Remembering Putney’s ‘greatest oarsman’

9:20am Monday 10th November 2008

By Paul Cahalan

This week 25 years ago the Wandsworth Borough news announced the death of former Wandsworth resident Ted Phelps by simply referring to him as "Putney's greatest ever oarsman".

Ted had been ill for a year, he died in Exeter on Monday, October 21, 1983, aged 75, but had achieved greatness by the time he was 25.

Born in Hotham Road, Putney, Phelps was educated at Emanuel school, Wandsworth Common and in 1930, aged just 21, became the World Professional Single-Sculls Champion.

The title was the culmination of many years’ hard work by Ted and his equally legendary father "Bossy" Phelps - who was the only professional sculler in his day to have trained nine winners of diamond Sculls at Henley as well as nine winners of the Amateur Championship.

In the 1930 race Phelps junior beat 28-year-old Bert Barry for the title - the first time in 50 years two Englishmen contested the World Sculling Championship.

The boat that he won in was provided by the family firm, Bowers and Phelps, which Ted sometimes worked for.

Barry was the pre tournament favourite, but Phelps came home with a massive 35 lengths to spare and went on to win the coveted Doggett’s Coat and Badge the same year.

After he ended competing, and making an appearance in the 1938 film, The Rower, Ted turned his hand to coaching.

Among the scullers he coached were Bob Pearce - who took the won his Championship title off him in 1933 - and "Jumbo" Edwards, who went on to become one of the most prolific rowers for Oxford University in the 1950s and 60s.

He also trained Dan Topolski, who later went on to Coach Oxford University boat crew.

At the time of Phelp’s death Mr Topolski told the Borough News: "Ted was the secret success, the unsung hero behind Oxford during the Jumbo years.

"He was painstaking in teaching me the basics; and he always talked to me about how British rowing was losing its faith in basic technique."

After working as a pilot in naval boats on the river Thames during the war Ted drove a pilot boat for the Wandsworth Gas Company and later worked in Saudi Arabia.

Phelps was clearly a man who loved his rowing - which even stretched into his personal life.

Ted Phelps wife, Elsie, was the daughter of a professional rower - Ned Brewer.

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