Jumbo Edwards: Oarsman, Coach and RAF Pilot – Part II

The 1926 Boat Race: Lost Race for Oxford

The 1926 Oxford crew in the garden at their Putney ‘home’. Jumbo is in the middle, back row. Sir James Croft seated at the front.

18 February 2020

By Gavin Jamieson

Here Gavin Jamieson continues his story of Jumbo Edwards from yesterday.

Back in 1932, British Pathé News reported on that golden day at Long Beach, California, when Jumbo Edwards had rowed to Olympic triumph. The grainy newsreel was entitled “Something We Did Win! Great Britain Wins Exciting Race for Olympic Coxswainsless Fours!”. In the short newsreel Edwards, along with Jack Beresford, John Badcock and Rowland George, appear effortless at their oars as the winning British boat flashes past the finish line by a good two lengths from the defeated Germans. (Incidentally, two members of the defeated German four, Hans Maier and Walter Flinsch, were killed in action earlier in 1943.) One hour previously, Edwards had won the first of his two gold medals with Lewis Clive in the coxless pairs.

The Atlantic Ocean, at night, was a far cry from Marine Stadium, Long Beach, but that familiarity with a sporting life of long hours practicing on the Thames gave Edwards some succour. He knew he had to row almost 12 miles relying on kind currents, and the dread realisation was that he was now entering a heavily mined area of the Atlantic. He had to stay awake, but his adrenaline levels were dropping and the acute pain of his injuries as well as the biting cold of the heavy sodden clothes were sapping what energy he had left. Hypothermia now became one further peril to face.

To survive, Edwards would need to call upon an enormous amount of courage, determination and ability. Ironically, the exact qualities that in 1926 the British national press, and The Times in particular, claimed that he conspicuously lacked. On 27th March 1926 during the 78th Boat Race, with the Cambridge and Oxford eights side by side at Chiswick, Edwards collapsed in the Oxford boat. He stopped rowing. The Boat Race was lost, and it was apparent to the press that he was to blame.

Saturday: 27th March 1926
78th University Boat Race

The Oxford crew photographed the day before the Boat Race. From left to right: P. W. Murray-Threipland; T. W. Shaw; G. H. Crawford; W. Rathbone; H. R. A. Edwards; J. D. W. Thomson; E. C. T. Edwards; C. E. Pitman; Sir J. H. Croft.

In his unpublished memoirs, Edwards describes the Oxford crew for the 1926 Boat Race:

“The crew that was finally formed for the race in 1926 consisted of Peter Murray-Threipland at bow. Tim Shaw, at two, had been in the Shrewsbury crew which won the Ladies Plate at Henley in 1924. Geoffrey Crawford was at three, like all Brasenose men of the time he was a great character and always kept the crew in good spirits. William ‘Nono’ Rathbone was at number four. He was a Radley Boy, and a tower of strength though perhaps a bit rough. I was at five, and James ‘Spud’ Thomson was at six. My brother Cecil ‘Sphinx’ Edwards was at seven and Chris Pitman stroke. Sir James Croft was cox.”

The selection of the 18-year-old Edwards was a surprise to the rowing community as he was a freshman in 1925 and the youngest of the crew. However, the coaches had seen his prowess in a boat. In his first term at Christ Church College, Edwards was selected to row in the first four. Christ Church, along with Magdalen and New College, was considered at the time as the preeminent College for rowing. One year previously, in 1924, Christ Church had a winning crew at the Head of the River and narrowly lost the Grand at Henley Royal Regatta, beaten by Delft University of the Netherlands. Of this highly lauded crew, five remained, and the College decided to enter two crews for the University fours. Much to his personal embarrassment, due to his inexperience, Edwards was selected for the first four – at the expense of his future crew mates in the Oxford Boat: Nano Rathbone and Tim Shaw. The faith in Edwards was justified. Along with Peter Murray-Threipland, Chris Pitman and his brother Cecil, they won the University fours. This victory in his first term, along with a win in the Silver Sculls, resulted in the Oxford coach, Dr Gilbert ‘Beja’ Bourne, selecting Edwards for the 1926 Boat Race crew.

Jumbo Edwards (left) and Nano Rathbone during practice in the 1926 Oxford boat.

Edwards was young for his years, shy and reserved, but nevertheless became by his own admission rather conceited. This conceit was fed by the success he had already achieved and his selection for the varsity crew but was countered by the overall feeling that “being an Oxford crew we couldn’t possibly win”. This pessimistic view enveloped Oxford as a consequence to the results since the resumption of the Boat Race after the First World War. Oxford had only been victorious once (in 1923, and then by only three-quarters of a length) since 1920. This losing mentality had a detrimental effect to the intensive training regime that was about to begin for Edwards early in January 1926.

In the period before the January term-time commenced, the crew were coached in the morning in ‘tub pairs’, a wooden training boat fitted out for two oarsmen – with the coach sitting in the stern and barking out orders. The purpose of this was to iron out faults and improve oarmanship before the crew got settled in the eight. In the afternoons, the crew would go out in the eight with the coach on the towpath keeping up alongside on his bicycle.

By the time that term started, after about two weeks training, the crew were beginning to settle down. The Proctors of the Colleges would forbid any rowing in the mornings in term-time and so the morning tub pairs ceased. At the end of a further two weeks of training, the President informed the crew to order their kit which included a white sweater trimmed with blue ribbon, and with the initials of the rower embroidered across the chest, blue ‘stockings’, ‘blanket trousers’, blue blazer, blue dinner jacket and trimmed white waistcoat to match with white trousers for evening wear. As Edwards fondly recalled, once the kit arrived, he felt enormous pride and the realisation of a dream come true.

From the fifth week, the crew was moved into ‘strict training’. Edwards, in his memoir, recalls the regular routine: “No smoking, no cinemas, 7.30am training run, 10.30pm bed”. Additionally, each oarsman in turn would provide breakfast for the others in their rooms, and fulfilling a long tradition also provide a bunch of violets which were to be obtained from an early visit to the flower market.

In the seventh week of training, even though the academic term had yet to finish, the crew moved down river to a long reach of water at Bourne End and took up in residence at the Spade Oak Ferry Hotel. The boat was housed in the boathouse of Rudolph Lehmann, a former Oxford rowing coach and who, between the years 1877 and 1888, had the distinction of finishing last in every heat he entered at the Henley Regatta.

At the end of the eighth week, the crew moved down to Putney and this is when the training became a lot more varied and interesting. Edwards recalls:

“In truth, training up until now had been infinitely dreary, slogging up and down the river with no aim or object in sight, and the Boat Race itself hidden away in the womb of the future. We never had another crew alongside us for pacing; we never knew how fast or how slowly we were going. We had to endure a cutting east wind, insufficiently clad with bare knees. Frequently splashes of water would freeze immediately on the oar handles. Tucked away in the wastes of Bourne, we did not even have an audience to perform for except for the visits of the Press Correspondents who seldom said anything nice. It was not a joyous time.”

The core belief of Edwards was that to go fast a crew must have esprit de corps and must all get on well together ashore as well as being uniform on the water. They must all think alike. There must be no discrimination, unconscious or conscious. This is how you get the boat to fly, and to sing, in the water. This is how you beat Cambridge.

In the Oxford crew there were a number of like-minded men. There were five who had rowed together in the excellent Christ Church Head of the River crew (including his brother ‘Sphinx’) and three Etonians, but Edwards was the only freshman. By now, after two months of intensive training, the eight were beginning to form that trust in one another that was so crucial. To strengthen that esprit de corps the crew were put up in a house on Putney Hill, about a mile away from their rowing headquarters at London Rowing Club. For the next four weeks up to the date of the Boat Race, the crew, in Edwards words, “were subjected to a continuous barrage of publicity”. For those in the crew who had not experienced the Boat Race (Thomson, Pitman and Sphinx had all competed the previous year when, in only the second time in the history of the Boat Race, the Oxford boat sank), the first outing to Putney was frightening. It was recalled by Edwards that “taking the boat out one had to run the gauntlet, not only of the general public, not only of the press photographers, but also the cine-cameras of Pathé and Gaumont”. Such was the clamour and interest by the public in the Boat Race that there were articles published in the national newspapers on a daily basis concerning the form of the two crews. The Oxford crew were so besieged by autograph hunters that the cox, Sir James Croft, took it upon himself to forge the signatures of his crew to relieve them of this time-consuming chore. Cartoonists for the daily papers, such as The Tatler and The Sketch, were constantly amongst the crew on the bank and in the boathouse – the crew’s only sanctuary away from this intrusion was in the house on Putney Hill.

These last few weeks were used by the coaches to work the crew up to what Edwards described as a ‘racing pitch’. This term encapsulated not just the speed of the boat on the water, but the morale and fighting spirit of the crew. Herbert Hartley, who a few years earlier had stroked Cambridge to victory three years running was heard to exclaim about Oxford: “I hate the bugger. I regard them as Germans”. This was used as further incentive to the Oxford crew when facing scratch eights during practice on the river, and these opponents would be easily despatched.

Bossie Phelps

A useful ally was gained in famed boat builder and the King’s ‘Bargemaster’, John Thomas Phelps, better known as ‘Bossie’ Phelps. Bossie was one of the watermen of Putney and knew intimately every stretch and bend on the 4.2 miles of the Thames course. He would sit down, twice a day, with Sir James Croft and go over with him the intricacies of the course and where every advantage, no matter how small, could be gained for the Oxford boat.

The weeks and days quickly passed in a routine of practice, more practice, and for Sir James the task of forging more autographs. The day before the race, Friday 20th, the crew had only one short outing on the river: the coaches demanded that the crew row at ‘high pressure’ – building to 34 strokes at the end of one minute, after which they all felt completed exhausted. For Edwards the thought occurred to him that the next day he would have to row at high intensity for not just one minute but for 20 minutes, and in front of an immense expectant crowd exceeding 300,000. The thought, he was to admit, “turned his muscles to jelly”. He put this down to nerves and, along with the crew, had an early night in the hope that sleep would quickly descend.

The crew woke up to a gloriously fine morning with a gentle breeze blowing south to south-east. Due to the tide conditions, that year’s Boat Race was to start at an earlier time of 12.30pm. By 8am large numbers of crowds were already making their way to the banks of the Thames to ensure they had secured the best vantage points as the crews sped past. One hour later, barges and tugs began to fuss about the starting point to make sure everything was in order. There was plenty of activity along the towpath, with a large police force beginning to handle the growing crowds. Numerous ‘hawkers’ set up stalls selling food, drink, rosettes and other trinkets to allow the spectators to proudly display which side they were cheering for.

Opinions as to the prospects of the rivals seemed to be fairly evenly divided amongst the newspapers and correspondents. However, the apparent exhaustion of the Oxford crew during the short practice of the previous day had not gone unnoticed, and this led to a slight favouring for the Light Blues of Cambridge. Bossie Phelps was reluctant to speak to the press but when they managed to get him to utter a few words during the morning he simply declared, “In fact, I think there will be very little in it”.

The French polishers had spent the greater part of the night giving the finishing touches to the Oxford boat, ensuring that it was in the best possible state to take to the water. Shortly after 9am, the Oxford crew arrived on the scene for a brief trial row. As the Yorkshire Evening Post correspondent reported, they all “looked bronzed and fit”.

At 10am, the sun broke through the mist hanging over the river. It was a little under three hours before the starting time. Over the next hour, both crews took the opportunity to practice a few starts and to try and dampen down the nerves and excitement that was beginning to build. A number of jazz bands had taken their place on the river bank and Edwards could hear the jaunty music drifting over the river.

Stanley Baldwin

Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister and a keen follower of the sport, arrived with his wife and displayed his affiliation by taking up position within the Cambridge enclosure. The Dundee Courier reported “Mr Baldwin, who was smoking a cherrywood pipe, declined smilingly to say which crew he favoured”. Nobody was in any doubt though about his light blue allegiance. By now, with just an hour before the start, there was, as The Daily Mail stated, “a kaleidoscopic view of a procession of all sorts of craft making their way up river. There were barges and tugs on which were immaculately attired men and women, steam launches, luxurious motor boats and to complete the picture dinghies hauled by the lusty watermen with full cargoes. All these churning the water into wavelets in their endeavours to get up stream in good time to view the race”.

Seated on one of the more luxurious motor launches was Colonel Nawabzda Hamidullah Khan, the son of the Begum of Bhopal, and invited guest of the Prince of Wales. As all of these dignitaries and Old Blues made their way to the best vantage points on the river, the crews were trying their best to fight their nerves.

Sir James Croft sat with his crew in the boathouse and, out of the windows, they could clearly see the vast crowds that had gathered. He recalled that “it almost felt as though we were to be sacrificed, that the crowd will gloat”. Bossie Phelps took Sir James out in a launch for one final inspection of the conditions and the last instruction. “It was always during this last run over that I realised how very imperfect my knowledge of the course was. I would return to the changing room, wondering furtively if there was no way out, and wishing heartily that I could suddenly get run down with a taxi and get an arm or a leg broken and thus escape”.

And then it was time to leave the boathouse and carry the boat down to the river. Edwards remembers “it was difficult to get through the crowd and one had plenty of time to read the posters carried by the religious sandwich men ‘Prepare to meet thy God’ – which didn’t help”. The crew of the Oxford boat was by 4 stone, at a total of 110 stone, the heavier of the two. Again, opinion was divided as to whether this provided Oxford with an advantage or not.

Seat Oxford Cambridge
Name College Weight Name College Weight
Bow P. W. Murray-Threipland Christ Church 12 st 5 lb M. F. A. Keen Lady Margaret Boat Club 11 st 9 lb
2 T. W. Shaw Christ Church 12 st 7.5 lb W. F. Smith 1st Trinity 11 st 8 lb
3 G. H. Crawford Brasenose 13 st 0 lb G. H. Ambler (P) Clare 12 st 5 lb
4 W. Rathbone Christ Church 13 st 9 lb B. T. Craggs Lady Margaret Boat Club 11 st 13 lb
5 H. R. A. Edwards Christ Church 13 st 5 lb L. V. Bevan Lady Margaret Boat Club 13 st 9 lb
6 J. D. W. Thomson University 13 st 5.5 lb J. B. Bell Jesus 13 st 2 lb
7 E. C. T. Edwards Christ Church 12 st 9 lb S. K. Tubbs Gonville and Caius 12 st 4 lb
Stroke C. E. Pitman (P) Christ Church 11 st 1 lb E. C. Hamilton-Russell 3rd Trinity 11 st 8 lb
Cox Sir J. H. Croft Brasenose 8 st 2 lb J. A. Brown Gonville and Caius 8 st 6.5 lb

One advantage that Oxford did gain was in winning the toss of the coin. Oxford opted to take the Surrey shore but with the wind conditions so ideal it was difficult to ascertain any major advantage in winning that year’s toss. One of the Cambridge coaches expressed the view that losing the toss was actually to their advantage as it would compel the Cambridge crew to go all out at the start in order to prevent Oxford gaining an immediate lead.

Being the challengers, the Oxford boat went afloat first, and to the accompaniment of a great cheer paddled away to the stake boats at the start. Even this manoeuvre is not at all easy – especially for Sir James as cox: “Getting up to the stake boat is no easy feat. An eight is an awkward craft to turn, the tide is running very fast and there is not much room to spare. If you miss it, there is no chance of backing up to it, the tide is too strong”.

Thankfully both boats made it successfully to the stake boats, being held there by a waterman. Sweaters and scarves were removed, passed down the boat and deposited in the stake boat. Both boats were now poised, the crews waiting for the umpire to lower his flag to signify the start. Sir James readied his crew. “At that moment, as far as I was concerned at least, all fears departed. The crowd was forgotten, even the self-doubt that I never even knew the course properly was forgotten”.

The official starter held the flag aloft. On the opposite banks of the river, the crowd fell silent. At 12.26, the flag dropped. A tremendous cheer went up from the banks. The oars of the Oxford and Cambridge boats dug into the water, and both boats sprang forward simultaneously.

The Oxford crew, in the first minute, found their rhythm quickly and went from 10, 19 to 37 strokes for the 20-second intervals. Cambridge, aware that they would need to ensure that Oxford did not draw away, responded with 10, 19 to 36 strokes. Oxford had a slight lead, by a canvas, at the end of that first crucial minute. In the second minute, the power of the heavier Oxford crew began to show and they were rowing 32 strokes to Cambridge’s 30. Oxford had established a quarter length lead. This increased further to a lead of a third of a length at the Mile Post. This was reached by Oxford in 4 minutes and 5 seconds, a fast time considering the minimum of tide flowing in the Thames.

The Mile Post was the Oxford stroke’s marker to put in a spurt and to gain his boat a distinct lead over the Light Blues on the approach up to Hammersmith Bridge. Pitman increased his stroke rate and the crew followed him. Oxford’s lead was now up to half a length, but Cambridge were not to be shaken and Cambridge’s stroke, Hamilton-Russell, responded. Both boats were now rowing at a stroke rate of 30 and swept past the Harrods Depository. This was a crucial moment for Cambridge, this is where the Boat Race could be lost. Cambridge had to ensure there was no clear water between themselves and Oxford as the approaching sharp bend of the river at Hammersmith would clearly benefit Oxford. Edwards recalled at this crucial point that Justin Brown, the Cambridge cox, bellowed out: “Oxford you are in my water. Give way you buggers. Croft, you c**t, get out of my water”.

Despite this being Croft’s debut in the Boat Race, whereas the far more experienced Brown was on an unprecedented hat-trick of victories, he was well aware of his role. “My job was to do the opposing cox down, to bluff him out of my way. . . a continuous flow of epithet passes. One cox may know perfectly well that he is in his opponent’s water, yet he will continue to warn him that unless he gives way he will foul him; the one with the best bluff wins and may in the first two miles of the race gain a very considerable advantage for his crew.”

The Oxford crew maintained their slim, half a length lead as they reached Hammersmith Bridge in a time of 7 minutes 27 seconds. Sir James Croft was steering the Oxford boat to perfection – as one old Oxford Blue remarked “almost criminally well” – keeping Cambridge at bay. Up to this point, despite the crowds thronging the banks, the Oxford crew were unaware of any noise drifting over the water, they were concentrating fully on pulling the oars and keeping in front of Cambridge. But then a wall of noise avalanched over the boats. The hooters and sirens of all the factories on the banks were turned on to greet the boats. For Croft, this was the first time that he became aware that the boat was not going along in complete silence. “One begins to realise that there are several hundreds of thousands of people on the bridges and along the banks, all using their lungs to make the most noise possible. The result can be best described as a dome of sound which seems to cover the river at an immense height like the dome of a cathedral.”

This dome of sound was at an unprecedented level in 1926 – nobody could remember a Boat Race that had been so tightly contested. This was a classic encounter. As the correspondent of The Times recounted: “In no race since Bourne’s famous race against Stewart [editor’s note: Douglas Stuart] in 1909, when they kept together till Duke’s Meadows, have the crews rowed neck-and-neck together for such a large part of the course. Leads have changed in other races since then, right up to and after Barnes, but it is rarely one has the thrill of two crews rowing alongside for almost 10 minutes”.

The crowd packed onto the Hammersmith Bridge were thrilled and in a first for the Boat Race, circling 1,500 feet above the river, was an Imperial Airways Handley-Page biplane chartered by a group of Cambridge supporters keen to view the race from a unique vantage point.

Oxford’s wining of the toss had given them the advantage of the Surrey station and the bend of the river towards Chiswick steps. Sensing this was the time to press home this advantage, Pitman put on a spurt. This time, his Oxford crew did not respond. Cambridge, realising that the bend was in Oxford’s favour, also put on a spurt and the crew increased their stoke rate to 32. This brought Cambridge level with the Oxford boat. The Oxford crew started to falter and, only just perceptibly, lose their rhythm. Oxford hung on heading down the bend towards Chiswick. Hamilton-Russell, the Cambridge stroke, implored his crew to spurt in a series of ‘tens’ on the outside of the bend and suddenly, for the first time in the race, it was the Cambridge boat that edged ahead of their bitter rival. Then, as the Evening Post reported, “approaching Chiswick steps, the race was marred by one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the event”. As the Cambridge boat took the lead, the number 6 in the Oxford boat, James ‘Spud’ Thomson, glanced around at the passing Cambridge boat. Such a thing was not ‘Etonian watermanship’ and if he must look round, he did so over the wrong shoulder. Consequently, Thomson’s rowing faltered badly and threw the rhythm of the crew out. Edwards, rowing at number 5, seeing ‘Spud’ look round cracked. Edwards collapsed in the boat. From the bank it looked, to the spectators, as if Edwards had confusingly disappeared in the boat. He was slumped backwards, fallen on the knees of ‘Nono’ Rathbone at number 4, his oars dragging in the water. Rathbone shouted at Edwards to get up. With one hand, Rathbone managed to shove Edwards back into the sitting position. Edwards collapsed once more. With the disarray in the Oxford boat, Cambridge shot ahead. Two minutes after Edwards collapsed, the Cambridge boat had a three-length lead. The Oxford crew rowed on, as Croft recalled, “like a creature with a broken back”. Rathbone pushed Edwards back into a sitting position and he finally came to. Edwards gripped his oars and began to row.

At the three-mile mark Oxford were back rowing in rhythm at 30 strokes. But the race was lost. Cambridge’s lead was now at four lengths and by the time the Oxford boat reached Barnes bridge, and the final slight bend into the finish, Cambridge were five lengths ahead.

The Cambridge boat finished in a time of 19 minutes and 29 seconds and won by five lengths. In the British Pathé newsreel of the race, the boats are seen drifting past the finish marker. The Cambridge crew are triumphant but exhausted, and in the Oxford boat Edwards cannot be seen. He has once again slumped down into the boat. The closest Boat Race for 17 years, up until the two-mile mark, turned into a non-contest. Cambridge had won, and for the newspapers the reason was simple: the inexcusable collapse of H. R. A. Edwards.

1926 Boat Race, Pathé various news clips, including Edwards collapsing in the boat.

As the dejected Oxford crew waded ashore with their boat, a small boy broke free of the swarming crowd and approached Sir James Cox with an autograph book and a hopeful look on his face.

The reporters were gathered at the boat houses to obtain quotations to complement their race reports. In the Sunday Post, under the headline ‘Disaster for Oxford’, the Cambridge stroke, Hamilton-Russell, was quoted as “We were all very glad to win. However, I don’t think I want to go through it again”. Pitman, the Oxford stroke, was understandably upset: “I am very sorry to have let the crew down”. As for Edwards, he was surrounded by the press desperate to find out what had happened in the boat. “I felt groggy; that is all there is to it. But tried to pull as best as I could for the last two miles. I am fit again now, but for the moment everything was blurred.”

Cambridge’s jubilant cox, celebrating his record third consecutive win, stated “that he never doubted the issue after the crews had passed Hammersmith Bridge”. Cambridge had won seven of the last eight races.

Part III will be published tomorrow.

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