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Samuel F. Gordon and the 1912 Olympic Rowing

 by Göran R Buckhorn [1]

 After two successful Olympic Games for the American oarsmen in 1900 and 1904 – especially those from the Vesper Boat Club who took gold medals in the eights – the U.S. did not send any participants to the Olympic rowing events held in Henley-on-Thames in 1908. It was probably because of a rift between the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen (N.A.A.O.) and the Henley Stewards, who ran the Henley Royal Regatta, that stopped the Americans’ entries to the Olympic rowing. The British took all the gold medals on their home waters. It was supposed to be different at the next Olympic rowing regatta in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, in 1912. In 1909, the New York Athletic Club and the Arundel Boat Club in Baltimore had some good fours that did well racing against other American and Canadian clubs. Other likely Olympic rowers were Samuel F. Gordon of the Vesper BC and Everard Butler of Argonaut Rowing Club, Toronto, who were the best North American scullers at the time. Gordon won the N.A.A.O. champion title in the senior single scull in 1910 and in the elite double scull (together with George W. Engle) in 1911. Butler took the N.A.A.O. champion elite single scull title in both 1910 and 1911. In 1910, the Arundel BC took the championship title in the coxless four.

The cockpit of an old inrigger four. Note how wide the boat is, having the oarsmen seated in a zig-zag way. This boat type was, and still is, used on the sometimes rough waters along the shorelines of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. (From the author’s collection)

 At an Olympic conference in Budapest in 1911, Sweden’s suggestions of boat types for the Olympic regatta had been approved: single scull, coxed outrigger four, eight, and, for the Olympics, the very odd coxed inrigger four. This boat type was used in the Nordic countries on the sometimes rough waters along their coastlines. The inrigger, the origin of which was a gig, was a wide clinker-built boat with the oarlocks attached directly on the gunwale, and the four rowers sitting in a zig-zag way. Germany and Great Britain had protested as they also wanted double scull, coxless pair, and coxless four to be represented at the Games, just as they had been at Henley in 1908. Nevertheless, the congress said no. The British country gentleman’s paper The Field, which published the most prominent rowing articles at the time, wrote sourly that an inrigger had no business in an Olympic regatta. This was also the sentiment in an article in The New York Times on January 12, 1912. The paper writes, “The race in inrigger fours seems to have been arranged particularly for Swedish crews, and will in all likelihood attract few entries from other nations.” The article also debates the different views of the amateur definition between the British and the Americans – a question that had sometimes hindered American oarsmen to compete at the Henley Royal Regatta, but would also infect rowing as a whole in Britain for years to come. Furthermore, the paper published all the twenty-four rules and regulations for the Olympic regatta that the Swedish Olympic Rowing Committee had set up.

 As in the 1908 Olympic rowing races, each country was allowed to enter two crews in each boat class. The 2,000-meter rowing course on the waters of Djurgårdsbrunnsviken, in the center of Stockholm, had a slight starboard bend at 1,200 meters followed by a very slight bend towards port. The oarsmen also had to row under some bridges. This must certainly be the main reasons why the Swedes suggested boats with coxswains. The course had only room for two boats, so several heats would be needed to determine which crews would be in the final. When the invitations had been sent out, two dates were set for the Olympic rowing, July 18 and 19. The Swedish Olympic Rowing Committee wanted to receive the entries by May 18.

 In the early spring of 1912, a crew from the Arundel BC was training to represent the U.S. in the outrigger four with coxswain. A rumor spread that a crew from the New York Athletic Club was interested in racing in - surprisingly - the inrigger four with coxswain. Some weeks later, in mid-May, The New York Times published a couple of articles that disclosed that both the New York club and the Baltimore club had dropped out. At a stormy meeting of the Middle States Regatta Association on May 11, the Arundel rowers claimed not to have received the proper information from the American Olympic Committee on how to send their entry to the Olympics. The Arundel BC had managed to get subscriptions for around $2,600, but the American Olympic Committee demanded them to pay $4,000 for the trip to Stockholm. As the Arundel BC found it impossible to raise the rest of the money, the club pulled out. E. F. Haubold, vice president of the New York Athletic Club, set some records straight by saying that his club had never had the intention to send a boat to Stockholm as his club did not have “a crew strong enough to uphold the reputation of the United States.” In an article published a couple of days later, on May 14, The New York Times states that Samuel F. Gordon was going to race in the single scull, and that his entry had been taken to the N.A.A.O. in New York by Henry Penn Burke of the Malta Boat Club, Philadelphia. Gordon’s entry was to be signed by Fred Fortmeyer, secretary of the N.A.A.O., who then would forward it to the American Olympic Committee.

 In the next day’s The New York Times, a black headline reads: “Gordon’s Entry Refused”. According to the paper, the Vesper BC had received a letter from Fortmeyer the previous day, May 14, where he returned Gordon’s entry on the grounds that the application came in too late for N.A.A.O. to sanction it. This was of course met with disappointment at Vesper, to say the least. In particular as the club’s secretary, E. J. McCossin, had sent a letter, already on February 5, to the N.A.A.O.’s secretary asking for advice on how to submit Gordon’s entry in the single for the Olympics Games. Henry Penn Burke, who later would become president of the N.A.A.O., is quoted by the paper saying “The cause of the whole trouble is the fact that the National Committee of Oarsmen [sic] have at no time furnished the clubs with any information whatsoever related to the Olympic games or whether there would be rowing races, or, if so, how clubs intending to send crews could make their entries.” By now, oarsmen and their clubs tossed allegations of mishandling the entries for the Olympic rowing at both the N.A.A.O. and the American Olympic Committee. As the end date for entries for the rowing races was getting closer, it seemed the U.S. was yet again not to have any representatives at the Olympic rowing. However, on June 11, The New York Times published a list of “America’s Athletic Team” for the Stockholm Olympics where Samuel F. Gordon of the Vesper BC was listed to row in the single scull.

On their first visit to the Henley Royal Regatta as reigning Sovereign and Queen in 1912, George V and his Mary were rowed to the Royal stand by eight watermen in Queen Mary’s shallop, which was built in 1689 by order of King William III for his wife, Queen Mary. (From the Thomas E Weil Collection of the National Rowing Foundation)

 But before the Olympic rowing, the British would hold their famous Henley Royal Regatta. As there was only a fortnight between this regatta and the one in Stockholm, many rowing experts believed that the results at Henley would be a good measure of value for how the Olympic medals would fall in Stockholm. They could not have been more wrong. For the first time ever, Australia was going to compete at both Henley and an Olympic rowing regatta. At first, the Henley Stewards had hesitated allowing the eight from Sydney Rowing Club to enter the Grand Challenge Cup as one man in the crew, Henry Hauenstein, was a policeman and, according to the Henley rules, not an amateur. But the Stewards let it pass. And the Aussies proved that they belonged at Henley. In the first round they defeated the 1911 N.A.A.O. champions, Argonaut RC, and in the second round they beat a very fine crew of New College, Oxford, stroked by the legendary oar, Robert C. Bourne, who had stroked that year’s winning Oxford crew at The Boat Race for the fourth consecutive year. In the final, the Australian oarsmen outdid the mighty eight of Leander Club with three-quarters of a length. Not only was it a big blow to the English pride that their prime crew had lost to a boat from the colonies, they had done so in front of King George V and Queen Mary. When the King and Queen had arrived to Henley-on-Thames, they had been rowed by eight watermen in the royal barge to the Royal Stand. It was the first visit of a reigning Sovereign and his Queen at Henley, making the regatta real “Royal”.

Everard Butler of Argonaut RC was, with his two N.A.A.O. champion titles from 1910 and 1911, an obvious competitor both at Henley and in Stockholm in 1912. He was, however, beaten in the first round at Henley by George E. Fairbairn of Jesus College, Cambridge. At the Olympic rowing, Butler was defeated by Wally Kinnear of Kensington RC in the semi final. As Butler had the third best time in the semi finals, he was awarded the bronze medal. (From the Thomas E Weil Collection of the National Rowing Foundation)

 The second Australian boat was the Tasmanian Cecil McVilly of Derwent Rowing Club. McVilly, who was the amateur single scull champion of Australia, only lasted to the first round in The Diamond Challenge Sculls. Alexander McCulloch of Leander, who had won an Olympic silver medal in the single scull at Henley in 1908, and who had a ticket to go to Stockholm, overpowered him. (McVilly would come back the following year to become an unpopular winner of the Diamonds after “washing” his opponent, E. D. P. Pinks of the London Rowing Club in the final.) The Scotsman William “Wally” Kinnear of Kensington Rowing Club in London, who previously had won the Diamonds twice, in 1910 and 1911, was a favorite for the title a third time. Kinnear had also been selected to represent Great Britain at the Olympics, but, being off the mark in the first round, he was ignominiously beaten by C. M. Stuart of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Kinnear was sculling in his old boat as his new shell was already sent to Stockholm. Everard Butler of Argonaut RC met the same faith. He was put out in his first round by George E. Fairbairn of Jesus College (nephew of the famous coach Steve Fairbairn). McCulloch made it to the final in the Diamonds, but he was ill and during the race he collapsed and fell overboard at the Press box and was to be hauled ashore. The title went to E. W. Powell of Vikings Club. As a matter of fact, every boat that was to represent Britain in the Olympics in Stockholm went down at Henley, which was not a good omen for the British oarsmen.

 But how about Samuel Gordon of the Vesper BC? Was he not at Henley to match oarpower with the international elite? No – and in a way, this was quite understandable, as his club was banned to compete at Henley after having caused a scandal there in 1905. A Vesper eight had raced that year in the Grand, giving Leander a first-class match in the semi-final. Sir Theodore Cook, editor of The Field, wrote that “Leander had to row hard most of the way to beat one of the best American crews that has ever competed at Henley.” The Philadelphia crew was beaten by a length, and was praised by the Henley crowd for their good style both on and off the water. That is, until it was revealed the following year that the American oarsmen had received money, and had had their trip paid by subscriptions. In the eyes of the Henley Stewards they were “professionals”, and the Stewards decided to ban the Vesper BC from the regatta. This disgrace also put a large dent in the relationship between the Henley Stewards and the N.A.A.O., as national federations were supposed to guarantee that their oarsmen were pure amateurs. If Samuel Gordon had sent an entry to race in the Diamonds, it would very likely have been refused.

Sam Gordon of Vesper BC was the best American sculler at the time of the Olympic Games in Stockholm. On the back of this news agency photograph it states that he is going to compete in the Olympic single scull race at Stockholm. Unfortunately, Gordon never showed up. (From the author’s collection)

 Due to the great interest among the rowing nations, the Swedish organizers had to add an extra day to the rowing events, so that the Olympic rowing began on July 17. 184 oarsmen in 45 boats from 14 countries had gathered in Stockholm to make it the world’s largest regatta up to that date. So was Samuel Gordon in Stockholm on July 17? A couple of days before the rowing races would start, it seemed the Vesper sculler was in training, if we are to believe an old file photo from a news agency showing Gordon in his boat. On the back of the photograph it reads: “July 15, 1912 – Samuel F. Gordon of Philadelphia who will represent the United States in the single scull race at Stockholm on July 19 [sic].” It is not known if this photo was ever published in any newspapers. Sadly, Samuel F. Gordon never showed up in Stockholm, nor did Alexander McCulloch, who was still ill. However, while McCulloch’s name was on the start list, Gordon’s name was not. This indicates that the American Olympic Committee never sent in Gordon’s entry to the Swedish Olympic Rowing Committee, or, if they did, it arrived too late.

Wally Kinnear, a Scotsman sculling for the London club Kensington RC, easily overpowered his Olympic rivals to take the champion title. (From the Thomas E Weil Collection of the National Rowing Foundation)

 So how did it go without any American competitors? Wally Kinnear easily sculled away from all his rivals, beating Everard Butler in the semifinal and the Belgian Polydore Veirman of Royal Club Nautique de Grand in the final. Argonaut RC gave Leander a good fight in the first heat of the eights, but the Canadians were defeated with half a length. Many had hoped that it would be the same boats in the Olympic final as the one at Henley, but a bad draw meant Leander met Sydney RC (at the Olympics rowing as Australasia) already in the quarterfinal. The British took revenge on the Aussies winning with a little more than half a length. In the semifinal, Leander beat the German boat from Berliner Ruderverein with slightly 2 seconds. Dan Cordery, who was a professional oarsman from Putney, in London, had coached the Germans. The Olympic final in the eights became an all-English affair with Leander defeating New College with almost a length. Great Britain also had a boat in the coxed outrigger four, Thames Rowing Club, who could not keep up in the final with the German champions, Ludwigshafen Ruderverein. Thames RC’s bowman was Julius Beresford, 44 years old, whose son, Jack Beresford, Jr., would become the most prominent Olympic oarsman in the pre-Steven Redgrave era, with five Olympic medals in five consecutive Games, between 1920 and 1936.

Very surprisingly, Leander’s eight lost the Grand at Henley to Sydney RC in 1912. Two weeks later, Leander’s oarsmen got their revenge by beating the Aussie in the Olympic semi final with half a boat length. In this photograph from Stockholm, the Leander crew is getting ready for an outing. From the stern: coxswain Henry Wells, stroke Philip Fleming, 7 Alister Graham Kirby, 6 Arthur Stanley Garton, 5 James Angus Gillan, 4 Ewart Douglas Horsfall, 3 Leslie Graham Wormald, 2 Sidney Ernest Swann, bow Edgar R. Burgess. In the final, Leander beat New College, Oxford, for the Olympic champion title. It would take Great Britain another 88 years to claim this title again. (From the author’s collection)

 The coxed inrigger four gathered six crews: two Swedish, two Norwegian, one Danish, and one French. The latter was easily dismissed by one of the Norwegian boats, and in the final, Denmark’s Nykjøbings paa Falster RK overran Sweden’s Roddklubben af 1912. The inrigger would never again appear at an Olympic rowing event, and has to be regarded as an Olympic curiosity.

The Swedish crew Roddklubben af 1912 took an Olympic silver medal after losing to Denmark in the coxed inrigger four. Roddklubben af 1912, which was founded by oarsmen from Malmö RK and Helsingborgs RK, only existed for the Olympic year, 1912. Jack Farrell of the London RC trained Roddklubben af 1912’s four and eight. (From the author’s collection)

 What happened to Samuel F. Gordon? Almost one hundred years later, we do not know why he never made it to the Olympic regatta in Stockholm. The N.A.A.O.’s minutes from 1912 are lost, and American rowing historians have not spent a lot of time on something that never was, or waterways not taken. David Farmer, who organized a rowing exhibit at the University of California when the Olympic Games were held in Los Angeles in 1984, mentions very briefly in the exhibit catalogue Rowing/Olympics (1984) that it was lack of money that stopped the U.S. from sending oarsmen to Stockholm. The well-regarded and distinguished rowing historian, Thomas C. Mendenhall, writes in an article in The Oarsman in 1980 (Vol. 12, No. 2, March/April, 1980) that it was “because of jurisdictional arguments between N.A.A.O. and FISA” that no American oarsmen went to the Olympic Games in 1908 and 1912. During my research for this article, I have not found any sources pointing in this direction. We have to remember that the International Rowing Federation, FISA, was not at all as powerful an organization in 1912 as it is today, and had very little to do with the Olympic races, both in 1908 and 1912. While the quarrel between the N.A.A.O. and the Henley Stewards might have stopped the U.S. from sending oarsmen to the Olympic rowing in Henley-on-Thames, it would not prevent American oarsmen from competing in Stockholm.

Vivian Nickalls, famous English oarsman and coach, trained the University of Pennsylvania’s crews for two years before returning to his home country to join the Army during World War I. One of the rowers he coached was Sam Gordon. (From the author’s collection)

After the Olympics, Samuel F. Gordon continued to row in Philadelphia, and in late September 1913, he signed up as a student at the University of Pennsylvania. The rowing coach at Penn, the well-known English oarsman Vivian Nickalls, was delighted and told The New York Times on September 29, 1913 that “Gordon is one of the most polished oarsmen that ever entered a university.” Although, Nickalls never mentions Gordon in his autobiography, Oars, Wars, and Horses (1932), his two years as the coach for Penn are happily remembered in his book. Not only did it seem that Vivian and his even slightly more famous brother, Guy Nickalls, were excellent oarsmen, they also had a knack for coming up with amusing book titles; Guy’s memoirs are called Life’s a Pudding (1935).

 The story about the non-Olympian, Samuel Gordon, ends with a twist. Due to World War I, the 1916 Olympic Games in Berlin were cancelled. After the war had ended, when it was time again for the world’s best oarsmen to match oars at an Olympic regatta, now in 1920 on the Willebroek Canal, outside of Brussels, the American oarsmen were eager to race. The best sculler in America at this time was, without doubt, John “Jack” B. Kelly of the Vesper BC. He was fervently waiting to represent his country at the Olympics, but also to scull in the Diamonds. Knowing the background why there were no American oarsmen competing at the Stockholm Olympics, Kelly said in an interview to a local Philadelphia newspaper, that he saw “no reason why the United States should not be represented at the Olympic Games in the rowing events. The foreign oarsmen took a slam at the methods employed by the United States in the Games at Stockholm in 1912.” Kelly also mentions that the Amateur Athletic Union (A.A.U.) had organized the trip to Stockholm, and explains, that this organization “had full charge of the chartering of a ship and the plans for the competition in 1912, [and] refused to pay the expenses of the oarsmen.” Kelly takes the opportunity to tip his green cap at his fellow Vesper sculler, when he continues, “Sam Gordon, of the Vespers, who was one of the best scullers in this country, was told that he had to pay his own expenses if he wanted to represent this country.” If necessary, Jack Kelly told the paper, he was willing to go to the Olympics in Antwerp on his own expense.

 Of course, we all know what happened. Kelly’s entry for the Diamonds was refused by the Henley Stewards, mainly because of two reasons: he was rowing for the banned Vesper BC, and his apprenticeship as a bricklayer made him “a labourer”, which in the Henley Royal Regatta’s rule book was not an amateur. Disheartened, Kelly went to the Olympic rowing regatta where he, in the single final, beat the English winner of the Diamonds, Jack Beresford, Jr., with a second. He also took a second gold medal with his cousin, Paul Costello, in the double scull. But that is another story, which is wonderfully told by Daniel Boyne in his book Kelly: A Father, A Son, An American Quest (2007).

 Special thanks to Sandy Culver and Daniel Boyne for sharing newspaper clippings. Many thanks also to Thomas E. Weil for allowing me to use photographs from his collection.


1) Göran R Buckhorn is a Swedish rowing historian who lives in Mystic, Connecticut. He is a contribution editor for the Swedish rowing magazine Svensk Rodd, which he co-founded in 1990. He has also been published in the British ARA’s Rowing & Regatta. As of the October issue 2009, he will write history pieces for the magazine’s new column “In this month”. In March 2009, Göran founded the rowing history blog ‘Hear The Boat Sing’ - please visit

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