Things you probably didn’t know!
Boat race history

The race was started by Charles Merivale and Charles Wordsworth in 1829. The two had rowed together at Harrow and were close friends but Merivale went to St John’s college Cambridge and Wordsworth to Christ Church college Oxford. Rowing together on the Cam during the university vacation they decided that Cambridge would challenge Oxford to a race “at or near London each in an eight-oared boat during the ensuing Easter Vacation”. The challenge was promptly accepted, though the race took place at Henley, and Oxford won convincingly. The winning boat is on show at the rowing museum in Henley.

Races took place erratically and at a number of sites over the first 25 years but since 1845 it has always been run over the Putney to Mortlake stretch of the River Thames except for 1944 when it took place between Queen Adelaide and Littleport on the Great Ouse – as it will again in 2021! Since 1856 it has been an annual event except during war and – last year – Covid. The race of 2021 will be the 166th.

The current “score” is Cambridge 84 to Oxford 80 and one “dead heat” in 1877. The Thames can get rough in strong winds and there have been six sinkings.

Light blue v dark blue
The now familiar university “colours” originated with the boat race. In the first race, half of the Oxford crew were from Harrow and rowed in their school colours of dark blue. The following year the largest contingent in the Cambridge boat was from Caius college and they adopted the college colours of light blue – though in 2011 the light blue became somewhat more green! These colours became linked to competitions between the two universities and eventually to all university sport. To “get a blue” – indicating that you have represented your university in sport – is still a great honour.

Links between the boat race and Ely
Charles Merivale became a prominent historian and then Dean of Ely Cathedral, a post he held for 24 years until his death in 1893. There is a plaque in his memory in the South transept of the cathedral. In 2008 the Cathedral marked the 200th anniversary of his birth with a gathering of his descendants and those of Charles Wordsworth and a race using replicas of the 1829 boats.

In 1944 the race was switched to Ely because of the risk of V1 flying bombs, large numbers of which hit London in the final year of the war.In 2004 The “Diamond 44” group re-enacted this event, with locals in period costume, a spitfire flypast and veteran rowers from Oxford and Cambridge in the audience. They didn’t re-enact the result though – Oxford won in 1944, Cambridge in 2004!

Rowing in Ely

The 5km stretch of the Great Ouse between Queen Adelaide and Littleport is ideal for rowing, dead straight, carrying little river traffic and wide enough for two full-sized “eights” side by side. It has been used for many years as a training ground for elite rowers including university and Olympic crews.

In Victorian times rowing was a popular leisure activity and in the 1890s there were no fewer than five rowing clubs in Ely. The current Ely Rowing Club was formed in 2004 as part of the “Diamond 44” project and their logo reflects this with four diamonds in both Oxford and Cambridge blue.

Women’s rowing
The women’s boat race was founded in 1927 but raced only intermittently until the 1960s.  It was subject to considerable hostility from the men – and hampered by very impractical clothing!   

The early crews were formed entirely of students from Newnham College,  later joined by Girton – at that time the only Cambridge colleges to admit women. Newnham is now the only remaining all women’s college but remains prominent in rowing and currently holds the women’s “Head of the River” position.  The college celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.

The crews
All crew members have to be full-time degree students at the respective universities and they train six days a week on top of their normal academic work.

Both men and women now have reserve crews.  So there are now four races on race day.  Lightweight teams compete separately at Henley.