June 10 – The First University Boat Race

Posted on June 10, 2014

I doubt very much if June 10, 1829, was the date of the very first boat race at a university. But it is the date of the first “University Boat Race.”

Which is to say, Cambridge vs. Oxford.

That rivalry may mean nothing to you, but trust me, people in England and the United Kingdom generally know all about the rivalry between these two universities.

Actually, the universities have a lot in common. They are the two oldest universities in the U.K. – and two of the three oldest surviving universities in the world. And when I say “old”...well, they're pretty darned old! They were founded more than 800 years ago.

Between the two of them (the two are sometimes called “Oxbridge”), they have produced many of Britain's most important scientists, writers, and politicians. They still have the top two rankings for academic reputation in all of the U.K., and in all of the world other than the U.S. (the top six universities in the world are considered to be Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, MIT, the University of California-Berkeley, and Stanford). They both have publishing houses, botanical gardens, museums, debating societies, science parks, and theatrical groups.

And let's not forget their boat clubs!

The two universities started in rivalry with each other, actually, since Cambridge was founded by scholars who had fled from a fight with the townsfolk of Oxford.

And now for The Race:

Cambridge student Charles Merivale challenged his friend at Oxford, Charles Wordsworth, in a boat race in 1829. In that June 10 race, Cambridge lost – and rather badly, too!

The race had been held at the town of Henley-on-Thames (Thames being the river's name). There were a few re-matches held in other places, and it took a while for the tradition to become an annual event. But since 1856, the Boat Race has been held in Henley, on the Thames River, every year except during World Wars I and II.

It's a race of the blues: Cambridge's color is light blue, and Oxford's is dark blue. So far, Cambridge has one 81 times, and Oxford 78 times. There was one year when they finished in a “dead heat” – a complete and total tie! (But that was back in 1877, before TV cameras and replays. Modern judges would probably be able to call a winner in a similarly close race.)

How exciting is blue-vs.-blue? Well, from 250,000 to 270,000 people watch from the banks of the river each year, and millions more people watch it on TV.

After all, you never know when something exciting like a mutiny (1987) or a sinking (1912) will happen! Not to mention clashing oars (2001 and this year!) and a protester stopping the race (2012)!

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