10 June 1829: the first Oxford and Cambridge boat race

Oxford and Cambridge boat race © Getty Images
Oxford won the first boat race “easily”

The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race has become one of the highlights of the British sporting calendar. Every year, up to 250,000 people line the banks of the Thames to see the two university crews battle it out on the water. In 2015, 6.8 million people watched the race on TV.

It was started by two old friends from Harrow School, Charles Merivale, a Cambridge student, and Charles Wordsworth (nephew of the poet), who was at Oxford.

On 10 February 1829, Cambridge University Boat Club officially challenged Oxford to a race. And on this day in 1829, the first race took place at Henley in front of some 15,000 spectators. Oxford came out the winners – the official record states they won “easily”.

It wasn’t run again until 1836, this time in London, between Westminster and Putney. It didn’t run on the present course, from Putney to Mortlake, until 1845, and became an annual event in 1856, with an official distance of four miles and 374 yards.

It hasn’t been entirely without controversy. In 1877, for the only time in its history, the race was judged to be a dead heat. This is still a bone of contention at Oxford, who claim they crossed the line first. But the judge, ‘Honest’ John Phelps, didn’t have a clear view of the finish, so declared a draw. Oxford maintain he was asleep in his boat at the time. Phelps’s great-great-great-great nephew went on to judge the race in 2014 without controversy.

And in 1978, Cambridge sank just before the finishing line.

There have been a few famous faces to row over the years, including actor Hugh Laurie and society photographer Lord Snowdon.

Competing for Oxford in 2010 were Cameron and Tyler Winkelvoss, AKA the ‘Winkelvoss twins’, who controversially sued Mark Zuckerberg, claiming he stole their idea for a social networking site. They won $65m. But they lost the boat race.