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

Monday 15 February 2010 01:00

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.

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