, and it will be even more important if my example encourages others to continue to do the same, including all of you listening to me, for the years are passing as inevitably as the Thames flows by Mill Meadow, and historical memories continue to be lost. Many people who were there for me at the beginning of my project have not lived to see it completed, our most recent loss being Hart Perry, a great friend to this town and to many of us in this room. His last public appearance was in this very museum last January.

“Along the way, I have amassed what may be the largest digital collection of rowing films in the world, and that, too, is important. These will eventually be made available in Mystic Seaport in Connecticut and will be added to the already substantial collection here at the publisher of my book, the River & Rowing Museum, to support further research by others.

“But I believe my real contribution to rowing history has been to gather chronicles and descriptions of so many individuals and teams into one place so that they can be evaluated for the very first time in the full perspective of two centuries of our sport. British greats Tom Egan or Rudy Lehman or Steve Fairbairn or Richard Burnell or Bob Janousek or Mike Spracklen or Harry Mahon or Jürgen Grobler can only be fully appraised and understood as part of the great historical sweep. And when you hear the words of Tom Egan written in 1846 echoing from the mouths of coaches and rowers all the way down to the present, his message suddenly takes on appropriate gravitas and brings true appreciation of his seminal place in history.

“Let me finish this conversation today on how The Sport of Rowing came to be written with my perspective on a man who looms large in this book, much larger than in earlier histories: Joe Burk. Four memorable moments in Joe’s career came just downstream from where we are gathered today.

“When he won the Diamond Sculls in 1938 and 1939 rowing at 40 strokes per minute down the course, no one quite knew what to make of Joe. His approach was so counter to the norms of his era that he inspired no followers. Then the war intervened and he was largely forgotten. But seen in historical perspective, Joe is perhaps the most innovative, ahead-of-his time single sculler of the entire 20th Century. His training load, his land training routine and his sculling technique all foreshadowed Karl Adam’s brilliant innovations of 20 years later, and it was nearly 40 years before scullers regularly surpassed his course record at Henley. Think about that!

“And today we see a trend toward the minimal layback and increasingly high ratings down the course that Joe Burk pioneered 70 years ago. Until my book, few people had noticed.

“In 1955 Joe brought to Henley a University of Pennsylvania Varsity Eight and won the Grand Challenge Cup, but it wasn’t an Olympic year, so today they are not remembered like the 1952 Navy Crew or the 1956 Yale Crew that won Olympic Gold. But that Penn crew toured West Germany undefeated after Henley in 1955, and none other than Karl Adam was there to see them sweeping all aside while rowing a magnificent 30 strokes per minute. I can just imagine him saying something like 'Ach du Himmel, you’d have to row 40 down the course to beat those guys!'

“As they say, the rest is history.

“That 1955 Penn crew also included in the 2-seat the incomparable Harry Parker, now in his 50th season as coach of Harvard University. This fact alone makes the boat worth remembering. Two decades after Joe’s Henley triumphs, he coached Harry to the 1959 Diamond Sculls, in which Harry was only defeated in the finals by Stuart Mackenzie, and to the 1959 Pan Am Games, which Harry won, and to the 1960 Olympics, in which Harry finished fifth, by rowing his single beside Harry in practice, and Joe was consistently faster than him every day. Think about that!

“Finally, Joe Burk’s very last race as a coach was the 1969 Grand Challenge Cup final, which Penn lost by three-quarters of a length to a national training center combination from the German Democratic Republic. This Penn eight was one of the last crews of university undergraduates to realistically challenge the new generation of professional national teams.

“After collaborating with me on my book, Joe passed away a few years ago just short of his 94th birthday. Today he is remembered fondly by the men he coached and by every single person who ever met him, but I have to ask you: Is there another individual in the 20th Century who did so much as a rower and as a coach, who contributed so much to so many eras, so much history? And yet few people have known his whole story, all the way from the 1930s to the 1960s . . . and I am privileged to tell it all in my book.

"Believe me, this is just one of many similar revelations in my book, and that is the achievement I am most proud of."
Incidentally, as I spoke that day last week at the River & Rowing Museum I was in very good company. Fellow presenter Tim Koch reviewed the entire Rowing History Forum for Göran Buckhorn’s peerless rowing blog, “Hear the Boat Sing.” Go to: and scroll down.

Every time Susan and I get to visit the River & Rowing Museum, we become bigger fans and more passionate advocates. The collection of historic rowing craft is breathtaking: including among so many others the eight that won the very first Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race in 1829 and the four in which Steve Redgrave won his fifth Olympic Gold Medal in 2000.

The museum is a beehive of activity, educating, investigating, cataloguing, conserving. There are temporary exhibits, permanent exhibits, events, historic artifacts, fine art, award-winning architecture, galleries full of life, galleries for quiet contemplation, even The Wind in the Willows. One imagines Toad Hall must be just up the river . . . and, of course, it is!

All this in a town where everyone is smiling.

If you are thinking of a trip to England in the coming year, whether to attend the Henley Royal Regatta, the Women’s Regatta, the Masters Regatta, the Olympics on nearby Dorney Lake, or any other reason, be sure to include a morning or an afternoon at the River & Rowing Museum in the enchanted town of Henley-on-Thames. You will make memories that will last you a lifetime.