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The Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race

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The Boat Race is an annual rowing race between the Oxford University Boat Club and the Cambridge University Boat Club, rowed between competing eights on the River Thames in London, England. It is also known as the University Boat Race and the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, from 2010–2012 for sponsorship reasons as the Xchanging Boat Race, and from 2013 as the BNY Mellon Boat Race. It usually takes place on the last Saturday of March or the first Saturday of April.

The Boat Race founders were Charles Merrivale and Charles Wordsworth


Foundations of The Boat Race

The race came about when two friends from Harrow School, Charles Wordsworth (nephew of the poet William Wordsworth), of Christ Church College, Oxford, and Charles Merrivale of St. John’s, Cambridge, met during the vacation in Cambridge, where Wordsworth’s father was master of Trinity.

Wordsworth went rowing on the Cam, and the two school fellows decided to set up a challenge. On February 10 1829 a meeting of CUBC requested Mr Snow of St John’s to write immediately to Mr Staniforth of Christ Church stating ‘that the University of Cambridge hereby challenge the University of Oxford to row a match at or near London, each in an eight-oared boat during the ensuing Easter vacation.’

Staniforth and Snow had been schoolfellows and boating comrades at Eton.

Consequently some of the arrangements changed so the first race eventually took place on 10 June 1829 at Henley on Thames.

Oxford won this first race easily, their winning boat can still be seen in the River & Rowing Museum in Henley.

For the next 25 years contests only happened on an irregular basis, moving to London for the second race in 1836.

1830 - 1855

Following the first race in Henley in 1829 the next twenty five years only saw irregular races.

The second race in the series was rowed between Westminster to Putney as were the next five up to 1842.

The course was altered for the next race in 1845 which saw the first Putney to Mortlake race, though three subsequent races, 1846, 1856, 1863 were rowed on the ebb tide from Mortlake to Putney.

The last of these 12 irregular meetings was in 1854 prior to the race becoming an annual event in 1856.

In 1849, after a gap of two years and for the only time, there were two races. The first in March from Putney to Mortlake was won by Cambridge ‘easily’.

Oxford felt that their craft was a major factor in their defeat and challenged Cambridge to a further race in December. This second race of 1849 is the only time in the series to date that the boat race was decided by a disqualification, following a foul by Cambridge at the finish.

The eleventh race in 1852 saw the great Oxonian Joseph Chitty as president and stroke. This race was at the height of the argument which had started in 1846 about the use of professional coaches and steersman and which was the biggest factor in the decision to settle for amateur coaches (mainly old blues), a decision which held for more than a century.

Cambridge were coached by the waterman Bob Coombes, who instructed his crew to take the inside arch under Hammersmith Bridge. Oxford a technically excellent crew, were coached by Thomas Egan, the Cambridge amateur coach who had offered his services to Oxford because of the Cambridge employment of Coombes. Oxford took the traditional centre arch. Cambridge lost the stream and a considerable margin by this manoeuvre, and lost the race by six lengths.

Egan of Caius and Arthur Shadwell of Balliol exerted a great influence on university rowing. They developed the longer smoother style used by early amateurs as opposed to the choppy stroke of the professional waterman.

Racing was still undertaken in cutters and gigs with fixed seats. Limited sliding was sometimes achieved by oarsmen greasing the seats of their trousers or the use of sheepskin covers on the seats. The oars had heavy square shafts and narrow blades, some only about two inches wide which could easily break. There was no button to hold them into the rowlocks which consisted of two thole-pins projecting from the gunwale. These were subsequently incorporated into the boat itself for greater strength. The benefit of long leverage on the oars was recognised early, and the boats were broad in beam to allow the oarsmen to sit on the opposite side of the boat to their rowlocks and reach past the man in front at the start of the stroke. In 1846 the introduction of outriggers allowed boats to become much narrower.

The twelfth and final race of this irregular period took place in April 1854 and again resulted in a win for Oxford. Of the twelve races thus far, Cambridge had won seven and Oxford five.

Famous Oarsmen

Sir Matthew Pinsent CBE

- perhaps the most distinguished oarsman ever to compete in The Boat Race. He was in the Oxford Blue Boat in 1990, 91 & 93, winning twice but was losing President in 1993.

In 1992 he missed out on a Blue to take time to win his first Olympic Gold with Steve Redgrave at the Barcelona Olympics.

He went on to win 3 more golds, two with Blues; in 2000 with Oxford's Tim Foster and in 2004 with Oxford's Ed Coode.

In 2011 Pinsent returned to the Boat Race appearing in and winning his first Veterans Race. He also umpired that years Isis/Goldie race.

Hugh Laurie

Actor and Comedian Cambridge 1980

Hugh Laurie rowed in the Cambridge Blue Boat in 1980. His father Ran Laurie had stroked Cambridge to victory between 1934-36 and won a Gold at the 1948 London Olympics.

Laurie had been a GB Junior International while at Eton, however his Cambridge crew narrowly lost in an exciting race featuring clashes of blades and the collapse of the Oxford bow man.

This was Laurie's only Boat Race before the lure of the 'footlights' led him into his distinguished career.

Lord (Colin) Moynihan

Chairman of the British Olympic Association

Colin Moynihan was a double blue coxing the victorious Oxford crew in the 1977 Boat Race and boxing against Cambridge in the Bantamweight division. He beat Benazir Bhutto to win the Presidency of the Oxford Union in 1976.

In the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games he was cox for the GB men's VIII winning a silver medal. Moynihan became an MP in 1983 and was MInister for Sport between 1987-1990. He is an hereditary Peer but was elected to stay in the House of Lords in 2000 where he has been a Conservative spokesman on Sport and Foreign Affairs.

In 2005 The 4th Baron Moynihan became Chairman of the British Olympic Association for the run-up to the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Boris Rankov

rowed in more Boat Races than any other athlete

Educated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford (MA 1980, DPhil 1987), Boris Rankov is best known for leading Oxford to victory six times between 1978 and 1983, three times in the 4 seat and three times in the 5 seat.

This led to the establishment of the so-called Rankov Rule, which states that oarsmen will compete in the race no more than four times as an undergraduate and no more than four times as a graduate.

Rankov has however, umpired the race in 2003, 2005 and 2009.

He is currently a professor of Roman history at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Sue Brown

The first woman to compete in the Boat Race

On April 4th 1981 Sue Brown became the first woman to participate in The Boat Race, as cox of the Oxford Blue Boat, a task she repeated in 1982, winning on both occassions.

Since then both clubs have used female coxes to steer their crews. The first woman cox in the Cambridge Blue Boat was Henrietta Shaw in 1985.

The first time both crews were coxed by women was 1989, the dark blues with Alison Norrish, the light blues with Leigh Weiss.

Legendary Oxford coach Dan Topolski

Dan Topolski as an oarsman won the 1967 and lost the 1968 Boat Race, he was also a highly successful lightweight international.

He is best known as the Oxford coach between 1973-1987. Of his fifteen Boat Races in charge, Oxford won twelve including an unbroken run of ten victories between 1976 and 1985.

This run of success and its continuation after Topolski's departure brought Oxford to a point in 1992 where they had won sixteen of the last seventeen races and were within one victory of equalling Cambridge's overall total of wins.

He departed in 1987, sparked by the infamous 'mutiny' and inspiring his book True Blue. He is currently Oxford's coxing advisor and provides analysis for the BBC on Boat Race day.

Dan Snow

author & TV historian - Dan Snow won a bronze medal at the World Junior Championships prior to studying at Balliol, Oxford. He appeared 3 times in the Oxford Blue Boat between 1999-2001.

He was the losing President in the controversial 2001 race where the umpire stopped the crews following a clash of blades.

His father is TV journalist Peter Snow but Dan has carved out his own highly successful career in TV following his double first in Modern History. He is well known for his appearances on The One Show and for presenting numerous history programmes. He is the author of Death or Victory: the Battle of Quebec and the birth of Empire and has won a number of BAFTA and Sony Awards.

The Winklevoss twins

Cameron & Tyler Winklevoss, identical American twin brothers rowed in the 2010 losing Oxford Blue Boat. They had rowed in the 2008 Olympic Games coming 6th in the coxless pair and had distinguished careers at Harvard.

Their chief claim to fame however is as the disputed joint founders of the Facebook social network. Having founded a Harvard based network with the assistance of Mark Zuckerburg they saw Zuckerburg's Facebook take off.

Litigation followed and it is reported that the Winklevoss brothers settled for upwards of $50 million. The tale of their part in the launch of Facebook plays a large part in the film The Social Network, where the twins are played by one actor

Andrew (Sandy) Irvine

Mountaineer & Adventurer - Sandy Irvine was mountaineer George Mallory's summit partner on the ill-fated British Everest Expedition of 1924. It is thought likely that he and Mallory were the first men to reach the mountain's peak, but died during the descent.

An outstanding oarsman, he rowed for Merton College, Oxford and in the losing Dark Blue Boat of 1922 and the winning Boat in 1923.

He was also a wild boy with a streak of fearlessness that exasperated his parents and delighted his friends. He had a passionate love affair with his best friend’s step mother, made the first crossing of the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in 1923 and perhaps, just perhaps climbed to the top of the world 29 years before Sir Edmund Hillary.

Irvine's story is told in the book Fearless on Everest by Julie Somers.

Stanley Muttlebury

Cambridge produced one of the legends of the Boat Race and of rowing worldwide, Stanley Muttlebury ("Muttle"), whose crew won the race in the first four of the five years he was a member, 1886–1890. Contemporaries writing to The Times to add to his 1933 obituary called attention to his extraordinary physical prowess and natural aptitude for rowing, traits accompanied by mildness, good manners, and natural kindness. R.P.P. Rowe wrote:

Muttlebury had a natural aptitude which amounted to a genius for rowing, and, as he was not only massively large and full of courage but herculean in muscular strength, it was inevitable that he should be an outstanding exponent of oarsmanship. Added to this, he came to his prime when rowing was in a transitional stage, when the old methods of the straight back and the body catch suited to the fixed seat and the short slide, had necessarily to be superseded by methods required by the long-slide. I consider that long-slide rowing sprang suddenly to perfection in Muttlebury, that on him this new (or partially new) art was built...

W B, John and James Close,

who founded Close Brothers, the financial institution, were all former Blues. W B was part of the Cambridge crew adjudged to have finished in a dead heat with Oxford in 1877.

Sir Robert Walmsley, KCB,

was cox of the 1962 Cambridge crew. He joined the Navy in 1958 and earned the rank of Rear-Admiral in 1990. He was appointed Chief of Defence procurement in 1996.

Lord Bruce of Melbourne,

who rowed for Cambridge in 1907, embarked on a career in politics, becoming Prime Minister of Australia between 1923 and 1929. He was descibed as "the most English of Australians".

Rupert Obholzer

is perhaps best known for his controversial decision, as umpire, to re-start last year's race, but he also created a stir when he made gestures to the opposing crew after stroking the 1991 Oxford crew to victory. He is a top London-based surgeon.

  • 1997 (Oxford) Luka Grubor
  • 1997-99 (Oxford) Andrew Lindsay
  • 1998 (Oxford) Ed Coode
  • 1999, 2001, 2006-07 (Cambridge) Kieran West

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Notable Oxford University Rowers

  • Charles Wordsworth M.A. (22 August 1806 – 5 December 1892) was bishop of Bishop of St Andrews, Dunkeld and Dunblane in Scotland. 1829
  • Thomas Garnier the Younger (1809–1863) was dean of Lincoln, England. 1929
  • Sir William Baillie of Polkemmet, 2nd Baronet DL (2 February 1816 – 21 July 1890) was a Scottish oarsman and Conservative politician who sat in the British House of Commons between 1845 and 1847. 1836
  • Sir Justinian Vere Isham, 9th Baronet (1816-1846) 1836
  • Philip Lybbe Powys Lybbe (12 June 1818 – 12 September 1897) was an English rower, barrister and Conservative politician who sat in the House of Commons between 1859 and 1865. 1839
  • Francis Thomas McDougall (1817-16 November 1886) was the first Bishop of Labuan and Sarawak from 1849 to 1868 1842
  • Sir Robert Menzies of Castle Menzies, 7th Baronet 1942
  • Mark Haggard (1825 - 10 April 1854) was an English clergyman and rower who won events at Henley Royal Regatta. 1845
  • William Henry Milman (1824 - 1908) was an English rower, clergyman and librarian who was president of the Oxford Union and of Sion College. 1845, 1846
  • Sir Joseph William Chitty (1828 – 15 February 1899) was an English cricketer, rower, judge and Liberal politician. 1849x2, 1852
  • John James Hornby C.V.O. (18 December 1826 – 2 November 1909) was an English rower, and headmaster of Eton College from 1868 to 1884. 1849
  • James Aitken (9 May 1829 - 26 January 1908) was an English clergyman and sportsman who excelled in cricket, rowing and athletics. 1849
  • Philip Henry Nind (7 April 1832 – 1896) was an English rower and gold commissioner in colonial British Columbia. 1852, 1854
  • Arthur Pemberton Heywood-Lonsdale (1835–1897) was an English rower and landowner who was High Sheriff of two counties and a substantial investor in North Vancouver. 1856
  • John Arkell (1835 – 1923) was an English clergyman and a rower who won Silver Goblets at Henley Royal Regatta. 1856, 1857, 1858, 1859
  • Edmond Warre C.V.O. (12 February 1837 – 22 January 1920) was an English rower and head master of Eton College from 1884 to 1905 1857, 1858
  • Sir Thomas Frederick Halsey, 1st Baronet PC (9 December 1839 – 12 February 1927) was an English Conservative Party politician who sat in the House of Commons from 1874 to 1906. 1860
  • Weldon Champneys (1839-1892) was an English clergyman and rower who twice won Silver Goblets at Henley Royal Regatta. 1861
  • Walter Bradford Woodgate (20 September 1841 – 1 November 1920) was a British barrister and oarsman who won the Wingfield Sculls three times, and various events at Henley Royal Regatta including the Silver Goblets five times and the Diamond Challenge Sculls once. 1862, 1863
  • William Awdry (24 January 1842 – 1910) was the inaugural Bishop of Southampton and Osaka who subsequently served South Tokyo. 1863, 1864
  • Frank Willan (8 February 1846 – 22 March 1931) was an English rower and Militia officer who rowed for Oxford in four winning Boat Race crews and umpired the race between 1889 and 1902. 1866, 1867, 1868, 1869
  • Sir Clement Courtenay Knollys KCMG (1849 - 16 December 1905) was a British rower and colonial administrator and governor. 1872, 1873
  • Tom Cottingham Edwards-Moss, (7 April 1855 - 16 December 1893), was a British amateur oarsman who rowed in the Boat Race four times and twice won the Diamond Challenge Sculls, and a Conservative politician who sat in the House of Commons from 1885 to 1892. 1875, 1876, 1877
  • William Henry Grenfell, 1st Baron Desborough, KG, GCVO, (30 October 1855 – 9 January 1945) was an athlete, sportsman, public servant and politician. 1877
  • Tim Foster - Part of the 1997 Oxford crew, went on to win gold in the fours at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney 1997

Notable Cambridge University Rowers

  • George Augustus Selwyn (5 April 1809 – 11 April 1878) was the first Anglican Bishop of New Zealand. 1829
  • Thomas Selby Egan (25 December 1814 – 11 May 1893) was the first cox to win The Boat Race for Cambridge University. He was a rowing coach and a German scholar. 1836,1839,1840
  • Sir Warington Wilkinson Smyth (26 August 1817 – 19 June 1890) British Geologist 1839
  • Charles Thomas Penrose (15 July 1816 – 5 May 1868) was an English rower, schoolteacher and clergyman. 1839
  • William Hamilton Yatman (6 April 1819 – 13 January 1913) was an English rower, barrister and artist. 1839
  • William Baliol Brett, 1st Viscount Esher PC, QC (13 August 1817 – 24 May 1899), known as Sir William Brett between 1868 and 1883, was a British lawyer, judge and Conservative politician. 1839
  • William Massey (18 June 1817 – 18 December 1898) was an English rower, cricketer and barrister. 1840
  • George Charles Uppleby (2 May 1819 – 12 October 1891) was an English rower and barrister. 1840
  • Francis Cranmer Penrose FRS (29 October 1817 – 15 February 1903) was an English rower, architect, archaeologist and astronomer. 1840, 1841, 1842
  • The Honourable George Denman PC, QC (23 December 1819 – 21 September 1896) was an English rower, barrister, Liberal politician and High Court judge. 1841, 1842
  • Frederick Montagu Arnold (10 March 1823 – 11 August 1898) was an English rower, school teacher, officer in the volunteers and clergyman. 1845
  • Henry Munster (13 October 1823 – 11 April 1894) was a British lawyer, sportsman and Liberal politician who was unseated at his only attempt at election to the House of Commons. 1845
  • William Leonard Gill Bagshawe (28 October 1828 – 20 July 1854) was an English landowner and rower who won the Diamond Challenge Sculls at Henley Royal Regatta in 1848. 1849,x2
  • William Henry Waddington (11 December 1826 – 13 January 1894) was a French statesman who was Prime Minister of France in 1879. 1849
  • Sir Henry John Miller (9 September 1830 – 6 February 1918) was a New Zealand politician. 1849
  • Edward Macnaghten, Baron Macnaghten, Bart., GCB, GCMG (3 February 1830 – 17 February 1913) was an Anglo-Irish rower, barrister, Conservative-Unionist politician and one of seven Lords of Appeal in Ordinary. 1852
  • Sir Archibald Levin Smith (26 August 1836 – 20 October 1901) was a British judge and a rower who competed at Henley and in the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. 1857
  • Sir Robert Uniacke-Penrose-Fitzgerald, 1st Baronet of Corkbeg and Lisquinlan (10 July 1839 – 10 July 1919), was a British Conservative politician. 1861, 1862
  • Robert Alexander Kinglake (9 June 1843 – 10 June 1915) was an English rower and barrister. 1862, 1865, 1866
  • John Richardson Selwyn (20 May 1844 – 12 February 1898)[1] was a rower and became the second Bishop of Melanesia and the second Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. 1864, 1866
  • Sir Charles Bennett Lawes-Wittewronge, 2nd Baronet (3 October 1843 – 6 October 1911) was an English rower, athlete and sculptor. 1865
  • John William Dale (21 June 1848 – 26 June 1895) was an English rower and cricketer who played for Cambridge University from 1868 to 1870, for MCC from 1869 to 1882 and for Middlesex from 1874 to 1878. 1869', 1870
  • John Haviland Dashwood Goldie (March 1849 – April 1896) was an English rower, and barrister. 1869, 1870, 1871, 1872
  • John Brooks Close-Brooks (9 June 1850 – 20 March 1914) was an English banker and amateur rower who won the Diamond Challenge Sculls at Henley Royal Regatta in 1870 and rowed for Cambridge in the Boat Race in 1871 and 1872. 1871, 1872, 1873, 1874
  • William Brooks Close (6 May 1853 – 25 September 1923) was the founder of Close Brothers Group, one the United Kingdom's oldest merchant banks. 1875, 1876, 1877
  • Charles Gurdon (3 December 1855 – 26 June 1931) was an English rower and rugby union forward who played club rugby for Cambridge University and Richmond. Gurdon represented England fourteen times during the early development of international rugby union, once as captain. He and his brother Edward Temple Gurdon formed one of the most notable sibling pairings in English rugby. 1876, 1877