5 July 2021
By Gavin Jamieson
Ninety years ago, Jumbo Edwards took a triple-victory at Henley, winning the Grand, Stewards’ and Goblets – something that has never been repeated, Gavin Jamieson writes.
On the afternoon of 4 of July 1931, Hugh ‘Jumbo’ Edwards climbed the steps at Henley Royal Regatta to accept the Silver Goblets from the Duchess of York. The Duchess greeted the weary victorious rower with an amused, “Fancy seeing you again”.
This year’s Henley Regatta marks the 90th anniversary of a truly remarkable day. On that rainy and blustery Saturday in July 1931, Edwards achieved a feat that has never been matched since – he was victorious in three major finals.
This was not unique. In 1907, Claude Taylor was the first oarsman to win the Stewards, Grand and Goblets and many thought that this monumental effort would never be repeated. That it should be achieved by Jumbo Edwards, a man who had collapsed in the Boat Race of 1926 and had been told never to row again, was equally astounding.
Jumbo had rediscovered his love of rowing after his collapse in the Oxford boat during the Boat Race. Under the mentorship of Steve Fairbairn, his coach at London Rowing Club, Jumbo was establishing himself as one of the foremost rowers alongside a talented crew. In the Grand, the London eight defeated Berliner RC in a thrilling semi-final. This led to a final against their archrivals, Thames Rowing Club. London were victorious by a third of a length.
In the Steward’s, Jumbo and London Rowing Club had a rather easier row – a three length victory over the Italian crew from Piacenza.
For the Silver Goblets, Jumbo had forged a winning partnership with his fellow Christ Church rower Lewis Clive. They had both rowed in the losing Oxford boat in the Boat Race of the previous year, but their combined strengths led to one of Britain’s most successful coxless pairings. For the final in 1931, an understandably tired Jumbo relied upon the strengths of this partnership to row the Christ Church boat to victory by four lengths over Pembroke College, Cambridge.
The Edwards and Clive partnership would go on to defend the Silver Goblets in the 1932 regatta with victory over Balliol College. A month later, at the Los Angeles Olympics, the partnership cemented their place in history with Olympic Gold in the coxless pairs. This would be the apex of their glorious success. For Jumbo, the love of flying soon replaced his passion of competing on the river. With Lewis, he pursued his career in socialist politics. Both displayed remarkable heroism in later years. In August 1938, Lewis was tragically killed in Spain at the Battle of Ebro as Company Commander, fighting against Franco’s forces with the International Brigade. In November 1943, Jumbo was the only survivor of his ditched Liberator after protecting an Allied convoy in the North Atlantic. With a punctured lung and broken ribs, he rowed his inflatable lifeboat overnight towards the Cornish coastline and was picked up by a British minesweeper.
When the amused Duchess of York handed to Jumbo his third winning trophy of the regatta, it was the culmination of proving his doubters wrong. In five years, Jumbo Edwards had escaped the depths of despair and humiliation resulting from the Boat Race of 1926. The national press, and more importantly his rowing peers, had finally recognised and acknowledged that Jumbo was one of the finest rowers that the country had produced.
Ninety years ago, Henley witnessed one of the all-time greatest performances by an oarsman. Surely this will never be repeated, and importantly it must never be forgotten.
Gavin Jamieson is married to Melissa, granddaughter of Jumbo Edwards, and is working on a biography about the great oarsman.