How the oldest living Oxbridge Blue was reunited with his winning oars – 60 years after they were stolen

Leadley, now 96, was reunited with the missing oars – Leander Club – in January this year

Leadley, now 96, was reunited with the missing oars in January this yearLeadley, now 96, was reunited with the missing oars in January this year

Leadley, now 96, was reunited with the missing oars – Leander Club – in January this year

Earlier this year, Tony Leadley, 96, received a phone call out of the blue from Robert Treharne Jones, the archivist at the famous Leander rowing club in Henley. Just before Christmas, Jones had received a message from Philip, a man from New South Wales, Australia, who was clearing out a property when he found a pair of old oars in a shed, decorated with faded inscriptions.

“Hi, I found some old oars,” the message said. “They are painted with Leander Club, European Championships, and Goblet and Nickalls Cup, both from 1957 with DAT LEADLEY and CGV DAVIDGE – any idea what they are?”

Jones knew exactly what they were and who they might belong to. Tony Leadley and Christopher Davidge are legends of post-war British rowing. For fans of the sport, the names are immediately recognizable. As luck would have it, Leadley lived down the street in Sydney.

“Dr. Jones was wondering if I wanted them or not,” Leadley says. “I said it would be nice to have them back; I haven’t seen them in fifty years.”

It was an understatement. They had been lost even longer. By late 1963, Leadley had moved to a new home and had no room for the oars, which are 15 feet long. Shortly after he moved, however, thieves broke into the storage room and took the oars, which he says “had no use for anyone else but me.” These are the oars or blades that rowers use when winning races, which are then painted as a souvenir with the details of the victory. Philip brought the oars to Sydney and Leadley was reunited with them in January this year. “They were a bit dusty and some of the lighting was missing, so I cleaned them up a bit,” he says. The story went viral on social media and attracted press interest from around the world.

The missing oars, slightly dusty when repairedThe missing oars, slightly dusty when repaired

The missing oars, slightly dusty when repaired – Leander Club

“People want to know about my history, which was quite illustrious at the time,” Leadley admits. The oars commemorate Leadley’s best year in the sport, when he won the Goblet & Nickalls’ Cup, known as the Goblets, and the European Championships. He and Davidge had known each other for several years, but did not row as a couple until 1956. “We came together and won everything in sight,” Leadley recalls. “We defeated the pesky Russians [in the 1957 European Rowing Championships]and we not only beat them, we thrashed them, which was gratifying for the rowing community.”

Leadley’s story evokes a time when sports had not yet become a global business machine. He was born in August 1928 and grew up in Bedford, where he attended Bedford Modern School. The first time he tried to row, he was unsuccessful. “I hated it,” he remembers. “It was wet and cold. I swore I would tackle other things. I tried to swim and almost drowned. I came last in the cross. I started with discus and javelin throwing and I wasn’t very good at those.” One day a coach tried again. “He took me out on a beautiful morning in the spring, when it was still on the water, when it was just us, the boat and the swans. It was absolutely magical. Then it caught me.”

Tony Leadley (right) and Christopher Davidge taking part in the Silver Goblets and Nickalls' Challenge Cup at Henley in 1957Tony Leadley (right) and Christopher Davidge taking part in the Silver Goblets and Nickalls' Challenge Cup at Henley in 1957

Tony Leadley (right) and Christopher Davidge taking part in the Silver Goblets and Nickalls’ Challenge Cup at Henley in 1957 – PA

After being deemed unfit for military service at the age of 11 because he had peritonitis (inflammation of the abdominal tissue), he went to study architecture at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and immediately got into the junior boats. He rowed in the 1953 Boat Race, a famous victory for Cambridge. “We beat them by eight and a half lengths,” he says. “We were the underdogs. Everyone thought we were too beautiful and not very strong. But our technique was very good and we were very fit. We absolutely crushed them, which is awesome. He is now the oldest living Blue from either university to row in the Boat Race.

Leadley's 1957 European Championship medalsLeadley's 1957 European Championship medals

Davidge and Leadley’s 1957 European Championship medals – Leander Club

In the 1950s, rowing had to fit within a career. After university, Leadley went to work at Shell, where he designed petrol stations for London corner bomb sites, before taking a surprising career turn. “We ran out of corners, so I gave up and competed Fashion,” he says. He worked in the magazine’s PR department and helped source backgrounds for fashion shoots. In 1962 he moved to Australia, where his wife Pamela had a sister. “She was married to a very wealthy man who said he would get me a job, but he never did,” he laughs. Instead, he stayed in PR and eventually started his own company.

He stopped competing when he moved to Australia, although he continued to row socially. In recent decades, rowing, like most sports, has become much more professional. Millions of pounds are being poured into the British Olympic team, while the Boat Race is dripping with corporate branding. It is currently sponsored by Gemini, a cryptocurrency exchange.

“We were completely amateurish,” he says. “When I joined the Leander Club you had to have won a big event, like an Olympic medal, the Boat Race or something like that at Henley. That was your entry. Now if you have £3,000 anyone can join in and wear the colors and rule over the people at the regatta, even if they have never touched an oar in their life. Rowing has become professional like all other sports and I think it has ruined it.”

He eventually retired at the age of 90. Pamela died 50 years ago of brain cancer, the disease that also claimed his eldest son Simon, who had a successful music company, at the age of 53. He has a daughter, a son, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. -grandchildren, all in Australia. Leadley will be 97 in October. “I’m going for the big hundred,” he says.

With the Boat Race approaching and the recent George Clooney film about rowing, The boys in the boat, rowing is in the news. Leadley says he has enjoyed the interest in his story and been reunited with his 15-foot-long wooden souvenirs of a happy time 70 years ago.

“I’m very happy to be reunited with them,” he says. “It captures the imagination of many old rowers.” Also non-rowing people, of all ages.

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