9 March 2021
By Chris Dodd
Maurice Phelps, chronicler of the Phelps clan, has died, aged 85, Chris Dodd writes.
Maurice telephoned the River & Rowing Museum early this century and offered to buy me coffee. He was seeking advice on his retirement project, a book on the Phelps family. My first reaction was relief that he wasn’t asking me to write it, because Phelpses are a dynasty of watermen with centuries of winning prizes, building boats, employment as watermen in numerous clubs, coaching amateurs, and many other watery things. For a start, ten Phelpses have won Doggett’s Coat and Badge, more than any other clan.
Maurice himself, however, bucked the family trend by avoiding any activity connected with rowing – at least until he decided to tell the family story – partly, it is said, because he feared his decision not to row had disappointed his father.
He was born in Putney and followed Wandsworth grammar school by National Service, a history degree at Oxford, and a job with the oil company Shell, known in those days as the ‘Shellfare State’. He was a keen on several sports at school and Corpus, but taking an oar in his hands was not one of them. Whether he disliked rowing or rowers or whether he was determined to plough a different furrow, I do not know, but while many Phelpses were making a living on the river, Maurice became a brilliant arbitrator in industrial disputes, co-founded his own consultancy and became chief executive of British Shipbuilders.
At our first meeting he told me that he intended to ask all his cousins to write about their fathers. This was a bold if dangerous idea, for some will be better writers than others, and their revelations may run the risk of bogging down in slander or libel. For the next few years, we discussed progress over coffee, my contribution being suggestions over structural detail as Maurice laboriously compiled an enormous family tree. And we swapped stories about Phelpses who deserved prime places in the story, for example:
Charlie Phelps (1859-1928), a boat builder, sculler and coach in Europe, Doggett’s winner and father of Harry, Dick, Tom, and Jack who all became Doggett’s winners.
Eric Phelps (1912-1982), English and European professional sculling champion who coached Beresford and Southwood to Olympic gold in 1936; drove his sculling pupil Georg von Opel and his new bride to Khartoum on their honeymoon, meeting the Cambridge Blue Ran Laurie by chance when broken down in the sands of the Sudan.
Julia Phelps (1948-1993), sculler and artist daughter of Bill Phelps; studied at Royal College of Art, painted the tidal river and Henley; exhibited at Royal Academy.
Richard Phelps (1965-), banker, under-23 international and Cambridge Blue, GB eight at Barcelona Olympics 1992, Steward of HRR and Henley umpire.
‘Honest John’ Phelps (1805-1890), Putney ferryman, art collector, commentator; Boat Race finishing judge until farce of 1877 dead heat that brought ridicule on his head. Father of first Phelps to win Doggett’s (Henry Maundy Phelps).
The story of Honest John and the dead heat is a piece of fake news, an untruth born of rumour, off-the-cuff remarks and reporters’ desperate quest for facts. To this day you will hear that the finishing judge was drunk in his skiff; was asleep under a bush; declared the result a dead heat to Oxford by four feet, five feet, five yards, the spread of a man’s arms; was nowhere to be seen. Although neither crew claimed victory – the Boat Race being a win or lose fixture, neither recognized themselves as loser – plenty of bank-side supporters, particularly dark blue supporters, claimed victory, despite the little problem of parallax, and the absence of a finish line except in the experienced head of Honest John. Judge Chitty, the race umpire, could not find Phelps, so summoned him to his chambers later in the day to explain the result.
Meanwhile, the race having started uncommonly early at around 8 am, evening paper reporters on the press steamers were in a hurry to get the result onto the streets. If I know anything about reporters and the Boat Race, they will have cursed Phelps and Chitty richly while putting heads together to agree a carefully worded time and distance, the convention then probably being about 5 seconds to a length. Corrections could be made in later editions when Chitty had pronounced.
Maurice examined Honest John’s story forensically in his book, The Phelps Dynasty: The Story of a Riverside Family, published in 2012. He produces copious evidence to restore John’s reputation as a thoroughly competent art lover and honourable man. In Chitty’s chambers Phelps described the finish of the race by moving his hands forward and back alternately to demonstrate how the bow balls – if the boats had them, which they didn’t – changed position with every stroke. If you want to know how hard it is to judge such a small difference by eye, go on to YouTube and watch the final of the Athens Olympics coxless four in 2004.
Maurice’s book inspired Tim Koch of this parish to make Oxford Won, Cambridge Too, a documentary about the 1877 dead heat that includes an extensive interview with the author.
Maurice himself was a lover of English and international culture, and kept learning throughout his life. He married Elizabeth Hurley in 1960 after courting her through ‘charm, a taste of the good life, punting and champagne parties’. Maurice leaves three children and four grandchildren. ‘Maurice was a deeply loving, kind and generous man,’ his family said, and ‘genuinely interested in everyone he met’. I can second that.
He became a freeman of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen in 1995. He may not have toiled at the oar, but he kept close to the river in his cruiser Lurader during Henley Regatta and Henley Festival.
Maurice Phelps, born 7 May 1935, died 28 December 2020. Elizabeth died in 2017.