Lies, Damned Lies and the 1877 Boat Race

An artist’s view of the finish of the 1877 Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race.

Tim Koch writes:

Those of us who grandly award ourselves the title of ‘historian’ like to think that we are in constant pursuit of  ‘the truth’ as if were some piece of buried treasure waiting to be dug up. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Perhaps the best known idea on the unreliability of ‘historical truth’ is that ‘history is written by the victors’. In a similar vein, Sir Winston Churchill held that ‘history will be kind to me – for I intend to write it’. Historical truth changes over time as, at best, it can only reflect the present or the dominant consensus. However, while truth may be difficult to establish, lies are (arguably) slightly easier to expose. I have spent the last few months working on a rebuttal of a very big and very entrenched lie in rowing history, that concerning the 1877 ‘Dead Heat’ Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race. Instead of producing a written piece, my intention was to make a video documentary for the internet. This I have done and the result may be viewed below. As I was nearing the end of the video production, I was very flattered to be asked to write a piece on the 1877 Race for the Official Boat Race Programme, the text of which is also below. I was restricted to a short piece of 700 words and I wrote it for a more general audience than HTBS readers, but I hope that it serves as an introduction to the 30-minute film.

From the 2014 Boat Race Programme:

1877: Oxford Won, Cambridge Too.

Tim Koch of the rowing history blog, ‘Hear The Boat Sing’, argues that the popular view of the ‘dead heat’  race of 1877 is a continuing injustice to the finish judge, Honest John Phelps.

In 2003, a thrilling Boat Race resulted in a win for Oxford by just one foot. During the post-race television analysis it was confidently stated that this was the closest of all the 149 races as the ‘dead heat’ of 1877 was, in reality, a six-foot victory for the Dark Blues. The viewing millions were told that this 126 year old travesty occurred because ‘the finish judge had been in the pub’.

That apparently inebriated official was a waterman, ‘Honest’ John Phelps, a descendant of whom is this year’s Race Umpire, Richard Phelps.* Through the years, many other seemingly reliable sources have repeated and embellished different versions of this tale, usually adding that John was ‘asleep under a bush’ at the finish, only awakening to drunkenly slur ‘Dead heat…’ while adding under his breath, ‘…to Oxford by six feet’. Tellingly, different sources have Phelps giving almost any distance between four feet and ten yards.

‘Honest John’ became a music hall joke (‘Oxford won, Cambridge too!’) and ‘1877’ cast a long shadow over a proud Putney family that had served rowing well for generations. The tragedy is that the popular stories concerning John’s conduct were simply not true and, in the words of the Boat Race Official Centenary History, ‘….no good grounds have been shown for doubting the rightness of John Phelps’s decision’. Maurice Phelps, the family historian, adds that ‘…the (dead heat) decision was not only brave but almost stoic’.

An unflattering studio portrait of Honest John Phelps.

None of the lurid tales about Phelps seem to appear in contemporary accounts, they ‘emerge’ at some later point. According to rowing historian Chris Dodd, it was only after the Blues had returned to Oxford, that they and the town ‘…. daily became more imbued with the idea that (they) had won’.

While no one suggests that there was a formal conspiracy, the idea that a working class professional could not be relied upon came at a very convenient time for those who were busy formalising rules to make amateur rowing the sole preserve of gentlemen and to rid it of ‘mechanics, artisans and labourers’.

Some sections of the press had made fools of themselves by prematurely declaring that Oxford had won. Reporters were not on the finish line but on a steamer behind the crews, an impossible position from which to judge a close race. Perhaps to save face, they produced stories that proved that they were not wrong, it was the finish judge that was incompetent or drunk or blind or not at his post. An ordinary working man had little chance to refute these accusations.

Investigation into John’s character shows that he was not a stereotypical coarse and roguish waterman and that the epithet ‘Honest’ was not an ironic one. According to Maurice Phelps, even in old age his articulate and physically fit ancestor ‘had a sound reputation in Thames rowing circles’. Further, he ‘collected works of art, commented on social conditions and …… condemned animal cruelty’. Moreover, he did not smoke and drank only beer – but never at 8.50 in the morning, the time that the race finished!

Amazingly, finish posts were not thought of as necessary because, in the 33 races that had taken place since 1829, the closest verdict had been half a length. Phelps later told the umpire that the boats were essentially level with each one going slightly ahead – or falling slightly back – depending on their place in the stroke cycle. Without exactly aligned markers, it could not be judged whose boat surged ahead at the critical second to win. Thus, ‘a dead heat’ was the only legitimate verdict that could have been given.

Phelps did not take the easy and popular option of declaring for Oxford, the favourites, and for this he paid a high price. While it is more amusing to tell the ‘drunk under a bush’ story than to tell the truth, after 137 years it is time that Honest John Phelps received due recognition for his fair and courageous verdict.

*An update was made in this article on 18 April 2014 to reflect Comments No. 1 and No. 3 ~ GRB, ed.

7 comments

    • Concentrate at the back, there, Connolley! He wrote “a descendant of whom is this year’s Race Umpire, Richard Phelps”, not ‘a descendant of Richard Phelps’. Greetings from Pedants’ Corner!

  1. Bravo for a thoughtful and comprehensive review of the legend. As Dave Vogel has long noted, the race itself is not a measure of who rows any given distance the fastest, because, with differences in encroachments and turns and steering (even within a straight buoyed lane, the cox who uses his rudder more may take his boat a longer distance), the two crews are highly unlikely to row the same distance. Even if the measure of success is who gets to the finish first (no matter the distance rowed), the eye's judgment without cameras or lasers or photo beams is subject to error. And even measuring milliseconds at the finish does not necessarily mean that the bows were as precisely aligned at the start. In a ding-dong, now this bow, now that bow race, no stroke or cox can tell when it will be his surge that crosses the line first. Instead of leaving the outcome of such a struggle to chance, perhaps it is ultimately fairer to do what Phelps did, and judge all such races dead heats …

  2. William, you are correct. I must have sent an early draft to HTBS HQ as it was a mistake that I spotted before submitting the piece for the Boat Race Programme. The final printed version read '…..a descendant of whom is this year's Race Umpire, Richard Phelps'. A time travelling Boat Race Umpire sounds like a 'Dr Who' plot. In this scenario, there really could be a dead heat 'by six feet' if one boat travelled through a break in the space – time continuum.

    'Atom', thank you for your kind and interesting comments. If I ever make 'Oxford Won, Cambridge Too 2: Desborough's Revenge', I will have to interview you. Your remarks also tie in with the gentlemanly rule in the Oxford – Cambridge Veterans' Race which states that ‘any verdict within six feet shall be declared a dead heat’.

    Tim.

  3. Sounds like in this case, instead of history being written by the victors, it was the history writers that decided the victors. Great article Tim!

  4. This is a particularly fascinating post and video for me as my maternal great-grandfather, Benedict Hoskyns, rowed for Cambridge in 1877. My uncle has the oar that Ben used, an artefact I long to inherit!

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