The independent voice of rowing in Britain

1877 Dead Heat – In Defence of Honest John

Posted by rowingvoice on April 6, 2014

Mortlake, 6 April 2014


Richard Phelps is the man in charge of the 2014 Boat Race, umpiring the match for the first time. Phelps is a Cambridge Blue and a member of the famous family of watermen who competed professionally, holding the record for the most winners of Doggett’s Coat and Badge, builders of boats, boatmen to amateurs and earning their living on the Tideway.

One of Richard’s ancesters was ‘Honest John’ Phelps, the finishing judge of the race until his reign ended with the dead heat of 1877. The race was close to Barnes, with Oxford establishing a small lead until the bow man’s oar fractured beneath the leather sleeve. Cambridge caught up lost ground and Phelps, in a skiff with his eye on the notional finish line – there was no post in those days, was unable to separate them. He later visited the chambers of the race umpire – himself on a steamer behind the crews – to announce the verdict of a dead heat.

What happened after that was that ‘Honest John’ lost the job he had held for several years and was vilified by a series of accusations of being drunk, lying in bushes and unfit for purpose. Maurice Phelps has done much to clear his ancestor’s name in his book The Phelps Dynasty, and now Tim Koch of the blog Hear The Boat Sing has made a documentary which sets out to complete the job.

‘Oxford won, Cambridge too, the 1877 Boat Race and the vilification of John Phelps, a continuing injustice’ looks at all the available evidence and produces irrefutable arguments that, far from being legless and blind at 8.30 on the morning of 24 March 1877, Honest John was a sober, cultured and moral waterman, and that his verdict was, near as dammit, correct.



Christopher Dodd



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