Blog Post No.94
The History of London Boat Race
Historically, only professionals such as watermen and lightermen were allowed to race on the River Thames and it wasn’t long before competition and wagers became common amongst the working man’s rowing community.
The Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race is now one of London’s most popular annual events. The race has been running every year since its inception in 1829, with the exception of the periods during the First and Second World Wars, and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Boat Race started back in 1829 when two friends, Charles Wordsworth of Christ Church College, Oxford and Charles Merivale of St. John’s, Cambridge challenged one another “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.”
The first race took place on 10th June 1829 at Henley on Thames and Oxford won the race by a clear margin. In a tradition that still goes on today, the rowing clubs presidents toss an 1829 gold sovereign coin for the right to choose which side of the river that they will row on. The winning boat from Oxford is still on display at the River & Rowing Museum in Henley.
In 1836 the race was moved to London and over the last two centuries it has been traditionally held on the River Thames, with the exception of 1944 when the war impacted the access to the Thames. The course is 4 miles and 374 yards long, starting at Putney Bridge and ending at Mortlake, near the Chiswick Bridge.
Initially the race was for men only, but in 1927 a women’s team was added. Only in 2015 has the women’s race taken place on the same day and the same course, with the two being combined from 2018 onwards.
With the challenges faced during the pandemic, the event was held online in 2020 with the teams competing in a virtual race on rowing machines at home. Cambridge gained the winning title for that year.
Overall currently Cambridge are in the lead with 84 victories to Oxford’s 80. With 14 more wins than Oxford, the women’s league at Cambridge is also ahead with 44 wins. The fastest time logged for the race was 16 minutes and 19 seconds, achieved by the Cambridge men’s team in 1998.
Whichever team you choose to support, this is one of London’s best activities to watch from the bridges and walkways along the river. The atmosphere is always festive and somewhat tense with competition!