1931 – 2019
Peter Jeffs, who has died at the age of 88, was a member of Cygnet Rowing Club for more than fifty years. Tall, charming and debonair, his energetic demeanour defied his years, inviting the description of an eternal Peter Pan. Indeed, on hearing of his death, one fellow Cygnet aptly summed up his demise as “Peter Pan returns to never-never land”. Others have lamented the passing of “a real gent” whose evergreen attitude to life set an example to us all. He will be sorely missed.
Born in 1931, Peter was always proud to relate how he grew up on a council estate in north Barnes, little more than half a mile as the crow flies from the then newly built Civil Service Boathouse, opened in October 1930. Little did he know it at the time, but this institution and its occupants would come to play a significant and enduring part in his long and active life.
As a school boy, growing up during the Second World War, he witnessed Battle of Britain ‘dogfights’ in the skies overhead and would proudly recount the day he stood and watched in awe as a German Messerschmitt skirted the roof tops over Barnes in 1940.
A bright young lad, Peter passed his ‘eleven plus’ examination and was offered a place at Sheen Grammar School for Boys. Having ‘matriculated’ in 1947, he had brief spells in the building trade and the Bank of Australia before joining the Air Ministry as a civil servant. National Service intervened in 1949-51, when he served in the RAF.
What followed was a remarkable ascent through the ranks of the MoD from lowly clerical officer to Assistant Secretary, Defence Sales, in 1971, ‘our man’ in Washington DC in 1976-79 and Vice President, Military Affairs in 1979-83. A mention in the 1983 New Year’s Honours List, when he was appointed a member of The Order of St Michael and St George (CMG), crowned a stellar career in the civil service. When Peter left the MoD for British Aerospace in 1984, then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher apparently let it be known in no uncertain terms that she regarded his departure as ‘regrettable’.
An all-round sportsman, in his youth Peter played football to a high standard at club level, latterly at Tooting and Mitcham, and seriously considered turning professional. He was also adept at cricket and tennis. Still, life off the playing field had its attractions, not least romantic ones: Peter met Iris and they married in 1956, before heading off for an overseas posting in Aden in 1958. Then, as now, these were unsettled times in the Middle East and Iris, heavily pregnant with their first child, narrowly escaped a bomb blast on the streets of the capital.
Word-of-mouth has often proved to be one of the most effective ways of recruiting new members at Cygnet. In Peter’s case, he was introduced to the club in 1966 by one ‘Jimmy’ Baker who he had met in Aden. Baker, who was accustomed to turning up at Cygnet on short-term leave and dropping into winning crews, persuaded Peter to try his hand at rowing.
Joining Cygnet at the relatively late age of 36 labelled Peter as a ‘veteran’ or ‘Master’ in today’s parlance. Undaunted, he wasted no time reinventing himself as an oarsman, teaming up with the likes of Len Huggett, Roy Ellison and Peter Roche. Together they carved out a role for themselves as a mean racing machine, whilst forging lifelong friendships. In Peter’s own words, “the old mans’ four had some great times” and was not without the odd piece of silverware. The high spot of their racing careers came in 1973 when they triumphed over Frankfurt, Germany and Barclays Bank to secure a win at the Vesta International Veterans Regatta.
One of the most senior civil servants to grace the ranks of Cygnet Rowing Club, Peter Jeffs always lent an air of authority to proceedings and was a natural choice for club chairman and chair of the Boathouse Executive. Regrettably for the boat club, these stints were often cut short by overseas postings: the Jeffs family decamped to Washington DC in 1976-79 and again in 1984-87, initially in the service of the MoD and latterly British Aerospace.
Still, every cloud has a silver lining and some of us were fortunate enough to enjoy the legendary Jeffs’ hospitality dispensed to any passing Cygnet stray, not least myself. Iris was always the perfect hostess.
In later years, Peter succumbed to the clutches of the “Golden Oldies” and rarely missed Henley Royal Regatta, often regaling us with tales of his long and eventful career and a life well spent, not least in the company of “the old man’s four”. Yet his grandchildren kept him young and he remained physically active, playing tennis and golf well into his twilight years. Indeed, his golfing handicap was more akin to somebody 10-15 years his junior. For many of us, our last memory of Peter will have been of him striding off to Victoria Station after a Christmas lunch in the Civil Service Club in December 2017, seemingly as ageless and timeless as ever.
Peter Jeffs’ funeral will take place at Randalls Park Crematorium, Randalls Road, Leatherhead, Surrey, KT22 OAG, at 1.15pm on Friday, 24th May and afterwards at The Royal Automobile Club, Wilmerhatch Ln, Epsom, Surrey, KT18 7EW. If you are planning to attend, please contact Sally Rawson on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paul Rawkins, 11th May 2019
Author: Neil Pickford