A Historic Challenge
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 Accepted
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 and in 2020 due to COVID-19. 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 Championship Course
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 and a half hours 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 students 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 from the Umpires Panel.
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.
CUBC, CUWBC and CULRC Combine to form one Cambridge University Boat Club.
The Boat Race is cancelled for the first time since WW2 due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.
The Lightweight Women’s Crews join the other crews, completing the move to the Championship Course for all four events. Racing two weeks earlier than The Boat Race, the lightweight races go ahead.
The Lightweight Men’s Crews race over the Championship Course for the first time.
The Women’s Boat Race moves to the Championship Course, and is raced on the same day as the men’s race.
The first Lightweight Women’s Race is rowed at Henley.
Sponsorship for The Boat Race is agreed for the first time. Prior to this, all costs of the event were met by the members of the two clubs.
The two Women’s Races join the Lightweight Men’s Race in Henley, creating the Henley Boat Races.
The first Lightweight Men’s Boat Race is raced over the 2000m course downstream at Henley.
A regular race between the reserve women’s crews is established; Blondie for Cambridge and Osiris for Oxford.
From 1935 the women’s races became proper contests over 1000 yards or a 1/2 mile, alternately held on the Cam and Isis, with one occasion on the Thames Tideway at Barnes.
The Women’s Boat Race is founded. First held on the Isis in Oxford, the early races were not decided in a side by side contest, but judged on “time and style”.
The race result is a tie. 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”!
Sliding seats are first used.
The Boat Race becomes an Annual Event. After 2 decades of arguments between the two universities over arrangements for the event, the race becomes an annual event, interrupted only by the war years.
Outriggers are first used. The early races were rowed in wide, heavy clinker built boats with fixed seats and fixed pins.
The course is set. 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, the race has been held on the Putney to Mortlake stretch of the Tideway, now known as the Championship Course. Three times in the early years it was raced from Mortlake to Putney but otherwise it has always been from Putney to Mortlake.
A challenge is 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.” The challenge was accepted and the first race was rowed at Henley on June 10th 1829.