200 Years of Oxford Racing

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An image from an 1822 college race, which some say depicts a disputed bump between Jesus and Brasenose Colleges although the timing does not really support that, Christopher Seward writes.

Today two Oxford college boat clubs, Brasenose College BC and Jesus College BC, are celebrating that it is 200 years ago they first raced each other in a Head of the River Race.

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William O’Chee and Christopher Seward write:

2015 marks the 200th anniversary of the first Head of the River, which was raced between crews from Jesus College and Brasenose College, with the latter triumphing. The first bumps races began within Iffley Lock and ended at Mr King’s barge near the current finishing line.

In this period, the boats were built with a gangplank running down the middle. When the lock gates were opened, the stroke of the Head boat, who was standing in the bow with a boat-hook, would run down the gangplank pushing the boat out of the lock as quickly as possible before resuming his seat at the oar.

Although it is often believed that amateur rowing began at Eton or Westminster, recreational rowing is clearly attested in Oxford in the 1760s and was flourishing by the 1790s.

The significance of the 1815 race is that it is the first formally recorded race between two boat clubs. Prior to this, there had been races between professional watermen such as the Ranelagh Regatta of 1775, but there is no evidence of racing between any boat clubs. The modern sport of rowing began in Oxford, between Brasenose and Jesus. This makes Brasenose College Boat Club, and Jesus College Boat Club the oldest known competitive amateur rowing clubs in the world for no club anywhere can boast of having rowed competitively prior to their race in 1815.

societiesBrasenose and Jesus raced again in 1816, with Brasenose again prevailing. In 1817, they were joined by Christ Church who went head three years in a row. In 1820, Christ Church did not put out a crew, and no record of racing that year remains. Brasenose and Jesus are recorded as racing in 1821, and 1822. In the latter year, although bumped by Jesus, the Brasenose crew rowed on, and then tried to haul down the Jesus flag. A rematch was held, and Brasenose won.

Christ Church returned to racing in 1824, when Exeter also raced for the first time. By now Eights was well established. The tradition continues in 2015, two centuries on from that first race.

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