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”



Brasenose – an Oxford College


Brasenose College from the High Street (late 19th century frontage)

LET ME introduce you to an Oxford College – Brasenose College – my old College in fact. It boasts alumni such as Sir Arthur Evans (he of Knossos fame – see my June blogs), Sir William Golding (Lord of the Flies), John Buchan (Thirty-Nine Steps), William Webb Ellis (for rugby fans – he invented the game), Colin Cowdrey (for cricket fans), Michael Palin (for Monty Python fans), oh, and David Cameron (for …..er …., well, he was there).


The Old Quad (16th century) – sun dial (1719) on left wall often recognized in Morse episodes (the dome top right is not part of BNC, it’s the Radcliffe Camera outside in Radcliffe Square)

Brasenose began life as Brasenose Hall around 1219, but it was founded as Brasenose College (BNC) in 1509 by Sir Richard Sutton, a barrister (who acquired the property for the site), and William Smyth, Bishop of Lincoln (who provided for the expenses of the building) and it received its Royal Charter in 1512 with the full name of ‘The King’s Hall and College of Brasenose’.

bnc               BNC coats of arms – to left is Smyth’s, to right is Sutton’s and in the centre is the See of Lincoln’s (the diocese in which Oxford lay in when the College was founded)

Portrait_of_William_Smith_founder_of_Brasenose_College_Oxford_by_John_Faber_the_Elder      NPG D4337; Sir Richard Sutton by John Faber Sr, after  Unknown artist

 William Smyth (1460-1514)                                          Richard Sutton (? – 1524)

The Old Quad (pictured above) is the original 16th century building, but then of just two floors.  A third floor with dormer windows was added in 1635. The oldest part of the College is the 15th century kitchen from when it was part of the earlier Brasenose Hall (see below) – it has since been update once or twice – in fact, very recently. Between 1657 and 1666 the Deer Park (very small area and supposedly named as a sly dig at the massive Magdalen Deer Park), the New Library and the New Chapel were added to the south of the Old Quad building. Nothing much happened to the place during the 18th century due to lack funds (well, it had funds but most of them seem to end up in the pockets of the Principal and Senior Fellows – much to the annoyance of the Junior Fellows who complained bitterly ….. until they became Senior Fellows). Then towards the end of the 19th century the High Tower and New Quad adjacent to the High Street began to take shape (see pics at beginning and end).


Extent of BNC  from the 16th century to early 17th century (north to the right)


BNC in 1674


Part (about half) of the Deer Park in foreground (I said it was small) with the New Chapel in the background

Interestingly, sport was rarely played by any of the Oxford Colleges before the 19th century – young men of Oxford in the 18th century, particularly, were of the drinking sort rather than the sporting sort (or even academic sort – only a few bothered with actually obtaining a degree in those days!). Sport began, unsurprisingly, with rowing, then, wot ho!, cricket. BNC acquired a good reputation in these two activities in the early days. In fact, since the races began in 1815, BNC runs 3rd with 23 victories as the ‘Head of the River’ (Oriel is 2nd with 30, Christ Church is 1st with 33).

bnc rowing

A Saturday afternnon in May, end of Eights Week, the rowing viewed from the balcony of BNC boat club (with Pimms) is always a good crack

The College’s, shall we say, unusual name refers to a 12th century ‘brazen’ (brass or bronze) door knocker in the shape of a nose. The door knocker is said to date back to the 13th century and, from around 1279, marked the entrance to Brasenose Hall (an academic hall – independently leased in 1381 – before BNC became a College in 1509). In 1333, it is believed that the door knocker was removed by a band of rebellious students who migrated to Stamford in Lincolnshire. This rebellion was, in due course, suppressed and the students were ordered to return to Oxford – but without the knocker. In 1880, a house in Stamford came up for sale – it had been known as ‘Brasenose’ since the 17th century due to its door knocker which was thought to be the very one taken by the migrating students in the 14th century. BNC purchased the house to recover the door knocker! Well, spare no expense!


BNC’s 13th century door knocker now displayed  in Hall

DON’T READ THIS PARAGRAPH AT NIGHT (you have been warned): BNC also has its legends. One of the more ‘infamous’ is the alleged brief composition of the Hell Fire Club (HFC) wherein demon worship – and a good deal of drinking – supposedly (well, only with regard to the former) took place. So, nearing midnight on a December eve in (reportedly) 1828, on returning to College via a dimly-lit Brasenose Lane, a Fellow of BNC noticed a tall character dressed in a long black cloak pulling a person through a ground floor window which was not only protected by upright iron bars but also reinforced with stout wire-netting (to prevent students sneaking out at night). The window was that of a known and degenerate member of the HFC. Preposterous of course. However, on hastily rounding the corner of the Lane and entering the College, the Fellow encountered much shouting and then took sight of a rush of a group of terrified gentlemen appearing into the Quad from the staircase containing the very room with the window just described above. The legend concludes by suggesting that the owner of the room had been mid-way through a blasphemous speech when he fell dead with a broken blood vessel. It may be inferred that the tall man in the black cloak was the Devil Himself coming to collect the soul of his own (this tale is recorded in the 1872 journal Odds and Ends). Of course, no mention was ever made of the identity or the alcoholic state of the Fellow who ‘witnessed’ the tall man in the black cloak performing this devilish deed.


Soulless visitor to BNC

Not finished yet. The ‘legend’ then moves to archived fact. On the 3rd March 1834, Edward Leigh Trafford, a 21 year old undergraduate who had ground floor rooms with windows facing Brasenose Lane, and who, by tradition, was a president of the HFC, died of delirium tremens (the DTs – okay, ‘the horrors’!). Spooky, eh?

bnc lane

Brasenose Lane (BNC to the left) – avoid it at midnight, in case of drunken Fellows

During the 17th century BNC found itself in financial difficulties which worsened in the Civil War when Charles I made his headquarters in Oxford. He borrowed as sum of money from BNC for the conflict against the Parliamentarians. This, along with the 8% interest was never paid back – until November 2008…. by me in recognition of the 500 years of BNC (needless to say the sum is not comparable to today’s values and I did not include the interest as I had no statutory evidence that BNC was registered as a moneylender in the 17th century and therefore able to lawfully charge interest – that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!). I had read about the debt in Joe Mordaunt Crook’s 2008 book on Brasenose and the, then, Principal at BNC, Professor Roger Cashmore, wrote to me to say my contribution had been ‘immortalized in two speeches’ by him introducing the book on two occasions, but I’m still awaiting a note of appreciation from the present Royal Family …..

Talking of which, also to celebrate 500 years of BNC, the Queen visited BNC on 2nd December 2009 and was shown around the College by Roger Cashmore.


Roger Cashmore reminding Her Majesty of my generosity


The New Quad (behind the High Street – completed by 1911 – modern by BNC standards!)


Next week: Let’s go look at an Inn of Court



Did you know it was 70 years (and 5 days) since we sadly lost, as a result of a plane cash, the very talented Jimmy Stewart ……. sorry, Glenn Miller (I’m of the generation – I think most of us are now – that can never think of Glenn Miller without seeing James Stewart who memorably (obviously) played him in the 1954  film The Glenn Miller Story). Anyway, 15th December 1944, he (Miller not Stewart) was flying from an RAF base at Twinwood Farm, Clapham, Bedford, in the UK, to Paris to play to the troops, when his plane disappeared over the English Channel. It has been suggested that the most likely theory for the disaster is that the carburetor froze up in the cold weather. In fact, this was the cause of my father’s crash in his Wellington Bomber in 1940 resulting in him ending up in Stalag Luft III (of ‘The Great Escape’ fame – see end of that blog beginning of August).

Len Goodman of Strictly Come something is doing a radio prog on Miller which may be worth a listen. Click here,

- Stewart, James (Glenn Miller Story, The)_01                 Maj. Glenn Miller

Jimmy Stewart as Glenn Miller and Glen Miller as himself (which is which? – obvious when you see them!)

Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

I was in church with my old tutor from Oxford and we were just chatting whilst waiting for the start of the service, when, strap me, Satan himself suddenly appeared.  Many of the congregation screamed to see God’s arch enemy and they all ran from the building.  I was too astounded to consider a plan of action but simply exclaimed to my old friend (my tutor, not Satan), “Good Lord, what a scoundrel; damned impertinence, if you ask me!”

My tutor nonchalantly suggested that we stay where we were as there was no need for concern.

Now this clearly confused Satan and he walked up to my tutor and said, “Don’t you know who I am?”

My tutor replied, “Indeed I do.”

Satan asked, “Are you not afraid of me?”

“Not at all,” replied my tutor.

Satan was a little perturbed at this and queried, “Why not?”

My tutor calmly replied, “My dear fellow, I have been married to your sister for over 48 years.”