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

Back in the Oxford Boat

The 1932 Olympic coxless pairs final. Jumbo Edwards and Lewis Clive winning Gold, defeating New Zealand. This was Jumbo’s first of the two gold medals he won within the hour.

20 February 2020

By Gavin Jamieson

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

Throughout 1928 and 1929, Jumbo continued his role as assistant schoolmaster whilst travelling to London each weekend to row. His passion for rowing was as intense as ever, but a new love was developing. In 1927 his brother Sphinx, along with Sir James Croft as cox, raced once more in the Boat Race. It was not to be third time lucky for Sphinx as Oxford lost again to Cambridge, this time by three lengths and overhauled at that all too familiar point at Chiswick Steps. On graduation, Sphinx opted to join the fledgling Royal Air Force and Jumbo was to fall in love with flying planes. Jumbo decided that the life of a schoolmaster held little appeal when compared to the thrills of taking to the skies in the biplanes of the day. He learnt to fly and wished to follow his brother into the RAF. The only problem was that, in those days, to obtain a permanent commission in the RAF as a pilot you had to get a University degree and a University Commission. There was only one option for Jumbo, to return to Oxford and his studies.

To even be considered by Oxford, Jumbo had to pass his entrance exams and with a lot of effort and long hours he achieved just that. However, there was the issue of the letter that Jumbo had written to the Senior Proctor three years ago. The College Informed Jumbo that he would have to formally apologise before acceptance back into the scholastic confines of Christ Church. A letter of apology was carefully worded by Jumbo and he found himself once more back in Oxford.

The Oxford University Boat Club, which had followed Jumbo’s rowing progress over the past couple of years and realising that rowing was not going to kill him, invited him back into the varsity boat to once again take on the near invincibility of Cambridge in the 1930 Boat Race. Having become a dedicated disciple to Fairbairnism and still rowing for London, Jumbo did not want to go back into the Oxford boat and row in the orthodox coaching method. He also did not want to waste his time with the demands of the intensive practice; his new aim in life was to obtain his degree to allow him to join the RAF.

The President of the Christ Church boat club would also not take no as an answer and wanted Jumbo back in their eight. “In the end I explained that having rowed under Steve Fairbairn for a few years I could not now go back to the orthodox style and row with fixed oarlocks. I finished up by saying that I would row in the crew only if I could have a swivel rowlock. This impossible condition would, I thought, put an end to the President’s importuning. He said, ‘That’s splendid. We will fix you up with swivel straight away’. I found myself in the crew”.

This led to Jumbo’s inclusion in the varsity boat for the 1930 Boat Race. Dr Pat Mallam, one of the Oxford coaches, approached Jumbo to return to the boat in his usual position of number 5. “It was in vain that I told him I not only wanted to work for my degree, but I also wished to fly with the Air Squadron. He continued to plead with me until finally in desperation I said ‘To tell you the truth, Pat, I can’t row because I am only just recovering from a nasty dose of syphilis’. Pat replied sharply, ‘Balls Jumbo, I am the VD doctor for Oxford and I know you are not’. I had no more ammunition and so found myself in the boat, but I was not very happy about it because it had been such a joy to me rowing under Steve Fairbairn for London Rowing Club, under the leadership of that incomparable stroke, Terence O’Brien”.

The 1930 Oxford crew take to the water at the start of the Boat Race. Jumbo returned to row at number 5, with Lewis Clive at number 6.

At number 6 in the varsity crew was a fellow Christ Church rower and Etonian, Lewis Clive. This was the first time that Jumbo and Lewis rowed together, and it was the start of a partnership that would develop into one of the most formidable and successful coxless pairs that the country had produced. This partnership within the Dark Blue eight was to no avail. Cambridge, for the seventh year in a row, won the Boat Race. The 1930 Boat Race was a lot closer than when Jumbo collapsed in 1926, but despite Oxford leading past the ill-fated Chiswick Steps, Cambridge proved the stronger of the two and won by two lengths in a time of 19 minutes 9 seconds. Once more Stanley Baldwin, now leader of opposition, watched on in satisfaction – puffing on his cherry wood pipe – as his favoured Light Blues crossed the line.

The disappointment of losing was intense for Jumbo, but unlike four years previously there was to be no feeling of humiliation or personal disaster.

The rowing correspondent of The Times was not prepared to provide any redemptive words to ease the pain of Jumbo’s loss: “Edwards is not at his best again even now, and his form suffered at the end of Saturday’s long row. His finish when he is tired is the worst in the crew. He snatches his blade home with his elbows out, a heritage of Metropolitan rowing”.

Jumbo returned to his beloved London Rowing Club crew, and once again embraced the Fairbairn methodology. However, the partnership with Lewis Clive evolved into a devastatingly effective pair and the two continued to row together with the aim of participating at Henley in the Goblets. Initially, Jumbo had his doubts. “Lewis Clive asked me to row in a pair with him. I was not terribly keen because, although he had a valiant heart and the strength of a horse, he was a little bit clumsy – surprising in an Eton boy.”

Four months after the defeat in the Boat Race, it was the Henley Regatta. London had entered their eight for the Grand and the four for the Stewards. Jumbo was selected for both boats, and also entered for Christ Church with Lewis Clive in the pairs to compete for the Goblets. It was a gruelling task for any rower to compete in three world-class events but at the age of 23 and having rowed extensively over the past four years Jumbo was in the best form of his life.

As Jumbo recounted, “For most of the oarsman the two weeks of Henley was not merely the Mecca of their ambitions; it was their annual holiday as well. These two mutually antagonistic aims had to be very carefully blended by the coach. We worked to a very strict daily routine”.

0715:     Get up. Cup of milk and a biscuit
0720:     Run up Remenham Hill
0800:     Breakfast
1000:     Answering nature’s call in the Pink Palace (Leander Boathouse)
1045:     Afloat! Practice on the course
1200:     Stewards IV afloat for practice
1300:     Lunch
1415:     Bed
1545:     Tea
1715:     Afloat for practice
1830:     Stewards IV afloat for practice
2000:     Dinner
2215:     Bed

The answering of nature’s call in Leander was symbolic of what the London crew intended to do to their rival crew in the regatta.

The London crew progressed easily through the heats and made the final of both the Stewards’ and the Grand. Their opponents in both were Leander.

The Grand Challenge Cup was the prize that London valued the most. It had been 40 years, in 1890, that London had last won this prestigious trophy, and now it was only Leander between them and a vindication of their ‘Metropolitan’ training methods under Fairbairn. “We had been waiting for this opportunity for years”, recalled Jumbo. “This year there was no doubt about our superiority, but we had to think of the years to come. We had to demonstrate, to all the rowing community, our complete supremacy”. It was pointed out to Jumbo prior to the race that, once again, Stanley Baldwin was in the enclosure.

London’s plan was row as fast as possible to the Barrier (a point reached in two minutes) and then put in a mighty spurt of 20 strokes. “All went absolutely to plan; we romped away from Leander and were two lengths up at the end of the spurt”. However, this is not the way to win a race. A lead of two lengths in two minutes resulted in the London eight skimming down the river one foot per second faster than Leander. The drag of eight increases as the square of the speed, so London had to expend an incredible amount of power to achieve that speed. London had burnt themselves up to purely demonstrate their supremacy over Leander. Jumbo recalled “We were unable to continue that pace and dropped down to a rate that we could only just manage. To the onlooker (including my nemesis Stanley Baldwin) it looked, no doubt, as though we were playing with Leander, dropping to a paddle and allowing them to come back at us. If so we attained our aim”. The London crew won by a full length and a half. London Rowing Club had finally regained the Grand trophy, 40 years from the date that they were last triumphant.

Later that same day, Jumbo rowed to another victory in the London four and the Stewards’ trophy was captured to go with the Grand. Once again, the vanquished crew was Leander, and the victory a length and a half. Fairbairnism had triumphed over Orthodox.

The Times rowing correspondent at last praised Jumbo: “The outstanding individuals in the Regatta were H. R. A. Edwards, the number 5 of the London crew, and A. Graham, number 7 in the Leander crew. For power, skill, and smoothness combined Edwards stands alone among the heavyweights of today, and it is a pleasure to be able to pay such a tribute to one who had earned it in the face of considerable difficulty.” Redemption was sweet.

With such success in July 1930, the London crew had hoped to relax away from the river, but this was not to be. The eight and four were selected to represent England in the 1930 British Empire Games, to be held in Hamilton, Ontario. This was the very first British Empire Games, later to become known as the Commonwealth Games. Jumbo would arrive for practice by flying his Avro Baby airplane to Molesey, in Surrey, and land on the nearby race course and amble along the couple of hundred yards to the boathouse.

At the beginning of August 1930, the London Rowing Club crew boarded the Empress of Australia and crossed the Atlantic to Hamilton. The London crew kept themselves fit by running around the deck and exercising in the first-class swimming pool and gymnasium. Despite the long voyage, the crew were again triumphant – winning two gold medals in the regatta. A triumphant Jumbo recalled that “We won the eights and the coxless fours, and the New Zealanders were terribly surprised and most upset that they had not won. The stroke of our eight was Terence O’Brien, the most magnificent stroke it has ever been my privilege to follow”.

In 1931, the London crew continued their supremacy on water. In the Spring of that year, Lewis Clive had approached Jumbo to row in the coxless pairs with the aim of winning the Goblets at Henley and selection for the following year’s Olympic Games in Los Angeles. It was the start of a talented, and ultimately successful, partnership. However, Jumbo was now devoting much of his time to this partnership and was fearful that London would not select him for the eights or fours at Henley. His fear was unfounded, and, at Henley, he was back competing in the Grand, the Stewards’ and the Goblets.

“For me, it meant six sessions per day, in the morning first the eights and then the fours and finally the pair, and the same thing in the evening”. In the eight, London had lost one, vital, member of the crew: “Our eight was not as good as the previous year, because we had lost our stroke Terry O’Brien who had got himself married. Kitty had given Terry an ultimatum, to choose ‘between me or rowing’. Terry chose Kitty”.

After defeating the challenge of two American crews, the semi-final of the Grand was against the German rowing club, Berliner RC. This turned out to be one of the finest races that Henley had witnesses for many a year. At the Mile Post, Berlin were up by a quarter of a length. Edgar Howitt, the replacement at stroke for O’Brien, increased the stroke rate of the London boat to 40. This had the desired effect and the crew raced up to the enclosures with the Germans a canvas ahead, but London could not get level. “One hundred yards from the finish the Germans faltered, slightly, for one stroke but still remained a few feet ahead. Two lengths from the finishing post they blew up and we went past, ourselves blowing up one length short of the post and drifting over the line. I doubt if ever such an extraordinary scene had been witnessed at Henley. The crowds were beside themselves with excitement and joy”. In retelling this victory, Jumbo omits to mention if Stanley Baldwin was looking on.

London progressed to the final and met a familiar rival, though this time it was Thames Rowing Club and not Leander. In a punishing race, London were pushed all the way by Thames but managed to hold off a final spurt from their rivals and win by a third of a length.

1931 Henley Royal Regatta, Pathé footage of the spectators and the eights.

In the Stewards’, London defeated the Italian challenge of Piacenza. With Lewis Clive, Jumbo completed a Henley hat-trick with victory in the Goblets against Kingston Rowing Club. This feat was almost unprecedented. “Nobody had won three open events at Henley since Claude Taylor had achieved the feat in 1907, and nobody has achieved it since. Though for me it was quite a strenuous day, I have never before felt quite so fit”.

The Henley prizes were presented by the Duchess of Kent. The third time Jumbo came up to the dais to receive the Silver Goblets and the Nickalls Challenge Cup, she smiled and proclaimed “Fancy seeing you again. Very many congratulations”.

In five years, Jumbo Edwards had scaled the heights of rowing from the depths of despair and humiliation. By this point, in the Summer of 1931, the national press had finally recognised and acknowledged that Jumbo was one of the finest rowers that the country had produced.

As well as finding redemption in the newspapers, Jumbo also received a compliment from the redoubtable Guy Nickalls. “I felt I was now in a position to forgive Guy and his talk of ‘baby fat’, and that regatta of 1931 saw the end of my resentment to the aftermath of 1926”.

The Olympic certificate awarded to Jumbo, along with his gold medals, for his winning exploits.

One year later, in 1932, though it was the end of London dominance in the eights and fours, Jumbo and Lewis Clive regained the Goblets at Henley. Jumbo was serving in the Royal Air Force, having successfully graduated from Oxford, and on Saturday 13th August he stood proudly on the rostrum in Los Angeles to accept his two Olympic gold medals for the coxless pairs and the fours.

The winning coxless four after their victory in the 1932 Olympic final. From left to right: Rowland George, Jack Beresford, Jumbo, John Badcock. Photograph courtesy of John Beresford.

Many years late the notable journalist, Sir Charles Wheeler, recalled that famous London victory over Berlin in the Henley semi-final of the Grand: “As an 8-year-old after seeing that race against the Germans in 1931, I knew we should win the Second World War and that Jumbo Edwards would play a part”.

Monday: November 22nd 1943
0630 hours

The bright yellow life raft continued on its ponderous journey. Hours had passed and the oppressive darkness and cold continued to press down. In November, in that part of the seas, sunrise would not be until 0730. Edwards’s first task was to stay awake until the sun rise, in the hope that visibility would have improved, and that daylight would reveal on the horizon an outline of land.

By 0630, Edwards was too tired to row. The motion of the waves and the exhaustion were too much to stay awake. For an hour he drifted into and out of sleep. At this point, although he was unaware of his exact position, the life raft had travelled 17 nautical miles in a little over 14 hours. Edwards efforts had guided that inflatable towards the Scilly Isles. The helpful currents had actually swept the lifeboat south, and around, the Isles.

With the sun beginning to rise, the inky blackness of the Atlantic was returning to a wintry white-flecked grey expanse. At 0730, HMS Lincolnshire, a converted fishing trawler, was continuing its operation off the Scilly Isles to search for German U-boats. Suddenly a shout went up from the lookout who had spotted a bright yellow speck in the distance, rising and falling with the waves. Captain Samuel L Larner changed course and piloted his boat towards the yellow object. At 0745 Wing Commander Edwards was rescued. The crew of HMS Lincolnshire managed to bring the injured Olympian on board and returned him to the safety of land.

For Jumbo, that was the end of his flying missions for the RAF. After six months recuperating from his collapsed lung and broken ribs and, having written to the families of those air crew who perished in the Liberator, Edwards returned to active service for 53 Squadron. He was promoted to Group Captain and for acts of valour, courage and devotion he was awarded both the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Force Cross.

His love of rowing, and Oxford, never deserted him. In 1949, Jumbo accepted the position of rowing coach for the Dark Blues and in 1959, with his son David rowing at number six, Oxford won the Boat Race – defeating Cambridge by the largest margin in 47 years.

Jumbo Edwards coaching the Oxford crew in 1959. His son, David, is third from the left.

“Looking back, it is clear that I should never have achieved what I did had it not been for my collapse in the 1926 Boat Race”.

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

4 comments

  1. Lovely piece(s) about Jumbo Edwards! Thank you, really enjoyed reading about someone who’s name I knew but little of his heroic exploits on and off the water.

  2. 1952 was a key year for Jumbo. Oxford coaching had for ever been dominated by the “orthodox” style, but Oxford had only won 4 of the 22 races since WW1and only one of the 6 since WW2. I was elected President of OUBC for 1952 with a mandate to make a difference. .I had stroked the very successful New College crew of 1950 which was coached by hugely experienced members of Thames Rowing Club, arch rivals of the London Club on the Tideway. We went Head of the River, and won the Ladies Plate at Henley, and the Reading Grand. This crew should gave formed the basis of the 1951 Oxford Boat, but the President was Christopher Davidge (Eton and Trinity); though one of the greatest strokes of all time, his presidency was disastrous. The coaching was strictly “Orthodox” (even fixed pins were retained) and humiliation was total. In the race, Oxford sank within a couple of minutes and lost the re-row by 12 lengths.
    So I called in Jumbo out of the cold, and to cut a very long story short (including Jumbo’s own novel design of swivel-riggers), Oxford won after an epic race in a snowstorm. Orthodoxy was dead. Cambridge’s dominance was broken. The Boat Race came to life again.
    Adrian Stokes, President of OUBC 1952

  3. Loved reading this account of Jumbo’s rescue. My grandfather was Sam Larner DSC who took Jumbo on board the HMS Lincolnshire. Sam was a great man and we knew that he had rescued an airman (two in fact the other was a Luftwaffe pilot on another occasion) but he never discussed the details. It’s wonderful to read a more detailed account – thank you. Sam went back to being a trawler skipper in Milford Haven after the war, so even more poignant that Jumbo was a Welshman! Diolch yn fawr.

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