Bert Bushnell: Britain's last surviving gold medallist from the 1948 Olympics

Bert Bushnell was the last surviving British gold medallist from the 1948 Olympic Games in London. Until he was 26 years old, he reckoned he was Britain's best single sculler. After all, he had been brought up on the River Thames and his father, who built landing craft for the Admiralty, had sacrificed £40 for his own sculling boat.

At the age of 14, Bushnell was apprenticed to Thorneycrofts in Southampton docks. During the war he tested torpedo boat engines and worked a 52-hour week for £3 10s. In 1947 he was invited to an international regatta in Buenos Aires on the Rio Tigre, where he won several single sculling races. But then along came Mervyn Wood of Australia, who was even faster. So when the teams for the 1948 Olympics were picked, he was paired up for double sculls with Richard Burnell, rowing correspondent of The Times.

"We had never rowed together before and we were chalk and cheese," Bushnell recalled. "Dickie was Eton and Oxford, and I was Henley Grammar School. There was class tension all right, and it came from me being bloody awkward." Burnell was more sanguine and wrote in 1952, "Our respective weak points cancelled themselves out, and our strong points were complementary."

Burnell said, "Because I was a marine engineer I qualified as an amateur, but had I been a boat mechanic they'd have said I was a professional and couldn't join in the Olympics. My sculling boat weighed 28lb and the boats I worked on weighed 300 tons – not much comparison really. It was all about snobbishness in those days."

In 1948, London was still being rebuilt after the war and no special venues were constructed. The rowing events were held at Henley-on-Thames using the regatta tents and stands. The course, from Temple Island to the Leander Club, was technically 200 metres short, but as it was against the stream this was felt to make up the distance.

"We only had a month so I went training-barmy and we sculled three times a day," Bushnell remembered. "We had no machines, we had to be on the water. Before Dickie arrived from London each day I'd run up White Hill, three miles up and three miles down. I stayed in Wargrave with my parents and I didn't see my girl, Margaret, all that time."

Olympic athletes from overseas brought their own food and stayed in tents or local boarding houses.

"Food was rationed, but I was friendly with Grace Kelly's brother, Jack, who had his food flown in from America. Merve Wood used to get food from Australia House. So I'd invite them to supper, and they'd bring the steaks with them!"

Bushnell was 5ft 10in and weighed only 10 and a half stone. "Dickie was 6ft 2in and weighed 13 stone. Modern oarsman are all bigger. But they are no fitter than we were; they just eat more. We'd had eight years of food rationing.

"In the middle of training, we were shuttled off to Wembley for the opening ceremony. The only thing we'd been given was a ghastly ill-fitting blazer and a pair of white bags. The special Olympic tie was so short it stopped half-way down your chest.

"We walked round the stadium behind a Boy Scout, and we're all lined up, sweat pouring off us, standing in the sunshine for three hours. It was dreadful, absolutely dreadful, a complete dereliction of duty to the athletes. And then this bloke with a torch suddenly runs in, and lights the calor gas. They didn't mind spending money on that, but they didn't give the athletes anything."

The total investment of the 1948 Olympics was only £760,000, all of which was recouped in ticket sales and advertising. When Bushnell arrived at the Leander Club in Henley for the final of the double sculls between Britain, Denmark and Uruguay, they wouldn't let him in. "You see I wasn't a member then – not posh enough."

Bushnell wore his specs and a knotted hankie on his head. "There was very little in it. After three minutes we were dead level and we decided we'd whack in some extra strokes. We pinched two lengths from the Danes in and the Uruguays were five lengths back." It was all over in six minutes and 51 seconds.

"I was rowed out and just put my feet in the water. Then we sculled to where the bigwigs were congregated, and a local band played 'God save the King'. We just stood on the landing stage in our socks, there were no little blocks to stand on. They couldn't afford the ribbon for the medal, it was just in a case. Then I went home."

Dickie Burnell reported nonchalantly in The Times, "In the double sculls, Bushnell and myself, of Great Britain, won safely from Parsner and Larsen [Denmark] with Uruguay third." In the seven rowing events, Britain won two gold and one silver medal, more than in any other Olympic sport.

"My life wasn't changed at all," Bushnell said. "I didn't get paid to have days off, and my employers didn't want or take any credit for it. Nowadays there are no real amateurs in the Olympic team, they are all professionals."

He retired from rowing in 1951 and built up a successful hire cruiser business in Maidenhead. He gave his gold medal, one of only three won by Britain in 1948, to Henley's Rowing Museum. "No point in having it nicked from my home. I can always go and look at it there – but I know already I won it."

After a long, happy marriage to Margaret Campbell and retirement in Portugal Bushnell then shared his life with Monica Rees back in Henley-on-Thames.

Janie Hampton

I have been alerted to the obituary of my father, Bert Bushnell, writes Jacqueline Page. Not only does the obituary contain factually inaccurate information about my father (he was born in Wargrave, Wokingham on 3 September 1921), the portrait it paints of him is one-sided and incomplete, being based on quotations from an interview for a previously published book, and reflecting none of the rest of his full and exciting life.

To suggest that my father ever wore a "knotted handkerchief" on his head, especially while sculling, is an insult to him and to the sport. His trademark headwear was a tight sculling cap, which is something completely different. Bert Bushnell had a huge respect for the Olympics and it seems wholly out of character that he would have criticised either the uniform or the opening ceremony. Those who knew him heard him speak of the 1948 Olympics with nothing other than great pride and respect for what was achieved in times of austerity.



Bertram Harold Thomas Bushnell, rower and businessman: born Woking 7 May 1921; married Margaret Campbell (deceased; three daughters), partner to Monica Rees; died 9 January 2010.

News
Brand said he
people
Sport
Adam Lallana, Juan Cala, Andy Carroll and Cameron Jerome
sportThe latest news and scores
Voices
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
Life & Style
Sampling wine in Turin
food + drink...and abstaining may be worse than drinking too much, says scientist
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on TV
Arts & Entertainment
The monster rears its head as it roars into the sky
film
Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
Sport
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain drives in the rain during the qualifying session of the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix in Shanghai
sport
Extras
indybestFake it with 10 best self-tanners
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
peopleOrlando Bloom the pin-up hero is making a fresh start
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Life & Style
The North Korean TV advert for Taedonggang beer, that became a YouTube hit
food + drinkAnd what did it take to set up a taste test back in Wiltshire?
Arts & Entertainment
filmLife for Leslie Mann's can be challenging sometimes
Voices
For music lovers: John Cusack with his vinyl collection in 'High Fidelity'
voices...but don't forget rest of the year
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit