27 July 2016
HTBS is happy to introduce a new writer to its pages, William O’Chee, who is currently writing the history of his boat club at Brasenose College, Oxford. William writes:
A commonly asked question is “When did rowing begin as a sport”? There are a number of widely accepted answers to this question – which one you accept depends largely on your predilections.
One claim is that it began at either Eton College or Westminster School at the beginning of the 19th century. Another claim is that it began with the Doggett’s Coat and Badge race in London in 1715, and a third is that it had its roots in the Ranelagh Regatta of 1775. The Eton or Westminster argument is often accepted due to its popularity in the 19th century among partisans of the two schools.
There is certainly evidence that rowing occurred early in the 19th century at both schools. W.B. Woodgate’s Boating, published in 1888, has a chapter on rowing at Eton, written by R. Harvey Mason, a former Eton master. However, this account also is not without defect. While it is claimed that rowing was known in Eton ‘from time immemorial’, there seems no record of rowing at Eton before 1801. Even then, there was no Eton boat club per se, but rather unofficial clubs associated with individual boats, such as the Monarch.
At Westminster School, the Water Ledger begins in 1813 with the names of four boys who rowed in a boat called The Fly. A recent examination of the Water Ledger by Christopher Seward does not reveal any records of rowing at Westminster before this date.
While Eton and Westminster were the two earliest schools at which rowing was undertaken, at neither was it a competitive sport. Westminster did not have its first recorded race until some years later. At Eton, rowing took the form of a leisurely paddle to a meadow downstream where refreshments were partaken, before rowing back to Windsor. Neither was rowing at Eton or Westminster the first expression of recreational rowing. It was practised elsewhere well before it appeared at either school.
Doggett’s Coat and Badge definitely does have a longer history, but its claim to be the precursor of the modern sport of rowing is tenuous at best. The race was, and always has been, for professional watermen. As such, it has no place in the rise of rowing as a popular sport in the 19th century, since this was an entirely amateur sport, and as the 19th century progressed, the number of professional watermen dramatically decreased.
Similarly, the Ranelagh Regatta of 1775 was a purely professional affair between twelve pair-oared boats in three divisions, who raced for a new boat, complete with furnishings and uniforms. While well attended by spectators, the regatta was a one-time spectacle which contributed nothing to the development of rowing as a sport.
If there is an alternative origin to be found for the sport of rowing, what is it, and why has it been unknown until now?
The answer is that recreational rowing took hold among the more privileged classes in and around Oxford in the 18th century, eventually giving rise to rowing as a sport. Rowing historians have missed its beginnings, however, because they have been looking in the wrong places. In short, the erstwhile chroniclers of early rowing have been looking for the records of rowing clubs that simply didn’t exist. That didn’t mean there wasn’t recreational rowing, but it happened in a different way. By analysing literary records, as well as the records of coroner’s inquests, it is evident that there was a thriving rowing scene at Oxford in the middle of the 18th century.
During the 18th century, various Enclosure Acts started to have an impact on the landscape around Oxford. Medieval forests were cleared, the land enclosed and many of the footpaths and bridleways disappeared. While the traditional pastime for hunting remained, it became progressively less convenient, and by the second half of the 18th century students were turning to other recreations. This was especially so after horse racing and cock fighting were banned in the town in 1772. Cricket was certainly one of these recreations, although it was principally maintained by men from Eton and Winchester, who comprised the better part of the membership of the Bullingdon Club.
Oxford being situated on the Isis, boating was another pastime which came into its own. It appears that both students and dons took to the water on a regular basis. A poem published in The Oxford Sausage in 1764 has a don lamenting old age and declaiming:
Safe in thy Privilege, near Isis’ Brook,
Whole Afternoons at Wolvercote I quaff’t;
At Eve my careless Round in High-street took,
And call’d at Jolly’s for the carnal Draught.
No more the Wherry feels’ my stroke so true;
At Skittles, in a Grizzle, can I play?
Woodstock, farewell! and Wallingford, adieu!
Where many a Scheme reliev’d the lingering Day.
This appears to be the earliest known reference to recreational rowing occurring anywhere in the United Kingdom. Clearly, recreational boating was practised in Oxford before this date, even if few details have survived to this day. Shortly after this, Jackson’s Oxford Journal contains an account of an unfortunate drowning in Oxford in 1769. Apparently, three students were rowing in skiffs near the Iffley lock when they got into trouble. One of them leapt out of his boat to avoid going over the lasher above the mill. He was sucked under by the current and drowned. Another also abandoned his boat and managed to grab hold of a stump sticking out of the bank, thereby pulling himself to shore. The third went over the lasher and miraculously survived without sinking.
The poet Robert Southey, who went up to Balliol in 1792, was wont to say that he ‘learnt but two things at Oxford, to row and to swim.’ Southey’s comment is interesting not just as insight into the diligence or otherwise of late 18th-century students. He had previously spent four years at Westminster, yet by his own boast, had learned to row at Oxford. It would not be unreasonable to infer, therefore, that boating did not take place at Westminster before 1792.
Shortly after this, regattas began to be conducted in a number of locations. One was held in London in June 1796 to celebrate the king’s birthday. These were not competitive regattas, but processions of boats after which the participants would often come ashore to be entertained at lunch or dinner.
Recreational rowing had clearly moved down river from Oxford to the metropolitan portion of the Thames at the end of the 18th century, but recreational rowing was also appearing in the provinces at about this time. Scratch races were periodically held in Lancashire and Norfolk in the early 1800s.
These were possible because by this time various public houses had taken to hiring out recreation boats, mainly six-oared cutters and gigs.
The beginnings of competitive rowing at Oxford lie in a now famous race between Brasenose and Jesus, which was contested in eight-oared boats during the Trinity Term of 1815. This race seems to have commenced at Iffley Lock, and finished at the Head of the River, near Hall’s Boathouse.
Little is known of the race other than that the crew from Brasenose won the event, which both sides seem to have agreed in advance would bestow the title of “Head of the River”.
The following year, 1816, Brasenose and Jesus again contested the event over the same course, and Brasenose again won, claiming its second Head of the River.
Interestingly, these races not raced in four- or six-oared boats – the common craft of the day – but in purpose-built eights. That means it was not a casual affair between two ad hoc crews from Brasenose and Jesus, but a clear race between established college boat clubs, for which they had commissioned purpose-built boats.
Looking back over 200 years, the significance of the event becomes clearer. Rowing had progressed from being the province of professional watermen, uncouth and unpopular, to being adopted as a recreational pursuit in Oxford, and shortly thereafter, at Cambridge. From there it was adopted by the privileged classes in London and the counties.
Now, for the first time, rowing was undertaken in an organised competition between two clubs who prepared and trained for an established event. The modern sport of rowing as the world knows it, began in Oxford, between the clubs at Brasenose and Jesus.
We are even treated to a pen and ink drawing of the Brasenose Eight of 1817, done by G.M. Musgrave of Brasenose College. It shows an eight near Hall’s Boathouse. (See image on top.)
We now also know the names of some of the first competitors. Both crews were coached and stroked by watermen: Stephen Davis for Brasenose and Isaac King for Jesus.
Another name that comes to us is that of Thomas Morres, a one-armed undergraduate who seems to have rowed with Davis regularly, and may have been in the 1815 race. If so, he may well be the father of the modern sport.
As rowing took off in Oxford, more images of early crews appear. A famous picture completed by John Thomas Serres – Marine Painter to George III – shows the Brasenose and Jesus crews engaged in a close race in 1821. See below.
By 1829, rowing was well enough established at Oxford and Cambridge for the two universities to establish a race which has come down to us today. The rest, as they say, is history.
Editor’s note: William O’Chee learned to row at Brasenose College in 1984, and coxed the Oxford University Lightweight Blue Boat in 1987. After 30 years of rowing in places as esoteric as Rangoon (beware of the armed guards outside Ang San Suu Kyi’s house) and Cairns (beware of crocodiles), he is currently writing the history of the Brasenose College Boat Club 1815 – 2015.