The Legend of “Honest” John Phelps


Honest John Phelps

Honest John Phelps

The Phelps family is the oldest family in Fulham and appear in the parish records as early as 1593. John Phelps was born in 1805 and died in 1890. He lived in Church Row for most of his life and married Sarah Cook and had 3 children.

He is linked to a side of my family who lived in Hackney for many years.
His occupation was a Thames waterman like most of his relations, and was also judge for the Oxford and Cambridge boat race for many years until the Famous Race of 1877.

This is the race when he acquired the nickname Honest John Phelps.


John Phelps at the Boat Yard


The legend states that this race was the only one in which the result was declared as a dead heat.Although there had been a good race all the way along the course the main drama came in the final three minutes. Shortly after Barnes Bridge in the very rough water the Oxford bow caught the top of a wave and his blade was damaged so badly that he really played little further part in the contest. Cambridge now came up on Oxford at a steady rate and, according to the record, were level with their rivals as they crossed the finish, in 24 minutes 8 seconds.

‘Honest John Phelps’, the professional waterman who had judged the finish for some years, was in a small skiff, which, it appears, was probably barged off the finishing line and with the swarm of steamers collected in the area it is a probable that his view was partly obscured. Certainly Oxford felt that they had won by a matter of a few feet and, ‘Honest John’ in the contemporary records is said to have announced the result as “Dead-heat to Oxford by 5 ft.”

Subsequently, representatives of the two Universities and ‘Honest John’ met with Mr Chitty Q.C. (the umpire) in his Robing-room at the Law Courts where he was due to present a case.

It has been suggested that this was to argue out the correct decision but it appears likely that it was because in the crush of boats at the finish ‘Honest John’ could not report the verdict to the umpire and that the meeting was nothing more than a formal report.

Certainly Mr Chitty confirmed that the official record should read ’Dead Heat’ .

The problems involved led to two changes in the arrangements. First, posts were placed at Mortlake so that there could be no doubt about the finish line. Second this was the last time that a professional waterman acted as judge, this function from then on being taken by a member of one of the two Universities.
The 1877 Boat Race is noted for being a dead heat, because as another legend says that “Honest John” Phelps, was asleep under a bush as the crews raced past.

This has never been proved to be true.’Honest John’ Phelps, the finishing judge, could not work out who had won. The 70-year-old, blind in one eye, had one whisky too many to keep out the cold, and fell asleep under a bush, only emerging to slur: “Dead heat to Oxford by five feet.”


Update to the Legend

Honest John and the Boat Race legacy – Telegraph – 06 April 2014

Great-great-great-great uncle of Richard Phelps, who umpires the Boat Race on Sunday, called a dead heat for the only time in its history in 1877 when his view was obscured by a cluster of boats.

John and Richard Phelps

Richard Phelps’s great-great-great-great uncle officiated over the event’s most contentious finish

Photo: by Grant Humphreys.

When Richard Phelps umpires the Boat Race on Sunday, he will hope to avoid the controversy created by one of his ancestors nearly 140 years ago.

His great-great-great-great uncle “Honest John Phelps” officiated over the event’s most contentious finish, which is still causing ripples to this day.

The 1877 race ended in a dead heat for the only time in its history after the umpire’s boat, which marked the finish line, drifted on the tide, ending up behind a cluster of boats laden with spectators.

It meant that Phelps’s view of the competing teams was obscured and he was forced to declare the race a draw.

The decision earned him a place in Boat Race history and the unending enmity of Oxford, who believed they had won the race by a margin of a few feet. The rowers accused the umpire of falling asleep in his boat under a bush.

His descendant, a former British international rower who won the Boat Race three times with Cambridge in the Nineties, said: “I hope to not make history in the same way as Honest John.”

Mr Phelps, who is umpiring the race for the first time, added: “The best type of Boat Race is when nobody mentions the umpire at the end, then you know you’ve done your job well.”

Referring to his ancestor, he added: “But I honestly believe that while he has been made into a joke, I think he did the right thing. It was clear to him that it was a very close race and, because he could not tell, the honourable thing was to do what he did and declare a dead heat.

“I am sure that he will be smiling down, happy to see that 130 years or so years later, another Phelps is umpiring.”

The 1877 debacle led to lasting changes in the race, with fixed finishing posts put in place on the river bank so there can be no confusion over the line.

It was also the last time a professional waterman, someone who works on the Thames, acted as a judge. From then on it was umpired by an “old blue”, alternating between a former Cambridge and former Oxford student each year.

However, controversial decisions have continued, and the system introduced after Honest John’s fiasco lasted until 2001, when umpire Rupert Obholzer stopped the race after one minute following a clash of blades. Oxford were ahead at the time but Cambridge went on to win after the restart.

Questions were asked about whether the race should have been stopped and it led to the introduction of an umpires’ panel, which will this year be chaired by Mr Phelps.

Mr Phelps, 48, who lives in Chiswick, west London, with his wife Annamarie, the chairman of British Rowing, and their three children, represented Britain in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in the men’s coxed eights, finishing sixth. The next year he went to Cambridge where he joined the rowing team and competed in the Boat Race, which is now in its 160th year.

The rules of the contest, which stretches for four miles and 374 yards, are simple. Each crew must keep to its “station”, or side, unless it has a lead of clear water, at which point it can use the opposite station. Both crews must also row through the centre arches of Hammersmith and Barnes bridges.

Oxford are targeting their fifth victory in seven years and are favourites to win, with William Hill offering odds of 2/7. The bookmakers said Cambridge were the biggest outsiders in recent memory, at 5/2.

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