What are the Origins of the Modern Sport of Rowing?

Brasenose Eight of 1817 by G.M. Musgrave of Brasenose College, near Hall’s Boathouse.
Brasenose Eight of 1817 by G.M. Musgrave of Brasenose College, near Hall’s Boathouse.

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. 

One of the earliest known scenes of a race between two eight-oared boats at Oxford University. It was originally thought to be the 1822 ‘disputed bump’, but now believed to be the 1821 race which Brasenose won.
One of the earliest known scenes of a race between two eight-oared boats at Oxford University. It was originally thought to be the 1822 ‘disputed bump’, but now believed to be the 1821 race which Brasenose won.

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.

William O’Chee.
William O’Chee.

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.


  1. The statement that the Doggetts races can’t be described as the source of competitive rowing simply because they were rowed by professional Waterman is I am afraid totally illogical.
    Also competitive rowing didn’t just develop at schools and universities.
    There are numerous books and HTBS blogs on the subject which show that the DOGGETTs races and professional regattas competed by boat builders and tradespeople were attended by very large crowds from the early 19 the century until the 2nd World War. These took place on the Thames in London, NE ENGLAND , THE LEA in NE London and other places
    These were far more popular than the early Oxford Cambridge races.
    In my view it’s best to say that competitive rowing developed in parallel after the Doggetd races started it all at schools and universities and amongst the professional boat builders and tradespeople.
    My blog on HTBS on the importance of the Lea provides the documented evidence to support this.

  2. First, a warm welcome to Mr. O’Chee, with strong applause for his inquiries into early boat-racing at Oxford and Cambridge. Anyone who delves into the opaque mists of competitive rowing’s origins deserves sainthood by acclamation. That said, I would join Clive in taking exception to the proposition that these origins must be ascribed to Eton-Westminster and Oxbridge lines. There are accounts – which I have dug out over 40 years of research and am happy to share – of both amateur and professional boat-races occurring over the decades before 1813 (Eton boating claims a 1793 regatta – of which I own a contemporary illustration – as its foundation year). The big question is whether such events were considered so newsworthy that all of them were documented, in which case the paucity of accounts would suggest that these were one-off contests not representative of a trend, or whether such events were viewed as so banal and unworthy of note – especially in days when the availability and use of boats was ubiquitous – that no one bothered to keep track of them. All of that said, it may well be the case that, the roots of boat-racing having thus taken hold during the 18th century, the institutionalization, propagation and consistent management of boat-racing – i.e. the origins of properly organized competitive rowing, involving the establishment of clubs and regularly recurring contests – could fairly be attributed to the Eton-Westminster and Oxbridge boat clubs of the early 19th century, Brasenose prominently among them. Let the inquiries (in which Peter Mallory is also engaged) continue!

  3. Your piece on the origins of rowing as a sport might have missed another obvious contender: the Royal Navy and cutter races in Fleet Regattas. I rowed in the 1960s (Tiffin School and Kingston Rowing Club) and always though I must have inherited my rowing skills and physique from my Grandfather Arthur Layzell. At the age of 17 he joined the Royal Marines Artillery in Portsmouth and served on ships of the Atlantic and Mediterranean Fleets until 1931, after which he was shore based until retirement in 1945.

    From 1921 to 1922 he was on HMS Repulse of the Atlantic Fleet Battlecruiser Squadron. I have a photo of him (unfortunately I don’t know how to attach it) as a member of the 12 man Royal Marines Cutters Crew of HMS Repulse which won the Royal Marines Cutters Challenge Cup in 1921. In October 1922, still with HMS Repulse, he was again winner. I imagine these Fleet regattas were held frequently but I don’t have details of all his exploits. I do know that in 1927 (now aged 32) he was on HMS Revenge with the Atlantic Fleet and won the Madden Cup in the winning cutter. In 1928 he was in the winning RM cutter in the Ramillies Cup. From 1929 to 1931 he was on HMS Royal Oak with the Mediterranean Fleet which visited Argostoli in Kefalonia in 1930 and 1931, so he may well be in the photographs that I found of a Fleet cutter race at Argostoli in 1930. He was a bit of an athlete because he was also in the Royal Marine Artillery Field Gun Crew and the winning Heavyweight Tug-of-War team in 1927. Perhaps Field Gun competitions and Tug of War could be reintroduced as training for rowing?

    The photo of my Grandfather shows a 12 man crew; cutters came in various sizes but a 32ft cutter usually had twelve oarsmen. I would attach a drawing of such a craft if I could. The cutter was normally used as a sea-boat for life-saving and general purposes in a large ship. In a small cruiser it was the largest boat supplied. Under oars, cutters were double-banked with two men sat on each thwart, each pulling an oar on his own side. The Navy of course does not “row” a boat but “pulls”: to pull is to row and a pulling boat is a rowing boat. In the “All-comers Race” at a regatta, arrangements were often made to increase the number of oars and the men pulling them.

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