Titan of the Thames

By Sandy Nairne and Peter Williams

The first biography of Lord Desborough, a towering figure of early 20th century public life.

Monday, 20 March 2023

Lord Desborough Speaks - Boat Race Update

Above the photograph of the 1877 Oxford crew (posed in front of the Oxford University Boat Club barge) is an edited 1938 BBC audio clip of Lord Desborough’s recollections.

Next Sunday, on 26 March 2023, the 168th Boat Race between the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, will take place, contested between Putney and Mortlake. So it’s a good time to reach back to the 34th Boat race which took place on the 24 March 1877. The Boat Race has been described as one of the most ‘brutal, harsh and uncompromising struggles[s] in all of sport’ and it has always taken place very much in the public eye.

    William Grenfell (later Lord Desborough) rowed at 4 in the Oxford boat and this race has gone down in the history of the Boat Race as the only one to end in a highly controversial dead heat. We pick up the story as told in Titan of the Thames, and link that to a BBC recording made in 1938, with Lord Desborough offering his own recollections of the race – a remarkable opportunity to hear him speak today about an event that took place some 146 years ago. Enjoy the recording and the race.

    The 1877 Oxford Boat Race crew was both heavy and strong and was improving in training in the early months of the year. It was clear from the substantial press commentaries that the ‘intervarsity boat race’ (as it was called) was going to be a closely fought contest, even with the Cambridge crew being more experienced - all were Blues and generally regarded as superior in technique. They were marginally considered to be favourites.

    The build up to the race involved intensive press coverage – normal in this period – with daily reports on the progress of the two crews as they trained on their home waters and then on the Tideway. Grenfell was firmly entrenched in the centre of the crew and ‘was tied to the boat’ (though he still found time to run in both the Mile and Two Mile handicap races in a college athletics meeting on 14 February).




Pages from illustrated magazines on Boat Race day, 24 March 1877

By the time of race day the odds on the crews had shifted to evens, suggesting an exceptionally close race. The race was started shortly after eight in the morning when the tide was at its most favourable. Interest in the race was intense and despite the early start and poor weather the crowds gathered. As the Standard reported:

Those who believed that the early hour which the tide served for Saturday’s race would diminish the attendance of spectators on the banks of the river signally miscalculated the enthusiasm with which this great annual event is regarded. Albeit turning out at sunrise on a March morning is not, in the metropolis at least, a popular amusement, many scores of thousands of well to do Englishmen and Englishwomen performed the feat for that occasion.

The stage was thus set. Grenfell insisted that Oxford had won by a small margin, noting that he was seated at 4 and was level with their 2 when they reached the finish at Mortlake. But he accepted that it was a very close call. He described the race as follows:

The wind was from the west northwest, the worst quarter, and blowing hard, and the tide was very slack when the race was started at eight twenty seven on March twenty fourth. Cambridge used their slides well and had done fast times in practice. Oxford had a redoubtable body swing set by H.P.Marriott, stroke, and by T.C.Edwardes-Moss, number seven, who had rowed together for four years for Brasenose College.

The race was a ding-dong one to Barnes [Bridge], where Oxford were a length ahead and going away, when the boat suddenly felt like a barge. Bow’s oar had given away at the button in the very rough water above Barnes and all that D.J.Cawles who was rowing bow could do was to hold it in the middle and try to keep the ends out of the water. Cambridge though a tired crew immediately shot up but Oxford with the advantage of the inside bend struggled on till the end. We thought we had won by a small margin. I was rowing number 4 and seemed to be on a level with the Cambridge 2, and the boats were close together.

We put away our boats first, and had taken up our places in the bows of the barge when we told it was a dead heat. Much to our disappointment.

Rowing the last part of the course with effectively seven men inevitably saw Oxford’s lead whittled away and perhaps it is no surprise that the finish was very close. The race became notorious because of the initial confusion as to who had won. The waterman acting as finishing judge, ‘Honest John’ Phelps, declared that it was ‘a dead heat to Oxford by four feet’ though there were seemingly spurious claims that he was either drunk or asleep or both. At this date there was no finishing post – the judge simply had to decide the winner by eye as the boats passed by.

    The race umpire, Mr Chitty QC, wanted to understand more before he would announce the result. It proved impossible to achieve this at Mortlake and Chitty had to return to central London almost immediately after the race to conduct pressing legal matters. As a consequence his deliberation (and thus the announcement of an official result) was delayed till later in the morning when Phelps had made his way to Chitty’s chambers, adding to the drama surrounding the whole event. In the end, Chitty had no argument with the dead heat decision and the controversy surrounding it should not obscure the fact that this was a fine race, hotly contested and with drama throughout. Phelps, however, lost his job as a consequence of this dead heat.

    Subsequent accounts of the day have been compiled by his relative Maurice Phelps in The Phelps Dynasty: the story of a Riverside Family, 2012, and by Tim Koch at: https://heartheboatsing.com/2014/04/17/lies-damned-lies-and-the-1877-boat-race/. As the official record of the Thirty Fourth University Boat Race rightly commented:

Those who accompanied the race will not easily forget the intense excitement of that last desperate struggle, and the sudden pause of anxious inquiry as to the actual result when the crews ceased rowing. It is perhaps too much to expect, even from the stoical discipline of Old Blues a unanimous acquiescence in a verdict of ‘dead heat’, than which no conclusion can be more unsatisfactory to the competitors themselves. We think it is but just, however, to a faithful old servant to say that no good grounds have been shown for doubting the rightness of John Phelps’s decision. Surely whatever feelings of discontent may have existed in either crew in the heat of the moment may well give place to hearty satisfaction at having taken part in so grand a race.

The first BBC radio coverage of the Boat Race started in 1927, and in 1938 Lord Desborough was interviewed (with a full running time of 3 mins and 52 seconds) on the occasion of the first television broadcast. A live image was only relayed from the finish at Mortlake, with most of the race conveyed by moving coloured markers on a chart alongside John Snagge’s commentary from the river. 

At the head of this update is an edited clip of Lord Desborough’s recollections from 1877.


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