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In a sense it was the professional rowers like the Phelpses (who virtually lived in their sculling boats), that set the standard in terms of commitment and dedication that provided the basis and inspiration of today’s international successes. From the Foreword by Sir Steve Redgrave Maurice Phelps was always a reluctant oarsman. Sitting at the feet of great professionals as a boy – Dan Cordury, Ernie Barry, Ted Phelps and others – in their endless talks with his father, he grew to reject the sport. Despite high publicity by Hylton Cleaver and others as the first Phelps for Oxford, he refused to row seriously.

He now lives close to the Thames, owns an Edwin Phelps sculling boat and has worked with his cousins to write this book to make some sort of amends.

Maurice Phelps

Now he deeply regrets that decision and the disappointment he caused his father.


This is a story of a family that has been passionate about the River Thames for over 350 years and probably a lot longer. It has played on it and competed on it, but primarily it has worked on it.


The Phelps Dynasty is the story of a riverside family – its pedigree, its rowing tradition and its close association with the Thames. For generations it has lived and played on the river’s shores and worked on its tides. But most importantly it has competed. Its rowing achievements are extraordinary. As professionals, ten of the family won the Doggett’s Coat and Badge; members won the World’s Professional Sculling championship and held the English and European Professional Sculling titles; when permitted they coached Diamond and Wingfield sculling winners and Olympic performers. As professional crews they were never known to be beaten by an amateur crew whenever or wherever they were allowed to perform. These champions came not from public school or university environments, but from a hard underprivileged working background. It is a story of memorable individuals, their social environment and their sporting achievements. The book in entirety covers ten generations of the family – nine of which were without exception apprenticed watermen and lightermen, scraping a living on the waters of the Thames. It grapples with the social conditions which they endured – disease, multiple infantile death, hard grinding work and social prejudice. It records their remarkable sporting achievements in a society which didn’t want to know. They were tough people – both wives and husbands – who seemed somehow to believe that they had something special to offer.

The Story of a Riverside Family by Maurice Phelps

Although the book presents a serious view of their lives and the competitive sporting environment against which they performed, it also describes a family which had a huge sense of humour. This book is guaranteed to make the reader laugh. None of the colourful characters involved sat down complaining of their fate, none were grumpy old men; none blamed society for their lot – they laughed at it all and just got on with life – they were remarkable competitors both in their sport and in the way they lived! This book tells their story.

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The PhelPs DynasTy a story of a Riverside Family

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The PhelPs DynasTy a story of a Riverside Family by

Maurice Phelps

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Copyright Š Maurice Phelps 2012 First published 2012 by 09 08 07 06 05 04 03 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 The right of Maurice Phelps to be identified as the author of this Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents act 1988. all rights reserved. no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher or a license permitting restricted copying. In the UK such licenses are issued by the Copyright licensing agency, 90 Tottenham Court Road, london W1P 9he. IsBn: 978-1-909075-00-9 The cover shows Mr Phelps is Prepared for a Scull by Julia Phelps, c.1985. The reverse shows six of the Phelps Doggett’s Coat and Badge winners.

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Dedication For and From the Family

“...We go as far back as the thirteenth century.... There are records of the Phelps family plying here on the Thames as watermen right back to the Middle ages. I suppose knowledge of the Thames is in our blood. We know every current in the water...�


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Acknowledgements Primarily I must thank my dearest cousin, Julia, for providing the inspiration for the book. she sadly died in 1993. It would never have been written without her. all my cousins and my sister have played a monumental part. They wrote the first chapters on the brothers, patiently went through early drafts and corrected horrendous mistakes. My thanks to Frances, for her kindness and faultless memory, Michael, for his patience with my scant knowledge of real rowing, Joan, Rita, alan, David and Ron for their friendship and provision of critical material. I am indebted to Christopher Dodd, who has from early days provided encouragement, advice and opportunities. In later days I have received high quality advice and material from Tony hancox and Christopher Meade. The book strengthend a friendship with Chas newnes, introduced me to the marvellous George saunders and the remarkable but sadly deceased Tony Owens. a real thank you to Diana Cook for her valuable criticism. I must mention with special thanks my ex-work colleague sara hunter, who has produced all the drafts, organised the photographs and illustrations and has ceaselessly come up with new ideas. My two dogs, Matilda and harry, have provided hours of wood-walking, when I have been able to think. There will be many mistakes and omissions in the pages – they are all my responsibility. But if this book isn’t published now, it may never see the light of day. Oh! and thank you especially darling!


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Contents xi xiii xvii

FOReWORD aUThOR’s nOTe anD GlOssaRy PReFaCe

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Interlude 1 – the rIver


a FaMIly WaGeR


Interlude 2 – doggett’S Coat and Badge raCe




Interlude 3 – a Matter of SeleCtIon


The PROFessIOnal ReGReT


Interlude 4 – extraCt froM ‘the henley Standard’


ChaRlIe PhelPs (1859 – 1928)


Interlude 5 – “PullIng hard”


eDWIn (TeD) PhelPs (1890 – 1974)


Interlude 6 – MuSIC In the nIght


haRRy ThOMas PhelPs (1893 – 1973)


Interlude 7 – CatChIng a thIef


ThOMas JaMes PhelPs (1896 – 1971)


Interlude 8 – PePPer Pot tIMeS


RIChaRD WIllIaM PhelPs (1897 – 1989)


Interlude 9 – a JoyouS day


ChaRles VesTa PhelPs (1901 – 1984)


Interlude 10 – the day the World Changed



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JOhn leslIe PhelPs (JaCK) (1903 – 1983)


Interlude 11 – a letter to lord MountBatten, June 1977


WIllIaM FReDeRICK PhelPs (1905 – 1977)


Interlude 12 – henley 1962


eDWIn haRRy PhelPs (1917 – 1979)


Interlude 13 – an edWIn PhelPS oWnerShIP


The BOssIe PhenOMenOn


Interlude 14 – the ProCeSSIon


The enGIne ROOM


Interlude 15 – a tIMe to Be Born and a tIMe to dIe



a FaMIly aFFaIR



enD PIeCes



anD Then… PeRhaPs IT Isn’T OVeR aT all!


aPPenDIx 1 – The FaMIly ROWInG ReCORD


aPPenDIx 2 – FaMIly TRees




11 12 13 14


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Foreword This is a fascinating story and one worth the telling. It is of course a story of oarsmanship, but it is not the usual tale of Olympic achievement, of University Boat Race grit or even henley Royal Regatta performances. It contains a lot of that stuff but none of it is the real essence of the book. This is a story of a family that has been passionate about the River Thames for over 350 years and probably a lot longer. It has played on it and competed on it, but primarily it has worked on it. The Phelps family began as wherry men, carrying passengers from one landing stage to another; they raced on it not for fun but to earn money to feed their families; and finally they built racing boats for others to use in major rowing events across the world, from most of which for many years they were denied participation. Their achievements (and there were many) were set against an environment of hard slog, poverty and under privilege. yet that seemed only to bring out from them not only determination and grit but, as importantly, a humour that still resonates across rowing circles today. There are many laugh-wrenching stories in the book’s pages. The Phelps generation from the middle of the nineteenth century to the last quarter of the twentieth century achieved indelible results in a rowing world which for many years attempted to downplay, if not exclude, so-called ‘artisans’ and people who earned their living through manual labour. Fortunately now that is history – but important history nevertheless. But for sheer accident of time, many of us who have relished the sport and gained so much from it, would not have been allowed to participate in it. In a sense it was the professional rowers like the Phelpses (who virtually lived in their sculling boats), that set the standard in terms of commitment and dedication that provided the basis and inspiration of today’s international successes. It is somewhat typical of a family that has survived all the changes to river life and the sport of rowing over the past 350 years that now they boast Oxbridge rowers, Olympic competitors and World Champions amongst their number – and by all accounts, the next generation are already afloat, pounding up and down the Thames just as their forefathers have done for generations before them. They have my heartfelt best wishes.

sir steve Redgrave


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Author’s note and Glossary In any sport, there are a range of expressions and titles which are familiar language to the inner circle, but totally bemuse those listeners or readers who are not part of that specific sporting world. To assist readers through this book we are providing below a glossary of some of the more eclectic words used. here they are: ara – amateur Rowing association. Blade – flattened or spoon-shaped end of oar or scull; often used as a term for oar. Bow – forward end of boat. Bow (man) – the rower in the seat nearest the bow. Bow Ball – safety ball fitted to sharp stem of racing boat. Bowside (starboard) – all the rowers whose oars are in the water on the right hand side of the boat when viewed from the stern. Button – leather or plastic sheath on oar to prevent it slipping through the rowlock; adjustable on modern oars. Canvas – the canvas on fore (front) and aft (back) decks of a boat; in race verdicts the distance between the bow ball and the bow man’s position. Catch – the part of the stroke when the blade is put in the water. Clinker – planking on the side body of the boat, in which the lower edge of a plank overlaps the upper edge of the one below it. Cox or Coxswain – the member of the crew responsible for steering the craft. Coxed four, pair – a four-oar or pair-oar with a coxswain; sometimes known as four with, pair with. Coxless four, pair – a four-pair or pair-oar without a coxswain; sometimes known as four without, straight four, straight pair. Crab – occurs when rower fails to get the oar out of the water at the end of the stroke; can result in the rower being ejected from the boat to water. Crew – rowers who man a boat; american college term for rowing. dab – a short stroke without power. deck – covered-over areas at bow and stern of boat. double – two scullers without cox. eight – eight rowers with cox. feather – to turn the blade parallel with the water surface at the start of the recovery to reduce wind resistance. fin – a small flat plate perpendicular to the bottom of the boat to aid steering a straight course. finish – the part of the stroke just before the blade is taken out of the water. fixed Pin – a rowlock in which the oar slides between two fixed vertical wooden thole pins. xiii

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the Phelps dynasty four – four rowers with or without cox. gate – bar across a rowlock to retain the oar. gig – inboard or outboard-rigged pleasure or racing boat with straight gunwales. gunwale – the upper edge of the side of a boat. hands away – the act of turning the oar handle at the finish of the stroke so that the blade leaves the water and is feathered at the start of the recovery. Keel – member running along the centre line of a wooden boat to which all other parts are attached. lighter – a flat bottomed or other boat for shifting goods between land and sea. lighterman – waterman who unloads cargo from ships and carries it into port by lighter. nara – national amateur Rowing association. oar – a lever approximately 12 feet long by which the rower pulls against the rowlock to move the boat through the water; sometimes used as a shortened form of oarsman. outrigger (rigger) – a metal framework or a carbon-fibre-reinforced arm to support the rowlock which is placed approximately 30 inches (76 cm) from the centre of the boat. Pair – two rowers with or without a cox. Port (larboard) – stroke-side, the left-hand side of the boat when facing the bow. Puddles – whirls left in the water caused by the blade as the rower pulls. Pulling – rowing or sculling (freshwater); working one oar with both hands (salt water). Pull-through – the part of the stroke between the catch and the finish. Quadruple – a shell for four scullers. rating (beat) – the rate of striking, or the number of strokes per minute that a crew is rowing. recovery – the part of the stroke cycle between the finish and the catch in which the oar is feathered and the seat is returned to the aft end of the slide. regatta – a competitive event raced in boats (regata, Venetian, perhaps from riga (line), aurigare (to compete in a race), ramigium (rowing)). release (or finish) – the part of the stroke just before the blade is taken out of the water. rhythm – the proportion of time occupied on the recovery to the time taken on the pullthrough. ribs – members between keel and gunwale for supporting the hull. rig – German rig, Italian rig, standard rig. rowing (sweep rowing) – using one oar or sweep (freshwater); using two oars (saltwater); see also Crew. rowlock (rollock, oarlock) – a bracket which swivels on the end of the outrigger to support the oar. rudder – steering device attached to the stern or under the hull of a shell. rum-tum – a short, wide clinker sculling boat. run – the distance a boat travels in one stroke. Sculling – using two oars or sculls (freshwater); using one oar over stern (salt water). Sculls – short oars used in pairs for singles, doubles and quads. xiv

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glossary Shell – smooth bottomed racing boat; ‘light shells made of wood’ (samuel hearne, 1776); ‘light narrow racing boat’ (Usa 1873); ‘the floating part of a racing boat’ (Oxford english Dictionary, 1895); see also eight, four, Pair, Quadruple, double, Single. Shoulder – reinforcement for thole pins or outriggers. Single – shell for one sculler. Skeg – the after part of a boat’s keel. Skiff – racing boat for single sculler (north of england); clinker pleasure boat for several passengers, sculled by one, two or three persons (River Thames). Slide – a seat which moves on wheels on parallel rails. Standard rig – uniform alternation of outriggers (and therefore oars and rowers) in the boat; the rower in the seat nearest the stern is usually on stroke side. Starboard – bow side, the right-hand side of the boat when facing the bow. Stern – the back of the boat. Stretcher – a frame with straps or shoes to anchor the rower’s feet. Stroke – the complete cycle of moving the boat through the water using oars; the rower seated nearest the stern. Stroke side (port) – all the rowers whose oars are in the water on the left-hand side of the boat when viewed from the stern. Sweep – long oars with narrow blades; see also rowing. Swivel – a square or round rotating rowlock. thole – a pin in the gunwale of a boat to keep oar in rowlock. tingle – a small splice or insertion of timber to repair damage. tub – half-outrigged gig for training. Washboard – a narrow strake placed round a boat to keep water out. Washing out – occurs when the blade comes out of the water during the pull-through before the finish. Waterman – a fully apprenticed operator licensed to navigate passenger and other craft on the Thames. Wherry – Thames ferry. Whiff – half-outrigged sculling boat.


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Preface like so many worthwhile projects, this one has taken so long to reach any sort of finality. It began many years ago when some of the Phelps brothers started to collate their river and rowing memories and achievements. some did it with scrapbooks and diaries, but many did it (like the great classical story tellers) by word of mouth, passing on their lives with mirthful tales, embellished over time but always fascinating to hear. The real start of this project took place in the little angel Pub in henley-on-Thames some time in 1988, when I had lunch with Julia Phelps (my dearly beloved cousin, and highly appraised artist), who reintroduced me to my broad family. Over our food and bottle of wine on that day the idea of writing a history of the family of Phelps emerged. so excited were we by the concept that we almost ran to the Bohun art Gallery in henley where I bought her painting ‘Mr Phelps is Prepared for a scull’ – a marvellous memory of that fated afternoon! sadly, Julia died in 1993, but the project has not died. On contact with other cousins an enthusiasm arose to record a remarkable generation – remarkable in its rowing and waterside reputation, but also renowned for its resilience and gentle humour. at last in 2012, the task is as near completion as it can ever be. like the beloved River Thames itself, it has proved impossible to fathom all the depths of the characters involved – they died with so many secrets intact. This book comprises contributions from the offspring of the Phelps brothers and sisters. It tries to tell the story of the generation, which, despite all types of deprivation, had a real impact upon the rowing world. This is intended to be a publication praising their remarkable achievements. If it achieves nothing else for our generation of Phelps it is a written record of our fathers and their sisters – and it is importantly something to pass on to the next generation. In its writing we have taken advice from many professional editors and writers. Various structures have been proposed, including coverage by subject or chronology. however, we decided to stick with the individual personality structure. It has meant some repetition, for which we apologise, but we believe it has retained the integrity of the individual characters involved. The story would be nothing without them.


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the Cricketers Pub Personally, I would ask my relations to excuse two intrusions. I have invented some dialogue and some situations – but fewer than you may think! For many years I would sit at the Cricketers Pub (sadly no more!) on Putney Common at sunday lunchtime, listening to my father, harry and his brother, Dick, exchange stories. The stories were often repetitive but were embellished with such telling. I have tried to reproduce some of the stories and the language they used. I have then used my memory to reproduce some typical Phelpsian farandoles – the types of incidents which they talked about so articulately, but which needed language to give them the drama (normally comic), which would bring them back to life. It was an impossible task. I have not succeeded. some of the writing is factional, but it is intended to represent the spirit of their living. In my opinion that alone has been worth the effort of us all.


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Interlude 1 the River This book outlines the lives of so many memorable characters – they are the reason the book has been attempted. however, without exception they are all dominated by a major presence – the River. Rising somewhere near Cirencester and flowing in various moods down to the sea, the River Thames covers some 215 miles and influences on a daily basis the lives of thousands of people. The Phelps’ river, however, is largely confined to some one-and-a-half miles from Putney Bridge to hammersmith Bridge, a tidal reach that dominated the lives of so many characters who figure prominently in this book. Compared with other reaches encountered in the journey from source to mouth it is not outstandingly attractive. It is straight from Putney Bridge to Beverley Brook and then curves for a mile towards hammersmith Bridge. It is wide and seemingly powerful. It nurses trees and a walking towpath on the Putney/Barnes side, but beyond Bishop’s Park on the Fulham side it has been highly developed. Walking along the Putney embankment on a fine spring or summer day, with high activity on the water, it can be a joy to view. In the depths of winter, however, it presents a cold and sullen spectacle, a place which one seeks to leave rapidly to join human company – a brooding, forbidding, lugubrious spectre. The family would have seen the river in all its moods, and it would have accepted them as immutable elements of their lives. For the generation of this book, the Putney embankment complemented the tidal run of the River – the smell of wood fires on the foreshore, of varnish in the boathouses, of crunching shingle and soft mud at low tide. That generation would have known the River radiating good will, sparkling in sunshine, laughing with its visitors, inviting everyone to enjoy its hospitality. It would have lived with it at its most ungenerous – cold and bleak, driftwood in the water and on the foreshore, rubbish whirling where the tide could not reach, lively smelling mud and soft black waves stirring the very entrails of the river bed. yet people sought it out. Men and women in depths of despair would lean upon the railings, perhaps some contemplating suicide and others seeking some form of inspiration; people


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the Phelps dynasty asking questions. It is doubtful whether the River ever gave answers. It just unflinchingly moved on, keeping its secrets of currents and eddies that it shared only with a few. The River is a hard task master. It does not tolerate abuse. It has caused many tragedies and as part of nature has always been totally unforgiving. It needs to be respected and never trusted. In its eyes everyone is equal. Perhaps this was part of the fascination for the family. It provided a levelling of social and class distinction. It could not be bought. It respected only those people who knew its ways, who could read its moods, who understood its soul. experience and skill was everything – the river would tolerate nothing else.

Watching for the Boatrace

after the Boatrace

the river and Its Moods Paintings by Julia Phelps, catching the spirit of the thames


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Chapter 1 A Family Wager The 9th January 1921 is the date we have chosen to start our story. It is a strange date to choose, since it is not significant in the history of the family, recording no great race victory (of which there were many), nor a birth (of which there were more), nor a death (which happened to them all in due course). however it is a good place to start, since it was a day when all the major characters in this book were on stage, doing what they all really liked to do best – moving a boat on the Thames. even the seeds of this story were sown before this date, probably in the half Moon hotel, on the lower Richmond Road, Putney, sometime in august of the previous year. Much always began there. seven thirty in the evening, Charlie Phelps senior had two elbows on the bar enjoying one of his early pints after a working day tapping copper nails into a racing eight. next to him stood arthur Readings, a local grocer, supplier of goods to many of the boathouses along the Putney embankment. The conversation probably went something like this...

the half Moon hotel, 1904 3

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the Phelps dynasty “young harry is doing all right Charlie!” arthur offered. harry had won the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race a few months beforehand. Charlie said nothing for a time, and then nodded. “not bad! Got a bloody girl though – that’ll slow ’im down!” “you’ve got some others coming up as well, Charlie – handsome lads!” Charlie supped his beer, and paused . “you’re right, arthur – good boys!” “should earn good money on the circuit!” “Ten years younger and I’d beat the bloody lot of ’em,” Charlie grinned. and that was the comment that made it happen.

Charlie Phelps was a prolific begetter of babies. In 1921 he had seven sons and a daughter, all of them healthy and striving. There had been others, but the first-born son had died at birth, and his adored Polly had died some three years earlier. Charlotte was the mother of them all – a strong and determined woman, who herself had a respected reputation on the Thames. Charlotte sarah Brooks had been a stewardess on the steamer ‘Citizen’, master of which was John henry hawkins. One day he let her take the wheel and she brought the steamer up the river to Blackfriars Bridge and was never faulted. John henry hawkins was severely censored by the authorities, but, according to reports, Charlotte was given a glass of wine and declared unofficially a master in her own right. If Charlie encouraged his children to be close to the water, Charlotte drove them to perform. Charlie Phelps loved the Thames – it was almost his total life. he brought his sons up to have the same sense for it, although to be fair they had very little option. educated at a foundation school for watermen and clothed by the same foundation as children, they were drenched in the watermen’s traditions. all of them became apprentices, most of them under Charlie as their master, and all of them rowed on the Putney reaches from the age of about four years onwards. The level of competition amongst the seven boys was high, yet for all their lives they remained close, meeting regularly as brothers to celebrate each other’s birthdays, and on hand when any trouble threatened. They differed widely in character. For his whole life the eldest, Ted, seemed to struggle with malevolent fortune – failing to 4

Charlotte with Charlie, Jack and Bill at 48

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Chapter 1: a family Wager win the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race with a body drained of energy through nursing a sick brother for nights before the event. he was nevertheless generally recognised as a class oarsman. harry, Tom, Dick and Jack were competitors – always close friends but never happy with second place at any time whether it be a race or a social event. young Charlie was never really interested in the river. he rowed for a while through duty, but sought only to move away from it all. and Bill, the youngest, was the baby of the family – spoiled by his brothers, he played life for fun, like he played his banjo. The Phelps household was dominated by river talk. Meal times revolved around rowing and the waterside. Charlotte held her own in these arguments – because arguments they were – and disagreement was rife, but with hard words forgotten very quickly. May, the surviving daughter, was loved but largely ignored – sitting quietly, hardly ever asked to offer an opinion. and so it was that some days later arthur Readings stood in his shop, when John Thomas Phelps entered. Known everywhere as ‘Bossie’, John Thomas Phelps was the son of Charlie’s brother, also called John Thomas Phelps. John Thomas senior was known in Putney as ‘Old Bossie’ and was a boat-builder, owning his own business on the Putney embankment, and leaving it to his son. although Bossie was therefore a boat-builder by inheritance, by choice and by reputation he should have been an impresario or an actor. he regarded himself as the chief Phelps of the time. as hylton Cleaver stated in “a history of Rowing”, “Bossie had style, manners and mannerisms. he was a great river pilot, the prince of coaches.” But he never won Doggett’s, and was consequently always regarded by Charlie Phelps, his uncle, as something of an upstart. nevertheless, he employed many of the brothers at some time in their careers and was a major influence upon edwin, the last Phelps to win Doggett’s in 1938. Both of Bossie’s sons were to become major performers in the world of Professional sculling – one a World Professional Champion and the other an english and european Champion. Bossie never dressed as a worker. Bossie was invariably dressed in a three-piece suit, hat, and gold watch chain – strong in opinion, and never eclipsed by others.


Bossie in 1920

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the Phelps dynasty

Bossie in 1922 in bowler hat, leading a party of doggett’s winners

“arthur, I need some provisions for a little ‘do’ I’m organising in my workshop next week,” his request would have been. some detail would have been discussed – no mention of payment would have been raised – Bossie was notorious for ignoring financial restraint. It was probably in the course of this meeting that the earlier conversation with Charlie was mentioned, and as always, lights glittered in Bossie’s mind as an idea began to surface. If Charlie believed he could beat his sons, why didn’t he provide the opportunity? some days later Bossie made an infrequent visit to Felsham Road, the Phelps household, known to the Phelps family as ‘The Old Cottage’. a gate and a derelict bare-earthed path led up to the front door, always badly in need of paint. Bossie, like everyone else, marveled at how Charlotte had managed to give birth and rear such a large family in such a small space – a front and back room downstairs with a stove and a lean-to scullery plus a tap. Upstairs, just two


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Chapter 1: a family Wager bedrooms, where at any one time slept seven boys, a girl and their parents. not unexpectedly the loo stood far away at the bottom of the garden, requiring frequent attention. “aunt, how are you?” he asked, followed by a genuine hug. Charlotte loved visitors and was genuinely fond of Bossie, a lively, optimistic, micawber character – reflecting many of her own natural instincts. no, Charlie wasn’t home, it was only 5.30pm. he would either be in the half Moon, or on the foreshore. Jack and Bill were in the back yard. Bossie went through, and for a few minutes joined in a football game in a ragged dirt yard on a piece of bare ground, where chickens scuttled. sunflowers grew avidly near the loo, providing the seeds for the infamous parrot that Charlotte adored. The loo was generously covered with Russian vine, making a highly utilitarian shed vaguely attractive. It was several days before Bossie and Charlie met up. It was outside the Thames Rowing Club, with Charlie watching crews going afloat for their evening row. a Phelps family race? Charlie hadn’t raced for years. his rowing was now confined to a ferry service across to Bishop’s Park. Of course he would do it, and bloody win. he didn’t know about the others, but if there was a crowd there and some pretty girls, he guessed they would go along with it. Putney Bridge to hammersmith Bridge sounded good. handicap? There would be no bloody handicap – he wasn’t giving a start to anyone! laughter, and a short walk to the half Moon hotel for a few beers to discuss details. It took Charlotte and the senior boys to bring some sense to the situation. They heard the idea from Charlie over a roast sunday lunch, when Charlie had downed a few beers, and was less than coherent. as an idea it was accepted warmly, but practicalities were raised, such as who would supply the racing boats, who would organise the stake boats, who would be the judge. Charlie assured them that Bossie would handle all these details. amid laughter, Tom suggested that in that case Bossie would win without taking part! however, the real discussion took place between Charlotte, Ted, harry, Tom and Dick, all of whom were concerned at Charlie’s determination to row and at his obvious deterioration in health. he just wouldn’t make it. someone suggested a sprint as opposed to a longer race, and someone else suggested a handicap. It was so easy to agree the sprint – it would be between Putney Bridge and Beverley Brook, a distance of about a half-mile. But the handicap! To understand the Phelps family, one needs to understand both competition and pride – no one would agree to be handicapped. so the competition looked dead. no one would give an inch to anyone else. Finally, Bill proposed the solution – by protesting that he stood no chance at 15 years rowing against his elder brothers without some sort of advantage. It was agreed that Bill would have pole position, followed by young Charlie and Jack who were both relatively young and 7

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the Phelps dynasty





the Putney river

inexperienced on the tideway. Ted, harry, Tom and Dick would start together. no one dared suggest where father Charlie should line up. Weeks went by without action until Bossie raised the subject with Tom, who gave him an update of the inner circle discussions. “leave it with me, Tom!” laughed Bossie, “I’ll fix everything!” amazingly he almost did just that. Discussions with Thames Rowing Club produced some type of agreement that they would provide the rum-tums, which purely left the question of the best date, the officials, and of course the handicap to be settled. The date was finally set for the morning of sunday 9th January, when the tide was on the ebb and they were all free from work.


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Chapter 1: a family Wager Walter Morrison, a close friend of the family, agreed to be distant judge. Walter was an active member of the st. Mary’s Recreation Club, which parented the future Putney Town Rowing Club, the only club on the river that catered for professional watermen. Walter was a trusted friend and in a world of professional rowing where ‘dirty tricks’ were rife, he was regarded by all as ‘incorruptible’ – his strong church background gave the family even greater confidence. another friend of the family Charlie light, a fellow waterman, readily agreed to be starter, promised a free evening of drink by Bossie after the event. Then with much reluctance, arthur Readings was persuaded to decide the final handicap placements. arthur had drawn the short straw, but Bossie had asked, and if he wanted many outstanding bills to be paid, then he felt he had limited options. he was approached separately by each of the elder brothers urging that their father should be given the highest handicap; all concerned that he would damage his health further even over this short distance. now came the technical calculations – sculling from Putney Bridge to Beverley Brook, a distance of half a mile should take about 3 minutes 30 seconds. arthur thought it reasonable to give Bill, the youngster, 60 seconds over the scratch position, and under pressure he allocated the same handicap to old Charlie, without telling him in advance. he gave 30 seconds to young Charlie, and 12 seconds to Jack who was a promising oarsman, but at 18 years was not likely to have the experience or guile of his elder brothers. he was very aware that harry had won the Doggett’s Badge a few months earlier for the delayed 1919 race, and so was in confident form. There was little doubt that he should be on ‘scratch’. he then needed to take advice from Bossie for the rest. Bossie as usual was clear. Tom was to row for the Badge in 1922, but should be given some advantage over harry – say one stroke (maybe two seconds). Ted should have won his Badge, but for some reason hadn’t. however, he was in style an excellent sculler, and should start with Tom. Dick would not row for the Badge for some two-plus years and should have a further stroke advantage (say four seconds). There it was. arthur accepted the advice unsurprised by the certainty, but wondering, just wondering as he walked away whether Bossie had already taken some side bets. Bossie met harry a few days later and slipped him the handicap proposals. harry buried his head in his hands in mock distress. “Bossie, Dad will chase you up Putney hill for this!” “sell it to him, cos! he starts with his baby, and if he wins all his pride is intact. If he doesn’t he was just coaching his youngster. This way Charlie will never come last!”


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the Phelps dynasty

the handicap harry Phelps



edwin Phelps 2 seconds Tom Phelps Dick Phelps


4 seconds

Jack Phelps


12 seconds

Charlie Phelps (Jr) -

30 seconds

Charlie Phelps (sr) 60 seconds Bill Phelps The arguments over the handicapping were extreme. nobody agreed anything, apart from harry who enjoyed the idea of being scratch. But Dick certainly didn’t believe he needed a stroke over Ted and Tom. Jack said he would be in the pub by the time the others finished. Charlie senior said he would be on his second pint by that time. It was Tom who eventually brought sense into the discussion, suggesting that it didn’t really matter, since if Walter Morrison did his job properly then the times would decide who was the real winner. In truth the handicapping was probably less important than the idea of a public event. In a sense most of them were showmen. They delighted in public exposure, and the glamour of exhibition. They were all healthy young men, looking to flash their skills and good looks to any girls who wanted to know – apart from they were all healthy young men, Charlie senior that is, who nevertheless still had a real twinkle in his eye!

looking to flash their skills and good looks to any girls who wanted to know.

The show was on!

This was the world of professional rowing, so the likelihood of no wagers taking place was unthinkable. Wagers were a part of Bossie’s world. The bets were likely to be high, with harry Phelps clearly favourite, and Tom Phelps being a sound outsider. no one of course knows where Bossie’s money went, but it was said he was grinning and laughing at the result. Charlie senior would have wagered heavily and he would certainly have bet on himself. It 10

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Chapter 1: a family Wager was an elemental part of his character – total confidence in his own ability to win anything. so 9th January 1921 dawned. It was a grey day, but short of rain. The news of the race had been spread widely, and hundreds of people gathered early on the Putney foreshore. It was a spectacle to be enjoyed. a father and seven sons racing against each other sparked imagination. Rowing in Putney was big. It was only a short few years ago in 1913 when mounted police were needed to restrain crowds welcoming ernie Barrie of Great Britain after his victory over ernest arnst of ernie Barry with escort in 1913 on the Putney embankment australia for the World sculling Championship. It is reported that on 9th January 1921, “several thousand turned out to witness it [the race]” and that “big crowds of the amateur oarsmen crowded the balconies of the Thames and Vesta Clubs.” Jack and Bill Phelps were there early at something like 11.00am, carrying the rum-tums down to the foreshore from the Thames Rowing Club. The Putney foreshore was a metropolis of activity. The boat-builders built their bonfires on the shore, producing whirling scents of burning new wood. Crews of eights, fours, doubles and single scullers paraded down to the river’s edge, and patient boatmen managed their launch. and then near the boathouses the smell of varnish and paint produced the final ingredient for the riverside cocktail. all this the two young boys would have taken in, as they paraded to and fro from the Thames Club with oars and boats. the thames rowing Club in 1921 11

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the Phelps dynasty The low tide was at 12.40pm – the ideal time for the race to event before the hardness of the new tide built tough resistance and the dead refuse of the Thames was swept back into the river. all but one of the rum-tums were on the shore by 11.45am. Bill and Jack had worked hard. now they stood to take in the developing scene. Bossie had done a great job advertising the event and as the crowds gathered, he stood for a short time outside the Thames Rowing Club speaking to the press. “We go as far back as the thirteenth century,” he grinned, “there are records of the Phelps family plying here on the Thames as watermen right back to the Middle ages. I suppose knowledge of the Thames is in our blood. We know every current in the water, and that’s why today is so important – all of us on the water together testing our experience and skills against each other. Gentlemen, I must get into position.” With a touch of his bowler hat, he was off up the steps of the Thames to the bar, appearing seconds later on the balcony with a pint of bitter in his hand. he waved to Bill and Jack, then looking along the embankment saw Dick and Tom approaching.

so they began to gather – the characters who will largely constitute the cast of this book. Bill Phelps was the baby of the family, born in 1905. he was still only 15 at the time of the race, and was for his entire life the joker. Full of humour and fun, he played the banjo, and was still able to do a headstand on the bar at the angel on the Bridge pub in henley at the age of 50 plus, whilst drinking a pint of Guinness! a notorious boatman at Bryanston school and University of london, he never ceased to embarrass his brothers. he played life like a pantomime. Jack Phelps, born in 1903, was nearly 17 in 1920. he was a seriously minded boy, going on to be the fourth brother to win Doggett’s in 1928. he travelled the world before serving as the boatman at london Rowing Club and then gained a high reputation on the ‘Conway’ – the public school for naval Officers. he was remembered fondly by John Masefield. he finally ended his career as boatman at Winchester College. Tom Phelps was born in 1896. In later years he was the quietest of the brothers – softly spoken and diffident in opinion, but nevertheless an astute assessor of rowing ability and never known to predict the wrong result in the Varsity Boat Race. he won Doggett’s in 1922, and spent most of his subsequent career as boatman at london Rowing Club. he was a gentle but powerful public speaker, who introduced Thames watermen to the phrase, “a river of liquid history.” The man who stood alone and statuesque at the helm of sir Winston Churchill’s burial journey down the Thames, he was vastly respected in all rowing circles. On 12

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Chapter 1: a family Wager Christmas Day of 1920, just 15 days before the race, Tom had married May agnes Barber. They were to be partners for the rest of Tom’s life. Maybe, just maybe, Tom’s mind was not fully focused on the race that day! Dick Phelps, born in 1897, was 22 at the time of the race. he was perhaps to become the most respected of the brothers. spending most of his life as boatman for Thames Rowing Club, he traveled with the British Olympic Teams in 1931, 1936, and 1948. he was in Munich in 1936 to see the Great Britain pair, Beresford and southwood, beat the Germans under the eyes of adolf hitler himself – Dick recording it as the finest race he was ever to witness. he was also with the european Championship Team in 1959, and at the Commonwealth Games of 1954 and 1958. like many of his brothers, Dick was a gifted public speaker, with many tales to tell, which he never failed to unfold at the least opportunity. he won Doggett’s in 1923, and was the last of the brothers to die in 1989 at the age of 92. he was known in his later years as ‘Old Father Thames’.

Bill and Jack reckoned they had done enough, so Tom and Dick brought the final boat down to the shore. The crowds were now gathering. Reporters the next day wrote that several thousand spectators were on the spot.

the crowds were now gathering.

“Where are the rest?” queried Dick, looking along reporters the next day wrote that the embankment, enjoying the crowds – the noise of roast chestnut and toffee apple sellers, the sight several thousand spectators were of a Punch and Judy show. he suddenly saw May, on the spot. his sister, standing against the railings, waving wildly at them. he jumped excitedly, noticing that Charlotte, his mother, was standing behind her. The crowd was in raucous mood. “Where’s the old man?” they shouted. “Don’t they know their way?” “Where’s Punch?” Bossie beamed from the Thames balcony, now joined by his sons Ted, aged twelve, and eric, aged eight, two boys who would enhance the sculling reputation of the family in later years. “They’ll bloody well miss the tide!” he murmured, giving Ted a shoulder hug. “Well, they won’t notice!” harry hated to be late. The only brother working on a sunday and finishing late, he missed his bus, so was half running along the embankment when a breathless young Charlie caught him up. “We’re okay, harry!” It was a statement not a question. 13

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the Phelps dynasty “no, Charlie, we’re late! Come on!” They weaved their way sidestepping through the crowds.

harry was born in 1893, and had won Doggett’s earlier in 1920 – the first of the brothers. he was the second eldest. he had volunteered for the army in 1914, and had survived the Gallipoli campaign. he was to go on to work his life in the docklands of Wapping, and in 1927 was to be appointed Bargemaster of the Fishmongers’ Company, holding the appointment to 1972, the longest serving Bargemaster in the history of the race. like Dick and Tom he was a consummate public speaker, his life full of mirthful anecdotes of the great Dickensian characters he met and worked with on the length of the river. young Charlie was born in 1901, and broke the mould. Despite all the pressure from his father and his brothers, he showed little interest in the river, preferring instead to move away at the first opportunity. Regarded as a ‘neat oarsman’, he, like all the others, was apprenticed to the water, and competed for the Doggett’s Coat and Badge in 1926, finishing fifth. he spent the majority of his life working for Gillette – in many respects Charlie was the template for the next generation.

“I wouldn’t have bothered to turn up, if I were you,” laughed Bill, “here, gents, are the losers!” harry playfully clipped Bill hard around the ear, and Bill made to square up. The crowd around responded with playful Oohs! and aahs! Ted strolled down the foreshore. The time was 12.20pm. The eldest brother of the family, he still felt the disappointment of not winning the Doggett’s race in 1914. he had been the clear favourite but something had happened and he had sculled into second place. no one in the family mentioned the event, but he felt burdened by harry’s success a few months earlier. now at least he was happily married to Frances, who had given him a son edwin three years earlier and now Frances, his first daughter. There they were, at the top of the foreshore, waving and shouting at the other brothers.

Ted was born in 1890, apprenticed like his brothers to his father as a waterman and a boatbuilder. he was the only brother who remained throughout his life loyal to the boat-building trade, working on the Putney embankment for the next 50 years firstly for Bossie and then 14

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Chapter 1: a family Wager for his own son, edwin, shaping the racing boats and skiffs that had been part of his family for some 250 years. Despite the shakiness of his hands in normal company, Ted had an unerring accuracy hammering the copper headed nails into the racing shells. he did it for over 65 years. It was edwin, his son, who made up in part for Ted’s early disappointment, by winning Doggett’s himself in 1938. yet Ted’s life was to be dogged by partial tragedy, losing his wife Frances in 1943, and struggling to live with a disabled daughter during years of loneliness, compensated in part by the friendship of the half Moon hotel.

“all set!” It was a statement of the oldest brother. he was tense as usual, but today he was determined to win, to prove at least to the family that he could do it. “Dad’s not here yet,” responded Jack, “and we know where he will be!” “and it won’t be in the library,” chanted Bill. The others stared towards the bridge. now a skiff crunched on the shingle of the foreshore, turning the heads of them all. Walter Morrison with the white flag neatly furled in his hand jumped ashore, touching the water’s edge with his spotlessly clean Wellington boots. he was held in some awe by them all for his high Christian rectitude. no one ever swore in his presence. Charlie light jumped onto the foreshore beside him, whilst harry Green held the oars. Both were sons of Thames Watermen, with harry Green prominently helping the Phelps brothers and Walter Morrison to form the st. Mary’s Rowing Club that was to become the Putney Town Rowing Club in 1922. “Come on lads. It’s time we were afloat! We’ll hit the tide.” all said whilst he was shaking hands with harry, a close friend, and tousling the hair of Bill. “We’re waiting for Dad,” they chorused.

Charlie Phelps (the elder) was born in Putney in 1859, three years after the end of the Crimean War. he would claim that he saw a parade of the light Brigade lancers as a young boy, held high by his father Frederick in 1860, but few believed him. he was throughout his life a great storyteller. he had seven sons, and one daughter who lived. his lovely eldest daughter Polly died sadly and mysteriously in 1917, a death that haunted him forever. he was always a skilled boat-builder and sought-after rowing coach. he regretted the demise of the professional competitor, tracing it back to the embarrassing honest John Phelps’ decision 15

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the Phelps dynasty of 1877 in the Varsity Boat Race. he was loved by all who knew him, and was never known to lay a hand upon any of his family in anger.

Father Charlie finished his pint, and then downed the shot of whiskey in one swallow. “Well, I’d better go and show ’em how it’s done.” he placed his well-greased trilby on his head, and moved towards the door, not missing the swiveling hips of the barmaid as she turned to offer him one more scotch on the house. “Thanks, Bessie love, much appreciated.” another swallow and he was off, across the lower Richmond Road, and onto the embankment, now crowded with would-be spectators. a few recognised him, wishing him well, or asking for his opinion on the winner. he smiled broadly, a cigarette between his lips. Then he saw his man – the runner. he moved swiftly towards him. “Jim, what’s Ted’s price?” he half muttered. “low, Charlie, just 2 to 1. harry’s evens!” “What am I, Jim?” There was hesitation. “eight to one, Charlie. sorry mate!” “Bloody cheek! Take a half crown on the outsider, oh! and another one on Ted.” a movement of hands, a clink of coins, and a shuffle of paper. Charlie was on his way. “There he is!” Dick pointed, and they all started beckoning hard. Through the crowds they easily recognized the trilby hat and the stooped walk of their father. The time was 12.30pm. Charlie needed only to take his coat and trousers off in the boatman’s hut in the Thames Rowing Club and within minutes he was ready to join his sons. May, his daughter, met him at the top of the foreshore and gave him a kiss. For a few seconds he cuddled her. he embraced his sons with laughter, encouraged by the good-natured cheers from the crowds around him. “you alright Dad?” sounded an anxious Tom, smelling the sour taste of drink on his breath. “Bloody marvellous – sorry Walter!” grinned his reply. “Charlie, we really should get afloat we have already hit the tide,” sounded an anxious Walter Morrison. “let’s go then!” and so they did. 16

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Chapter 1: a family Wager First afloat was Bill, sculling easily out to the centre of the river, then Jack, and harry, then Tom, young Charlie, Dick and Ted. Father Charlie was the last afloat helped by Charlie light.

father Charlie and son Bill before the 1921 race Walter Morrison stood for a moment on the shore, before moving rapidly to Beverley Brook to judge the finish. “Good luck, everyone!” he shouted. “Get it right, Walter!” someone wisecracked. several photographers appeared, seeking pictures of them all together, and with much banter and manoeuvring they were somehow taken.


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the Phelps dynasty Then it was serious. The father and sons never took racing lightly. For some it was their living. For them all it was the only life they knew. The time was 12.50pm. They had missed the ebb, and the tide was beginning to flow. It was time to race‌


Profile for Words by Design

A Phelps Dynasty  

The Story of a Riverside Family

A Phelps Dynasty  

The Story of a Riverside Family