In 2009 a record crowd of over 270,000 people lined the banks of the Thames between Putney and Mortlake in London to watch two of the world’s best universities do battle on the water.
Since the first race in 1829, Cambridge have notched up 82 wins and Oxford 80, with one match-up so close in 1877 that it was recorded as a dead heat.
Who organised the first boat race?
The man behind the inauguration of the boat race was Charles Merivale, who became a celebrated historian in the style of Edward Gibbon, and Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons. In 1829, he was a student at Cambridge with a passion for rowing.
Before gaining a place at Cambridge, Merivale was at Harrow School – the famous institution that would later educate Winston Churchill and Jawaharlal Nehru among others. There he formed a close friendship with Charles Wordsworth, nephew of the renowned romantic poet and a brilliant sportsman.
Wordsworth went on to study at Oxford, which rivalled Cambridge for the title of best university in the country. The friendly rivalry between the two men evolved into a desire for a definitive competition to prove which university could best the other in a race along the Thames.
Merivale and Cambridge University officially challenged Wordsworth to a match at Henley-on-Thames, to take place on the 10th June, 1829.
Oxford won the first
The colour worn by Cambridge in this first race is unknown. Oxford had already adopted their familiar dark blue, since this was the rowing colour of Christ Church, the grand college that Wordsworth and the majority of the Oxford rowers hailed from.
It must have brought them luck because they enjoyed a convincing victory over their Cambridge rivals. Cambridge were forced to challenge the victors to a re-match, a tradition that has lasted throughout the centuries.
Cambridge won the rematch
The two universities did not compete again until 1836, when the race was held in London, from Westminster to Putney, rather than upriver in Henley. This time Cambridge were the victors, which lead to calls from Oxford to move the next race back to its original home!
The disagreement dragged on until 1839, when the race was held again in London, and resulted in another Cambridge win.
It has happened annually (aside from breaks during both World Wars, when fit young men were needed elsewhere) ever since, and the overall number of wins for each side is remarkably close.
Dead heats and mutinies
More than a century of racing has yielded several memorable incidents, including the 1877 dead heat, and mutinies in 1957 and 1987. The 1987 event occurred when an attempt to create a record-breaking all-American Oxford crew backfired spectacularly, leading the British press to comment that “when you recruit mercenaries, you can expect some pirates.”
There have also been numerous sinkings, most dramatically in 1912 when both crews ended up in the water in freakishly bad weather. Though the first female cox appeared in the race in 1981, there is also a separate all-female boat race which has taken place since 1927 and garnered increasing support and interest.
As more and more people have come to watch the races, both on the river and the television, the standard has improved dramatically. It has attracted several current and future gold medal winners, most recently Malcolm Howard of Oxford, who won gold at the Beijing 2008 Olympics before rowing for his university in 2013 and 2014.
More surprising participants include the actor Hugh Laurie, who rowed for Cambridge in 1980, and a certain Dan Snow, who rowed for Oxford from 1999-2001.
Title Image: 19 Feb 2001: Presidents Dan Snow of Oxford and Kieran West of Cambridge during the Presidents Challange and Crew Announcement for the 147th Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race held at Putney Bridge, London. Credit: Warren Little /Allsport