Battle of the Blues

Many good books have been written about the rowing race between Oxford and Cambridge through the years and, in celebration of its 150th duel, on 28 March 2004, another was published: Battle of the Blues – The Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race from 1829. For a book dealing with probably the world’s most traditional sporting event ever, it has a refreshing, unorthodox arrangement and layout. The left-hand pages carry an excellent, short, conventional history of the race written by John Marks, while facing it are a variety of articles, mostly composed by ‘old Blues’, which reveal the unique quality of the race.

The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, commonly known as just ‘The Boat Race’, saw the light of day at Henley in 1829, after the Oxford student Charles Wordsworth and his friend, Cambridge student Charles Merivale, decided that their respective universities should meet in a rowing match. The first race, won by Oxford, was not without controversy as there was a clash of blades, a foul, a re-start, and some poor decisions made by the umpires. Unfortunately, at least from the view of sportsmanship, these matters would not prove to be isolated incidents in the race’s 175-year history. However, regardless of crew mutinies, a lack of honesty and fairness among some oarsmen and coaches, and, at times, pure incompetence of umpires (not to mention the interference of two World Wars), this private match between two famous academic institutions has ridden out of the storms, almost untouched.

A book such as this should be, and indeed is, filled with anecdotes. In 1877 ‘Honest John’ Phelp, the finishing umpire, declared the race a ‘dead-heat to Oxford by five feet’ – it still stands in the history books as a ‘dead heat’. Of course, it is hard not to compare that race with the one of 2003, which Oxford won by just one foot! After the 2004 race the score stands at dark blues (Oxford) 71, light blues (Cambridge) 78, plus Phelp’s dead heat.

The book’s strength is in the diversity of articles, which give readers insight into building a ‘blue’ boat, coaching a boat race crew, the coxswains’ endeavours to master the ticklish tide of the Thames, and the delicate task of umpiring two crews along the 4 1/4-mile course between Putney and Mortlake. And this splendid publication is beautifully illustrated with magnificent images from Thomas E. Weil’s collection. Weil has also contributed a scholarly, well-written article about how the race has been depicted since 1829. This book reveals the mystique and might of the race, and why it is safe to say – despite political changes, new-fangled ideas, and the rife of anti-amateurism in sports – there will always be The Boat Race. Thank God.

Battle of the Blues – The Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race from 1829 ed. by Christopher Dodd and John Marks; published by P to M Limited, 2004.

This review was published in Maritime Life and Traditions, No. 24, Autumn 2004.

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