On 10th June 1829, the first Oxford University versus Cambridge University boat race began from Henley-on-Thames.
This first race came about when Charles Wordsworth (nephew of the poet William Wordsworth), of Christ Church College, Oxford, and his friend Charles Merrivale of St. John’s, Cambridge, met during their holiday in Cambridge, and challenged each other “to row a match at or near London, each in an eight-oared boat during the ensuing Easter vacation.”
That challenge quickly changed from a casual bet to an official contest. On February 10th 1829 a meeting of the Cambridge University Rowing Club (CUBC) requested that Mr Snow of St John’s was to communicate immediately with Mr Staniforth of Christ Church at Oxford University Rowing Club (OURC) via letter, giving the same statement as Wordsworth and Merrivale had to each other individually. Now it became a team game.
Staniforth and Snow, who had been schoolfellows and boating comrades at Eton, pushed for former Harrow students, Wordsworth and Merrivale’s race to happen. Although some details were changed, the first boat race took place on 10 June 1829 at Henley on Thames.
Oxford wore dark blue jerseys while Cambridge wore white tops with pink waistbands, before a cheering crowd of around 20,000 people. According to the official record, Oxford won the race easily, with a completion time of 14 minutes 30 seconds.
The race didn’t become a regular feature at first, but happened only now and then. The next six races were rowed in London, between, Westminster and Putney between 1836 and 1842. The course was altered for the next race in 1845, which saw the first Putney to Mortlake race.
The race became an annual event in 1856, and hasn’t looked back since, remaining a source of great rivalry and challenge between the two universities. For those who have earned the right to compete for their side and have won the race, the prize is significant. It is one of rowing’s most sought after achievements.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.