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

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

Earlier this year, Tony Leadley, 96, received a call out of the blue from Robert Treharne Jones, the archivist for 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 had been cleaning out a property when he found a couple of old oars, decorated with faded writing, in a shed.

“Hi, I found some old oars,” the message said. “They’re 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 to whom they might belong. Tony Leadley and Christopher Davidge are legends of postwar British rowing. For fans of the sport, the names are instantly identifiable. As luck would have it, Leadley lived just down the road, in Sydney.

“Dr Jones wondered if I wanted them or not,” Leadley says. “I said it would be nice to have them back; I haven’t seen them for 50 years.”

It was an understatement. They had actually been lost for even longer than that. In late 1963 Leadley had moved to a new house and didn’t have room for the oars, which are 15 feet long. Shortly after he moved, however, thieves broke into the storage unit and took the oars, which he says “had no use to anyone except me”. These are the oars, or blades, rowers use in winning races, which are then painted with the details of the victory as souvenirs. Philip brought the oars up to Sydney and Leadley was reunited with them in January this year. “They were a bit dusty and some of the illumination was missing, so I’ve cleaned them up a bit,” he says. The story went viral on social media and has attracted press interest from around the world.

The missing oars, slightly dusty upon recovery
The missing oars, slightly dusty upon recovery - Leander Club

“People want to know about my history, which was pretty illustrious at the time,” Leadley concedes. The oars commemorate Leadley’s greatest year in the sport, when he won the Goblet & Nickalls’ Cup, known as the Goblets, and the European championships. He and Davidge had been aware of each other for several years but did not row as a pair until 1956. “We got together and were winning everything in sight,” Leadley recalls. “We beat the pesky Russians [in the 1957 European Rowing Championships], and we didn’t just beat them, we thrashed them, which was gratifying for the rowing community.”

Leadley’s story evokes a time when sport had yet to become a globe-spanning corporate machine. He was born in August 1928 and grew up in Bedford, where he went to Bedford Modern School. The first time he tried rowing it was not a success. “I hated it,” he remembers. “It was wet and cold. I swore I’d take up other things. I tried swimming and nearly drowned. I came last in the cross country. I started throwing discus and javelin and wasn’t any good at that.” Then 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 magic. I was caught by it then.”

Tony Leadley (right) and Christopher Davidge competing in the  Silver Goblets and Nickalls' Challenge Cup at Henley in 1957
Tony Leadley (right) and Christopher Davidge competing in the Silver Goblets and Nickalls' Challenge Cup at Henley in 1957 - PA

After being deemed unfit for national service because he had peritonitis (inflammation of abdomen tissues) when he was 11, he went up to read architecture at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and went straight into junior boats. He rowed in the Boat Race in 1953, 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 pretty and not very strong. But our technique was very good and we were very fit. We absolutely smashed them, which is wonderful.” He is now the oldest living Blue from either university to have rowed in the Boat Race.

Leadley's 1957 European championship medals
Davidge and Leadley's 1957 European championship medals - Leander Club

In the 1950s, rowing had to fit in around a career. After university, Leadley joined Shell, where he designed petrol stations for corner bomb sites in London, before a surprising career twist. “We ran out of corners so I gave it up and joined Vogue,” he says. He worked in the magazine’s PR department, and helped scout backdrops for fashion shoots. In 1962 he moved to Australia, where his wife Pamela had a sister. “She was married to a very wealthy guy who said he’d fix me up with a job, but he never did,” he laughs. Instead he stuck to PR, eventually starting his own business.

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 put into the British Olympic team, while the Boat Race drips in corporate branding. It is currently sponsored by Gemini, a cryptocurrency exchange.

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

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

With the Boat Race coming up, 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, as well as being reunited with his 15ft wooden souvenirs of a happy time, 70 years ago.

“I’m thrilled to have been reunited with them,” he says. “It has tickled the imagination of a lot of old rowing people.” Non-rowing people, too, of all ages.