Tim Koch writes:
There was a glaring omission in my recent piece on the 50th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill. The funeral was on 30 January 1965 and the part of the day that most of the worldwide television audience remembered was the passage of the coffin down the Thames on the launch Havengore. While most attention was on the stern of the boat, where the lead lined casket rested, there stood at the bow the Bargemaster of the Worshipful Company of Watermen and Lightermen, the 500-year-old City Guild that historically trained and licensed men to carry goods and people on the River Thames. I noted that, though clad in the blue livery of his office, he would also be entitled to wear the scarlet costume of a winner of the Doggett’s Coat and Badge, the sculling race for young Watermen held every year since 1715. What I could not do was to name the man who stood in silent dignity on Havengore’s prow. However, HTBS readers are a well-informed lot and our old friend Malcolm Cook soon told us via the ‘comments’ section that, according to the 1972 British Rowing Almanack, it was Tom Phelps.
Thomas James Phelps (1896 – 1971) was part of the ‘Phelps Dynasty’, a family that for at least ten generations (and counting) has been associated with Putney and the Thames, with rowing and sculling and with coaching and boatbuilding. Ten Phelpses have won the Doggett’s Coat and Badge and members of the family have held English, European and World Professional Sculling titles. They have coached some of the greats to victory and could have achieved a lot more, both for themselves and for the sport, were it not for the restrictions that for many years the British rowing establishment imposed on ‘mechanics, artisans and labourers’ and those who made their living from the river.
In his book, The Phelps Dynasty: The Story of a Riverside Family (2012), Maurice Phelps devotes a chapter to the modest and universally liked and respected Tom. Tom Phelps was apprenticed to his cousin, the famous boatbuilder and coach ‘Bossie’ Phelps in 1916. His apprenticeship over, he sculled for Doggett’s in 1922. He must have felt under considerable pressure as his father, brother and two other relations were previous victors and, at the time, competitors were only given one chance at winning the coveted Coat and Badge. However, while he had the worst station, his knowledge of the river saw him through and he won easily and became the fifth Phelps to win the historic race.
Like millions of others, Tom struggled to make a living in the 1920s and early 1930s but in 1936 he managed to get the sound and steady job of boatman to London Rowing Club (where three members of the family had preceded him in the post). This was a position that he held for the next thirty years. To quote Maurice Phelps:
Tom Phelps became the icon of London Rowing Club. He was there at all times, servicing the members with a professional relationship which few did not value. He provided service and advice without subservience.
Tom saw London through some of its most successful years. In his history of London Rowing Club, Water Boiling Aft ( 2006), Chris Dodd wrote:
Tom had a quiet strength of character, with unswerving loyalty and immense knowledge of water, boats and crews.
A wonderful Pathe newsreel on YouTube captures the Phelps family working and playing on the river in 1960 – starting with Tom:
In 1958, the Watermen’s Company revived the old post of Bargemaster and the working members of the company elected Tom Phelps to the job.
It was as Bargemaster that Tom was selected to accompany Churchill’s coffin on the Havengore.
The Wandsworth Borough News reported:
As the launch bearing Sir Winston Churchill set out on its sad journey……. the eyes of millions….. fastened upon the screen, one man stood upright on the bow and was described by the commentator as ‘representing all the watermen of London’s river’. He was Mr Tom Phelps of Putney…… as upright as in his younger days. Despite the bitter wind as the boat slowly forged up the river, Tom Phelps never moved, a dignified figure, proud of the honour, sad to have the duty….
Tom retired from his service with London Rowing Club at the age of 71 on University Boat Race Day 1967 and was invited to toss the coin for crew’s choice of station. According to Maurice Phelps, the club awarded him the generous pension of £10 a week, funded by the members themselves. To quote Maurice again:
[In 1971] Tom Phelps was the first of the (eight) brothers to die. He was followed by Harry in 1973. Both died instantly, both in their Doggett’s uniforms.
Not a bad way to go, not a bad life.