On the last night of Town Bumps, over a hundred people rose to their feet to applaud a lost friend, Brian Ellis, who died on Tuesday June 17, aged 86. The assembled Champion of the Thames (‘Champs’) Rowing Cub members were celebrating the memory of one of the great characters of the River Cam, and remembered him too by chanting “Legs, Legs, Legs!” his famous coaching line, exhorting rowers to get their legs down for a really effective stroke.
President of the ‘Champs’ Club since 2008 (and a Vice-President of the Cambridge Rowing Association), Mr Ellis was often known as ‘Bogie’, a nickname he shared with his father. Last year, he celebrated seventy years ‘on the Cam’. Born in 1932, Brian used to come down to the river as a young schoolboy and offer to hold the horses during the bumps – in the days when bumps crews were still accompanied by coaches on horseback.
After national service as an army driver, Brian was briefly a chef at the University Arms. He joined Wallers’ Butchers that was run by the Weltons, a well-known Cambridge rowing family who understood his need to combine work with the river. Later, he worked with Malcolm Smith at Malcolm’s Meats before becoming a bus driver. On the buses, he was described as ‘always laughing, noisy and fun’.
He married Mary Haynes in 1953, with whom he shared a love of cycling, and often cycled a tandem to Hunstanton and back. They had a son and two daughters – Peter, Alda and Barbara (Barbara sadly died young aged 35 years). His daughter Alda recalls ‘‘we were always going for days out and if it wasn’t the seaside, it would be the banger racing. We were the first people in the street to have a car even though you did have to sit in the back with an umbrella!” Brian and Mary were devoted to each other, and Brian cared for Mary with great dedication in the last years of her life, carrying on preparing food for her even when she was moved to a nursing home. She died in 2005.
Rowing was a constant thread in Mr Ellis’s long and active life. First rowing as a 15 year old in 1947, starting as a cox because he was told he was too young to row. He was a serious competition rower over many years and a Champion Sculler on the Cam. His last competitive race was Town Bumps in 2000 with ‘Robs’. Eric Smith recalls: ‘Brian was tasked with filling the 12th boat. He announced that as this was his last competitive event he would only race for one minute – after that he would dip his blade and let the rest of us race. We ended up with 3 bumps and a row over (on the Friday night).’
He coached Richard Moseley as part of ‘Robs’’ First VIII when he first arrived in Cambridge in 1969 and started rowing for Rob Roy (‘Robs’). He also coached Richard Moseley when he was a member of the fastest four in Cambridge. Mr Ellis coached Christ’s College crews – but when the latter wanted to pay him and he said ‘just buy me a bottle of wine’.
One of his many successful scullers, Chris Owen recalls: ‘Brian first started coaching me in 2003, slightly bemused by a junior from 99s (not known as a sculling club) ploughing up and down the Cam powered only by brute force and ignorance. One of the most special wins for me was winning the fastest scull in the Rob Roy Small Boats Head, as Robs sculler, after Ben Caulton [who Brian coached in 2005-2006] had a few years before me and one Brian Ellis several decades before us both!’
Mary Twitchett says: ‘Brian started coaching me as a novice sculler in 2003 after competing for CUWBC as a lightweight. Brian never missed an outing. Always encouraging, always with a stopwatch – and always telling us “Legs, Legs”. We had an amazing two years unbeaten in local regattas and then Henley Veteran championship and National Rowing championships. In Vienna 2009, I won the World Masters in a double scull with Susan Brown. Without Brian none of this would have been possible. Pre-race, he would always say ‘Fill your lungs’ – it is something I still do pre-races and encourage the athletes who I coach to do. It calms your thoughts and reassures you that you are ready to race well’.
Brian Ellis was quite simply an inspirational coach, determined, wryly humorous, with a natural gift for picking up on what a rower or a crew needed to think about on any particular day – he coached more than one generation of several Cambridge rowing families. Carole Mills recalls: ‘he coached both Louise Affleck and I until October last year when he could no longer get down to the river. Often, we’d arrive for an outing and he’d say ‘I’ve been thinking about you two’ and would come up with an innovative outing plan to get us thinking or working in a different way. He had a fantastic way of motivating us. I hear his voice in my head all the time when I’m racing, especially at the finish ‘now take it home!’ It was always worth racing well just to hear him say with great relish ‘we had a cracking race today!’
A gifted rower in his own right for many years, he was a most constructive and positive coach, and in old age cut a dignified figure in a thick blue jacket and bike helmet, riding his electric bike on the towpath – a long way from the horse-riding coaches and cedar-skinned sculls of the 1930s and 40s. Mr Ellis – and his inimitable smile – will be remembered with deep admiration and affection by many members of the Cambridge town clubs, especially ‘Robs’, ‘Nines’ and ‘Champs’, with which he had the closest associations.
Obituary kindly written by Jeremy Musson