A History of Oxford College Rowing

(originally written by A Dudhia, 2000, as part of A History of St Catherine's Rowing 1875-1999)


The Beginnings

Rowing appears to have become popular as a recreation within the University around the end of the 1700s, with groups of college friends getting together to take out fours, sixes or eights for a mixture of exercise and 'amusement', the term 'sport' in those days implying some sort of wager on the outcome. The major Oxford college competition, 'Summer Eights', is reckoned to date from the summer of 1815, a few weeks prior to the battle of Waterloo. Crews from Brasenose and Jesus, probably at the end of a day's excursion downriver, decided to race the final leg home from Iffley Lock. Brasenose won that race and are thus credited with being the first 'Head of the River'. This became an annual contest and by 1826, with four colleges participating, recognisable 'bumping' rules had been drawn up: each crew started alongside a post in the bank (with an umpire to check that each boat was in place), and a pistol shot signalled the commencement of racing. If a bump occurred, all crews behind immediately ceased racing while the crews ahead continued. The two crews involved in the bump exchanged places the next race, usually two or three evenings later.

The Isis in the 1800's

The Isis then looked very different. There was a lock at Folly Bridge, the remains of which can still be seen today in the narrower of the two channels around the island. The wider northern channel was blocked by a weir. On the island itself stood The Boat House Tavern. There were no boathouses downstream, just 'King's Barge' moored alongside Christ Church meadow. This barge, owned by the boatbuilder Isaac King, served as the finishing post for bumping races and it became the custom to indicate the results of each day's racing by the order of flags raised on the barge flagpole, as shown on many contemporary pictures. This barge and the Tavern were also used as changing rooms by the oarsmen. Messrs. John and Stephen Salter took over the barge in 1852 for their own boatbuilding business, before eventually acquiring the Boat House Tavern, their current premises.

The opposite bank sloped gently down to the river. There were no boathouses and the towpath between Folly and Iffley Locks was blocked by a dozen gates at various fences and bridges (much as the present towpath outside Oxford). Punts were then, as now, a nuisance, although, instead of tourists, the problem then was the large number of professional ferrymen plying their trade across the river, and their general disregard for other river users. Originally a large number of sailboats were also kept near Folly Bridge, eventually moving upstream to Port Meadow to make way for more college barges.

Foundation of OUBC

In 1829, three years after the bumping rules had been drawn up, a representative Oxford University crew raced their Cambridge University counterparts for the first time. Oxford won that race, but lost the next two encounters in 1836 and 1839. As a result of the second defeat it was realised that the previous haphazard system of putting together University crews was inadequate and it was decided to copy the Cambridge system and the 'Oxford University Boat Club' was formed. Prior to that, Oxford rowing had been organised by meetings composed of the strokes of each crew, with the stroke of the Head crew presiding, but the formation of O.U.B.C. also provided a more permanent body to supervise college rowing.

Rule refinements

Curiously, the practice of making an excursion down to Sandford prior to each evening's racing continued at least until 1839, the crews 'amusing themselves with gymnastics or skittles' for an hour or so before collectively paddling back up to Iffley Lock to commence the serious business of the day. Needless to say, the paddle upstream past Kennington was an opportunity for a few practice bursts in an attempt to impress the opposition, and a good deal of banter between the crews. Following problems caused by high winds that same year, bunglines and the present 'three gun' system for starting were introduced in 1840, and the start time fixed at 7.45 pm. By then, some 14 colleges were taking part, so it was also decreed that boats involved in a bump should draw to one side so as to allow the lower crews to continue racing. The bump itself was defined 'as the touching of any part, whether it be boat, oars, or rudder'.

At this point, the number of days racing was nominally determined by the number of crews entered. The theory was that even the crew starting bottom each year should be allowed a chance of gaining the Headship, although in practice rather fewer days were required as it was common for crews to 'take off' (scratch) before the end of the event, thus losing their day. The Eights reached a maximum of 9 days during the 1840's before settling down to a regular 8 days, although it was only in 1858 that these were held on consecutive nights with a day's rest on the Sunday at the mid-way point. There were fewer bumps than usual that year, which led to complaints that the crews had no time to practise and improve between races.


College second crews made a brief appearance in Eights in 1836 and 1837, but in 1838 were given their own event, 'Torpids'. Originally this took place on a fairly casual basis, either on the intervening nights between the Eights, or after Eights had finished. However, when the event was moved to Lent (Hilary) Term in 1852, and also fixed as a 6-day event, their status increased in recognition of their importance as feeder crews for the Eights. Various rules were subsequently required to ban or restrict members of college (1st) Eights rowing in the following year's Torpids.

Early equipment

The boats in the early days resembled those currently used for sea-rowing: fixed seats staggered either side of a central gang-board with pins mounted directly on the opposite gunwale. Many of them were in fact built at shipyards, with one of the most famous, the 1824 Exeter 'White Boat', constructed at Plymouth dockyard. Outrigged boats came into general use in Oxford in 1845; this immediately meant that boat hulls could be made narrower and lower in the water, consequently faster but less stable. The University authorities reacted with some alarm to these developments and issued regulations prescribing the dimensions of such boats if used by University members.

Challenge races

With the formation of OUBC, a number of other annual competitions were organised for pairs (1839), fours (1840) and sculls (1841), paralleling the development of another Regatta programme at a little village downstream called Henley. These Oxford competitions were originally organised on the same pattern as Henley Regatta - a series of elimination races were held to establish a 'challenger' who would then race the previous year's title holder, the latter effectively having a 'bye' to the final. Unsurprisingly, within the University, winning crews were often unavailable to defend their title the following year, and from 1872 all crews were entered in the draw together. The first races were held as side-by-side races over the full length of the Isis. However, this generally gave the crew on the towpath station a significant advantage. In 1851, there was so little water in the river for the pairs race that it was decided to run the event as a 'time race' with the two crews racing line astern, each with its own start and finish post. The start was simultaneous and the outcome judged by the time difference between the two finish signals rather than boat lengths. The scheme seems to have proved a success since it was then generally adopted and, for the Fours, continued into the 1990's.

Experimentation didn't stop there; during the 1850's and 1860's the initial heats of the sculls and pairs were also rowed as bumping races with positions drawn at random each day and any boat caught being eliminated from the competition. At the 1868 Henley the Brasenose cox, F.E. Weatherley, infamously jumped out of his four at the start of a race in the Stewards' Challenge Cup; the crew won, but were disqualified. However, the advantage gained was noted, and in 1873, the University Fours competition converted to coxless boats (the Stewards' Cup also converted that year). On the first occasion, the steering was so uncertain that the event had to be held on the relatively wide and straight Nuneham reach, starting at Abingdon Lock, the original plan to hold this as a side-by-side race having been abandoned after one crew failed to clear the arch of the railway bridge. By the following year, the steering had improved sufficiently for the event to return to the Isis. In 1889 an additional event was introduced for clinker-built coxed fours.

College barges & OUBC Boathouse

During the mid 1800's, many colleges purchased their own barges, often from London livery companies, which were used as club rooms and moored them alongside Christ Church meadow. The remaining Colleges used Hall's boathouse, which was probably between Christ Church meadow and Folly Bridge, the site currently occupied by the Head of the River pub. In 1867 Christ Church installed railings along the bank and began to charge the colleges rent for each gate. On the opposite bank, things also changed; in 1872 the present raised towpath was completed and, in 1882, the Oxford University Boathouse was completed. CUBC donated 100 guineas towards the fund, outdoing the 100 pounds donated from the University Chest. In 1886 Folly Bridge lock was removed.

Introduction of 'Divisions'

The number of colleges entering crews continued to increase and by the 1870s, when some 20 boats were competing in both Eights and Torpids, the two events were split into in 2 divisions. Until then, with the starting distance of 130' feet between bunglines, the leading crews were starting well into the Gut, leaving rather less than 1000m of race course. In 1878 the number of nights of Eights was reduced from 8 to 6, following the Torpids practice, originally from Wednesday to Tuesday, but eventually from Thursday to Wednesday, still with the Sunday off.

Sliding seats

Perhaps in keeping with the general spirit of innovation of the 1870s, it is recorded that sliding seats were used for the first time in the 1873 Eights. These originated in the United States and had been used to good effect by crews at Henley the previous summer; however the 'sliding' was limited to around 6 inches and achieved by grease. [Pembroke College had also experimented with wheeled-seats at Henley that summer, but it was another fifteen years before the rowing world was ready for this leap in technology.] Crude as they were, not to mention dirty and noisy, the improvement was so evident that several colleges converted their boats between the start and finish of Eights that year.

Bow balls

It is recorded that 'owing to a fatal accident at Cambridge', a rule was passed in 1888 obliging all boats to have an indiarubber ball fitted on the end of their bows. Nowadays it seems to be the popular conception that St John's College were the culpable crew and ever since have been obliged to row under the name 'Lady Margaret' and wear bright red. Sadly for such a famous myth, St John's men were already rowing as Lady Margaret BC at the founding of the Cambridge bumps in 1826 [The accident actually involved Trinity Hall bumping Clare during the 1888 Lents].


Initially, such coaching as there was had been performed by the professional watermen. However, this was banned in 1846 and the duty subsequently fell to the coxswains, the stated argument being 'A coxswain ought to be a thinking, reasoning being, in a higher degree than any waterman has yet shown himself to be'. However, as boats got lighter, coxes began to be selected for their lightness rather than their coaching ability, and coaching as an activity was transferred once again to the towpath. This led to different problems; the Thames Conservancy only permitted one horse on the towpath (for the coach of the University crew), so the only option was having someone run alongside. As often as not, this led to the unsatisfactory situation of the College Eight being coached by (or more likely ignoring) members of the Torpid, they being the only people available who were fit enough to keep up with the crew. Mercifully, in 1889, the bicycle arrived on the towpath, followed shortly by the megaphone, and with these new inventions came a new breed of coaches whose status came by virtue of their knowledge rather than their running ability. Indeed, by 1896 OUBC felt it necessary to restrict the number of cyclists to two per crew.

Into the 20th Century

By the turn of the century, 21 colleges participated in Eights and 28 crews in Torpids. The distinction was that Eights remained an event for college 1st crews only, but many colleges were starting to put out two crews for Torpids. Finally, in 1908, 2nd crews were once again permitted in Eights, with the additional incentive that members of 2nd Eights could continue to row in the following Torpids. This caused a certain amount of resentment amongst the smaller colleges, whose Torpids then had to compete against crews containing oarsmen who had already competed in Eights, often in crews higher placed than that college's 1st and only Eight. However, the effect was that Eights regained its position as the larger of the two events.

Racing was suspended during the First World War and resumed in 1920 from the 1914 finishing order.

'Getting On' Races

After the war, extra divisions continued to be added until, around 1930, a point was reached when it became necessary to hold 'Getting On' (nowadays called 'Rowing On') races amongst the lower crews to decide which would be allowed to compete in Eights Week.

The procedure was that all crews finishing in the lower divisions from the previous year, plus all crews without fixed places entering in the current year, would have to race a time trial with the fastest crews qualifying. The crews were assigned places in order of their time, although in 1985 the system was changed so that crews qualifying for a second successive year resumed their order with the new entries in time order at the bottom. This was to give crews which consistently Rowed On a better chance of gaining promotion to the 'fixed' divisions.

Bumps racing continued in some form during the Second World War, with many colleges amalgamating, but in 1946 it was decided to return to the 1939 finishing order.

The next major change occurred during the mid-1950's when both events were reduced from 6 to 4 days (Wednesday to Saturday), following the Cambridge practice.


Christ Church built the first college boathouse, at the downstream end of the island, at the end of the 1930's. Given the obvious practical benefit of having both club rooms and boat storage at the same place, it is perhaps surprising that this development took so long, but over the next couple of decades the island filled with new boathouses, usually shared by 2 or 3 colleges. The last boathouse was added only relatively recently, in 1989, filling the one remaining space at the upstream end of the island. With the move to boathouses, the barges became superfluous and were gradually sold off; the last, owned by St Catherine's, finally disappearing at the end of the 1970's.

Torpids experiments

In 1960, it was decided to try and make Torpids more 'interesting' by running the event in buoyed lanes: two lanes below the Gut, three lanes on the wider stretch of river above. Crews were allocated lanes according to their bungline number. Thus, from the start gun, odd-numbered crews would move across to the far side while even-numbered crews stuck to the towpath lane. After passing through the Gut, crews 1, 4, etc. would take the middle lane; 2, 5, etc. the towpath side; and 3, 6, etc. the City side. The intention was that crews would gain places by overtaking rather than bumping, and result in more of a 'spectacle' by having most crews still actively racing, side by side, as they passed the boathouses. Of course, the really good crews could still bump the boat in their lane with the chance of progressing several places in one day.

A second innovation introduced at the same time was to replace the concept of the 'Sandwich Boat' by sliding divisions. On the first day, the top division would have only 6 boats while the other divisions each had 9. On the second day, the division boundaries would all be moved down one place so that the top seven boats now raced in the highest division, while only 8 boats remained in the lowest division. Thus the crew finishing top of each division would find itself automatically established at the foot of the next division the following day. Coupled with the lane system, this meant that crews which rowed over, neither overtaking nor being overtaken by another crew, would start the next day on a different-numbered bungline, and this was intended to offset the fact that the various lanes were far from even.

Divisions had to be shortened between 1961-62 to allow for the construction of Donnington Bridge, and the 1963 Torpids were cancelled altogether due to the river being frozen. Despite these set-backs, Torpids continued in the multi-lane, sliding division, 'overtaking' rather than 'bumping' form for the next twenty years.

In 1980 it was finally conceded that the demands of squeezing two eights side-by-side through the Gut were beyond the capabilities of most coxes (and the new 'fin' rudders) and single-lane Torpids were resumed, run in fixed divisions of 12 boats as in Eights.

Women's rowing

Women's crews from Oxford and Cambridge first rowed against each other in 1927, the competition being in the form of a half-mile row along the Isis, judged on style as much as on speed. Clearly, there had been some concern over the undignified spectacle that might have arisen had these young ladies been asked to compete on the basis of speed alone. At the time there were only five Oxford women's colleges, Lady Margaret Hall, St Anne's, St Hilda's, St Hugh's and Somerville - enough to supply oarswomen for the Blue Boat and put out one or two crews of their own, but not enough to merit their own bumping event. However, St Hilda's did raise a few eyebrows when their crew successfully 'Rowed On' for Eights in 1969 and competed with the men's crews in Division VIII. Although the graduate colleges were already 'mixed' (the first Linacre College crew, also in Eights 1969, contained two women), it was only in 1974 when 5 men's colleges [Brasenose, Hertford, Jesus, St Catherine's and Wadham] started admitting women undergraduates, that women's college rowing really took off. Within two years (1976), women had their own division in Summer Eights with Lady Margaret Hall starting as the first women's Head Crew, but being displaced by Wadham by the end of the week. The introduction of a women's division in Torpids was delayed until 1978 since the 1977 Torpids had to be cancelled due to flooding.

The majority of colleges 'went mixed' in the early 1980's, and the number of women's divisions increased rapidly; it eventually became necessary to replace men's divisions in order to accommodate them in the day's schedule, and even bring the earliest division forward to 11.00 am until the Proctors intervened and weekday racing was limited to noon at the earliest.


The 1980's must have been unusually dry, because in the following decade Torpids was commonly restricted or curtailed due to fast stream conditions. The increased concern for safety also played a part; today it is extremely unusual to find a student who has experienced the dubious pleasure of being stuck against the piles above Iffley Lock, whereas it used to be a common enough occurrence for various methods of extraction to be tried and discussed. Mandatory registration was introduced for all college coxes in 1993 and lifejackets in 1995. All those involved in rowing are also required to sign a piece of paper verifying that they are able to swim 100m. Interestingly, a century ago, when all oarsmen had been required to take an actual swimming test (4 lengths of the Merton Baths) and obtain a certificate of competence, there had been sufficient abuse of the system that OUBC felt it necessary, in 1896, to pass rules making the Captain of each club directly responsible for the bona fides of each certificate, and imposing a severe penalty on anyone who had obtained their certificate improperly.

Oxford University Rowing Clubs

Following the so-called 'Boat Race Mutiny' of 1985, there was a major overhaul of the organisation of Oxford rowing, largely prompted by the desire to limit the powers of the President of OUBC and to put the other University squads (OUWBC and the two lightweight squads) on a more equal footing. Since its formation in 1839, the OUBC Committee had nominally been responsible for running Oxford college rowing, but with the formation of 'Oxford University Rowing Clubs' in 1987 these functions were taken over by the OURCs Secretary and committee, with OUBC mostly left to concentrate on the University crew.


For the first half of the 20th century, rowing equipment remained remarkably constant. Oar blades were long and thin ('pencils') and boats were wooden shells or clinkers. The next major innovation came during the 1958 European Championships; the German crew introduced a shorter, wider blade, whose shape now takes its name from the venue of that competition, Macon in France. The Germans, again, introduced flexible shoes, this time at the 1968 Olympics and designed by their coach, Karl Adam, to cope with his upright, long-sliding style of rowing.

Until the 1960's the Amateur Rowing Association had recognised a 'clinker' boat class for regattas and heads, and OUBC rules required that all Torpids crews row in such boats. Probably due to rising construction costs, the ARA then replaced this by a 'restricted' classification permitting shell-constructed boats subject to specified dimensions, and with a small keel, which added stability at the expense of speed, i.e. simulating clinkers. OUBC rules were modified accordingly and a few colleges acquired 'restricted' VIIIs for use by their 1st Torpids. However, by 1971, there were no longer any restrictions on boats used in Torpids and from that date, new college eights were almost exclusively 'shells'.

At that time, all colleges used wooden boats, often built by local companies such as Salter's and Harris'. The big change in boat construction came from Carbocraft, a British company which produced a monocoque hull [In which the strength and rigidity comes from the hull itself rather than the 'shell' construction of a thin skin wrapped over a rigid internal framework.] made out of modern materials. This was used by OUBC in the 1977 Boat Race, and similar boats were acquired by St Peter's and Christ Church shortly afterwards. Although Carbocraft went into liquidation in 1984, their characteristic grey hulls were replaced on the Isis by (usually) white hulls of other 'plastic' boats built mostly by Janousek and Aylings, with the top couple of crews using yellow Empachers.

Wooden oars, too, were replaced by composite materials in the search for additional stiffness and reduced weight. Experiments were tried during the 1980s with inlaid carbon-fibre strips, and even aluminium tubes, before settling down to the graphite/fibreglass construction dominated by the American Dreissigacker company. The change proved fatal to a local company, Collar, which had been producing wooden oars and failed to adapt to the new technology.

In the early 1990's there was another bout of experimentation with the oar shape; a variety of asymmetric designs was tried until the Dreissigacker company once again took control when it started producing the 'big-blade' oars, commonly known as 'cleavers' or 'hatchets' from the shape of the spoon These were already being used by most crews in the 1992 Olympics, but they captured the market in the UK after the 1993 Boat Race, when the much-favoured Oxford crew, still using Macons, were well beaten by an impressively efficient Cambridge crew rowing with cleavers.

Other Races - Present Day

Of the OUBC Challenge races, most died out through lack of interest during the 1970's and early 1980's. Only Autumn Fours remains, held in 3rd week of Michaelmas Term and converted from coxless back to coxed fours during the mid-1980s, on the grounds that colleges preferred to buy boats that could be used throughout the year and not for just the one event, not to mention the hazards of training inexperienced steersmen of coxless boats on an increasingly crowded river. Since the early 1990's this has been run as a normal timed head race along the length of the Isis.

Several other side-by-side regattas are also held throughout the year, usually on the stretch upstream from the Gut. Christ Church Regatta, held in 7th Week of Michaelmas Term, was first run in 1959, on Port Meadow. Now it is an event purely for novice eights, held on the Isis and raced upstream from Long Bridges. Nevertheless, with over 100 crews participating, it qualifies as the major rowing event of Michaelmas Term. Other college regattas are held throughout the year catering for a variety of boat classes, and usually follow the same course. Nephthys Regatta, run as a fundraiser by the University men's lightweights, takes place the week before Christ Church. OUWBC used to run a regatta after Torpids, but in 1984 this was taken over by St Hugh's College and renamed Cherwell Regatta. This has also been cancelled in recent years due to stream conditions. Oriel Regatta, held in 7th week of Trinity Term, signals the end of the year's racing for most college crews, apart from those continuing to train for Henley Royal and Henley Women's Regattas.

Torpids & Eights - Present Day (2010)

Torpids, held in Hilary Term, was switched from 6th week to 7th week in 1996 in the hope of better river conditions, or at least an extra week's training. However it does still revert to 6th week if the Saturday of 7th week coincides with the Women's Eights Head of the River Race. Those rowing for any of the six University crews [Men's Blue Boat (OUBC) and Reserves (Isis), Women's Blue Boat (OUWBC) and Reserves (Osiris), Men's Lightweights (OULRC), Women's Lightweights (OUWLRC)] are banned from competing, but the main difference compared with Eights is that crews getting bumped have to continue to row, making slow crews, or crews getting entangled, liable to be bumped many times and resulting in some spectacular descents. Since 1998, when the full event can be run, there are 6 men's and 5 women's divisions in Torpids, of which the bottom division of each is the 'Rowing On' division with crews having to compete against new entries for their places each year, the fastest 13 crew of each sex qualifying (since there are 13 bunglines in the lowest division, there being no need to reserve the bottom bungline for the Sandwich Boat).

Eights Week, held in 5th Week of Trinity Term, remains the major college rowing event of the year in terms of rowing standards, numbers of participants, and attracting the crowds. Since 2001 there have been are 7 men's and 6 women's divisions in Eights, with crews in the lowest two men's and women's divisions required to 'Row On' for their places (fastest 25 crews of each sex to qualify). Including the crews attempting to Row On, approximately 1500 students participate in Eights each year.

Bumps rules - present day

For those not familiar with this peculiar form of racing, the procedure is that each division lines up with the coxes holding ropes attached to the bank, setting their starting positions at 130 feet apart (i.e. with about 1 1/2 lengths of clear water between them). A cannon is fired and the boats set off; the goal is to catch the boat ahead while avoiding being caught by the boat behind. When a 'bump' occurs, either through actual contact between boats or by a cox conceding that a bump is inevitable by raising an arm, both boats drop out of the race. Crews involved in bumps exchange starting positions in the division the next day, while crews reaching the end of the course on the Isis without incident start in the same place as the previous day. The divisions are rowed in reverse order during the day, so that the crew finishing top of its division then starts as the 'Sandwich Boat' at the bottom (no.13) of the next division; the boat finishing 13th in each division then returns to row at the top of the lower division the next day. The distance from start to finish post is just over a mile for the Sandwich Boat, and about 500 m shorter for the crew starting on bungline 1.

A good crew will gain a bump every day, and such success is usually rewarded with the presentation of their 'blades', suitably illuminated with a record of their achievement. The ultimate goal of any College is to finish 'Head of the River', at the top of Division I. At the end of racing, the supporters of the Head crew carry an old boat through the streets from the river back to the College, and ceremonially burn it in the quad.