143 years ago at the Boat Race…

30 March 2020

By Göran R Buckhorn

Yesterday, when it was not the 2020 Boat Races on the River Thames due to the Coronavirus outbreak, rowing writer Martin Gough published an interesting article on his website Classic Rowing. ‘Instead we will have to make do with looking back at some great races of the past,’ he wrote.

Honest Phelps

The first of the ‘great races of the past’ Gough mentions is the 1877 Boat Race, known to be the only ‘dead heat’ race in the history of the races between Oxford and Cambridge. Rowing history buffs, or as we call them on this website, ‘HTBS Types’, of course are familiar with the controversial verdict the finish judge ‘Honest’ John Phelps delivered, a dead heat – a brave result to present at the time.

However, soon there was a phrase added, that Honest Phelps did not say: ‘A Dead Heat… to Oxford by six feet’. Poor Phelps was said to have been drunk and became a joke, and the fictitious verdict was spread in the Boat Race sources over the years and repeated by rowing historians and writers who should have known better.

In his article Martin Gough links to an article published in April 2014 on HTBS, which Tim Koch wrote about the race. In Tim’s article is also a wonderful video that he produced about the 1877 race and Honest Phelps. In his 28-minute film, Tim interviews members of the Phelps family, including the Phelps family historian Maurice Phelps.

After Gough had posted a Tweet about his article yesterday, Tim’s film made the rounds on social media. One of the nice comments about Tim’s marvellous job with his film came from Richard Phelps, an Olympian, Henley Steward, Cambridge Blue and Boat Race umpire, who himself once believed in the ‘… to Oxford by six feet’. Well, until Tim put things right.

For those who did not see Martin Gough’s article, his and Richard Phelps’s Tweets or those who would like to watch or re-watch Tim’s film, here you are:

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