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News > Pangbournian Stories > Memories of Henley 1963

Memories of Henley 1963

On the evening of The Henley Legends Dinner the assembled guests were treated to an evocative speech by Robert Hamilton, No 4 seat in the 1963 winning boat. Reproduced below, it's an inspiring read.
Rob Hamilton (60-65)
Rob Hamilton (60-65)

Pangbourne College – Henley Legends Dinner

Memories of the 1963 Crew by Rob Hamilton


I should like to start by thanking the Headmaster, Sue Carpenter, College staff and the Students for laying on tonight’s celebratory dinner. You have done us proud and on behalf of everyone here tonight thank you for laying on such a splendid dinner in our honour.

I am delighted to have been asked to speak on behalf of the ’63 crew and to recall some of my enduring memories from 1963.  

However, I would initially wish to acknowledge the fact that the ’63 crew is merely the first of 4 winning Henley crews from Pangbourne, so far! To those that followed in 71, 92 and 03, you will have worked every bit as hard as we did, suffered the same gut-wrenching nerves as you wait for the umpire to bring the flag down, enjoyed the relief as you power up the course, get the measure of your opponents, cross the finishing line first and receive that much coveted Henley medal.  Being a “Knock Out” competition there are no second chances. You win or go home empty handed.  Congratulations to you all, be in no doubt that you richly deserve your medals.

Let me now take you back 60 years.

1963 was quite a year starting with the big freeze with temps dropping to -16C. In Aug, Martin Luther King made his “I have a dream speech,” in Oct, the Profumo affair led to the then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s resignation and, in Nov, President Kennedy was shot. On a happier note, the Beatles released their first album and Beatlemania began to take hold. The present Headmaster was but a twinkle in his father’s eye but more importantly beer was only 2 shillings or 10 new pence a pint for those of you born after 1971!

 For the College the country wide cold snap, which lasted for several weeks, caused the Thames to be covered in ice and stopped any waterborne training. At the instigation of our finishing coach, John Hall-Craggs, we were introduced to Jim Railton. Jim subjected us to a series of strength tests which he then used as the basis for a circuit training programme to develop strength and stamina. 

Although we did not appreciate it at the time, the adoption of this science-based approach to strength training was the start of a much broader based revolution in rowing. In the years that followed crews became stronger and fitter, the beautifully constructed wooden shell VIIIs were replaced with robust and stiffer fibreglass shells and the oars morphed from the thin pencil shapes we used to macons and the cleavers in use today.

When we did get back on the water, long practice rows were supplemented by a series of interval training sessions where the emphasis was on quality of the stroke, timing, and power in the water. John installed several 500m posts along the river so that he could accurately measure our speed. He regularly got in the boat to see for himself how things were going.

As was customary, John Hall Craggs coached us for the final fortnight leading up to Henley

As with everything else, the Regatta has not been exempted from changes. In 1963 the boat tents were of the traditional canvas type, not very spacious and not always dry. A large area of what is now the General and Stewards enclosures was taken up by a fun fair, much to the delight of those Cadets given half a day off to watch us race!  Unchanged is the course, the umpires' launches, the strict time keeping and the dress code although ladies are now permitted to wear trouser suits. As we discovered following our 50th anniversary row over, the boat tent showers are just as cold as ever they were.

For several days before the start of the regatta the crew would be driven over to Henley in the college minibus. A tired old van that struggled with the weight of the crew and driven by the College Chaplin, Joe Laxton, who had the greatest difficulty in mastering the column gear change resulting in a series of naval expletives.

Once on the water John would use every opportunity to pit us against any crew game for a short race.  

Although the previous year’s crew had made the final, we had little idea of how we ranked against the other school crews. I do however remember enjoying the sense of power as we accelerated and how well the boat ran.

Our first race was against Bedford Modern who we dispatched with a 4-length lead by the finish. More importantly we set the fastest time to the barrier 2:7

The following day we took on Emmanuel School, one of the better crews that year. We were ahead by the barrier and led them home by 1 1/4 lengths. Again, we were the quickest to the barrier.

On Friday we were drawn against our arch rival Radley and keen to avenge the defeat they inflicted on the crew in the final the previous year. Clearly feeling the pressure of our fast times to the barrier, Radley caught a crab on the 20th stroke and thus demolished their Henley ambitions. We led them home by 2 2/3 lengths.  I think it was during this race that John, who was following us up the towpath on his bike, cannoned into a spectator. Ditching the bike and the spectator in the river he ran the rest of the course.

Before the introduction of Sunday racing the semi-finals and finals took place on the Saturday.

Saturday morning saw us up against Hampton Grammer School, probably our strongest rival.  I seem to remember John warning us that they were quick off the start and not to panic but follow stroke and keep it long. Hampton led by 1⁄2 length at the ¼ mile. Holding our nerve and keeping the stroke long we reduced this to a canvas at Barrier. At Fawley we were level and came home to win by 2/3 of a length.

Saturday afternoon we were up against St Pauls in the final. Before we went onto the stake-boat I remember John saying that this race was all about us and for us to win and to enjoy. 

We led from the start having set off at 38 strokes per minute causing my great uncle, himself a Cambridge Blue of 1906, to exclaim to my mother that we would blow up! We did not blow up and by the ¼ mile we were ½ length up. Then the heavens opened in what can only be described as a cloud burst. Nevertheless, we increased our lead to ¾ length by the ¾ mile and drew ahead fast after the 1 1/8 marker to win by 2 lengths. 

After the race we struggled to lift the boat out of the water and in the process gave ourselves a river water shower as we lifted it above our heads.

For a school that had only started rowing at Henley in 1960 as a result of the prodigious efforts of Ronnie Hoyle, whose daughter Catherine is here tonight, our win was little short of remarkable.  As ever there were many factors that led to our success. For our age we were an unusually large crew with the majority being over 6ft tall. We were a heavyweight crew whose average weight 12St 10lb (80.7 kg) matched that of the University of London’s Grand crew. We were well cared for. The generous hospitality of Garth MacDonalds parents who fed us huge steaks and allowed us to rest up at their house between races. Our coaches, Peter Banfield, and John Hall-Craggs whose patience and foresight enabled us to achieve our best at Henley and finally our boatmen, Laurie Radley, whose loyalty, and outstanding skill ensured the boat was always in perfect condition. For me, and I am sure I speak for the rest of the crew, it was a huge privilege to be a member of the 63 crew and, in addition to our Henley medals, we took away many valuable lessons for the years ahead.

In the years that followed there was always the hope that Pangbourne would deliver another win. I well remember my delight on hearing that the 71 crew had won and then witnessing both my sons win in 92 in a record time that stood for 19 years and would have left the 63 crew well down the course.  Then on our 40th anniversary Pangbourne won again. 

Four PE wins in such a remarkably short period of time put Pangbourne firmly on the map as one of the leading rowing schools. There are very few school crews who have won the event 4 or more times.

The youngsters among you may well look upon the ’63 crew as Pangbourne’s Old Heavies but let me assure you we still see ourselves as young blades at heart. Evidence, as if evidence was needed, that our brains and bodies have long since parted company!


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