10 November 2022
By Tim Koch
Yesterday, Tim Koch noted that a new BBC drama included the character of Oxford Rowing Blue and pioneer special forces soldier, Jock Lewes, and he also examined Lewes’ flirtation with – and eventual rejection of – National Socialism. Here in Part II, we are in more comfortable territory looking at Lewes’ rowing career.
Five months after Lewes arrived from Australia to attend his father’s old Oxford college, the very grand Christ Church, (“The House”) in September 1933, the members of the university debating society, the Oxford Union, shocked many by voting 275 – 153 that they would not fight “For King and Country”. Jock supported the losing side, though he was not actively political. When he later stole a party flag from outside the Oxford headquarters of the British Union of Fascists, it was more likely a boat club prank than a political act.
Lewes was soon approached by the college boat club’s coach, Gilbert Ryle, who knew that he had rowed at King’s School, Parramatta, but did not know that he had yet to win a rowing race. Jock also had to learn the stiff and unyielding “orthodox style”, initially on a fixed seat. Jock Lewes was not, however, just a sporting “hearty”, high in brawn but low in brain, he was a regular at Blackwell’s Bookshop and read much outside of his degree of “Modern Greats” (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics). His letters reveal a thoughtful, religious and often (though not always) serious young man.
Although he did not neglect his studies, Lewes spent a lot of time on the river, stroking the Christ Church first eight and coaching Keble College for Henley. By the end of 1934 he was in the OUBC Trial Eights for Boat Race selection but was not yet really making his mark and was not selected for the 1935 Boat Race.
At Henley in July 1935, Lewes stroked the Christ Church entry in the Ladies Plate, beating Bedford Modern School by 2 1/2 lengths, Trinity College, Oxford, by 3 lengths and then losing to Eton by 1/2 length, slowed down by an injured Richard Burnell. He kept the rating low, confident in his crew’s ability to beat crews setting a higher rate.
Speed off the water was also a thrill. Lewes bought a 1926 Alvis sports car and crew mates Bertie Eugster purchased a 4.5 litre Bentley, John Garton a Straight Eight Packard and Mike Ashley an Aston Martin. They raced each other between Magdalen Bridge and Henley Bridge, allegedly achieving times of under twenty minutes for the twenty-four miles.
Lewes estimated that he had rowed over 1,000 miles between September 1935 and March 1936 in his efforts to get into the 1936 Blue Boat. Oxford’s preparations for the 1936 Boat Race did not go smoothly. In October 1935, Ralph Hope resigned the Presidency, officially because of pressure of academic work, possibly because of disagreements with the coaches. Two of them, Peter Haig Thomas and Brigadier Boon Gibbon, in turn fell out over who should stroke the eight.
At this time, it was still the President, not the coaches, who decided who was going to row in the boat. On 28 February 1936, Hope’s replacement, Bernard Sciortino, announced his crew for the Boat Race of 4 April 1936, strangely putting Lewes at “3” when he had spent most of his training at “2”. No doubt he was happy to get his Blue but was frustrated that he had never been given the opportunity to stroke the “A” crew in Trials.
As training progressed, Lewes soon went back to “2” but there was more disruption ahead. The Times of 7 March 1936 reported:
Although the Boat Race is now only four weeks ahead the Oxford University crew are still experimenting. Yesterday at Henley they decided to revert to fixed rowlocks, discarding the Lowe swivels that they had used throughout training until yesterday. Another surprising change was the trial at stroke of JS Lewes, in place of DM de Winser, the latter going to No. 2 where he rowed in last year’s race… In the afternoon Lewes retired from the stroke thwart, which was again taken by Winser, Lewes returning to his old seat at No. 2.
The Daily Mirror also of 7 March 1936 speculated that:
Following upon a visit to the crew of Mr GO Nickalls, the Old Oxford Blue, it would seem that the present style of rowing is to be drastically changed.
The “Acidulated Old Blue” (possibly David Haig Thomas) praised Cambridge but wrote:
Oxford, on the other hand, has not a single person in the crew who has ever won a race away from Oxford. They are not well together; their boat rolls, and in fact do not look as good as an indifferent Cambridge College crew…
Perhaps it is not surprising that the Wikipedia page for the 1936 Boat Race states:
The rowing correspondent for “The Times” suggested that on arrival at Putney, “Cambridge were almost certainly the fastest crew ever to come to the Tideway. Oxford were equally certainly one of the worst”. He went on to report that while Cambridge still looked “remarkably neat”, they “have actually got slower”; at the same time Oxford “improved their pace, if not their appearance, in a measure that most critics would have thought quite impossible”.
Not only did Cambridge have twelve consecutive wins to spur them on, they also had the almost unbeatable combination of Ran Laurie at stroke and Jack Wilson at “7”. Despite this, Cambridge had a poor start and trailed by up to half-a-length until just below Chiswick Steps. However, by the Steps the Light Blues were ahead and the distance was four lengths up at Barnes Bridge and five lengths up at the finish. It was the largest winning margin since 1929 and was Cambridge’s thirteenth consecutive victory, a record streak in the history of the Boat Race (this figure is even worse for the Dark Blues than it at first appears as, apart from 1923, Oxford had not won since 1913).
When it came to choosing a President who could turn around Oxford’s fortunes in the 1937 Boat Race, it was expected that it would be a contest between David Winser (stroke in 1936), Olympian John Cherry (“7” in 1936) and Mike Ashby (bow in 1936).
Rowing at Oxford (and many other places) had fragmented between passionate supporters of the “orthodox” style of rowing with fixed pins, the Steve Fairbairn method that used swivel rowlocks, and those who held that certain crews and coaches could make either work for them. The three original candidates proposed a compromise choice in the popular Lewes taking the Presidency. He agreed, providing that he had a free hand in policy. The student newspaper, Isis, applauded:
…when innumerable theories about the Boat Race were likely to divide (OUBC) into at least three camps, Jock was made President for the simple reason that everybody liked him, and everybody knew that he would give them a fair hearing and have his own mind firmly made up at the end.
Strangely, Lewes’ obsession with Nazi Germany may have made a major contribution to Oxford finally ending Cambridge’s run of Boat Race victories between 1924 and 1936.
In 2014, I posted a three-part piece on extracts from the unpublished memoirs of Mike Ashby, an exact contemporary of Lewes who rowed bow for Oxford in 1936 (with Jock at “2”) and in 1937 (with Jock as the non-rowing OUBC President). He was also OUBC Secretary in 1937. Ashby wrote of Lewes:
(OUBC was) fortunate to have elected Jock Lewes, a particularly fine President for 1937. He was an Australian, older, wiser and an experienced oarsman, moreover he was a fine and persuasive leader. He possessed what we now call “charisma,” that rare quality which inspires confidence and boosts morale. As from the very start of our preparations and training, he refused to recognise any possibility other than victory… For all the brash faults of some Australians, and Jock had none of these, they do have a tremendous drive and determination to succeed. Jock had unerring judgement and power of leadership: he was older, wiser and moreover he was a fine and persuasive President.
Below is an extract from Part 2 which covers Ashby’s two years with the Blue Boat. It gives a perspective into British rowing history that I had not come across before and finishes with a bold claim:
The Olympic Games for 1936 were to be held in Berlin…… An Oxford crew was to row in some regattas in Germany that year. I was secretary to the O.U.B.C, and Jock Lewes and I did much planning together, my task being mainly to encourage and support him. When we got to the small boat club at Bad Ems, we were rather put out to find that we were being lent an obviously very old boat, as its varnish was quite dark.
In Britain’s pre-war days, when a rowing boat got old, it became tiresomely flexible and could twist, so that at a given moment it could be down on stroke side in the stern, and the opposite in the bows. To our pleasurable astonishment we found the boat was still as stiff as a brand new British VIII. A brief look at the construction showed the explanation. In the bottom of the boat, below the sliding seats, were long thin diagonal spars, like a flattened St. Andrews Cross. A diagonal cross cannot be twisted without flexing the spars, so after twenty years or so, the thin German spars were just as resistant to flexing as when they were built in, and probably more so!
From a carpentering point of view, British boats were thoroughly defective, their joints all being butt, at right angles and depending on just their glue and varnish. Both easily cracked. No wonder the clubs wanted new boats. A new VIII was built for the race each year, but it remained stiff against torsion for only a few weeks, and College boats were much worse. When Jock got back to order the new craft for the 1937 Boat Race, he gave the builders an ultimatum, “Build a stiff boat or I will order one from abroad…”
To the non-rowing reader, this tale may have been a bore, but it is with some pride that I record that it was Jock and I who instigated the first major change in the construction of British racing boats. It is strange that we in Britain have led the world in inventiveness, and perhaps still do, but yet are too vain or too conservative to spot when the foreigner has got a better idea.
(After Oxford’s races in Germany were over) Jock made his way to the Berlin Olympics to study the great concourse of oarsmen from all over the world. He took three vital decisions which were to have dramatic effects.
Firstly, it was at these Olympics that Jock was finally convinced that, whatever the ‘Old Men’ said or thought, the university boats would be rigged with swivels. He took note that not a single crew in Berlin used the fixed pins oar mounting which the Phoenicians and Pharaoh’s boatmen had found so useful, and determined that Oxford would also change.
Secondly, he noted that the great Washington crew, which was victorious in the final of the Eights, had been rowing together unchanged in the same order for over a year. Jock thereupon determined to pick the best eight men and weld them unchanged into a strong winning crew, and this indeed is what he did.
The third great triumph from Berlin was that Jock persuaded Jan Sturrock and Conrad Cherry, who had both rowed in the British Olympic Four, to stay up at Oxford another year for the worthy purpose of at last winning the Boat Race. They were to form the experienced powerhouse at 6 and 7 behind our first class stroke, Brian Hodgson…
The fourth great decision by Lewes was to stand down the coaches who were unyielding defenders of the “orthodox” style of rowing, notably Peter Haig Thomas and Kenneth Payne, two Cambridge men who defected when the Light Blues turned to Fairbairnism. Jock chose Gully Nickalls and Pat Mallam to teach the style that had brought such success to Cambridge and brought in William Rathbone as finishing coach.
Things started to go well for Oxford. In mid-February, against the advice of his coaches, Lewes arranged for his crew to race against an eight from London Rowing Club – the Dark Blues won.
Even better, things started to go badly for Cambridge. Göran Buckhorn:
Ran Laurie suddenly left when he was given a post in Sudan, where his great friend Jack Wilson was already working. The fellow who took Laurie’s stroke seat, H.W. Mason, broke his leg in a ski accident and was out for the season. Cambridge signed up the well-known oarsman Jack Bersford, Jnr., as coach, but this was his first coaching job for a Blue boat and little was achieved.
Mike Ashby again:
Our three months or so of training was one of the happiest and carefree periods of our lives. There was however one sad drama…. To our astonishment and horror, Jock, our splendid President, got out and (gave) David Winser … his place. Now he could only watch for the great victory for which he had done so much to achieve. Few people would have had the courage to impose such self discipline……
On 12 March 1937, David Haig Thomas wrote:
JS Lewes… had put up such a wonderful performance in the sculls at Oxford. This is the real tragedy of the Oxford crew – that Lewes, the always cheerful president with the wonderful racing spirit, does not combine with the others. However, there is still time before the Boat Race, and somehow he will have to learn to follow the others and give up his style which, though effective in the sculling boat, is found wanting when rowing in the eight.
Haig Thomas was not the only critic of certain crew members. On 11 March, Isis wrote:
Something is very wrong with the crew. Its earlier promise has not been fulfilled… It is too late to teach the weak men in the crew to mend their ways, but not too late to put better men in.
On 12 March 1937, only two weeks before the race, The Times reported that President Lewes had taken himself out of the crew and his place at “2” had been taken by David Winser:
After Mynors was replaced (at “3”) by Stewart (and) with Ashby’s improvement (at bow), Lewes became unable to keep the boat straight against the strengthened bow side, and, reluctant as (the coaches) Mr. Nickalls and Mr. Mallam must have been to recommended so fine a leader and so hard a racer to stand down, there was plainly no other course open.
Thus, Lewes joined the small and exclusive club of non-rowing Presidents of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Clubs.
Göran Buckhorn’s 2011 piece on Lewes takes up the story:
“The race was full of thrills, for there was a false start and a couple of slight fouls,” GC Drinkwater writes in his The Boat Race (1939). At the start Oxford was not ready, while Cambridge took off. After two strokes the Light Blues were called back. Cambridge led slightly after the second, clean start.
Gordon Ross writes in The Boat Race (1954): “It was ding-dong to Hammersmith bridge and the crews shot the bridge a breast.” The crews were level at Chiswick Eyot but at Barnes Bridge, Oxford was leading by almost a length. This gave the Dark Blues a push and they continued to pull away, crossing the finish line first, three lengths ahead of their opponents.
It was a sweet victory. Oxford had waited for many years; last time they had won was in 1923. “Behind this great Oxford win there lies the story of a very fine President”, Ross writes.
Göran Buckhorn also quotes Richard Burnell’s view in The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race (1954):
Lewes did more to win the 1937 Boat Race for Oxford than any other man, in or out of the boat. He was passionately convinced that the need was for men who race, and who would be happy together, and that the technique of rowing style was something to be taught by the coaches.
How much Jock Lewes’ Presidency of OUBC prepared him for co-founding the Special Air Service, we can only speculate but HTBS has often written about how the qualities that make a good rower also make a good soldier. Few people exemplify this more than Jock Lewes.
Addendum: The SAS Colours
The Times of 27 July 1996 quoted a piece of research published in Mars and Minerva, the SAS Regimental Association’s newsletter, about the regiment’s so-called “winged dagger” emblem designed by one of the “Originals”, Bob Tait:
Regimental history is not a strong point within the regiment… The cap badge is Damocles’s sword of retribution, surrounded by flames – not a winged dagger.
The Times continues:
The research also explained why the SAS colours are a mixture of Oxford and Cambridge blues. Colonel Stirling went to Cambridge and his first lieutenant in the newly formed regiment, Jock Lewes, was educated at Oxford.
It is a nice story, but Stirling was sent down in his first year and it seems a very “establishment” thing for a very anti-establishment unit to do. In the words of Wikipedia, “Citation needed.”
In 2017, the BBC produced a three-part conventional documentary titled SAS: Rogue Warriors, also based on Ben Macintyre’s book. For the next three weeks, those in Britain will be able to view it on the BBC’s iPlayer. In Episode 1, Jock Lewes’ story begins at 20 minutes 43 seconds. The six-part 2022 drama, SAS: Rogue Heroes is on iPlayer for the next year.
What an admirable individual!
A true hero in every sense of the word.