Lightning, Drownings and Leisured Gentlemen: Recreational Rowing in the 17th and 18th Centuries

Figure 1.  “West Prospect of Oxford” by William Turner, c. 1814.

7 July 2017

William O’Chee writes:

While Eton College and Westminster School have both made claim to have originated the sport of rowing at the beginning of the 19th century, the lineage of the sport as we know it is complex and sits uncomfortably with such ambit claims. Moreover, recent evidence suggests that recreational rowing – the basis of both schools’ historical claims – was practised much earlier in Oxford and Cambridge than at either school.

Racing for wagers amongst professional watermen had been happening for time immemorial, and the famed Doggett’s Coat and Badge race was instituted in 1715. However such races did not give rise to the sport as we know it, largely because professionals were excluded from the modern sport in the 19th century.

The first race between two amateur clubs, organised for the purpose of competition, occurred in Oxford in 1815, between the boat clubs of Brasenose College and Jesus College, with Brasenose winning. Competition rowing was preceded by recreational rowing though, with gentlemen taking to the river socially before they organised themselves to race.(1)

Two paintings – one in the possession of Worcester College and the other at the Oxford County Museum – have provided valuable insights into the early history of rowing, and offered the first glimpse of a recreational rowing crew in the United Kingdom. Together with literary and other evidence, they show recreational boating was practised in Oxford as early as 1666 if not earlier, and that a vibrant rowing and boating scene was well established and attested at Oxford from the middle of the 18th century.

Eton College and Westminster School can be considered jointly, along with a number of small clubs which no longer exist, to represent a case for a “metropolitan” – or at least Lower Thames – origin for the sport of amateur rowing. However, the metropolitan hypothesis for the beginnings of the sport largely ignores evidence of recreational rowing occurring elsewhere in England throughout the 18th century and into the early 19th century.

In the case of Eton, we know that boys from the school had taken part in an annual procession on the river in 1799. A report in Jackson’s Oxford Journal that year noted the boys “took their annual aquatic excursion to Surley Hall, where they were entertained with a supper and syllabubs by Mrs Townley Ward.’(2) Their destination was a meadow about three miles upstream of the College, from which they would return after their picnic.

For their part, Westminster School’s claim to antiquity lies in their Water Ledger, which commences in 1813, with a single entry listing the names of the boys who rowed in a six-oared boat called The Fly. These were: N. Parry, E. O. Cleaver, E. Parry, W. Markham, W.F. de Ros and G. Randolph.(3)This was the only boat then in use, and in 1816 a crew rowing this boat was recorded as having beaten “the Temple six-oared boat (Mr. Church, stroke) in a race from Johnson’s Dock to Westminster Bridge, by half a boat, the latter never having been beat before.”

Two hundred years later, the Temple six-oared boat is otherwise unknown to us. It must be assumed to have been like other crews of the time; loose collections of gentlemen oarsmen whose crews usually took their names from the public house at which they would meet, and from which they may also have hired their boats. Among these are the Star, Arrow and Shark clubs, which were noted by Brickwood when he wrote some 60 years later. In the case of the Temple boat, it may have borne the name of the steps from which the crew boated.

It is easy to forget that the Thames was very much London’s equivalent of a motorway in the early 19th century, especially as there were few bridges, so most crossings were by boat. The watermen who plied their trade usually did so from and to recognised sets of steps that went down to the bank of the river.  These steps survive, but their names and significance have fallen into modern desuetude. Accounts of races amongst professional watermen in the early decades of the 19th century often preserve the names of the steps from which they haled, for example, Vauxhall, Hungerford, Bankside, Queenhithe and so on. In their day, these would have been as well-known as London Underground stations are today.

One metropolitan club which has survived from that time to today is Leander, which was founded in 1818.  It was not the first such club; that honour probably rests with the Funny Club, whose existence was well established by the time of the earliest extant reference to it in 1808. This was a club for men rowing in gentlemen’s funnies, single seat rowing craft which gave rise to single sculls. The Funny Club seem to have rowed mainly in the summer. In 1808, their last row for the season was on the 26 August, when they sculled from Palaceyard to Putney where they dined, before returning.(4)

However, the lower portions of the Thames would not have been a naturally conducive environment for recreational rowing at this time. Not only was the river there highly polluted, it was also extremely busy. All manner of craft plied the Thames, and barges laden with coal regularly travelled between London and Eton. By contrast, the waters of the Isis and the Cam were both more placid and less trafficked.

Indeed, on the reaches of the Thames above Eton, and in other places around the country, recreational rowing was taking place, although it has largely been ignored by proponents of metropolitan rowing as the foundation for the sport.

A good picture of non-metropolitan rowing can be reconstructed, however, if we are willing to examine contemporary evidence from sources other than rowing clubs. This should not be a controversial approach. After all, before rowing could exist as a sport in established clubs, it must have been preceded by recreational rowing of some form or other.

One excellent source of evidence for recreational rowing lies in correspondence and literature. There is certainly a wealth of such material attesting to recreational rowing happening in Oxford from the middle of the 18th century onwards. To a lesser extent this is true of Cambridge as well.

Outside the universities, recreational rowing was also taking place in the counties. In the early 1800s, an annual regatta was held at Lake Windermere, which in those times was part of Lancashire. This involved both sailing craft and rowing boats, and a large picnic, but no racing. A “Water Frolic” was held in Yarmouth from at least 1807, which coincided with the annual horse races. From 1808, this included a scratch race in six-oared boats which came to be rowed from Carrow Bridge and Whitlingham Point and back, a distance of a bit over four miles. The first race may well have been between professional crews, for it was won by a salvage boat from Gorleston.(5)

At Oxford, we have been left with a detailed account of rowing at around 1805, by G.V. Cox, who wrote:

Men went indeed to Nuneham for occasional parties in six-oared boats (eight-oar’d boats were then unknown), but these boats (such as would now be laughed at as “tubs”) belonged to the boat-people; the crew was a mixed crew got up for the day, and the dresses worn anything but uniform. I belonged to a crew of five, who were, I think, the first distinguished by a peculiar (and what would now be thought a ridiculous) dress; viz. a green leather cap, with a jacket and trowsers of nankeen!’(6)

Figure 2.  Satellite image of modern Oxford showing three of the four streams of the Thames to the west of the town.

Similar, and slightly earlier accounts are given to us by John Skinner, who went up to Trinity College at Oxford in November, 1790. In a letter dated the 15 June, 1793, he referred to variously sailing and rowing a boat called the Hobby-Horse from Folly Bridge to Iffley where:

Beckly provides accustomed fare
Of eels and perch and Brown Beefsteak,
Dainties we oft taste twice a week
Whilst Hebe-like his daughter waits,
Froths our full bumpers, changes plates.
The pretty handmaid’s anxious toils
Meanwhile our mutual praise beguiles;
While she delighted, blushing sees
The bill o’erpaid and pockets fees
Supplied for ribbon and for lace
To deck her bonnet or her Face!
A game of Quoits will oft our stay
A while at Sandford Inn delay,
Or rustic ninepins:—then once more
We hoist our Sail and ply the Oar
To Newmham bound.

In another letter dated October 1793, Skinner describes hiring the “gay yacht Hobby-Horse” from a spot on the river where:

a Dame,
Hooper yclept, at station waits
For gownsmen whom she aptly freights
In various vessels moored in view,
Skiff gig and cutter or canoe.
Election made, each in a trice
Becomes transformed with trousers nice,
Jacket and catskin cap supplied,
Black gowns and trenchers laid aside.(8)

Mrs Hooper would appear to have been the widow of a Richard Hooper of St Aldates, a barge master who was bankrupted in 1780. His estate in bankruptcy included “an exceedingly good Barge… several House-boats, Punts, Wherries &c. &c, with all the tackle to the same belonging.”(9) There was clearly a good living to be had in Oxford from at least the late 1770s in hiring out boats to students, and this is indicative of recreational rowing being reasonably well supported.

The poet Robert Southey had been a student at Westminster School before going to Balliol College in 1792.  He is recorded as saying that he “learnt but two things at Oxford, to row and to swim.”(10) We can infer that rowing was not taking place at Westminster at this time. Southey returned to Oxford some years later, and in his fictional collection of letters dated to 1807, describes a very busy Isis where students were engaged in sailing, rowing and canoeing.(11)

Oxford was not alone. Henry Gunning, who went up to Christ’s College, Cambridge in 1784 gives a very good description of boating on the Cam in 1786, which records:

A very common practice, during the spring and summer months, was for a party to divide into two sets, one on a shooting scheme, and the other on a boating and fishing expedition, both parties agreeing to meet and dine at Clayhithe. There was a public-house on each side of the river, where fish was dressed to perfection; the charges were very moderate, and the ALE very good. The fishing-party (who frequently went as far as Up- ware, and occasionally to Dimmock’s Court) scarcely ever failed to get an abundance of fish; but if they were unfortunate, the landlord of the smaller house had well-stored ponds, from which the deficiency was quickly and amply supplied.(12)

Figure 3.  Notice relating to the bankruptcy of Richard Hooper, 1790.

The earliest literary record of rowing at Oxford precedes Gunning’s by over 20 years, and shows the pastime was popular with students and dons. A poem published in The Oxford Sausage in 1764 laments old age and declaims:

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

Oxford men were on the river substantially earlier. A rather bawdy poem, penned by Mrs Alicia D’Anvers in 1691 describes a fictitious student escaping punishment for some poor work, and straightaway going by boat to Medley (just under a mile upstream) to a bawdy tavern.(14)

No sooner this the Proctor sees,
But his offence he strait forgives,
For joy of which, he roars most deadly,
And sails that afternoon to Medly,
Near half a mile, or such a matter,
It lyes as you go down the Water….

Whether the poem’s subject actually sailed or rowed is a matter for some contention. The river is hardly wide enough to sail at all, but it cannot be shown that he rowed.

Thirty years earlier, the antiquarian Anthony Wood left us meticulous details of his spending which included amounts ranging from 6d to 2d for a “boat to goe [sic] in the water” and always in the summer.(15) There is no doubt he and his friends regularly took to the water for pleasure, but it is unclear if they were actually rowing themselves, or paying watermen to row them from place to place. As watermen’s charges were only regulated as far upstream as Teddington, it is difficult to tell. It may be the lesser amounts were for the hire of a boat without a waterman, but it is impossible to prove.

This literary record is supplemented by two paintings from the late 18th century and early 19th century which show recreational rowing taking place in Oxford. These have not previously been analysed for their evidence of rowing.

A painting by the artist William Turner (known as William Turner of Oxford to distinguish him from his better known contemporary, J. M. W. Turner) shows what appears to be a four on the Isis some years before. The boat and its crew are clearly visible in the centre of the painting, along with a number of sailing boats (see Figure 1).

Figure 4.  Detail of the Turner painting.

Entitled “West Prospect of Oxford”, this painting came into the possession of Worcester College as a bequest of Robert Henry Lightfoot some time between 1949 and 1953. The records of Worcester College show that this painting was exhibited by Turner at the Liverpool Academy of 1814 under the title “View of Oxford from Ferry Hinksey”.

It is difficult to determine if the oarsmen are sculling or rowing, and the painter himself may have been confused on this point, but it is evident that they are wearing a uniform of sorts, accompanied by either caps or perhaps students’ mortarboards (see detail in Figure 4). This is akin to, but slightly different from, the uniform described by Cox. It is arguably the earliest depiction of an organised rowing crew.

Given its exhibition in 1814, we know that the picture could not have been completed after this date, and was probably painted in either 1814 or 1813.

While four- and six-oared cutters were commonplace as naval boats in London and other coastal ports, they clearly could have had no purpose in Oxford. Moreover, the boat is not the type we would expect professional watermen to use for ferrying produce. It seems more than reasonable, therefore, to posit that this is a recreational rowing crew containing four oarsmen and a coxswain, or perhaps a paid waterman.

At first glance the scene looks like it is situated on that portion of the Isis immediately below Folly Bridge, and adjoining Christ Church Meadow, rather than from the west of the town. However, closer examination, in particular a careful alignment of the spires in the distance, shows that this is indeed from the vicinity of Ferry Hinksey, or just downstream of it.

In the intervening 200 years, the stream at Ferry Hinksey (known variously as the Bulstake Stream, or the Pot Stream) has become a narrow, choked backwater. However for a long time it was the major of four streams comprising the Thames as it passed to the west of the town. This was so until the construction of Osney Lock in 1790, at which time Osney Stream became the major stream. (See Figure 2). Allowing for a degree of artistic licence, in 1814 it probably would have appeared rather as in the painting.

It is unlikely, however, that the crew in the painting hired their boat from Mrs Hooper at Folly Bridge. At that time, the river was largely unnavigable there due to the poor state of the bridge. The only reliable passage was through a flash lock to the south of the bridge, however the river was so fast that boats proceeding upstream had to be towed through the lock. So where did they get the boat?

It is possible that boats may have been available for hire from Ferry Hinksey. Brasenose College acquired a property there, along with the right of passage over the river, and one or more boats in 1739, but examination of the College rent rolls is inconclusive. A more likely starting place for a rowing outing on the Bulstake Stream would probably have been from Hythe Bridge, where the road to Botley crosses the Thames on the western side of the town.

A picture in the Oxford County Museum, entitled “Old Hythe Bridge and Oxford Castle”, and painted by Michael “Angelo” Rooker (Figure 5). It shows an undergraduate in a canoe, as well as four identical canoes and a four-oared rowing boat tied up by the bridge. The Castle Mill Stream flows south past the bridge and the remains of the castle before meeting the main channel beyond the castle near the confluence with the Bulstake Stream. The extreme left of the painting shows the last section of the Oxford canal has been completed, although the final work on the lock connecting the canal to the Castle Mill Stream has not been finished. This allows us to definitively date the painting to 1790.

The name Hythe refers to a wharf situated at the site. During the 16th to 18th centuries this wharf was owned by the City, and used to unload wood, hay, stone and slate.(16) From Hythe Bridge it was possible to row upstream beyond Godstow, which we know for a long time to have been visited by boating parties of Oxford students.

Figure 5.  “Old Hythe Bridge and Oxford Castle” by Michael “Angelo” Rooker, 1790.

Taken together with the literary record, these two paintings expand our understanding of the aquatic pleasures of Oxford students in the latter half of the 18th century. They were regular habitués of Godstow, Iffley and as far away as Nuneham, using canoes and rowing boats hired from at least two different locations on the river.

There is one other source of evidence which has not been considered to date, and that is accounts of deaths and drownings.

As noted above, Anthony Wood’s diaries leave us under no doubt that Oxford men had found a playground in the waterways around the town as early as the middle of the 17th century. Much of this centred around Medley and beyond to Godstow. Wood also provides the first evidence of Oxford men taking to the water and rowing themselves. He records that in May 1667, two students from Wadham College were rowing themselves back from Medley when a storm came on and their boat was struck by lightning, killing one of them, and leaving the other temporarily debilitated.(17)

While deaths by lightning are rare, deaths by drowning are less so. For the purposes of this paper, an examination was undertaken of British newspaper reports of some 5,000 drownings in the 18th century and early 19th century. It revealed that drowning was a more common occurrence then than it is today. In part this was because people simply didn’t learn to swim during that period. People drowned in shipwrecks, falling from bridges, falling from roads besides rivers, they drowned in ponds and ditches when drunk, and some drowned themselves to commit suicide. However, a small number of instances are attributable to recreational rowing.

The earliest recorded drowning related to recreational rowing comes from Cambridge in 1743 (Figure 6). The Newcastle Courant reported in May that six men from Clare Hall had been going downstream when their boat overturned at the Jesus sluice.(18)

That same year there was a drowning attributable to recreational rowing at Oxford. The Caledonian Mercury reported that the man servant of a student at St Mary’s Hall had died when the wherry they were in overturned at Godstow.(19) The explanation of this death being reported in Scotland is that the student, George Lockhart, and his servant were from Edinburgh. As Lockhart was only 15 years of age, the servant had presumably been sent to see him safe at Oxford.

Figure 6. Newspaper coverage of a group drowning at Cambridge in 1743.

From 1743 to 1810, there were seven reports drownings associated with recreation rowing in or around Oxford and Cambridge. These were at Cambridge in 1743 and 1748, at Oxford in 1743, 1763, 1769, 1810, and at Abingdon in 1791. The best account we have relates to the drowning at Oxford in 1769 (shown in Figure 7).

Apparently, three students were rowing in skiffs near the lffley lock when they got into trouble. One of them, Edward Taylor, of Christ Church, 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.(20)

Figure 7. Newspaper report of the drowning of Edward Taylor at Iffley in 1769.

The number and frequency of drownings clearly shows that recreational rowing was well established at both Oxford and Cambridge by 1743, and continued unabated throughout the 18th century.

During the same period, there were instances of students drowning at Eton; indeed, fours boys at the college drowned between 1756 and 1802, but all of them died while bathing in the river. In fact, it was not until 1807 that the first student at Eton drowned in a boating accident. As boating was not sanctioned by the college, the absence of deaths cannot be attributed to official vigilance. Rather, boating came late to Eton, having been preceded as a pastime by swimming.

Moreover, many aspects of life at Eton in the second half of the 18th century were well documented, but prior to the 1790s rowing was not one of them. This is in stark contrast to the literary, pictorial and other evidence of rowing at Oxford – and to a lesser extent at Cambridge – from the 17th century onwards.

On the basis of the evidence available, recreational rowing is attested in Oxford in the middle of the 17th century, and became well established at Oxford and Cambridge some time before 1743. In Oxford at least, it was sufficiently popular to support boats being available for hire from at least two separate locations about the town in the late 18th century.

From Oxford and Cambridge, recreational rowing migrated to the lower reaches of the Thames in the late 18th century, taking hold first at Eton and then in London.


1: By recreational rowing we mean rowing that was undertaken by people who were not professionals, and as much for its own sake as for travelling to or from some particular place, that is, not just for the purposes of travel.

2: Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 3 August 1799.

3: Westminster School Water Ledger

 4: The Morning Post, 27 August 1808.

5: Norfolk Chronicle, 16 July 1808.

6: Cox, Recollections of Oxford, pp 57-58.

7: Wordsworth, Social Life at the English Universities in the Eighteenth Century, p 2.

8: ibid.

9: Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 8 July 1780.

10: Wordsworth, op cit, p 174.

11: Southey, Espriella, Letter XXXII.

12: Gunning, Reminiscences, pp 38-39.

13: “Ode to a Grizzle Wig by a Gentleman who had just left off his Bob” in The Oxford Sausage, 1764.

14: D’Anvers, A., “The Humours of Oxford University”, 1691.

15: Clark, A. The Life and Times of Anthony Wood vol 1, Oxford Historical Society, Oxford 1891, pp 401, 441, 444, 486.

16: Eleanor Chance, Christina Colvin, Janet Cooper, C J Day, T G Hassall, Mary Jessup and Nesta Selwyn, ‘Communications’, in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 4, the City of Oxford, ed. Alan Crossley and C R Elrington (London, 1979), pp. 284-295. British History Online [accessed 16 June 2017].

17: Clark, A. The Life and Times of Anthony Wood vol 2, Oxford Historical Society, Oxford 1892, pp 77-78.  Also: Plot, R. The Natural History of Oxfordshire, 1676, pp 5-6.

18: Newcastle Courant, 14 May 1743.

19: Caledonian Mercury, 23 August 1743.

20: Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 25 March 1769.


  1. Thanks Göran!

    I have posted it to FB, and also put it on , with a note saying that it was first published on HTBS. Many thanks for all your patience while I was preparing it, and for providing this wonderful platform for discussion.




  2. Dear WOC ~ I’m both pleased and honoured that you picked HTBS to publish the results of your research on the origins of ‘modern’ recreational rowing. This allows me to again humbly say: ‘You read it first on HTBS’! Thank you.

    Very best,

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