Christopher Hartley

Doctor of Laws

Monday 20 July 2015 at 1.30pm - Orator: Dr Stephanie Harris

Mr Vice-Chancellor

I saw pictures of Chris Hartley before I ever met him.  He was about to be awarded an Honorary Bristol Red, the University’s highest sporting award, to pair with the Bristol Red he had won whilst a student here.

Gordon Trevett, the University’s Director of Rowing, was pulling together a presentation for the awards dinner. Gordon winced but included a photo of Chris rowing in a Tasmanian VIII at Henley Royal Regatta, clearly a boat length ahead of the Bristol 1st VIII that Gordon had been coaching. To make matters worse, the photo was from 2005; twenty years after Chris had graduated from Bristol.

The bow seat, that’s the one at the back of the boat for those not familiar with rowing parlance, is Chris’ favourite. He tells me, ‘you are always the first to cross the line’ and it has the best view. Being first across the line is a bit of a habit with Chris. At least on the water.

Off the water it hasn’t always been the case and as he commented on being told about his nomination for this degree, he had been pleasantly surprised to receive his first degree from Bristol so to receive a second is an extraordinary honour.

Chris arrived in Bristol in 1980 after an interesting ‘gap year’ working on helicopter landing decks in the North Sea.  His father had coached at the Bristol Ariel rowing club in the 1950’s whilst training at Filton and so there was some family connection to both the sport and the area.

Sports at university go in cycles and when Chris arrived at Bristol, no Bristol VIII had rowed at Henley Royal Regatta for more than twenty years. There had been some fast crews but no VIIIs, the flagship university event. By the time Chris left Bristol, the University Club had raced at Henley every year and Chris was awarded a Bristol Red.

In his year of graduation, he founded the Boat Club Alumni programme, one of the first sporting alumni groups at the University. That started a tradition of both Alumni support and racing that continues today.

The Boat Club Alumni have provided boats, blades, equipment and even coaches for the Club, all catalysed by Chris.  In fact, Chris found, recruited and funded our first professional coaches fifteen years ago. Paid coaches are now the norm but then it was a first. Without Chris’ encouragement and the help of our Alumni, we would never have been able to fund our beautiful new boathouse at Saltford.

Today, Boat Club Alumni still race each year under Bristol colours but at the start it was even more ambitious.

In 1984, Chris led a Bristol VIII on a tour to the American universities of Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Georgetown and Rutgers. This was part-funded by selling the contents of an imported barrel of rough Sicilian wine that had to be accessed by a hosepipe. Wine and rowing has been a continual theme with Chris.

Sweeping the board with one exception, that Bristol touring crew won the Head of the Potomac in Washington outright and were only held but never beaten, by the Harvard heavyweights. 

The ‘off water’ activities were equally successful, not least because, somehow, Jaguar cars were persuaded to supply the transport. Young, fit looking British athletes arriving in smart British cars attracted a degree of attention, if not admiration.

The US tour built on another aspect of Chris’s captaincy – he welcomed athletes from UWE to train, compete and race in Bristol crews on a level performance basis. The US tour crew contained four such athletes.

The ’84 tour is celebrated each year with the magnificent silver trophy now raced for by the University and the University of the West of England in the Varsity Race. A race whose genesis also goes back to Chris’s time as Captain in 1982.

In addition to the trophy, Chris has also added a magnum of Claret each year to the winning University Vice-Chancellor but only when he or she is actually present. Otherwise the losing VC gets it!

Remarkably, Chris is still the Chair of our Boat Club Alumni and hosts an afternoon tea every year at Henley Royal Regatta. That is over thirty years of support and encouragement to generations of Bristol students across a vast range of activities. Cheering Bristol on the water at Henley, organising (from Australia!) cognac tastings in Park Street cellars, and finding jobs for graduates. His love and leadership of the sport continue. Amazing.

Chris still scouts for Leander Club, that pinnacle of rowing clubs whose members have won a tremendous 106 Olympic medals to date.  Ask him about sculling under the Golden Gate Bridge in the company of sea lions, rowing in Malaysia or competing in Australia. Or ask the many athletes that he has encouraged and nurtured, led and cajoled from Bristol and beyond and still does so.

That Tasmanian VIII is also worth another mention. Ten years ago it was the first Tasmanian VIII to ever race at Henley Royal Regatta, Chris helped make history, only losing to a crew that included gold medal USA Olympians. While he did prove that he could still wear lycra and post a reasonable erg score, he also broke two ribs through stress fractures in that final race.

Away from the rowing oar Chris has a broad and brilliant range of other accomplishments and activities from the world of international business to the World’s first global environmental treaty, duties to the Royal Household, Chair of the Royal Society of Arts in Australia and the Chair of the Gurkha Welfare Fund. He is equally at home in the Pavilion at Lord’s as in the Stewards Enclosure, the hallowed Leander dining room and the cellars of Cognac.

His delightful family of Anne, Samantha, Jemima and Kit are not here but have had to return to school and University in Australia. I am pleased to see though, that like any dutiful son, he has brought his mother along. Another tick in the box.

It is his achievement and leadership in sport, on and off the water that we are here to celebrate. After his family and perhaps equal to his wine and cognac, rowing and Bristol have a clear and present place in his heart.

Mr Vice Chancellor, may I present to you Chris Hartley, bow man extraordinaire, loyal servant of Bristol, family man and friend of many, an achiever and leader in his chosen sport and eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.  

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