Our Hugh Edwards was born in Oxfordshire, and it was at Oxford University that he made his name as a rower, in the Dark Blue eight in the 1926 Boat Race. ‘Jumbo’ collapsed during the race and, diagnosed with a hypertrophied heart, was not to row at university again.
Having left the following year, however – he failed his exams – Edwards returned to rowing. A huge success for London Rowing Club, he was to go back to Oxford to resume his studies in order to gain an RAF commission. He was selected for the 1930 Boat Race and, though he lost again, he did win two gold medals at the first Empire Games in Hamilton, Canada.
Meanwhile Lewis Clive, the son of a Liberal Unionist turned Conservative MP (who’d been killed in World War I) and the godson of Austen Chamberlain, had been one of Edwards’s crew-mates in the Oxford boat, and the two went on to form a formidable coxless pair, picked to represent Great Britain at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.
Having bested the more civilised part of the world in Hamilton, it is no surprise Edwards was able to defeat the rest two years later alongside Clive. Edwards then made history as – having stepped to join the coxless four, who were left one short ahead of the Games due to illness – he became the only man to win two rowing gold medals on the same day.
Now Edwards and Clive went their separate ways.
Clive, having departed from the politics of his father (and despite having been a Bullingdon man at Oxford), became a Labour councillor in Kensington and joined the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, writing the book The People’s Army, for which Clement Attlee provided a foreword.
It was during that conflict that he was killed on 1 August 1938 at the Battle of the Ebro – his name remains on a memorial in the area. He was the inspiration for the character Oliver in The Camomile Lawn by Clive’s one-time girlfriend Mary Wesley.
Edwards, meanwhile, had fulfilled his ambition of being commissioned into the RAF in 1931 and became a famed racing pilot, finishing second in the prestigious King’s Cup of 1935. But once the war came, it was his rowing ability that was to save his life.
Serving with Costal Command, Edwards was forced in 1943 to crash land his Liberator in the Atlantic off Land’s End. However, he had a rubber dinghy and, working out where England was with his compass, was able to row the four miles through mined sea to land. He was the only member of his crew to survive.
Retiring from the RAF in 1946, Edwards went on to become a successful rowing coach for Oxford. He also coached the Welsh four that won silver at the 1962 Commonwealth Games – the crew including his sons David and John.
He was a harsh taskmaster though, provoking rebellions among his Oxford charges. David Edwards said: ‘He always complained because I didn’t like wearing socks in the boat and because he thought my hair was too long – “how can you go fast if you’ve got hair that long?”’
Hugh Edwards died in 1972 but those interested in learning how to row his way can read his 1963 manual The Way of a Man with a Blade. At least, I hope it’s about rowing.
Also in this series:
1896 – Launceston Elliot, moustachioed strongman
1908 – City of London Police, coppers made of stone
1912 – Arnold Jackson, runner and Versailles negotiator
1920 – John Wodehouse, polo winner and proto-Bertie Wooster