Now a mainstay of the British social and sporting calendar, ‘The Boat Race’ has not always carried the same prestige. The 4.2-mile (6.8km) race has grown from small beginnings in 1829 and Thames-side crowds approaching 300,000 now gather to watch the annual event.
Oxford and Cambridge universities are, unequivocally, the most prestigious academic institutions in the country. There may be disagreement, and indeed fluctuation, when considering number one versus number two in a pure rankings sense, and this breeds a strong rivalry among the Oxbridge ‘brands’. Given the multicultural, multi-disciplinary nature of the university environment, a natural corollary of this is that the rivalry manifests itself on the sports field (or, in this case, water) as well as in the lecture theatre.
This particular rivalry traces its beginnings back to 1829. Charles Merivale, of St. John’s College – Cambridge, challenges his Old Harrovian school friend Charles Wordsworth of Christ Church – Oxford, to a race at Henley-on-Thames. Oxford is victorious in the inaugural event. The next race takes place seven years later, this time with the course running from Westminster to Putney. Ultimately, the two sides settled on the ‘Tideway’ section of the Thames river, which remains the race location to this day.
Specifically, the Battle of the Blues (Cambridge is represented by light blue team colours; Oxford dark blue) runs along a stretch of the Thames from Putney to Mortlake. At the time of our sestercentennial anniversary year, Cambridge has 82 wins, Oxford has 79, and, remarkably, there was one dead heat recorded in 1877.
2003 sees the closest race on record as Oxford takes victory by little more than one foot, while 1839 represents the biggest mismatch, Cambridge romping home by a clear 35 lengths.