1880: BOATRACE - Oxford by 3¾ lengths. See Boatrace 1880s.
1880: HEAD OF THE RIVER - Magdalen

Oxford President and 6, George Duncan Rowe
and later a Henley Regatta Steward

The Boat Race according to Charles Dickens Junior. He suggests holding it elsewhere! -

A quiet, friendly sort of gathering ...

Not many years ago the annual eight-oared race between the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge was an event which concerned only the crews, their friends, the members of the Universities, and that small portion of the general public which took pleasure in river sports.
It was a quiet, friendly sort of gathering enough in those days. The comparatively few people who watched the practice of the crews all seemed to know each other. It was a wonderful week for parsons. Past University oarsmen, their jerseys exchanged for the decorous high waistcoat, the white choker taking the place of the rowing-man's muffler, were to be met all over Putney, and about Searle's yard and the London Boat-house. The towing-path was a sort of Rialto or High Change, on which old friends who had rowed in the same boat years ago, and had since gone down into the struggle and fight of the world by many different paths, met and renewed their youth as they talked over old times, and criticised their successors. There were but few rowing-clubs then; the river had not become the fashion; the professional touts and tipsters had not fastened on the boat-race; the graphic reporter as yet was not.
There was betting, of course - wherever Englishmen are, there is betting of some sort - but it was of a modest kind, and was unaccompanied by publicity. The whole thing. had the ring of true sport about it. It seemed indeed to be the only event that kept alive that idea of sport for its own sake which was fast fading out, if it was not already extinct, in most other contests.

Of course it was all too good to last...

The popularising process which has gone on with everything else was not likely to spare the boat-race.
First of all aquatics generally grew more in favour, and so a larger public was attracted to take an interest in the battle of the blues. Then the newspapers took the subject up, and the graphic reporter worked his will with the race and its surroundings, and the extraordinary multiplication of sporting newspapers and sporting articles in papers of all sorts, let loose any number of touts on to the towing-path.
Finally the ominous announcement of "Boat-race, 5 to 4 on Oxford (taken in hundreds)", and the like, began to appear in the price current of Tattersall's; and the whole character of the race was changed.
What the blue fever is now, and has been for some years, every Londoner knows well. Perhaps it is because the boat-race is the first of the spring events - as it were, the first swallow which indicates at least the possibility of a summer - perhaps it is because of the very natural readiness that exists among the masses to take advantage of any excuse for a holiday; perhaps it is because of the sheep-like tendency of the British public of all classes to follow a leader of any kind anywhere, that the complaint assumes so epidemic a form with every recurring spring. It is certain, at all events, that for some time before the race there is taken in it - or affected to be taken, - which does just as well - an interest which has about it even something ludicrous. Every scrap of gossip about the men and their boats, their trials and their coaches, is greedily devoured. Year by year, to gratify the public taste in that direction, has the language of the industrious gentlemen who describe the practice become more and more candid, not to say personal. The faults and peculiarities of individual members of the crews are criticised in some quarters in terms which might be considered rude if applied to a favourite for the Derby, who presumably does not read the sporting papers, and which, when used in speaking of gentlemen who may perhaps have feelings to be hurt, seems to the unprejudiced mind even offensive. The gushing reporter not only attends the race itself, but disports himself on the towing-path after his peculiar and diverting fashion on practice days, and daily develops the strangest conglomeration of views on matters aquatic in the greatest possible number of words. All sorts of dodges, borrowed from some of the shabbiest tricks of the "horse watcher's" trade, are adopted by touts, amateur and professional, to get at the time of the crews between certain points, or over the whole course. The race is betted upon as regularly as the Derby, as publicly, and as generally. Cabmen, butcher boys, and, omnibus drivers sport the colours of the Universities in all directions: the dark blue of Oxford and the light blue of Cambridge fill all the hosiers' shops, and are flaunted in all sorts of indescribable company. Every publican who has a flag-staff hoists a flag to mark his preference and to show which way his crown or so has gone - unless, as is sometimes the case, he be a dispassionate person with no pecuniary interest involved, in which case he impartially displays the banners of both crews. Everybody talks about the race, and it generally happens that the more ignorant of the matter is the company the more heated is the discussion, and the more confident and dogmatic the opinions expressed.
That thousands and thousands of people go down to the river on the important day who do not know one end of a boat from the other, who have no prospect of seeing anything at all, and no particular care whether they do see anything or not, is not surprising.
That other thousands go, knowing perfectly well that all they are likely to see is a mere glimpse of the two crews as they dash by, perhaps separated by some boats' lengths after the real struggle is all over, is equally natural.
Thousands and thousands of people go to the Derby on exactly the same principles.
That 'Arry has claimed the boat-race for his own is only to say that he is there as he is everywhere, and that circumstance is not perhaps to be laid to the charge of the boat race. But the fact is, and becomes more and more plain every year, that the boat-race is becoming vulgarised - not in the sense that it is patronised and in favour with what are called "common people," but in the sense that it has got to be the centre of most undesirable surroundings - and that its removal from metropolitan waters would not be lamented by real friends of the Universities, or lovers of genuine sport. It is not so bad as the Eton and Harrow cricket-match, which has been utterly vulgarised by "society," genuine and sham, and for which there is no kind of excuse or reason.

So race somewhere else ...

Then University crews cannot meet each other on their own waters, as cricketers can play upon each other's grounds. They must have a neutral course to row upon
It is probable, before very long, that it will occur to the authorities that there are other suitable pieces of water in England besides the Putney course, and that there is no reason whatever why, if the annual vexata quaestio of the rowing superiority of the rival Universities is all that is to be taken into account, the race should not be rowed elsewhere. The managers of the race or their friends have shown signs of some confusion of mind on this head on more than one occasion. Protests have gone forth that it is a private match with which the public have nothing to do. The crowding of spectators to see the practice - and as many people go nowadays to Putney on a Saturday afternoon if there be a good tide, as used to go to the race itself twenty years ago - has been complained of. The general exhibition of interest has been deprecated. It has been intimated that all this newspaper publicity is distasteful and undesirable. In some strange way the boat devoted to the service of the general body of the press on the day of the race is always either so slow a tub as to be of little use, or else meets with some mysterious accident which deprives its occupants of any but a very distant view of the proceedings, while their more fortunate brethren, who happen to have been educated at Oxford or Cambridge, are careering gaily after the racing boats on board one of the University steamers. The independent sporting papers say that accurate information has become more and more difficult to get, and newspaper reports - except in special quarters - are, following out the private-match theory, discouraged as much as possible. But it is all to no purpose. The boat-race can never shake off its surroundings so long as it continues to be rowed at Putney. Change of air will, in all probability, shortly be found necessary to restore it to a healthy condition - a condition in which it certainly is not now.

As matters stand at present ...

As matters stand at present the race is rowed annually, about the Saturday before Passion Week, between Putney and Mortlake, usually with the flood-tide, although occasionally the reverse course has been taken. The crews are generally at Putney for a fortnight or more for practice, a very much longer period of training on the tidal water being considered necessary now than was the case in the earlier years of the match. Four steamers only accompany the race: one for the umpire, one for either University, and one for the press; and although this arrangement is decidedly an advantage from the point of view of the public safety, the spectators about Hammersmith and Barnes lose a singular sight. The charge through the bridges of the twenty steamers or so which used to be chartered to accompany the race was something to see; but although it was magnificent it was not safe, and it was fortunate that the Conservancy regulations stopped it before some terrible accident occurred. That nothing very serious ever happened in that fleet of overcrowded swaying, bumping, jostling boats was an annual cause for wonder; and it became sometimes, when one was on board one of the fleet as it approached Hammersmith, matter for rather serious consideration to speculate at what particular moment the mass of spectators on the suspension-bridge would break it down and plunge with the ruins into the river. Fortunately the bridge stood long enough for the official mind to be exercised on the subject before anything happened, and it is now wisely closed during and for some time before the race. The best points of view are at Chiswick, on Barnes Terrace, or, best of all, perhaps, on Barnes Railway-Bridge, tickets for which are to be had at Waterloo Station. Otherwise, railway travelling between London and Mortlake cannot be recommended on boat-race days - for ladies at all events.
The Universities rowed their first match over a course of two miles and a quarter at Henley, and have met 35 times over the London course, as will be seen by the subjoined table, with the result that each University has won 17 races, while the race of 1877 was given by the judge as a dead heat. It is significant of the kind of influences that now prevail that this decision was productive of much discontent, and that the judge, who had officiated for a long period, was in the following year superseded. Of course all sorts of improvements have been made in the boats in which the competitors row, the introduction of outriggers in 1846 and the adoption of sliding-seats in 1873 being the most radical alterations ; but it is noticeable that from some cause or another the sliding-seats, which the modern rowing-man looks upon as an absolute necessity, do not seem to have increased the pace of the boats - if the time test goes for anything, that is to say. This is the more remarkable, as rowing men appear to be agreed that a crew rowing in fixed seats would have no chance against opponents of exactly equal merit on slides. It may be that the times taken before the days of chronographs were not exactly trustworthy. However it may be explained, the fact remains.

Cyclic success ...

It will be seen that success has often favoured one or other of the Universities for a series of years, only to go over to the other side for another series. The most important consecutive score is that of Oxford, from 1861 to 1869. This is what may be called the Morrison era, as the brothers Morrison were either in the boat or coaching during the whole, or the greater part, of that period, and finer crews than some of those which comprised such men as Darbishire, Willan, Tinné, the Morrisons, Hoare, Yarborough, Woodgate - to mention only a few names - have never been sent to Putney. Then Cambridge, who had persevered with the utmost pluck through most disheartening difficulties and defeat, learnt the proper lesson from Morrison, and the light blue once more came to the front under the auspices of Goldie. After this admirable stroke and sound judge, who did wonders for Cambridge rowing, came Rhodes, and plenty of good men have since been found to do battle at Putney for the honour of Cambridge.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of the Thames, 1881


1881: On the night before the 1881 race the Jubilee Anniversary dinner was held -


Sing we now the glorious dinner
Served in grand Freemasons' Hall;
Welcome loser, welcome winner,
Welcome all who've rowed at all:
Oarsmen, steersmen, saint or sinner,
Whet your jaws, and to it fall.

Fifty years and more have rolled off
Since the race of 'Twenty-nine':
Therefore all, by death not bowled off,
As of yore, your strength combine,
And in gangs of nine be told off -
Not to paddle, but to dine.

Oh! what hands by hands are shaken!
Bishop, Dean, Judge, Lawyer, Priest,
Bearded soldier, beardless deacon,
Men still scribbling, men who've ceased;
Court, church, camp, quill, care forsaken,
Muster strong and join the feast.

Staniforth, with air defiant,
Captain of the earliest Eight;
Toogood, amiable giant,
Unsurpassed in size and weight;
Merivale, one too reliant,
But for years resigned to fate; -

[ Staniforth: 1829 Oxford Stroke - later Rector of Bolton-by-Bolland ]
[ Toogood: 1829 Oxford 5 - later Prebendary of York ]
[ Merivale: 1829 Cambridge 4 - later Dean of Ely ]

Scores on scores, from these descended
In aquatic lineage, came;
Cantabs with Oxonians blended,
Ancients some - some new to fame:
But my song would ne'er be ended
Were I every one to name.

Happy was the thought that seated
Mate by mate, crew facing crew;
Well ye know who have competed
In what'er 'tis well to do,
How that man is ever greeted
(Friend or foe) who rowed with you.

Fitly o'er the feast presiding,
All-accomplished Chitty sits,
Through the toasts how neatly gliding,
Winning cheers, redoubling hits -
Not of bat with ball colliding -
Merely sympathy of wits.

[ Chitty: 1849(twice!), 1852 Oxford two, four then stroke and president ]

Yet another, more sonorous,
Rules our Chief, and checks our Chair,
Stills the hum, and quells the chorus,
Moderates the loud 'Hear! Hear!'
Coolly acts the despot o'er us,
As o'er Sheriff or Lord mayor.

Now the turtle disappeareth,
Now the turbot is dispatched;
Sparkling wine our spirit cheereth;
Well are Cam and Isis matched,
While each man his platter cleareth
Of the fishlets barely hatched.

Then comes talk of winning, losing,
Fouling, 'crabs' untimely caught,
Sinking, catching the beginning,
And of all Tom Egan taught,
Morrison or Shadwell, spinning,
Yarns of deep aquatic thought.

[ Tom Egan: 1836, 1839, 1840, Cambridge Cox and influential coach ]

Such the converse - not unbroken -
Some of training would discourse,
But that band (of 'vis' the token),
While each course succeeds to course,
(Ophicleide, als! bespoken),
Silences each tongue by force.

Now our hunger hath been sated,
Now with ice our lips been cooled,
And the Chairman well hath stated
How this realm is nobly ruled,
And our Queen and all related
Do their duty wisely schooled;

Great the toasts, and great the cheering;
Thrice times three and thrice again,
Every man his voice uprearing
To the band's assenting strain,
Loyal strain of men God-fearing
In this Isle that rules the main,

Now 'The Chair', succinctly noting
How whate'er is good or great
Follows from successful boating
In the Church, the law, the State,
Instances of each kind quoting
Some more early, some more late.

Turns triumphant to the guernsey,
By a reverend Prelate sent;
Reads, 'that though to come he burns, he
Must not come or he'd repent,
For that, whereso'er he turns, he
Duties finds because 'tis Lent.'

[ Charles Wordsworth: 1829 Oxford 4. Later Bishop of St Andrews 1853 - 1892 ]

Rogers next (how grand of feature,
Broad of shoulder, deep of chest!),
Brimming over with good-nature,
Tells the tale which wrings our breast,
How that horse (poor blundering creature!)
Well-nigh sent him to his rest.

[ Rogers: 1840 Oxford 4 ]

Toogood (once too good for Granta)
Brings his guernsey on his back,
Then like some gigntic planter,
Gives his chest a hearty smack,
And with reverential banter
Deigns a modest joke to crack.

[ Merivale of Cambridge explains that Cambridge would and should have won the first boat race were it not for the fact that Oxford rowed faster ... ]

Merivale, historian famous,
Proves that Cambridge would have won
Had not fate resolved to tame us,
Had not sons of Isis done
Better e'en that sons of Camus
In that Boat Race number one.

Up rose Brett, once seven to Stanley,
Every inch the Judge - the man:
Upright, downright, comely, manly
(Beat him Oxford if you can!),
All that's brave and gentlemanly,
Since to row he first began.

[ Brett: 1839 Cambridge 7 ]
[ Stanley: 1839 Cambridge stroke ]

Turn your eyes to that third table,
Where - still sound in wind and limb -
Stands that Smith who, quite unable
(More shame for him) then to swim,
Sank - yet lives! Oh, fate too stable!
Loftier end's in store for him.

[ A.L.Smith 1857, 1858, 1859(Sank) Cambridge 4, 2, 3. Later Judge of the High Court. ]

Next 'the Navy and the Army',
And his well-loved 'Volunteer',
Chitty toasts; and with a charm he
Has alone, provokes a cheer,
While, with true Etonian calm, he
Three Etonians bids appear.

Reggie Buller, brave Crimean;
Hornby, brother of the bold
Sailor mediterranean;
Warre, whose sway is uncontrolled,
Naval, martial, Herculean,
Scorning heat, defying cold.

[ R J Buller: 1852 Oxford 4 ]
[ Hornby: 1849 (December) Oxford bow ]
[ Warre: 1857, 1858 Oxford 6 then 7. Later Headmaster of Eton (with 'sway uncontrolled'!) ]

Men like these still make it truthful
To repeat the Great Duke's boast,
That these struggles of the youthful
Helped to victory that host,
Gallant, active, brave and ruthful,
Whom Old England honours most.

Once again (the chair desiring)
Denman toast these Fathers three
Who convinced a world admiring
That this eight-oared race should;
Once again (the theme inspiring)
'Nine time nine, and three times three'.

Up rose Staniforth, 'the father',
Spoke of those untimely gone
To the stream Elysian - rather
'Of the stroke they once put on ' -
Most portentous (as we gather),
Like the seats they sat upon.

'Temporis laudator acti',
So the young and thoughtless said;
I said nothing, but in fact I
Thought 'twas time to go to bed,
Yet another toast still lacked, I
Mean 'The caterers of this spread'.

These are hounoured. Then to Chitty
Warbling cheers, the best we know -
Best of chairmen, brave wise witty,
Full of goodness, full of go,
Q.C., M.P. (Oxford City)' -
Off to bed we gaily go.

Blest, thrice blest, is such revival,
Blest the man who can enjoy
Scenes like these, no mere survival,
For the man recalls the boy,
Hon'ring most his staunchest rival,
Hon'ring now without alloy.

Thus in generous emulation
Cam and Isis both are one;
Thus each passing generation
Earns the meed of duty done;
Thus the glory of our nation
Shines wherever shines the sun.

1881: BOATRACE - Oxford by 3 lengths. See Boatrace 1880s.

Oxford, 1881
Oxford Crew, 1881

1881: HEAD OF THE RIVER - Hertford
Wadham rebumped by Queen's through losing an oar.
Fourth night: Trinity rudder lines fouled the bung and drew the post from the ground.
Fifth night: Jesus lost a place for starting before the gun.

1882: BOATRACE - Oxford by 7 lengths. See Boatrace 1880s.

Oxford 2, Reginald Saumarez de Havilland, "Havvy"
Eton Coach in 1901

1882: HEAD OF THE RIVER - Exeter
'Exeter this year achieved a success which is probably without precedent in the annals of rowing at Oxford, by going from fourth to head of the river with a crew comprising six Torpid men and one who had not even rowed in the Torpid'. (Exeter Book)
Sixth night: Corpus rebumped by New College through breaking a oar.

1883: BOATRACE - Oxford by 3½ lengths. See Boatrace 1880s.
Steve Fairbairn, (Cambridge 7) who was so influential in Cambridge rowing, wrote the following poem, to enshrine his style -


"The willowy sway of the hands away"
And the water boiling aft,
The elastic spring, the steely fling
That drives the flying craft.

The steely spring and the musical ring
Of the blade with the biting grip,
The stretching draw of the bending oar
That rounds the turn with a whip.

The lazy float that controls the boat
And makes the swing quite true,
And gives that rest that the oarsman blest
As he drives the blade right through.

All through the swing he hears the boat sing
As she glides on her flying track,
And he gathers aft to strike the craft
With a ringing bell note crack.

From stretcher to oar with drive and draw,
He speeds the boat along.
All whalebone and steel and a willowy feel,
That is the oarsman's song.

Modern oars persons will immediately notice that the catch (start of the stroke in the water) was a different matter before the modern blade shapes came in. When coaches attempted to teach me they explained that the beginning had to be hit - "the ringing bell note crack" - so that the blade had a solid lump of compressed water to work against - and that that water had to be kept compressed thoughout the stroke, otherwise the blade would wash out (Oh the shame of it!)
But modern blades are different. On their own without doing anything, if they smell water they lock onto it. The sharp hit at the start of the stroke is no longer necessary - and indeed the jerk which it caused can be eliminated. Presumably with the greater blade area the pressure per square inch for a given effort is much lower. Modern rowers simply place the blade where it is needed and smoothly accelerate it through the stroke (at least that is the theory!)

1883: HEAD OF THE RIVER - Exeter
First night: St John's broke their rudder at start and ran into the bank, Pembroke rowing past.
Second night: Christchurch close on Trinity when they made their bump. They could not get clear, and Worcester rowed past and bumped them over two places. Keble broke an oar.

1884: BOATRACE - Cambridge by 2½ lengths. See Boatrace 1880s.
1884: HEAD OF THE RIVER - Exeter
Fourth night: Oriel rebumped by Merton, being mixed up with Queen's and Lincoln.

1885: BOATRACE - Oxford by 2½ lengths. See Boatrace 1880s.

The Oxford eight training on the river Thames seen from the Railway Bridge, Bourne End, 1885

Oxford were staying at Abney House.
1885: HEAD OF THE RIVER - Corpus

1886: BOATRACE - Cambridge by 2/3 length. See Boatrace 1880s.
1886: HEAD OF THE RIVER - Magdalen
First night: Lincoln were close on Merton when they bumped, and failed to clear, and 'a curious jumble of boats followed'.
Fourth night: Corpus broke a stretcher.

1887: BOATRACE - Cambridge by 2½ lengths. See Boatrace 1880s.
Guy Nickalls, Oxford 2, in "Life's a pudding" wrote:

There was no doubt over the whole course that we [Oxford] were the faster crew, but Frank Wethered damned the whole outfit. An hour before the race we rowed two minutes at 40 from the start. Dissatisfied with the row, which was certainly scrambled, we were taken back to the start and made to row as hard as we could back to the Mile Post. When we started the race an hour later I was dead to the world and stale, as were all the new blues. Cambridge led us a length under Barnes Bridge and Titherington was holding his spurt. We were on Middlesex shore, and, out of the corner of my eye, I could see the Cambridge cox bobbing back to us at every stroke. Titherington began his spurt; back they came to us. I was opposite their stroke; we knew the race must be ours and Holland yelled: “
It'’s all right, we’'ve got ‘em!
” Then, “Ducker” McLean broke his oar off short at the button. With the station in our favour and him out of the boat we could have won even then, but “Ducker” funked the oncoming penny steamers and, instead of jumping overboard as he should have done, we had to lug his now useless body along, to lose the finish. That was disappointing. Titherington was a fine stroke.

R C Lehmann in "The Complete Oarsman" was more charitable -

Cambridge had beaten Oxford in the spring by 2½ lengths, but the race had not been a very satisfactory one, for the Oxford No. 7, D. H. McLean, had managed to break his oar at a critical moment when Oxford were making a spurt and were gaining on Cambridge. This time the oar was unquestionably broken into two pieces. I saw the blade portion floating in the water as we came along in the steamer, which had been left far behind, and when we once more caught sight of the crews, we could see that McLean was swinging and recovering as best he could without an oar.

Douglas Hamilton McLean

Guy Nickalls

1887: HEAD OF THE RIVER - New College
Fourth night: Lincoln fouled the bank at the start, and Wadham ran into them so hard as to smash their own boat.

1888: BOATRACE - Cambridge by 7 lengths. See Boatrace 1880s.
1888: HEAD OF THE RIVER - Magdalen

1889: BOATRACE - Cambridge by 3 lengths. See Boatrace 1880s.

Oxford 1889

1889: HEAD OF THE RIVER - Brasenose
A patent counter-vail was used in the Brasenose boat ... ???