Not to Paddle, but to Dine

The cover of the menu from the University Boat Race Commemoration Dinner of 1881.

20 March 2018

Tim Koch sits down to dinner.

Yesterday, Chris Dodd wrote about some archive material recently rediscovered in the Goldie Boathouse, long the headquarters of Cambridge University Boat Club (CUBC). He was particularly interested in evidence that CUBC and Oxford University Boat Club organised a joint annual dinner for several years, formal rules for which were established in 1876. Looking at The Times newspaper archive, I find the first reference to such an event is in 1874. Like so many things, it did not survive the 1914 – 1918 War, after which it was ‘not found practicable to revive on pre-war lines’ and separate dinners were held by the two university boat clubs – though an exception was made at least in the centenary year of 1929:

“The Times”, 29 July 1929.

The most elaborate and interesting joint Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race Dinner, however, was in 1881. This celebrated the half-century of the event, albeit a little late, 53 years after the first race. As usual, a letter to The Times publicised the occasion.

“The Times”, 26 March 1881.

Between the first race in 1829 and the year 1881, 485 men had rowed or coxed in the Oxford –  Cambridge Boat Race. Remarkably for the time, 404 were still alive, 53 years after the first race (revealing a below average death rate for Old Blues). Of these, 220 accepted Treherne and Goldie’s, invitation – though 200 eventually sat down on the night. Of the absentees, 40 were clergymen who were detained by the duties of Lent. Every crew was represented by one or more man. Of the 1829 crews, two Oxonians, Staniforth (No. 8) and Toogood (No. 5), and one Cantab, Merivale (No. 4), attended – though five Dark and three Light Blues from that first encounter were still alive.

The occasion was immortalised in verse:

VERSES ON THE BANQUET HELD IN COMMEMORATION OF THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF THE UNIVERSITY BOAT RACE, APRIL 7, 1881: A free translation by G. Denman (No. 7 in the Cambridge Crew of 1841 and 1842) from the Latin Hexameters on the same subject by H. Kynaston.

Sing we now the glorious dinner
Served in grand Freemasons’ Hall;
Welcome loser, welcome winner,
Welcome all who’ve rowed at all:
Oarsmen, steersmen, saint or sinner,
Whet your jaws, and to it fall.

Fifty years and more have rolled off
Since the race of ‘Twenty-nine’:
Therefore all, by death not bowled off,
As of yore, your strength combine,
And in gangs of nine be told off –
Not to paddle, but to dine.

Oh! what hands by hands are shaken!
Bishop, Dean, Judge, Lawyer, Priest,
Bearded soldier, beardless deacon,
Men still scribbling, men who’ve ceased;
Court, church, camp, quill, care forsaken,
Muster strong and join the feast.

This continues for another twenty-six verses, all of which can be read here.

A book was later published to mark the occasion:


It can be read here, courtesy of the Library of the University of Illinois.

Half a century in the Blue Boats, illustrated by a magazine of 1907. This probably reflects the limited number of professions open to educated men for much of the 19th century, rather than particular predilections of Old Blues.

On the subsequent careers of Blues, Goldie and Treherne’s book and  Kynaston’s epic poem both noted that most had taken holy orders or joined the legal profession – though the most distinguished exception was a politician and statesman, William Waddington, (Cambridge, March 1849), who became Prime Minister of France in 1879.

Charles Merivale who, when a student at St John’s College, Cambridge in 1829, agreed with his old school friend from Harrow, Charles Wordsworth, of Christ Church, Oxford, that crews from their respective universities should race each other ‘at or near London, each in an eight-oared boat during the ensuing Easter vacation.’

The 1881 Dinner was attended by one of the two Boat Race founders, Charles Merivale. Afterwards, he wrote about the occasion to his friend and co-founder, Charles Wordsworth:

I was so pressed to join the dinner that I consented, and was well amused… I was the only representative of the Cambridge crew of 1829 and took the occasion to speak for our crew as challengers to the first race, and claimed to be the founders of the institution… A word, however, was put in for you as the first to suggest our meeting… Your crew appeared in the persons of Staniforth and Toogood. The latter… looks stouter and stronger and taller than ever. Staniforth… looks the old man. But then he has been marrying again. The Dean of Ripon, your coxswain (who fouled us twice), ought to have come up… On the whole, the occasion, though sad in some respects, will leave a pleasing impression.   

The 2014 Oxford – Cambridge NYC Dinner at the University Club of New York. Picture: Facebook.

While I cannot find any information on Cambridge’s plans, OUBC/OUWBC will be having a dinner in London on the evening of this year’s Boat Race. Strangely, those wanting to attend a joint Oxford –  Cambridge Boat Race Dinner this year may have to travel. According to the Internet, there are Oxbridge alumni Boat Race Dinners in New York, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, Ottawa, Vancouver, Geneva, Heemstede (The Netherlands), Dubai, Colombo and Bangalore. Also, time zone differences mean that there is, for example, a Boat Race Breakfast in Portland, Oregon, and a Boat Race Brunch in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The New York gathering makes the bold claim that ‘Founded in 1933, the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race NYC Dinner is the longest non-stop running annual dinner event between the two universities in the world’. Whatever the accuracy of this, I trust that all of these dinners will, as in 1881, ‘leave a pleasing impression’.

One comment

  1. There is also an annual Oxbridge alumni Boat Race dinner (and screening of the race) held at the Savage Club in Melbourne, Australia

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