LondonLife – The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race

March 29, 2011

PICTURE: Oxford celebrate their win. Source: Getty Images

Last weekend saw the running of the 157th Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race from Putney to Mortlake on the River Thames in London. Oxford this year added to its tally with a victory which now has the running scores as 80 Cambridge, 76 Oxford.

The origins of the race go back a friendship between two men who’d met at the prestigious Harrow School – Charles Merivale and Charles Wordsworth (incidentally, the nephew of the poet William Wordsworth). Merivale went on to attend Cambridge and Wordsworth, Oxford. The first race was organised after Cambridge challenged Oxford.

The first race, said to have been watched by 20,000 people, was held at Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire, in 1829 after Cambridge sent a challenge to Oxford (Oxford won after a restart). It was such a success that the townfolk decided to organise an annual regatta – the Henley Royal Regatta – but the race itself moved to London with the second event held in 1836.

Initially Westminster was the chosen location but growing crowds led it to be moved again in 1845 – this time what was then the village of Putney, about six miles upstream. It became an annual event in 1856 and has run every year ever since, with the exception of the war years.

The races have featured several sinkings (including 1912 when both boats sank), a win in a blizzard (1952), and a “dead heat” (1877 – although some controversy surrounds how close it was – in any event it was almost repeated in 2003 when Oxford won by just one foot).

Sponsored by Xchanging, the race – in which Oxford traditionally wear dark blue and Cambridge light blue with both teams known as “Blues” – is now watched by some 250,000 people who crowd along the river’s bank as well as millions around the world. Among the traditions which have continued are that it’s the loser of the previous year’s race who challenges the victor to the next race.

For more about the race, see www.theboatrace.org or visit the River & Rowing Museum at Henley on Thames.

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