Oxford v Cambridge: A history of the boat race

Now an annual fixture in the sporting calendar, the boat race between Oxford and Cambridge draws the support of thousands along the river and the attention of millions of TV viewers each year. But how did it begin?

More than 180 years after the first contest between the two universities, historian Mark Davies explores the origins and early years of the race…

The Oxford boat. (Photo by Edward Gooch/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Oxford v Cambridge! It is one of the most famous inter-varsity rivalries in the world. For centuries, the two universities have competed for academic excellence, but over the last two centuries or so, competitive sports have emerged as an adjunct, with none more keenly contested than the annual boat race.

The intellectual jealousy stretches back to the early 13th century, when the many independent religious halls in Oxford combined to create the single university. The catalyst had been a particularly violent confrontation between the townspeople and the monks or clerks (that is, ‘scholars’ or ‘students’) in 1209, which had instigated a mass exodus. Some scholars never returned, finding a less antagonistic domicile on the banks of the River Cam. Those that did venture back to Oxford did so with the greater security of papal protection and new rights and privileges.

Oxford and Cambridge have competed for academic superiority almost ever since. However, it took more than 600 years for this rivalry to manifest itself in the sporting arena, the first such contest being a cricket match held in 1827. The first rowing race was held two years later. One man, Charles Wordsworth (1806–92), was instrumental in both.


Charles Wordsworth (1806–92).

 

Wordsworth’s rowing race

Wordsworth (the future Bishop of St Andrew’s and nephew of the poet William Wordsworth) had split loyalties; although he was an Oxford Christ Church student, his father was a Cambridge don. As a consequence, he spent the vacations in Cambridge, and, as Wordsworth relates in his autobiography Annals of my Early Life, the idea of a rowing race arose during 1827, while on the River Cam with an old Harrow schoolfriend, Charles Merivale (the future Dean of Ely). Merivale was studying at St John’s, which was at that time the best Cambridge college crew, or ‘Head of the River’ as they were called in both camps.

Cambridge had something of a head start. The year of 1828 saw the founding of the Cambridge University Boat Club (CUBC) and with it the first official inter-college races on the Cam. In Oxford, although the first documented eight-oared inter-college race occurred in 1815, an equivalent university club was not formed until 1839. Therefore, it is perhaps unsurprising that although Wordsworth, representing Oxford, is credited with initiating the idea, it was Cambridge which issued the initial challenge. Cambridge did also have something of a literal score to settle, having been outclassed in that first cricket match held at Lords on 7 June 1827, though rain meant that it was declared a draw. Oxford’s superiority that day apparently owed much to Wordsworth, who recorded that “my left-hand bowling was so successful on that occasion, that it took no fewer than seven of the Cambridge wickets in one innings”. 

So, the CUBC resolved on 12 March 1829: “That Mr Stephen Davis (the Oxford boat-builder) be requested to put the following challenge in some conspicuous part of his barge – ‘That the University of Cambridge hereby challenge the University of Oxford to row a match at or near London, each in an eight-oared boat, during the ensuing Easter vacation’.” 

With no official university boating authority in Oxford, Stephen Davis (c1799–1837) was evidently considered the next best thing and, considering the contempt with which Oxford’s scholars tended to view most townsmen, and river bargemen in particular, his role would prove to be a remarkably prominent one. It would seem that Davis’s family had been making boats in Oxford since at least the 17th century and, from his location at Folly Bridge, the city’s southern exit over the Thames, he built, sold and hired out a variety of craft and offered his roomy barge for Oxford’s oarsmen to use as their base. 

Although early records are sketchy, Davis had evidently been incorporated into at least one college crew until the incorporation of professional watermen was prohibited in 1823. He nonetheless wielded huge influence and gained an almost legendary status on the river, accurately described in the novel Peter Priggins, the College Scout as Oxford’s “private nautical, or rather fresh-aquatic, or cymbatic tutor, much to the undergraduate’s advantage and his own”.


Crowds on the Thames watching the Oxford v Cambridge boat race in 1881. (Photo by HultonArchive/Illustrated London News/Getty Images)
 

A boat-builder’s challenge

It was Davis who signed the Oxford response to the Cambridge challenge, jointly with his business partner Isaac King, another boat-builder who had earlier wielded his oars for a college crew. Dated 22 March, the challenge was accepted, but only on condition of a postponement beyond Easter because the “boat racing at Oxford does not commence until June”. 

In Cambridge, there appears never to have been any comparable use of ringers in the inter-college races, although a townsman did certainly fulfil one important role. Named Bowtell, he was recalled by John Bateman in Aquatic Notes (1852) as: “A singular old character with a wooden leg”, for whom a skiff was purchased by subscription. In this craft “he sculled down every race-day to alongside of the boats” and, when all the captains were ready, he then “fired a pistol, and the boats started”. It was also via a boat-builder, James King, that Cambridge chose to make their response to the Oxford request for a delay, and ultimately Wednesday 10 June was selected as the day of the race, to be held at Henley, rather than London. The captain of the Oxford crew, Thomas Staniforth, had taken the precaution of visiting Henley with Stephen Davis before suggesting this change, it might be noted, and the Oxford crew also had several opportunities to row the course in the week beforehand, with Davis on hand to advise. Nonetheless, as the day approached, Wordsworth wrote to tell Merivale that: “Our boat has been reduced to a considerable pickle, owing to some of our best oars not being able to pull, Stephen Davis’s mismanagement, and one or two minor considerations. We have at last, however, got under way with a fixed crew, and matters are proceeding swimmingly.” 

 

The first contest

While “swimmingly” is perhaps not the most apt of adverbs under the circumstances, in essence he was right: this first ever university boat race of 1829 resulted in a victory for Oxford. Whether or not Wordsworth was serious about Davis’s “mismanagement”, or merely attempting a bit of gamesmanship, the Morning Chronicle identified Davis as the Oxford “factotum, to whom the entire and sole management of the match appears to have been entrusted”. Davis had built the Oxford boat, trained the crew and ensured that they were catered for. He also shrewdly ensured that their boat was “carefully secreted till the time of starting from the profane gaze of the vulgar”. If a Cambridge waterman played a similar role, he certainly never achieved the same celebrity. The Cambridge boat had been made in London, by Searle & Son, who did not, it seems, emulate the aftercare provided by Davis.

This very first contest set an unfailing precedent of attracting huge national interest. The Morning Chronicle reported that “Henley was completely overflowed by the arrival from all quarters of company of the highest respectability”, one estimate putting the number of visitors as high as 20,000 people, more than four times Henley’s resident population. In contrast, “by the middle of the day Oxford was as quiet as in the midst of the long vacation”. After one false start, Oxford emerged victorious by several boats’ lengths.

Few of those in the know had any doubt about who was responsible for Oxford’s success. The Sporting Magazine of July 1829 dubbed Stephen Davis “the Professor of Rowing” – a lofty accolade indeed for a man who had probably had very little schooling, yet was rubbing shoulders with crews that contained three future vicars, one prebendary, three deans and two bishops.

It is because the Oxford crew comprised four men from Christ Church (plus the cox) that college’s colours were adopted for the day (and have remained the basis of the ‘Oxford dark blue’ ever since). It was not until the next race, in 1836, that Cambridge adorned their boat with a ribbon of the light blue that would become their own traditional hue. This was probably on account of this being the colour of Eton, where many of that crew had first learned to feather their oars and keep good keel.


The winning Oxford boat race crew, 1896. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

 

Stephen Davis died in September 1837, aged only 38, his memory and his 1829 boat being preserved at the River & Rowing Museum at Henley. The second rowing match between the two universities had been held the year before, after a gap of seven years, on the stretch of the Thames between Westminster and Putney. Again, it was Cambridge that had issued the challenge, and again Stephen Davis had been the recipient. The difference this time was that Cambridge was victorious, as indeed it was on the next three occasions, in 1839, 1840 and 1841.

This sequence of Cambridge victories came to an end in 1842, but it was an unofficial race the following year which really established the event as the preeminent university contest. The venue was Henley again, as part of the annual regatta that had been held for the first time in 1839, largely as a result of the proven popularity of that first Oxford–Cambridge contest of 1829, and some unofficial races between crews and colleges of the two universities in the interim.

 

An improbable victory

The circumstance that made the 1843 race so special was that Oxford triumphed despite being a man down. The all-important position of stroke, by whom the rhythm of the whole crew is regulated, was to have been filled by an exceptional oarsman called Fletcher Menzies, who, with his brother (Sir) Robert, was acknowledged to have inspired the great improvement in the Oxford performance of 1842. Expectations of a repeat performance were high but, just before the race, Menzies was taken ill and had to withdraw. As the rules permitted no substitute, the seven men of Oxford, hopeless of anything more than a creditable defeat, took to their oars. 


The Cambridge women's crew training on the River Cam in 1936. (Photo by William Vanderson/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
 

The subsequent improbable victory was a cue for hysterical celebrations. The Oriel College undergraduate Thomas Hughes (author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Tom Brown at Oxford), whose brother George was one of the “glorious seven”, wrote that: “The crew had positively to fight their way into their hotel, and barricade themselves there, to escape being carried round Henley on our shoulders.” The result, he added, “made boating really popular, which it had not been till then”, an opinion echoed by the Oxford don William Tuckwell, who said that prior to that “even the Oxford and Cambridge race, except the first race rowed, excited languid interest”. 

The victorious 1843 boat was displayed conspicuously by the Thames in Oxford until its remnants were salvaged by Alderman Thomas Randall, a well-known Oxford hatter (feasibly the inspiration for Alice’s Wonderland Hatter) who had it incorporated into the Oxford University Boat Club’s barge. It was gestures such as this that earned Randall, who had no direct university connection, the accolade of “the link between the Town and the Gown” at a time when those age-old physical confrontations between Oxford’s students and its residents were still a very regular occurrence.

An annual fixture

The boat race became an annual fixture (other than during the two world wars) in 1856, with the overall tally as of the 2016 races standing at 82 victories for Cambridge and 79 for Oxford (with one dead heat). The first women’s race occurred in 1927, Cambridge having secured 41 wins to Oxford’s 30. 


The Oxford crew celebrate victory over Cambridge in the 1991 Boat Race on the Thames in London. Photo by Simon Bruty/Allsport/Getty)
 

Today the university boat race attracts worldwide interest, in a sport in which men and women from Great Britain consistently excel at international levels. It retains its original spirit of amateurism, with no financial reward for being, as the Standard newspaper called that first 1829 race, “the arduous but healthy and delightful amusement of the oar”. Charles Wordsworth would approve, having himself written: “To the players, the game – cricket match or boat race – was as it always ought to be if it is to be truly healthy and uninjurious, sufficiently interesting in itself, and required no further stimulus. In short, it was, like virtue, ‘its own reward’.”

Mark Davies is an Oxford local historian, writer, speaker and guide with a particular interest in the influence of the city's waterways on its social and cultural development.

The 2017 boat races will take place on Sunday 2 April.

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