The Fascinating History of the University Boat Race

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It is one of the world’s most famous sporting events, but what is now the BNY Mellon Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge universities started out as a simple challenge between friends. In 1829, Oxford student Charles Wordsworth (nephew of poet William Wordsworth) and Cambridge student Charles Merivale, who had been friends at Harrow School, decided that the two universities should compete in a rowing race. Cambridge duly issued a challenge to Oxford, inviting a crew of eight rowers to compete against them on a course near London during the Easter holidays. Circumstances dictated that the race had to take place later than planned, but on 10 June 1829 the two teams finally met for a race at Henley, where Oxford won easily. For this race, as in all subsequent ones, Oxford wore the dark blue colours of Christ Church College, while Cambridge wore light blue.

Partly due to debate as to the best location for a race, the competition only took place sporadically over the next 25 years, on a variety of different courses. Out of the 12 races held during this period, Cambridge won seven – even though there was one year in which the teams raced twice as Oxford were keen for a rematch! In 1856 the race became an annual event, held around Easter every year. With very few exceptions the boat race has since been held on the same stretch of the river Thames – the Championship Course between Putney and Mortlake. Competitors row upstream, and the two sides of the course have different names: the north side of the Thames is known as the Middlesex side, while the south is the Surrey side. Before a race the team captains toss a coin to decide which side they will be rowing nearest, which is an important factor in team tactics as due the bends in the river, each side has different advantages.

Despite being a fairly simple competition on paper, the boat race has not been without incident and controversy. In 1879, the two boats crossed the finish line at the exact same time, forcing the race to be declared a tie. This prompted some spectators to suggest that the judge had been asleep under a bush when the boats passed him! More recently, the 2012 race was brought to a standstill by a man who had decided to take a swim in the river. Unfortunately, this was not the end of the crews’ problems, as shortly after the race was restarted, a collision between boats resulted in a broken oar for the Oxford team. Although advances in technology have enhanced the boats, oars and kit used by the teams, the tradition of racing in all weathers still means that there is a chance they will sink. Seven boats have sunk during the race’s history, with the most dramatic occurring in 1912 when both teams sank and the race had to be re-run.

This year’s race, which promises to be as dramatic as those which have gone before it, will take place on Easter Sunday at 4.30pm. Historically, Oxford have won 76 races compared to Cambridge’s 81, so the dark blues will be eager to close the gap. You’ll be able to see the action at any publicly accessible point between Putney and Mortlake, and you can find the best spots on our event page.