28 May 2020
By Göran R Buckhorn
Here Göran R Buckhorn continues his story from yesterday about Cambridge Blue George Lewis, whom Göran found while reading the book Grub Street Irregular (2008) by Lewis’s son, Jeremy.
George Morley Lewis, who was born on 24 October 1914, the son of John and Ella Lewis, went up to Pembroke in 1933. He took up rowing and seemed to be so good at it that he was in the college’s crew in the Ladies’ Challenge Plate at Henley Royal Regatta the following year. At the 1935 Henley Regatta, Pembroke, with George Lewis in the boat, went for the Grand Challenge Cup, where they first beat London, then Jesus, in two tough races. In the final, Pembroke easily won over Leander – the first victory in the Grand for the Cambridge college.
Pembroke tried again for the Grand in 1936, but being an Olympic year, there were a record number of entries of crews and scullers at Henley, and many good crews. The Grand was won by FC Zürich Ruder Club, Switzerland; on their way to the final, the Swiss beat the Imperial University of Tokyo. In the history of the sport, the Japanese crew became famous for their high rate, at times reaching the high fifties. Everyone praised the Swiss for their style: the orthodox camp said the oarsmen from Zürich rowed the old style, while the Fairbairn enthusiasts said it was pure Fairbairnism. The latter group’s ‘claim was strengthened by the fact that the Swiss declared that they had learned to row by studying a film of recent Pembroke crews, and by reading Fairbairn’s books,’ Richard Burnell writes in Henley Regatta: A History (1957). Lewis also rowed with three other Pembroke oarsmen in the 1936 Stewards’ Challenge Cup, but they never reached the final. The cup was won by the Swiss, who overpowered a Leander crew in the final.
George Lewis would row one more time for a cup at Henley. In 1937, Lewis and Desmond Kingsford, who had rowed in all the crews that Lewis had rowed in at Cambridge, were the runners-up in the Silver Goblets & Nickalls’ Challenge Cup, rowing for London RC. Winners of the cup were E.W. Wingate and W.D. Baddeley of Vesta RC.
Then there was the Cambridge winning crew of the 1936 Boat Race. Going into this race, the Light Blues had won the Boat Race 16 times out of 17 races since 1914 (the Dark Blues narrowly won in 1923). Oxford were in trouble long before the 88th race started. The Dark Blues president R. Hope resigned after a disagreement with the coaches, and then the coaches, Peter Haig Thomas and ‘Boon’ Gibbon, quarrelled who should stroke the crew.
In this newsreel, the Cambridge president Jack Wilson presents the crew. George Lewis is the seventh person being introduced. Wilson says that when Lewis ‘went up to Pembroke, he didn’t row before he came up here, he’s all the better for getting a Blue.’
On Boat Race Day, 4 April, Oxford had almost a length’s lead at the Mile Post, but at Harrods Furniture Depository, Cambridge had reduced Oxford’s lead. Soon after going through Hammersmith Bridge, Cambridge were in the lead. Close to the end of course, at Barnes Bridge, Cambridge were four lengths ahead, which they extended to five lengths crossing the finishing line.
Here is a short video of the race:
Many of the Light Blue oarsmen in the mid-1930s became legendary. All the members of the 1936 Cambridge crew have their own entries on Wikipedia, except one – George Lewis. Thanks to his son, Jeremy, we can fill in some blanks. But be prepared for a sad story…
Jeremy Lewis writes that an American film company offered his father a screen test, but he declined when the film studio told him that, to meet success in Hollywood, he had to have all his teeth pulled out – this old American cliché about the Brits’ dental work, or lack thereof (think Austin Powers), is still alive today. Beautiful teeth or not, the author writes that his father ‘was far too shy and self-conscious to have been an actor’.
Jeremy Lewis also mentions that his father was chosen to row for his country in the eight at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but as he had already started his studies at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School in London, and they would not allow him to take the time off, he had to turn it down. Four members of the Light Blue crew did race in the Olympic eight in August: Kingsford, Laurie, Duckworth and Lonnon, and from that year’s Dark Blue boat, Con Cherry. The whole crew were members of Leander Club.
The British eight placed fourth in the Olympic final. Ran Laurie later said that if his stern pair partner, Jack Wilson, had been in the crew, they would have medalled. But by the time of the Olympics, Wilson was on his way to Africa to join the Sudan Political Service. Laurie would follow him a year later. Cambridge cox, Noel Duckworth, who coxed at the Olympics, said that the crew ‘was at best a patched-up affair […that] lacked life, dash and determination because it had spent all its enthusiasm and energies previously at Henley.’ (Quote from Canon Noel Duckworth: An Extraordinary Life (2012) by Michael Smyth.)
Twelve years later, Laurie and Wilson won a gold medal in the coxless pair at the 1948 Olympic Games.
During the Second World War, George Lewis worked at different hospitals in London, and at the latter part of the war, he served in the Guards Armoured Division as a medic, participated in the landing at Normandy in June 1944 and the campaign in Northern France. He saw the horrors at a concentration camp ‘where his commanding officer was so outraged that he […] thwacked the German Commander across the face with his swagger-stick,’ Jeremy Lewis writes. What George Lewis saw in the concentration camp would haunt him and have severe consequences later in his life.
After George Lewis demobilised in 1946, he practiced at the Hammersmith Hospital and later at a private clinic in London. He had qualified as a surgeon and a urologist and although he was ‘unusually kind and conscientious’ to his patients, he would have been ‘happier as a sheltered academic dealing with test tubes and abstractions rather than difficult and demanding human beings,’ his son writes. Lewis notes that his father ‘had a poor opinion of mankind’, which lead to him being reclusive and reserved towards people. He was a loving father, but he never showed any physical affection towards his two children.
Then there was the problem with the drink. Moving into his 30s and 40s, George Lewis needed a drink to function. While it did not affect his performance, it did influence his standing. He left the Queen’s Gate Clinic in fashionable South Kensington in the mid-1950s to try his luck on the Canadian Prairies, in the city of Regina, Saskatchewan. It proved to be a disaster, Lewis writes, ‘we limped home after six months.’ Then George Lewis took a job as a doctor on a cable ship, which went between Mombasa, Bombay and Cape Town, where ‘the drink was cheap and in steady supply,’ Lewis writes. After 18 months, he went to Sudan as a doctor but was flown home after six weeks.
While Lewis was in Africa, his wife Janet, whom he had married in 1939, and children Jeremy and Julia, were staying in Seaford, a coastal town in East Sussex, where Mrs Lewis had bought a cottage. When George Lewis came home from abroad, he set himself up as a GP in Seaford, but he did not give up the bottle. After a few years, Lewis shut down his practice. ‘He spent the last thirty-odd years of his life as a virtual recluse,’ Lewis mentions, going for long walks, doing carpentry in his garden shed, chain-smoking, doing The Times crosswords and reading Dickens and Trollope. He never wanted to visit people or meet anyone new. Jeremy Lewis notes that he thinks his father felt a terrible sense of failure and this and his drinking put up barriers between father and son.
George Lewis died on 6 September 1994, a couple of months shy of his 80th birthday.
Though Grub Street Irregular is an entertaining book with lots of screamingly funny stories and anecdotes, it’s probably the unhappy tale of George Lewis I’ll be remembering the most. Still, if you have had success as a rower, winning the Grand and the Boat Race, you’re not such a failure in my book.
Special thanks to rowing historian Tim Koch for providing pictures of the 1936 Cambridge crew, and to rowing historian Chris Dodd and London Rowing Club archivist and historian Julian Ebsworth for information about George Lewis’s races at Henley Royal Regatta.