Category: rowing

Chiswick: the first blue plaque for a British sportsman

By , 1st November 2009 22:11

River & Rowing Museum, HenleyOne of the speakers at the Rowing History Forum at the River & Rowing Museum in Henley on 31 October 2009 was John Beresford, son of multiple Olympic rowing medalist Jack Beresford (and grandson of 1912 Olympic eights Silver medalist Julius Beresford. )

Jack is one of Britain’s most successful Olympic oarsmen.  Like Steve Redgrave, Beresford won medals at five consecutive Games: Antwerp 1920, single sculls, Silver;  Paris 1924, single sculls, Gold; Amsterdam 1928, eight, Silver; Los Angeles 1932, coxless four, Gold; Berlin 1936, double scull, Gold.

He continued competing after Berlin.  In 1939, he dead-heated in the final of the Centenary Double Sculls at Henley Royal Regatta against an Italian crew.   Its not inconceivable that Beresford could have medaled again had the 1940 Olympics not been abandoned after the outbreak of the Second World War.

At the Rowing History Forum, John Beresford revealed that his father was the first British sportsman to be commemorated with a “Blue Plaque”.  John himself unveiled the plaque at his father’s former home, Belfairs, at 19 Grove Park Gardens in Chiswick on 16 August 2005.

Looking for Busby’s birthplace in Lanarkshire

By , 15th September 2009 14:03

MattBusbyOn 6 September 2009, Motherwell defeated Manchester United’s reserves to win the Sir Matt Busby Shield.  The charity match was organised to commemorate the centenary of the birth of the first United manager to achieve “legend” status.  Busby was born on 26 May 1909 in Orbiston, now part of Bellshill, which lies a couple of miles north of Motherwell in North Lanarkshire.  Funds raised will provide scholarships to help people from Lanarkshire take their first steps as football coaches.

Having stumbled across a preview of the match in the Telegraph, I wondered how easy it would be to locate exactly where Busby was born.  In what appears to be a recurring theme with sporting landmarks, checking out one sporting connection threw up several others.


A Google search quickly provides a wealth of support for Orbiston, Bellshill, Lanarkshire as the birthplace of the manager of the first English club to win the European Cup (in 1968).  Controversially, places Orbiston in England!

Around the time of Busby’s birth, Orbiston was a small mining village of just 30 houses.  Although neighbouring Bellshill had a two-ward hospital from the 1870’s, local sources take pride in the fact that it set up Lanarkshire’s first maternity hospital in 1917 – eight year’s after Busby birth.  In the early 20th century, before the NHS, hospital births were the exception rather than the rule – especially for the working class – so Busby would probably have been born at home.

Various sources record Busby’s father as Alexander Busby.  The 1901 Census reveals a family of Busby’s living in “Old Orbiston Road” in the Bellshill district.  The transcript of the census return currently available online doesn’t appear to identify which house in Old Orbiston Road the Busby family lived.

The head of the family was a 66-year old coal miner Alexander.  He had a son – or perhaps a grandson? – also called Alexander, who was 13 at the time of the census.  This teenage Alexander, who would have been about 22 in 1909, is presumably Matt’s father.

Alexander is clearly something of a family name in the Busby family.  Officially, Matt was Alexander Matthew Busby.  In its report on the Busby Shield match, The Bellshill Speaker notes that Sir Matt’s son is a Sandy – a common short form for Alexander.

Matt’s father fought in the First World War. Private Alexander Busby, S20225, of the 7th Batallion, Queens on Cameron Highlanders, was killed in action in France on 23 April 1917.  He is commemorated  at The Arras Memorial at Faubourg-D´Amiens Cemetery, Arras.  The (somewhat damaged) military records that can be accessed for him online specifically record Matt and his sisters as his children and next-of-kin.  Matt’s birthday of 26 May 1909 is also noted.

Alexander’s British Army Enlistment Attestation, dated 7 September 1914 – within days of the declaration of war, confirms that he had been a miner and gives his family’s address as “26 Old Orbiston”.  So where is “Old Orbiston” today?

Orbiston appears to have undergone significant redevelopment in the 20th century.  There is an Orbiston Road that borders Bellshill Golf Club.  Matt is also commemorated in the naming of the nearby Busby Road and the Sir Matt Busby Sports Complex in Bellshill town centre.

But Google Maps doesn’t recognise “Old Orbiston” or “Old Orbiston Road”., a website that records the history of Scottish mining, reveals that the Summerlee Iron Co Ltd which ran the Orbiston Mine in 1910 owned 191 houses in five clusters in the area.  Two of the clusters are described as “New Orbiston Rows” and “Old Orbiston Rows”.  If the latter included the birthplace of Matt, the website gives us a picture of the home he was born into:

1. Old Orbiston Rows:-

16 One-apartment houses Rental £5 6s

16 Two-apartment houses Rental £7 7s

* One storey, brick built, back to back – Erected about 70 years ago – no damp-proof course – Plastered on brick – Brick floors in kitchen, worn and dilapidated, wood floors, unventilated, in rooms of two-apartment houses – Many internal walls damp, and plaster crumbling

* No overcrowding – apartments large

* No garden ground – no wash houses – no coal cellars

* One ashpit and two privies at end of row; one ashpit and two privies at rear of back row; one ashpit between rows

* No sinks – drainage by open channels

* Water supply from standpipes in front

* Scavenged at owners’ expense

via 1910 Housing – Scottish Mining Website.

From humble beginnings…

So although Old Orbiston Rows have disappeared from modern maps, Sportinglandmarks is grateful to a number of local people who share an interest in locating Matt’s birthplace.

At the end of 2012, Sportinglandmarks was contacted by Graham Bell from Orbiston. Graham noted that Busby’s home was situated on land now occupied by the Orb pub on Orbiston road. He suggested that a wall from the row of houses stood for a number of years and a wall from one of the other Orbiston Rows can still be seen further along Strachan Street, incorporated into lockups garages.

In August 2013, Alexander Lochars kindly share the fruits of his own diligent research which has included contacting local authorities and heritage centres.  By overlaying the 1913 Ordnance Survey Map on its modern equivalents, the Planning and Building Standards Services of South Lanarkshire Council located Old Orbiston just under half a mile to the south of the Orb Pub. See Alexander’s input in the comments below.

A number of possibilities come to mind for the discrepancy between the house numbers recorded in the 1911 Census seen by Alexander Lochars (but not by Sportinglandmarks) and the Matt’s father’s Army records. As the Busby’s lived in property rented from the Summerlee Iron Co, its not impossible that they may have moved, or been moved for some reason.  Another plausible possibility is that whoever completed the enlistment form – its not clear whether its in Alexander Busby’s own writing or that of the attesting officer – may have incorrectly noted the house number.  As Busby enlisted in the very early days of the War, the recruitment centre was likely to have been very busy.



Matt himself has an Olympic connection in that he was manager of the Great Britain football team at the 1948 Games in London.  As a Scot, it would be fascinating to hear Busby’s view of the initial plans for an all-English “British” team for London 2012.

Other sporting connections

Wikipedia cites a 1996 TV documentary that claimed that both Jock Stein and Bill Shankly – two other football managers who distinguished themselves in European tournaments – were born in Bellshill.  Yet the Wikipedia entries for Stein and Shankly tell a slightly different story.

Stein, who twice managed Celtic including when they became the first British club to win the European Cup in 1967, was born on 5 October 1922 in Burnbank, (South) Lanarkshire. Another former mining village, Burnbank is about three miles from Orbiston and Bellshill.

Shankly led Liverpool to its first European trophy, the 1973 UEFA Cup, and laid the foundations for five European Cup wins.  He was born in Glenbuck, (East) Ayrshire, on 2 September 1913.  As the crow flies, Glenbuck is around 25 miles due south.  Nevertheless, its quite remarkable that three managers that made such an impact on soccer during the 1960s and 70s should all come from such a small area.

Bellshill has continued to contribute to top-flight football. Celtic legend Billy McNeil (1940), John Reid (1947) the former government minister and Chairman of Celtic and Ally McCoist (1962) former player and current manager at Rangers were also born in Bellshill.

With this propensity to create footballers, the question is, is there is some strange property in the local water?  If so, Britain’s rowers and other water sport enthusiasts should take note!  Just across the Bellshill golf course from Orbiston is Strathclyde Park which hosts the National Rowing Championships every three years or so.  The loch was also the venue the last time rowing was officially part of the Commonwealth Games in 1986.  Having won three Commonwealth gold medals – in the single scull, coxless pair and coxed four – Steve Redgrave can add the distinction of having been a reigning triple Commonwealth Games champion for more than 20 years to his more widely remembered Olympic titles.

The Doggett’s Coat & Badge

By , 20th August 2009 11:07
World's oldest sporting event

World’s oldest sporting event

As an oarsman, for many years I’ve been aware of the claim that the Doggett’s Coat & Badge is the oldest, continuously-contested, sporting event still contested in the world today.

Thomas Doggett (c1640 – 1721) was an Irish-born comic actor who trod the boards at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.  Later, he became involved in managing the theatre before moving on to the Theatre Royal Haymarket around the time of its opening in 1720.

During years of commuting by river from his home in Chelsea to Westminster, Doggett developed an interest in the skills of the watermen who had been providing the most efficient means of moving passengers and goods around London for several centuries.  (London’s watermen have been regulated since an Act of Parliament passed in 1555 that created the Company of Watermen.)

In 1715, to commemorate the first anniversary of the accession of George I and the House of Hanover, Doggett organised a race for young London watermen who had recently completed their apprenticeships.   The race, for a prize of a scarlet 18th century waterman’s coat with a silver badge on the arm and white breeches, was staged on 1 August.  The start was at the White Swan near London Bridge with the finishing line at the Old Swan, near Cadogan Steps in Chelsea – a distance of four miles seven furlongs.

Swan Pier, Doggett, London

Swan Pier near London Bridge, close to the site of the White Swan Inn

The race became an annual event – organised by Doggett himself until his death in 1721.  (He is burried in St John’s churchyard, Eltham High Street.)

In his will, Doggett instructed his executors to endow the race in perpetuity.  Perhaps shrewdly, the executors offered an endowment of £300 to encourage the Company of Fishmongers to take over the staging of the race.

Initially raced against the tide on August 1st, the rules have subsequently been modified so that now the contestants row with the strongest tide.  Now managed by the Company of Watermen,  today the race is staged on a date in July determined by the time of high tide.  The 296th race took place on 10 July 2009.   Sadly, the race achieved no detectable media coverage apart from a posting – since disappeared – on the Thames Rowing Club website.  Is this lack of interest a throw-back to the historic resistance to professionalism of a rowing establishment dominated for so long by the public schools and universities?  Or just another example of the challenge the so-called “minority sports” face when trying to compete against football for column inches?

These barriers are breaking down.  Watermen are no longer prohibited from competing in domestic rowing events.  Indeed, Mark Hunter, winner of an Olympic Gold medal in the lightweight doubles in Beijing and silver medalist at London 2012, is himself a qualified waterman and freeman of the Thames. He was elected as a Steward of Henley Royal Regatta in 2013.

In 2000, as an apprentice, Mark competed in, and won, the Millennium Coat and Badge race for double sculls made up of a freeman sculling with an apprentice.  Sadly, circumstances conspired to prevent Mark from racing in the Doggett’s Coat and Badge – he was too old by the time he passed his final exams.  Mark’s younger brother, and fellow member of Leander Club – a one-time bastion of archetypal English amateurism – did win the Coat & Badge in 2006.

The Race now has its own website which includes a listing of all the known winners since 1716.

Reflecting its links with the commercial life of the River Thames, the Watermen’s Company and Port of London Authority feature the event on their websites.

View Doggett’s Coat & Badge in a larger map

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