Now officially known as the BNY Mellon Boat Race, the annual rowing event between Oxford and Cambridge universities was first held at Henley on Thames in 1829, moving to London for the second event in 1836 and becoming an annual event (with the exception of the two world wars) in 1856.
One of the most controversial races ever held – and next year’s will be the 159th – was in 1877 when the race, run over a four mile, 374 yard course which starts in Putney in west London and taking in a great bend of The Thames as it goes past Chiswick and Hammersmith, finishes at Mortlake, ended in a “dead heat”.
The drama began as the boats passed Barnes Bridge, about three-and-a-half miles through the course, when one of the blades of the Oxford team’s oars broke after striking rough water. Oxford (wearing dark blue) had been leading the race and the incident is believed to have helped Cambridge (wearing light blue) to draw level – so much so that both crews are recorded as having passed the finish line in 24 minutes and eight seconds.
It’s the only time the race has ever finished in a draw and there was, as might be expected, significant controversy over the result. With no finishing posts then in place, the judge, a waterman from Fulham named ‘Honest John’ Phelps, had to decide the result from his place in a small skiff on the water (and, according to the official Boat Race website, it is believed he was in a position to do so and not dozing under a bush as others have suggested).
His skiff, it is believed, may have drifted off the finish line. In addition, it was not the only craft on the water and it’s believed that the other craft filled with people eager to see the result, may have partially obscured his view. Even if they hadn’t, his was a tough task.
As was recorded in The Times (with thanks to Wikipedia): “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.”
Oxford, however, thought they had won by a matter of several feet and it’s believed that as a result Honest John announced the result as “dead heat to Oxford by five feet”. The result was later confirmed as simply a “dead heat”.
The controversy did lead to some changes – including the introduction of finishing posts – a stone on the south bank and a post on the north – and the passing of the role of judge to members of the two universities instead of a professional waterman.
Following this year’s race (also rather controversial – see our earlier article here) Cambridge has 81 wins and Oxford 76. For more on the history of the Boat Race see our earlier entry here or visit www.theboatrace.org.