Blue Movies

Moving pictures come to the Boat Race.

Tim Koch writes:

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) is an online database of more than two and a half million feature films, shorts, documentaries, television programmes and video games and is one of the fifty most visited websites. Its content includes films made in the earliest days of the cinema. I recently accessed it when trying to date a film of the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race on that favourite of HTBS, the wonderful British Pathe website.


(Click on the picture above to get to the film.)

It is unhelpfully entitled, Boat Race 1910-1920. While Pathe provides a wonderful resource, they sometimes produce inaccurate descriptions and dates for their films. This is excusable as it would be unreasonable to expect them to consult experts on the thousands of subjects that they cover. Further, the films were originally produced with no thought of going into an archive, they were for immediate consumption, labelling and cataloguing were probably not a high priority. Over the years what labels there were may have fallen off and film splices could have come unstuck. Thus when it was decided to put the collection of 90,000 films online, the starting point was often an unmarked rusty film can containing a jumble of film clips.

When I put ‘Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race’ into the IMDb search facility it listed eleven races that were filmed before the 1914-1918 War. They covered the years 1895, 1897 to 1905 and 1908. Most of these listings contained very little information but what there was is of great interest. For the 1895 film, Michael Brooke wrote:

Although the content of this film is primitive in the extreme – a shot of the traditional Oxford versus Cambridge University Boat Race, filmed on March 30 1895 –  this film is of immense historical importance as being the first ever British film.

The Oxford Crew, 1895.

The producers are listed as Robert W Paul and Birt Acres, both important pioneers in the development of cine cameras and film projectors and, arguably, founders of the British film industry. According to the website

(In 1895 Paul and Acres) entered into partnership with a ten year business agreement. This agreement lasted only six weeks before the two split. During their brief partnership, the two shot films of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race in April and the Derby in May.

Sadly, the Boat Race film, if it survives at all, is not online. However, the film of the Derby horse race is on YouTube and probably gives some idea of what the Oxford-Cambridge film may have looked like i.e. a brief static shot where the action passes through the frame. This 1899 film taken at Henley also gives an idea of how early productions looked.

The Cambridge Crew, 1895.

Film of the 1898 Boat Race can be viewed in the Rowing Gallery at the River and Rowing Museum in Henley.

Returning to the above Pathe film entitled Boat Race 1910-1920 it was now clear that, as I suspected, it could easily be from the early years of the last century. I doubted that it was one of the very earliest as there is much evidence that it was a sophisticated and expensive attempt at film making which did not rely simply on the novelty of ‘moving pictures’.

What was this evidence? The first thing that struck me was the long running time of the surviving film – nearly ten minutes (the earliest productions could be less than a minute). Possibly more film was shot and has been lost.

The second notable thing is that it was shot over more than one day. I think that the first two and a half minutes cover one or more practice days. We see Oxford coming out of London Rowing Club and Cambridge coming out of Leander’s Putney boathouse and the sightseers are allowed to wander around at will.

When we come to Boat Race Day itself, starting at 2 minutes 30 seconds in, the large crowds are now held well back and the ‘Putney Hard’ is kept clear for the crews to boat. Between 3m and 3m 30sec we get some nice views of the many cameramen taking still and moving pictures, the later with hand cranked cameras.

Between 5m 05sec and 6m 40sec we have the best evidence of all that this film had what would later be called ‘high production values’. It is an unfortunately failed attempt to capture the boats going past in slow motion. For some reason the shot of the two eights was missed and we mostly get images of slow moving water. From 6m 15sec we catch the stern of an eight going out of the frame followed by the umpire’s launch.

We have a five second shot of some point in the first minute of the race at 6m 40 sec as the crews pass the Fulham Wall. Unfortunately, the film is out of sequence. This shot should have been preceded by the shots between 7m and 7m 50sec. These show the crews below Putney Bridge before they turn to go onto the start and then capture the boats getting onto the start.

While the middle of the race was not covered, there is evidence that a remarkable three cameras filmed the finish. At 6m 45sec we have a medium shot (taken from the roof of the Ship pub?) of the crews approaching the finish. At 6m 49sec this cuts to a close up from another camera position which shows the boats crossing the line. After the out of sequence shots mentioned above, from 7m 53sec, we see the last one and a half minutes of the race again, but this time with a very wide shot, perhaps taken from the brewery.

The finish.

The finish also provides us with the best clue to the actual year. Oxford win by less than a length. The records show that, between 1895 and 1939, the Dark Blues won by one length or less in 1896 (1/2 length), 1901 (2/5 length), 1913 (3/4 length), 1923 (3/4 length), and 1937 (1/4 length). I suspected that 1901 and 1913 were the most likely candidates and set to identifying some of the participants. I managed to produce recognisable shots for the Oxford cox, bow and ‘7’ and for the Cambridge stroke. As the pictures below show, they seem to match the crews for 1901.

Pathe film showing the Oxford bowman.

FOJ Huntley, Oxford bow, 1901.

Pathe film of the Oxford cox.

GS Maclagan, Oxford cox, 1901.

Pathe’s Oxford No 7.

TB Etherigton-Smith, Oxford ‘7’, 1901.

Pathe film of the Cambridge stroke.

GM Maitland, Cambridge stroke, 1901.

The 1901 race turned out to be an unusually exciting and strategically rowed one and was covered in detail by Rudie Lehmann in his book, The Complete Oarsman:

When….. Cambridge had won the toss and had…. chosen Surrey, there were very few who were prepared to back the chance of Oxford under the weather conditions that prevailed. Oxford, however, were confident in their pace and their endurance, and they had mapped out a careful plan of campaign beforehand.

The Oxford Crew, 1901. Standing left to right: FOJ Huntley, A de L Long, J Younger, HC de J Du Vallon. Seated: RH Culme-Seymour, HJ Hale, GS Maclagan, FW Warre, TB Etherington-Smith.

If, as was probable they failed to gain a sufficient lead at Harrod’s to enable them to take the Surrey water ahead of Cambridge, they proposed to drop astern of the leaders, and to content themselves with rowing in this position under the shelter of the Surrey bank, until the water once more made it possible for them to come out and challenge for the lead.

The Cambridge Crew, 1901. Standing, left to right: G Parker, CWH Taylor, RH Nelson. Seated: HB Grylls, EF Duncanson, EAOA Jamieson, BWD Brooke, GM Maitland, B C Cox.

The crews started at a high rate, Cambridge however, rowing a point or two faster than Oxford…… they went through Hammersmith Bridge with a considerable lead. A furious storm was raging as the crews opened out into Comey Reach. Cambridge were rowing well under the shelter of the bank, and Oxford, in obedience to instructions, had come over, and were rowing in a direct line behind, with about half a length of clear water separating them from the leaders. It was apparent here that Oxford had the greater pace; more than once they drew up to Cambridge, but the coxswain gave the word to paddle, and they once more dropped back.

To those who realised what was going on, it was one of the most curious and interesting spectacles ever seen on the Putney to Mortlake course. So the crews proceeded till they came to the broad reach that leads on to Barnes.

The 1901 Boat Race approaches Barnes Bridge.

The water here became smoother…….. (Oxford stroke) Culme-Seymour shook his crew together….. They were now rowing with great vigour, and they steadily gained…… and as they passed under Barnes Bridge the bowmen in the Oxford crew were once more cheered by the sight of their rivals.
From this point Oxford had the better conditions; the bend of the course was in their favour, and they were moving faster, stroke for stroke, than Cambridge…. rowing with extraordinary dash and vigour, they drew level with Cambridge at the Bull’s Head, and finally won the race by two-fifths of a length.

The 1901 Boat Race nears the finish.

Some of the participants in this great race are worth commenting on further.

The Oxford stroke, RH Culme-Seymour.

Sadly, the brilliant Oxford stroke, Reginald Hobart Culme-Seymour was dead within seven months of his great victory. Stroke of the Eton Second Eight, he got his Blue in his first year at Oxford sitting at ‘2’ in the 1900 Boat Race. He stroked New College to victory in the Torpids Head of the River and also in the Ladies’ Plate at Henley. In his Times obituary it was reported that ‘he had been suffering from the effects of a chill contracted in August which afterwards developed into pleurisy while he was shooting in Scotland’.

The Cambridge stroke, Graham Macdowall Maitland was a victim of the Great War. Commissioned into the Irish Guards, he was mentioned in despatches and was killed at the First Battle of Ypres in November 1914.

The Oxford cox, Gilchrist Stanley Maclagan, steered the Dark Blues for four years from 1899 to 1902. This would be impressive enough on its own but he also took Magdalen College to Head of the River in 1900 and coxed Leander in the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley from 1899 to 1908, winning six times – a record. He was also the cox for the Leander ‘Old Crocks’ that won the Olympic Eights in 1908. He was Secretary of the Amateur Rowing Association at the outbreak of the First World War when he joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He was killed in the first gas attack of the war during the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915.

On a lighter note, the Cambridge ‘3’ man, Bertram Willes Dayrell Brooke, was remarkable for that fact that his family had their own country and that he carried the title His Highness The Tuan Muda of Sarawak. According to Wikipedia, the White Rajahs of Sarawak

….were a dynastic monarchy of the English Brooke family, who founded and ruled the Kingdom of Sarawak, located on the island of Borneo, from 1841 to 1946. The first ruler was Englishman James Brooke. As a reward for helping the Sultanate of Brunei fight piracy and insurgency among the indigenous peoples, he was granted the landmass of Sarawak in 1841 and received independent kingdom status.

Almost as good as winning a Blue.


  1. The Pathe film shows Oxford winning on Surrey. It is therefore almost certainly the 1923 race, which Oxford won by 3/4 of a length. In both 1901 and 1913 Oxford were on Middlesex. If it's the 1923 race Oxford's number 3 was Andrew Irvine, who died on Everest the following year, and Oxford's number 7 was Gully Nickalls, who twice won an Olympic silver medal and who became chairman of the ARA.

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