A Brief History of the Club & The Race

Rowing was not the first Inter-University sports’ event. That record is held by cricket (1827) but rowing was the second and it is thought that it was as a direct result of the cricket competition that the discussion about a rowing event took place between Charles Merivale, later Dean of Ely an undergraduate at St John’s College Cambridge and his great friend Charles Wordsworth, an undergraduate of Christ Church Oxford and son of the then Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.

On the 12th March 1829 the following letter was sent from Cambridge to Oxford:

The University of Cambridge hereby challenge the University of Oxford to row a match at or near London each in an eight-oar boat during the Easter vacation

– W Snow
St John’s College

The challenge was accepted and the first race was rowed at Henley on June 10th 1829. The next two decades are notable for the arguments that took place between the two universities on details relating to the arrangements for the race and although races were held in 1836, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842, 1845, 1846, 1849, 1852 and 1854 it was not until 1856 that it became an annual event. Since then this entirely amateur, private challenge between the Clubs of the two ancient universities has only been interrupted during war years. From 1836 to 1842 the Race was rowed from Westminster to Putney, but from 1845 onwards, because of the heavy commercial traffic on that stretch of the river, it has always been held on the Putney to Mortlake stretch of the Tideway. Three times in the early years it was raced from Mortlake to Putney but otherwise it has always been from Putney to Mortlake.

The race is of 4 miles 374 yards from the University Stone (just above Putney Bridge) to the Finish Post (just below the Chiswick road bridge). Although the start and finish lines are very close to being parallel and hence the distance each crew rows is theoretically equal, the river over that stretch looks like an upturned hat. The race is rowed one half hour before high tide and as a consequence of the bends which distort the flow of the tide and the contrary flow down river of the land water, the selection of the station (Middlesex or Surrey) and racing tactics play a vital role. Apart from the insistence on the crews being student in statu pupillari, the number of rules is extremely small and the race is controlled very much by the Umpire of the day. The two clubs select the Umpire on alternate years from three names proposed by the other club.

The early races were rowed in wide, heavy clinker built boats with fixed seats and fixed pins, but outriggers were first used in 1846 and sliding seats in 1873. Since that time the equipment has usually been very much at the forefront of design. As a consequence of the better equipment, the improved physique and nutrition and better training methods and facilities, the average race times have declined substantially over the period though because of the weather conditions, there is considerable variation in times between individual years in any decade. Viewed from the standpoint of modern competition it is a crazy course, but blessed by history the Race still remains as popular as ever in both the rowing world, among the thousands who line the bank and the many millions who see it on television.

Of the 159 Races to date Cambridge have won 81 and Oxford 77. One race (in 1877) was tied, though the official record from the Umpire that year, ‘Honest’ John Phelps a member of the famous rowing family, declared it “a tie to Oxford by 7 feet”! But these overall records hide the fact that throughout the whole period, the wins have tended to occur in clusters to each of the crews. Thus Oxford won for 9 consecutive years starting in 1861, for a further 9 years from 1890 onwards and only lost one race (in 1986) from 1976 to 1992 inclusive. Cambridge, on the other hand, from 1920 to 1936 only lost the 1923 race. One of the most exciting and closest race was in 1952, rowed in a blizzard. Cambridge, rowing on the Middlesex station lead by two-thirds of a length at the Mile Post and this was the maximum distance between the crews throughout the Race. From Harrods, where Oxford came level, right round the long Surrey bend, the lead changed frequently but only by a matter of feet and the crews remained level were still level at Barnes Bridge. Oxford then, by a dramatic effort moved ahead to win by a canvas (about 10 feet). But even this epic was eclipsed in 2003 when Oxford took the lead after Hammersmith and hung on to win by one foot.

Because the races are rowed under winter conditions (in March or early April) when there is often a high west wind against a rising tide the water conditions can be very treacherous. The first sinking (of Cambridge) was in 1859, in 1912 both crews sank and the race was re-rowed, in 1925 Oxford sank and in 1951 Oxford sank again. However on this last occasion the Umpire (GA Ellison, Bishop of London) made history by declaring ‘No Race’ and the race was re-rowed. This decision was subsequently incorporated in the rules and now, if either crew suffer damage or misfortune before the end of Fulham wall, the race is restarted. The last sinking was in 1978 when Cambridge sank near Barnes Bridge.

The formula for the challenge, which is always issued by the President of the University Boat Club defeated the previous year, is very similar to that issued in 1829. It is important to appreciate that since each of the two clubs has fiercely preserved its independence, the challenge is between the two private clubs and has strictly, no relationship to the Universities per se. The Universities make negligible financial contributions to the Clubs or to the running of the race. Indeed, until the 1980s when very welcome sponsorship was agreed, all the costs of this event, was met by the members of the two clubs. It is still one of the biggest free sports events and over the years has captured worldwide interest. The public interest in this private anachronistic event remains a puzzle, but long may the interest continue, even though were it to disappear, the Race would go on.

Original written by Dr John Marks, 2003