April 2022 meeting: The first Oxford v Cambridge boat races

On 11 April, Mark Davies related the early days of the Oxford and Cambridge (men’s) boat races. The idea came to two school friends, Charles Wordsworth (Christ Church, Oxford), and Charles Merivale (Cambridge). In March 1829 Cambridge University Boat Club issued a challenge to the University of Oxford ‘to row a match at or near London, each in an eight-oared boat, during the ensuing Easter vacation’.

Stephen Davies, boatbuilder at Oxford, was requested to post this challenge ‘in some conspicuous part of his barge’. Davies acted as coach to Oxford college crews, and became known as ‘Professor of Rowing’.

The first race took place at Henley, actually in June 1829; watched by large crowds. Oxford won. The rowers from Oxford wore dark blue, the Christ Church colours; the Cambridge crew was in pink or scarlet. In 1836, after protracted arguments about the course, Cambridge won the second race, from Westminster to Putney. This time the Cambridge boat was adorned with a light blue ribbon.

In 1843, again in Henley, Oxford won, though rowing with only 7 men. Their boat was displayed opposite Grandpont House, near Folly Bridge, where it became rotten and decayed. In 1867 Thomas Randall, a tailor who lived at Grandpont House, purchased it and had it incorporated into the President’s chair inside the university barge.

From 1845 the course was between Putney and Mortlake.

Reports of previous meetings