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

Good-bye Oxford – Hello London!

The London RC crew that took the 1931 Grand Challege Cup at Henley. Jumbo Edwards sitting on the far left. From Chris Dodd’s book on the club, “Water Boiling Aft” (2006).

19 February 2020 

By Gavin Jamieson 

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

The Times was the most scathing about Edwards and his collapse in the Oxford boat. The following day, in a summary of the events, the correspondent declared “Individuals in crews are allowed to eat too much and drink too much and are not made to work hard enough to keep themselves from getting fat. The result is they come to the post for the most gruelling athletic contest known in the world, not trained as a boxer would step into the ring, but overloaded with fat, which, in the first place, by being mistaken for muscle, leads one to expect more of them than one would of men of their true weight, and, secondly, by placing a dangerous strain on their heart renders them liable to collapse.”

Specifically about Edwards, The Times correspondent went on: “Number 5 in the Oxford crew was a young though not entirely inexperienced man, who was a good enough natural oar to be able to exhaust himself, which is a thing of which many heavyweights are too slow to be capable. He was never made to row hard during practice, and his weight was a stone too much. The Boat Race is not like a schoolboys’ race, and a man must really be trained to undergo it or risk permanent injury to his health”.

After the race Guy Nickalls, the former coach of Yale and British Olympian, referred directly to Edwards that he was more than a stone overweight and laden down with “baby blubber”.

The Oxford crew devastated and exhausted after their loss were keen to stay indoors, away from the press and the celebrations of Cambridge. However, they had one further contractual commitment to fulfill – a trip to the cinema.

The crew arrived at the Rialto Theatre in the West End of London, to a packed audience, at 4pm. The European Film Company, the British subsidiary of Universal Pictures, had agreed the previous week with Oxford that the boat crew should be present at the cinema for a re-run of the race. For the crew there could be nothing worse than to have to sit in the velvet seats of the Rialto, surrounded by a sell-out crowd of 800, and watch their losing efforts. To make it even more of a horrific experience, the Rialto in association with the Daily Mail had installed on the stage a large scenic panorama which showed, in model form and to scale, all the familiar points of vantage such as the Fulham football ground, Harrods Repository and the bridges. In the centre of this large panorama were two troughs of water, and in the two troughs a Light Blue boat and a Dark Blue boat. The Daily Mail installed their special ‘Macroniphone’ loud speakers which had recorded the crowd noise at over a dozen various points along the course, from Putney to Mortlake. From the time the crews embarked and left the bank to proceed to the starting stake, until Cambridge finished as the winners, the boats on the panorama moved simultaneously with those on the river, accompanied by movie clips from the race and the recorded cacophony of the crowds. A newspaper of the time, The Bioscope, noted that the Oxford crew were “immensely interested and at once saw where they cracked. The whole sporting spirit of the beaten crew was shown when they all stood up and cheered when Cambridge went over the line as winners”. Surrounded by an audience of 800, it was the only option open to the crew. In a concluding paragraph, the newspaper went on: “It was noticed on arrival that Number 5, Mr Edwards, was still in a very exhausted condition”.

Rialto Theatre in the West End of London.

That night in the West End was an unusually uneventful evening of disorder for ‘Boat Race Night’: there were only 50 arrests. A great many of those arrests resulted in fines for drunkenness and disorderly conduct. Amongst the celebrating Cambridge fans some wrestled with each other on the pavements for the amusement of onlookers, whilst others pushed people off the pavement for their own amusement. The police were delighted with such few arrests.

Edwards returned to Oxford bitterly disappointed by the loss and his part in it. He was sent to the doctor to be examined. “The doctor who examined me afterwards with the aid of X-ray plates told me that due to a dilated heart I must never again take any strenuous exercise, and in bidding me adieu he extended to me his best wishes for my gaining a ‘blue’ in crown bowls”. His rowing days, according to medical wisdom, were over.

Looking back on the race, many years later, Edwards conceded that “with the lack of any additional exercise, which I always needed, I put on too much weight and was far from fit at the end of training”. However, there was also a lingering anger at the press for putting so much of the blame on his shoulders. “Though I deserved every word of it, I was pretty disgusted with the press I received, especially from The Times. I was bitterly disappointed, but this was primarily for letting down my crew and especially my brother Sphinx”.

There was one former rower and coach who did defend Edwards in the press. Steve Fairbairn, who would soon become such an important figure in his life, wrote in the press that Edwards was not the one to blame. “The one person who showed kindness, if not truthfulness, was Steve Fairbairn who wrote that I had been pulling the whole boat along for the first two miles”. These few words of kindness gave Edwards something to cling to.

With his rowing career at an end, Edwards had to turn his attention to his academic studies. The devastation at the medical prognosis and the effect of all the press scrutiny resulted in Edwards finding it difficult to concentrate at his studies. The thought of playing crown bowls did not appeal.

Edwards would often take walks through the Christ Church meadows and up to the river. He would sit watching the oarsmen and their coaches. Rowing was his passion, and the draw was irresistible. Tentatively, he plucked up the courage to go out sculling with the initial belief that his dilated heart would stop beating at any moment. The depression that had settled on Edwards was lifted as soon as he was back in a boat. Finding no ill-effects, he was soon strenuously rowing up and down the river, rebuilding his fitness and confidence in his health. In his mind he was now ready to be selected to row in the Christ Church summer eight, which was Head of the River. The coaches refused to select him and it was then that realisation dawned on him, “what the doctor told me was merely a kind and polite way of letting me know that I was no longer required as an oarsman in any crew”. He did not have a dilated heart. The College thought it best that he quietly gave up on rowing, and instead recommended that he put his efforts into coaching. His collapse in the Boat Race was an embarrassment to those who had selected him in the first place.

This slight just added to an already smouldering desire to prove everyone wrong. Returning to Oxford in the Michaelmas term, after the long Summer vacation, Edwards entered the Christ Church regatta single sculls event. To the shock of the spectators, Edwards made it to the final. Awaiting him was R. T. Lee (Worcester) who the following year would go on to win the Diamonds at Henley. Several of those witnessing the regatta commented that they fully expected to see Edwards collapse once more and feared for his well-being. Edwards won the race by a length. Almost eight months to the day from the calamity of the Boat Race, Edwards was once again victorious in a boat.

At the end of the Summer term in his first eventful year as a freshman, Edwards sat his exams. In the words of Edwards, “One of the bugbears of University life is that you have to take examinations from time to time. I eagerly went along when the results were posted, but my name was not listed among those who had satisfied the examiners, not even in a single subject”. His only hope was to re-sit the exams at the end of the Michaelmas term and to achieve a pass. Just after he retook the exams, but before the term had ended, Edwards received a note from the Proctors stating that he had been seen in the Carfax Assembly Rooms dancing “with a lady from the Town” and inviting him to attend the Clarendon Buildings the following morning. There was a very sharp line drawn between ‘Town’ and ‘Gown’. Gown comprised of all the gentlemen and ladies of the University, while Town included all the rest who lived in Oxford. Undergraduates were not permitted to mix in any way with them. There was an additional problem for Edwards. If you went to a dance, inevitably you had to surreptitiously climb, literally, back into College afterwards, and this Edwards had done. “There were reputed to be several ways in, but I knew only one. I climbed over the railings in the Merton Street entrance to the Meadows and then over the wall into the college grounds. From there, I scaled the wall into Canon Locke’s garden, shinned up a convenient tree to mount the 10-foot wall of Meadow Buildings and then dropped down on to the roof of the bicycle shed and so to the ground. The Meadow porter was waiting for me. I was in double trouble”.

Edwards declined the invitation to the meeting with the Proctors, and telling the Senior Proctor, Mr Chaundry, exactly where he could put his gown. Edwards walked out of Oxford.

Jobs were hard to come by in 1927, and Edwards moved back to live with his mother (his father, Reverend Robert Edwards had passed away in January). Edwards thought of emigrating to one of the Dominions to take up sheep farming. He obtained all the information he could on the merits of merino sheep but failed to raise the capital required to travel. So, to ease his boredom, he spent most of his time sculling on the river. Edwards belonged to both the London Rowing Club and its rival Thames Rowing Club. Julius ‘Old Berry’ Beresford (the father of the lauded Jack Beresford) approached Edwards and asked, “would you like to row in our Thames Cup Eight?”. The reply was a polite, but short, “No thanks, Berry”.

Steve Fairbairn

In the mid-1920s, Thames Rowing Club had been successful under the aegis of their Australian-born coach Steve Fairbairn. However, it had been split into two factions: those who were disciples of Fairbairn and those who favoured Julius Beresford. Fairbairn decided to quit Thames and was immediately asked to coach at their bitter rivals London. The captain of London was Robert ‘Archie’ Nisbet, a great admirer of Steve Fairbairn, and Fairbairn accepted the offer and several of his disciples came over with him. Much to the surprise of Edwards, Nisbet approached him and invited him to row in the London Rowing Club Grand Eight. Remembering the kind words that Steve Fairbairn had told the press after the Boat Race, Edwards jumped at the invitation. From that day on, Edwards never set foot in the Thames Rowing Club for over 20 years.

The rivalry between the two clubs was not a friendly rivalry. “We did not have a good word to say of each other and, when the opportunity offered, were distinctly unkind to our rivals. In the evenings Thames men had to walk past the London boathouse and we would stand on the balcony and jeer as they went past. John Badcock was the mainstay of the Thames Grand Eight, so we would pick him out as our main target, but it annoyed us that he never looked up but just kept on walking, always immaculately dressed and complete with bowler hat, tightly rolled umbrella and a copy of The Times under his arm. In fact, he reminded us of the cartoon character Felix the Cat and the nickname stuck. After marrying Joyce Cooper, the Olympic swimmer, they christened their eldest son Felix”.

Five years later, in Los Angeles, Edwards was in the coxless four at the Olympic Games winning gold. Alongside him was, by now, his lifelong friends from Thames: John ‘Felix’ Badcock, Jack Beresford and Rowland George.

For Edwards, it was a very proud moment when he first stepped into the London Eight with Steve Fairbairn alongside in the launch. Unlike his experience at Oxford, Edwards was of the strong opinion that he had found his home. “Rowing in that crew was an absolute delight. The rhythm set by Terence O’Brien at stroke was out of this world, the smoothness, power, balance and control were the epitome of poetry of motion”. His experience of the coaching under Fairbairn was equally uplifting. “Unlike ‘orthodox’ coaches who were always nagging about little points of style, Steve said very little, and never seemed to address an individual, but spoke to the crew as a whole. During one whole outing he might repeat at intervals, ‘Sit back at the finish; sit back till the cows come home’. On another trip it would be ‘Round the turn, just like turning mother’s mangle’, ‘If you cannot do it easy, you cannot do it at all’, and ‘Mileage makes Champions’.”

Fairbairn worked the crew hard, and each man in the crew vied with the others in “sending down the biggest and truest puddle”. Fairbairn would work with both the First and Second Eights, handicapping the crews so that the Grand Eight would go ahead in the last few hundred yards. Edwards recalled, “I asked him one day in the club about a point of technique when he grabbed me at waist level by the sweater and said, ‘This is the way to finish the stroke’ at the same time flinging me across the room. I was no wiser than I was before, but I pondered on the episode for a long time. Shortly after, Ted Phelps was brought into the boat at number 6 to substitute for a man who was sick. I noticed Ted’s outside shoulder coming at me like a sledgehammer at the finish of the stroke, and at last I understood what Steve meant”.

Under the guidance of Fairbairn, Edwards had fallen back in love with the art of rowing. When the London Eight took to the water, Edwards could at last truly hear the boat sing. In 1927 the London Eight won every race they entered in, home and abroad, save only the Grand and Stewards at Henley. As well as the teaching methods of Fairbairn, Edwards was driven by a sense of redemption: “Victory would begin to teach Guy Nickalls and the rest of the Leander pink-cap brigade to talk about ‘baby blubber’”.

It was in the London Eight that Edwards would acquire his nickname. From this point on he would always be referred to as ‘Jumbo’. “In the London crew I was placed in the middle of the boat being 12 stone 9 pounds, one of the heavyweights. Put at number four was ‘Fatty’ Webb turning the scales at 12 stone 10 pounds. The day came when my weight went up to 12st 11lb and Fatty went down to 12st 8lb.  He proudly declared, “You are a lump; you are nothing but a jumbo. And the name stuck”. It is unknown whether Webb was still referred to as ‘Fatty’.

Jumbo Edwards had rediscovered his passion, but a life spent rowing was not viable. He needed to find work. At the end of 1927, he was approached to become an assistant schoolmaster at Courtenay Lodge School for Boys. The salary was a very reasonable £100 per year, and as well as teaching the boys in English, mathematics, history there was an opportunity to coach the senior boys in rowing. The school was located in Sutton Courtenay, south of Oxford, and very close to the Thames, so Jumbo could row in what spare time he had. At weekends he would dash back to London on his Norton motorbike and continue his coaching with Fairbairn. The London Rowing Club Eight were building towards Henley and a shot at the Grand.

Oil painting of Jumbo Edwards, circa 1964. Artist unknown.

The rivalry with Thames Rowing Club was as intense as ever, and there were also battles on the river with Leander. As Jumbo articulated in his book The Way of a Man with a Blade, the London crew had a huge respect for Leander, but this was coupled with contempt as they were of the ‘wrong faith’. Leander was an adherent to the school of ‘Orthodoxy’ when it came to their rowing technique, whereas Steve Fairbairn had created such a unique technique that this was now commonly referred to as ‘Fairbairnism’. For Jumbo “it was a disgrace to be beaten by a crew rowing the orthodox way”. However, this is exactly what happened in the final of the Grand at Henley in 1927 – Thames won by three quarters of a length. Despite this defeat, the London crew were improving month by month, year by year. The boat was getting faster, the crew possessing that esprit de corps that was so vital to compete against the best crews in the world.

Gavin Jamieson would be delighted to receive anecdotes from readers that may have been coached by Jumbo Edwards or had relatives that handed down stories of Edwards’s time in a boat, on the tow path or in the air. He would also be pleased to hear from anyone who expresses an interest in a book dedicated to the exploits of Jumbo Edwards. Gavin can be contacted at gmbjamieson@gmail.com or on Twitter @gmbjamieson 

Part IV will be published tomorrow.

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