200 years of Oxford rowing

IT IS BELIEVED that recreational rowing at Oxford began around the 1760s but the first Summer Eights (eight rowers, one cox) Head of the River race took place between my College, Brasenose (see December 20 post) and Jesus College in 1815, exactly 200 years ago, a few months before the Battle of Waterloo. Brasenose won to become the very first ‘Head of the River’. To commemorate the anniversary of this achievement there was a ‘re-enactment’ of the event at Oxford this weekend (Saturday 30th May). I say ‘re-enactment’ – it was not intended to be an exact re-enactment as Jesus (College that is) had every intention of winning this time around. Well, they didn’t. In fact they rather lost it right in front of their own boathouse (‘caught a crab’). So Brasenose were victors again but it was all in good fun.

bnc race

Brasenose crew (foreground) on their way to victory; Jesus (background) about to ‘catch a crab’ in front of their own boathouse

At the end of this post you can click on a link for a video of a brief part of the race

The crews dressed in true 1815 style and used wooden boats of that era. Back in the 19th century the ‘bumps’ (see below) races began within Iffley Lock and ended at a finishing line marked by a flagpole on Mr Isaac King’s barge off Christ Church Meadow (not far from the current finishing line).


Before the race: the crews dressed in 1815 style kit (Brasenose, left, discarded their black and gold stripey jumpers for the race –  as can be seen in photo above)

There had been previous races but they had been between professional watermen (such as Ranelagh Regatta of 1775) but the 1815 race was the first recorded between two boat clubs. So Brasenose College and Jesus College Boat Clubs are the oldest known competitive amateur rowing clubs in the world. The two Colleges raced again the following year in 1816 and again Brasenose won. In 1817 they were joined by Christ Church who won three years running. There is no record of the race in 1820 but in 1821 there was no Christ Church boat and it was just Brasenose and Jesus again with another victory for Brasenose. In 1822 Brasenose were bumped by Jesus but the Brasenose crew continued rowing and attempted to haul down the Jesus flag. Bit unsporting – but there were no definite rules then! A rematch took place and Brasenose won. Christ Church returned in 1824, along with Exeter College, and the tradition of Eights was established and as the years went on more Colleges became involved. (My thanks to William O’Chee and Christopher Seward for this info).


‘The earliest-known scene of a race between two eight-oared boats at Oxford University. It has been suggested that the picture shows the “disputed bump” of the 1822 race between Jesus College and Brasenose College’

Now obviously the River Thames that flows through Oxford is far too narrow for boats to actually race side-by-side (around 30-40 m in width), so in 1826 bumping rules were devised. This means that each boat starts 130 feet in front of another and the idea is for the one behind to catch the one in front and ‘bump’ it. When this happens the two boats swap places for the next race (next day) and boats can work their way up the order over a week (which is why it’s called ‘Eights Week’). The one at the head at the end of the week is ‘Head of the River’.

Postcard dated 1915 – 100 years ago and 100 after Brasenose v Jesus

Initially all racing stopped behind the first boat to be bumped and only the boats ahead carried on to try and achieve their own bump. After 1840 a new system of bumping was introduced: when a boat was bumped it had to pull over to the river bank so boats still racing behind could continue. During the 1870s, the 20 or so Colleges competing were divided into two divisions. In 1908 Colleges were able to submit second crews of eight. Now all 39 Colleges are involved with three or four teams and there are seven men’s divisions and six women’s divisions. This, of course, makes it more difficult to become Head of the River. Brasenose last managed this in the 1930s and now it is presently in Division II. I was told on Saturday that it will be at least 16 years before it could contest for the Head of the River again based on the bumping rules. However, in case you didn’t read my December post on Brasenose, I would mention that since the races began in 1815, Brasenose runs 3rd with 23 victories as the ‘Head of the River’ (Oriel is 2nd with 30, Christ Church is 1st with 33).

Rowing in Oxford – early days

Women’s rowing had existed at the University since the 1920s (and some women were allowed to join the men’s crews) but there were no solely women’s crews until 1969 when St Hilda’s College entered with an all women crew. Then, after all-male Colleges began admitting women in the mid-1970s, a women’s division was introduced in 1976. Women have been coxing men’s crews for many years (and vice-versa).

ox boathses

Some of the College boathouses (Brasenose to the left with the white & yellow flag hanging from the balcony)

So there you have it. I’m sure you were aching to know all about Oxford rowing races. I did try it once but they didn’t ask me again (okay, I was a little older than the average student).

bnc grdn prty

 30th May 2015: The Brasenose and Jesus Garden Party opposite the river to commemorate the race 200 years before

 Click here for a brief part of the race – just as Jesus ‘catch a crab’



Don’t you just love Oxford – well, Sarah and I do …….


Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I have discovered another volume of Artemus’ notebooks (followers will recall Dr Artemus Smith was an archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction). Here is an extract:

The wife of one of my colleagues is an maths teacher to 11-12 year olds.  She had asked her class a mathematical question:

“A wealthy man dies and leaves ten million pounds. One-fifth is to go to his wife, one-fifth is to go to his son, one-sixth to his butler, and the rest to charity. Now, what does each get?”

After a very long silence in the classroom, young Morris raised his hand.

My colleague’s wife called on young Morris for his answer.

With complete sincerity in his voice, young Morris answered, “A lawyer”



2 thoughts on “200 years of Oxford rowing

  1. A wonderful summary, and great images from Eights this year. I would add only one note of correction, which is that you inadvertantly repeat Sherwood’s error in claiming that there is no record of the 1821 racing. In fact, an account does exist. When De Ros went down, Christ Church failed to produce a boat in 1821, and the title was contested by BNC and Jesus alone, with BNC winning again. This explains Brasenose starting head in 1822, the year of the contested bump.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s