On this date in 1829 the first Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge universities took place, making it one of the oldest official sporting events in the world. 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. It usually takes place on the last weekend of March or the first weekend of April.
Although the first race was in 1829, the event has been held annually since 1856, except during the First and Second World Wars. The course covers a 4.2-mile (6.8 km) stretch of the Thames in West London, from Putney to Mortlake. Members of both teams are traditionally known as “blues” and each boat as a “Blue Boat,” with Cambridge in light blue and Oxford, dark blue. As of 2014 Cambridge have won the race 81 times and Oxford 78 times, with one dead heat. As a graduate of Oxford, and bow oar for my college as a student, I am an avid fan.
The race is a well-established and popular fixture in the British sporting calendar. Upwards of 250,000 people watch the race live from the banks of the river each year (in 2009, a record 270,000 people watched the race live) while a further 15 million or more watch it on television around the world.
The tradition was started in 1829 by Charles Merivale, a student at St John’s College, Cambridge, and his school friend from Harrow, Charles Wordsworth, who was studying at Christ Church, Oxford. Cambridge challenged Oxford to a race at Henley-on-Thames but lost easily. As the Oxford stroke, Staniforth, and four of his crew were from Christ Church, then Head of the River (a story for another time), the decision was – eventually – taken to race in the dark blue of that college, which still persists. There is a dispute as to the source of the color chosen by Cambridge. The second race was in 1836, with the venue moved to a course from Westminster to Putney. Over the next two years, there was disagreement over where the race should be held, with Oxford preferring Henley and Cambridge preferring London. Cambridge therefore raced Leander Club in 1837 and 1838 instead. Following the official formation of the Oxford University Boat Club in 1839, racing between the two universities resumed on the Tideway and the tradition continues to the present day, with the loser challenging the winner to a rematch annually. The race is governed by a Joint Understanding between Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Clubs.
The only race to be declared a dead head was in 1877. Legend in Oxford has it that the judge, “Honest John” Phelps, was asleep under a bush when the race finished, leading him to announce the result as a “dead heat to Oxford by four feet.” This is not borne out, however, by contemporary reports. This was from The Times
Oxford, partially disabled, were making effort after effort to hold their rapidly waning lead, while Cambridge, who, curiously enough, had settled together again, and were rowing almost as one man, were putting on a magnificent spurt at 40 strokes to the minute, with a view of catching their opponents before reaching the winning-post. Thus struggling over the remaining portion of the course, the two eights raced past the flag alongside one another, and the gun fired amid a scene of excitement rarely equalled and never exceeded. Cheers for one crew were succeeded by counter-cheers for the other, and it was impossible to tell what the result was until the Press boat backed down to the Judge and inquired the issue. John Phelps, the waterman, who officiated, replied that the noses of the boats passed the post strictly level, and that the result was a dead heat.
The course is 4 miles and 374 yards (6.779 km) from Putney to Mortlake, passing Hammersmith and Barnes; it is sometimes referred to as the Championship Course, and follows an S shape, east to west. The start and finish are marked by the University Boat Race Stones on the south bank. The clubs’ presidents toss a coin (the sovereign used in 1829) before the race for the right to choose which side of the river (station) they will row on: their decision is based on the day’s weather conditions and how the various bends in the course might favor their crew’s pace. The north station (‘Middlesex’) has the advantage of the first and last bends, and the south (‘Surrey’) station the longer middle bend.
During the race the coxes compete for the fastest current, which lies at the deepest part of the river, frequently leading to clashes of blades and warnings from the umpire. This year (2014) a clash caused the Cambridge #2 to become unseated and lose his blade for several strokes, and broke his rigger. In consequence Oxford won handily, and the clash was ruled Cambridge’s fault for being in Oxford’s water despite being warned off by the umpire. A crew that gets a lead of more than a boat’s length can cut in front of their opponent, making it extremely difficult for the trailing crew to gain the lead. For this reason the tactics of the race are generally to go fast early on, and few races have a change of the lead after halfway (though this happened in 2003, 2007 and 2010). Here’s the 2014 race (the first 5 minutes are the crucial bit):
The race is rowed upstream, but is timed to start on the incoming flood tide so that the crews are rowing with the fastest possible current. If a strong wind is blowing from the west it will be against the tide in places along the course, causing the water to become very rough. The conditions are sometimes such that an international regatta would be cancelled, but the Boat Race has a tradition of proceeding even in potential sinking conditions.
In the 1912 race, run in extremely poor weather and high winds, both crews sank. Oxford rowed into a significant early lead, but began taking on water, and made for the bank shortly after passing Hammersmith Bridge to empty the boat out: although they attempted to restart, the race was abandoned at this point because Cambridge had also sunk, while passing the Harrods Depository. In the Book of Heroic Failures it is further reported, colorfully but perhaps not entirely reliably, that Oxford’s attempted restart was briefly delayed as a crewman exchanged words with a friend called Boswell in the crowd: and that as the abandonment was announced, some of the Cambridge crew came swimming past the Oxford position, minus their boat. The race was re-rowed two days later, again in poor weather, and Oxford won by six lengths.
Cambridge also sank in 1859 and 1978, while Oxford did so in 1925, and again in 1951; the 1951 race was re-rowed on the following Monday. In 1984 the Cambridge boat sank after colliding with a barge before the start of the race, which was then rescheduled for the next day. Here’s the 1951 sinking with wonderful 1950’s newsreel commentary style – very different from today’s:
Recent years have seen especially dramatic races. In 2001 the race was halted by umpire Rupert Obholzer just over a minute after the start, following repeated warnings to both crews to move apart, and then a clash of blades. The blade of Cambridge bowman Colin Swainson dislodged from his hand and in consequence the umpire immediately stopped the race. Despite Oxford having a lead when the race was stopped, the boats were restarted level with each other; this decision was highly contentious, especially when Cambridge went on to win after the restart.
In 2002 the favored Cambridge crew led with only a few hundred meters to go, when a Cambridge oarsman (Sebastian Mayer, who was later part of the winning 2004 Cambridge crew) collapsed from exhaustion and Oxford rowed through to win by three-quarters of a length. They did so on the outside of the last river bend, a feat last accomplished in 1952.
In the 2003 race Cambridge were substantially heavier and appeared to be the favorites. Two days prior to the race, however, the Cambridge crew suffered a collision on the river in which oarsman Wayne Pommen was injured. With a replacement (Ben Smith) in Pommen’s seat, Cambridge went on to lose by the narrowest margin ever: just one foot (30 cm). In that year, there were two pairs of brothers rowing: Matt Smith and David Livingston for Oxford, and Ben Smith and James Livingston for Cambridge. All four had been pupils together at Hampton School in south-west London. Cambridge gained revenge in 2004 in a race marred by dramatic clashes of oars in the early stages, and the unseating of Oxford’s bowman.
The 2006 race was won by Oxford. Cambridge had started as strong favorites but, despite heavy rain creating rough water, made a tactical decision not to use a pump to remove excess water from the boat. Oxford did use a pump and overtook Cambridge to win. Cambridge had introduced pumps as early as 1987.
In the 2012 race, after almost three-quarters of the course had been rowed, the race was halted for over 30 minutes when a lone protester, Australian Trenton Oldfield, entered the water from Chiswick Eyot and deliberately swam between the boats near Chiswick Pier with the intention of protesting against spending cuts, and what he saw as the erosion of civil liberties and a growing culture of elitism within British society. Once spotted by assistant umpire Sir Matthew Pinsent, both boats were required to stop for safety reasons. The umpire, John Garrett, decided to restart the race from the eastern end of Chiswick Eyot. Shortly after the restart the boats clashed and the oar of Oxford crewman Hanno Wienhausen was broken. Garrett judged the clash to be Oxford’s fault and allowed the race to continue. Cambridge quickly took the lead and went on to win the race. The Oxford crew entered a final appeal to the umpire which was quickly rejected; and Cambridge were confirmed as winners by 4 ¼ lengths. It was the first time since 1849 that a crew had won the boat race without an official recorded winning time. After the end of the race Oxford’s bow man, Alex Woods – a medical student at Pembroke College – received emergency treatment after collapsing in the boat from exhaustion. Because of the circumstances, the post-race celebrations by the winning Cambridge crew were unusually muted and the planned award ceremony was cancelled.
Oldfield was convicted in October 2012 of causing a public nuisance, fined £750 and sentenced to six months imprisonment. In June 2013 he was refused the right to remain in the UK, a decision against which he successfully appealed, with the appeal judge stating that there was “a public interest in providing a platform for protest at both common law and the European Convention on Human Rights.”
There are no sporting scholarships at Oxford or Cambridge, so in theory every student must obtain a university place on academic merit. But there have been unproven accusations that some students are admitted to the universities for their rowing skill without meeting the normal academic standards. Participants in the boat race are indeed academically capable: the 2005 Cambridge crew, for example, contained four PhD students, including a qualified medical doctor and a veterinarian.
From 1978 to 1983 the race was won every year by Oxford crews that included Boris Rankov, who was then a graduate student at Oxford and recognized as a powerhouse of the crews. Although Rankov was a bona fide student (and is now a professor at the University of London), this led to the establishment of the informal “Rankov Rule,” to which the teams have adhered ever since, that no rower may compete in the boat race more than four times as an undergraduate, and four times as a graduate.
In order to protect the status of the race as a competition between genuine students, the Boat Race organizing committee in July 2007 refused to award a blue to 2006 and 2007 Cambridge oarsman Thorsten Engelmann, as he did not complete his academic course and instead returned to the German national rowing team to prepare for the Beijing Olympics. This has caused a debate about a change of rules, and one suggestion appears to be that only students that are enrolled in courses lasting at least two years should be eligible to race.
The race is for heavyweight eights (i.e. eight rowers with a cox steering, and no restrictions on weight). Female coxes are permitted: the first to appear in the Boat Race was Sue Brown for Oxford in 1981. In fact female rowers would be permitted in the men’s boat race, though the reverse is not true. Although the contest is strictly between amateurs, and the competitors must be students of the university for which they race, the training schedules the teams undertake are very grueling. Typically each team trains for six days a week for six months before the event.
I am going to show my unmitigated bias and give you an Oxford recipe. Oxford sausages are a distinctive variety of pork and veal sausage commonly associated with, and thought to have been developed in, the city of Oxford. Oxford sausages are noted for the addition of veal, in contrast to many traditional British sausages which contain only pork, and their high level of seasoning. References to the “Oxford” style of sausage date back to at least the early 18th century, but it was more widely popularized owing to inclusion in Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), which regular readers will know as one of my foundational cookbooks for classic British recipes.
The first published reference to a sausage that closely resembles the modern Oxford sausage is by John Nott in his book The Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary: Or, the Accomplish’d Housewife’s Companion, (1723). In the text Nott, cook to the Duke of Bolton, refers to the sausages as “Oxford Skates” (or “Kates”, as listed in the index). Whether this was a common local recipe or one created by Nott is unclear. By the late 18th century the spice-rich nature of the Oxford sausage had entered popular consciousness to such an extent that Thomas Warton used The Oxford Sausage as the title for his compilation of “highly spiced” political and satirical college verse, first published in 1764 and republished a number of times in the following 50 years. A number of variations on the recipe were published over the years, until Isabella Beeton selected the Oxford style as her exemplar for a typical pork sausage in her cookbook. With the popularity of this book the recipe reached a much wider audience, and Oxford sausage was for a time available as a canned, processed product. However, with the rise of mass-production, supermarkets, and global distribution, the Oxford sausage fell out of favor. The modern rise of local food movements has resulted in the Oxford sausage being revived, albeit in a revised form.
As with most regional foodstuffs, different recipes for Oxford sausages vary in many aspects, but all follow a similar ingredient list. The modern Oxford sausage is typically a mixture of ground pork and veal, seasoned with lemon and herbs and spices. Nott’s 1723 recipe calls for pork or veal, seasoned with salt, pepper, clove, mace and sage. The spice content also appears in many other late 18th and early 19th century recipes, with mace or nutmeg being consistent ingredients. Mrs. Beeton’s recipe broadly follows the same formula, excepting that a 50:50 mixture of pork and veal is specified, with the addition of a similar quantity of beef suet. Beeton also includes lemon peel, although she was not the first to do so. As first produced, the Oxford sausage did not have a skin or other casing, but was hand-formed and floured before frying. However, modern forms are commonly made in a conventional, linked “banger” style, with natural pork or sheep casings. Beeton mentions both types.
Here is Beeton’s recipe.
TO MAKE SAUSAGES.
(Author’s Oxford Recipe.)
837. INGREDIENTS.—1 lb. of pork, fat and lean, without skin or gristle; 1 lb. of lean veal, 1 lb. of beef suet, 1/2 lb. of bread crumbs, the rind of 1/2 lemon, 1 small nutmeg, 6 sage-leaves, 1 teaspoonful of pepper, 2 teaspoonfuls of salt, 1/2 teaspoonful of savory, 1/2 teaspoonful of marjoram.
Mode.—Chop the pork, veal, and suet finely together, add the bread crumbs, lemon-peel (which should be well minced), and a small nutmeg grated. Wash and chop the sage-leaves very finely; add these with the remaining ingredients to the sausage-meat, and when thoroughly mixed, either put the meat into skins, or, when wanted for table, form it into little cakes, which should be floured and fried.
Average cost, for this quantity, 2s. 6d.
Sufficient for about 30 moderate-sized sausages.
I use these sausages for classic English bangers and mash – sausages embedded in mashed potato and smothered in onions and gravy. The basic sausage mix can also be used for any recipe calling for sausage meat, such as Scotch eggs.