Until 1 August 2020, there were three separate university boat clubs in Cambridge: one for openweight men, one for lightweight men, and one for openweight and lightweight women.

Founding of CUBC

The idea of a rowing race between Oxford and Cambridge was seeded in a conversation between two undergraduate friends. Charles Merivale, of St John’s College Cambridge, and his great friend Charles Wordsworth, of Christ Church Oxford and son of the then Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, were probably inspired by the Oxford vs Cambridge cricket match which had taken place the previous year.

The inaugural meeting of Cambridge University Boat Club took place at Gonville and Caius College on 9 December 1828. Following this meeting, it was agreed that a challenge be sent to the University of Oxford to organise a race between representatives of the two universities. A letter was sent to Oxford in which they were challenged “to row a match at or near London, each in an eight-oared boat during the ensuing Easter vacation”.

The race did not have a settled venue for many years, as its history shows, and nor did CUBC until 1873 when Goldie Boathouse was built on the Cam. It was named after J. H. D. Goldie, who rowed in four Boat Races against Oxford from 1869 to 1872 (winning three). Cambridge’s reserve men’s crew is also named Goldie in his honour.

The 1914 Cambridge boat race crew by Christina Broom. L-R working backwards, starting with Cox at front: L.E. Ridley (Cox); Dennis Ivor Day; Sidney Ernest Swann; Philip Clermont Livingston; John Andrew Ritson; Kenneth Gordon Garnett; C.S. Clark; Clarence Edward Victor Buxton; Geoffrey Egerton Tower.

Origins of the women’s club

In 1869, the autumn after J.H.D. Goldie rowed in the first of his four Boat races, women were first admitted to Girton College, Cambridge. A second college for women, Newnham, was founded two years later (although it was not until 1948 that they were awarded degrees).

The first Boat Race between female crews representing Oxford and Cambridge Universities was in 1927, 99 years after its male counterpart. Many people considered strenuous exercise entirely inappropriate for women (at least for middle and upper-class women), and there was considerable opposition for many years. The first race was held on the Isis in Oxford, with (according to The Times) “large and hostile crowds gathered on the towpath” in protest. Initially, Cambridge was represented by a crew from Newnham College but when Girton College students joined them on the river, Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club (CUWBC) was founded and the Club first raced the OUWBC in 1941.

The first few women’s “races” were not decided in a side by side contest but were judged on “time and style” with the two crews not even allowed on the river at the same time. From 1935 the races became proper contests over 1000 yards or a 1/2 mile, alternately held on the Cam and Isis, and on one occasion on the Thames Tideway at Barnes.

From 1941 onwards, the crews were awarded ‘Blues’ by their respective universities, and the race was generally well supported, though an incident with a weir the day before the 1953 race led to a ban on OUWBC from the river and a subsequent hiatus in racing until 1964. Male opposition to women rowing was still rife during the mid-60s:

I personally do not approve of women rowing at all. It is a ghastly sight, an anatomical impossibility and physiologically dangerous.”

The Captain of Selwyn College Boat Club in a letter to the CUWBC

However, this extreme view was not universally held and Canon Duckworth, an old Blue from Churchill College, gave the women much needed support at Cambridge, coaching the Blue Boat (whom he referred to as Perspiring Persephones or Sweaty Bettys) to an impressive run of successes.

Once the Oxford and Cambridge colleges started to become co-educational in the early 1970s, the future of the women’s race was assured. After 1975 there was sufficient strength and depth to field a regular race between reserve crews: Osiris for Oxford and Blondie for Cambridge. 

The arrival of Lightweight Boat Races

Cambridge University Lightweight Rowing Club (CULRC) was founded by Richard Bates in 1974, in preparation for the first Lightweight Boat Race in 1975. Like CUBC it was a men’s club, presumed rather than mentioned in the name.

When women from the two universities planned a similar event for lightweight female crews, starting in 1984, the Cambridge women were invited to join CUWBC.

Right from their inception, CULRC cooperated with CUWBC, inviting the women to join them in racing their event on the same day at Henley from 1977 onwards.

Given that all three women’s crews (Blue Boat, Reserve and Lightweight) and the Lightweight men’s crew raced on the same day at Henley, the two clubs increasingly worked together and shared resources.

Equality was finally achieved for the openweight women when the women’s Boat Race moved to the Tideway in 2015, to race over the same course on the same day as the men. This triggered a series of changes at Cambridge, leading to the decision to merge to form one Cambridge University Boat Club. This was voted through with overwhelming support by members of all three clubs at their AGMs in April 2020. The new club was incorporated on 1 August 2020.

The history of women’s rowing at Cambridge

While CUWBC no longer exists as a separate club, its proud history is recorded in a beautifully-illustrated book, “Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club 1941 – 2014: The struggle against inequality”, published in 2015 by CUWBC alumnae Jane Kingsbury (BB ’72) and Carol Williams (BB ’71), available here.