The 2021 Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race: E to L

1944: The last time that Oxford and Cambridge raced at Ely, this was the third of the four unofficial races in wartime.

27 November 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch makes a lot of suppositions.

Yesterday, on 26 November, the Boat Race Company Limited (BRCL) announced that the 166th Men’s and the 75th Women’s Boat Races between Oxford and Cambridge will be held on the River Great Ouse at Ely, Cambridgeshire, in April 2021. A press release said:

The decision to relocate the 2021 event reflects the challenge of planning a high-profile amateur event around continuing COVID related restrictions as well as uncertainty regarding the safety and navigation of Hammersmith Bridge. Following consultation with long-term partners in London, East Cambridge District Council, and the Environment Agency, we are delighted to have strong local support, enabling us to hold the world-famous races in Ely….

We are encouraging the millions of Boat Race fans to get involved at home, enjoying the event on the BBC and respecting any restrictions that may be in place at the time. 

Dr George Gilbert, Chair of BRCL’s Race and Operations Committee: ‘Everyone is facing significant challenges right now, especially students up and down the country.  Organising sport safely and responsibly is our highest priority and moving The Boat Race to Ely in 2021 enables the event to go ahead in a secure environment. 

While we are sad not to be able to welcome the usual hundreds of thousands of spectators along the course, we will be inviting our communities and wider audience to get involved via our social media channels, and to enjoy the historic event on the BBC.’

The Great Ouse is considerably narrower than the Tideway, but perhaps this will make for even more exciting one-on-one racing? Picture:

Seb Pearce, Chair of Oxford University Boat Club:

…we feel that this location offers us the best chance of staging a televised race in an environment that is safe for the athletes and those that are required to make the race happen.

CUBC’s Rowing and Management Board Chair, Simon Harris:

Having taken the decision to race at Ely, we can now focus our efforts in the knowledge that our boat clubs will get the opportunity to renew our rivalry and race in April.

Ely is 80 miles north-east of London and 14 miles north-east of Cambridge. It is in the ‘Fens’, a low-lying agricultural region of drained wetlands. The lower course of the Great Ouse runs through the Fens and enters the sea at the estuary known as ‘The Wash’. The River Cam is a tributary.

Strangely, the announcement does not confirm the date set some time age, 3 April, and only commits to ‘April’. A decision on the race has been held off for as long as possible but a notice period of approximately three months must be the minimum time needed for all involved to prepare. However, I suspect that the organisers have for some time thought that Ely was the only option.

I doubt that the main problem with the Putney to Mortlake course was the closure of Hammersmith Bridge. Were it not for the pandemic, either the races would have got permission to go under the bridge or, more likely, they would have run on the course recently used by the Wingfield Sculls, Hammersmith Bridge to the University of London Boathouse in Chiswick.

The main reason that a Tideway course cannot be used is surely because it would attract large crowds of spectators and any attempt at social distancing would be impossible. Also, to try and second guess what the status of government and public health rules would be months in advance would be foolish.

Rowing at Ely. The Cathedral of 1083 is in the background, this majestic building is called the ‘Ship of the Fens’ because it dominates the flat landscape. Picture:

Most likely Ely has been chosen because it is one of the few places suitable for a fair, long-distance, side-by-side boat race that is also remote and fairly inaccessible, thus discouraging spectators. Also, the new Cambridge University Boat Club Boathouse is sited there, making both the race organisation and training on the course considerably easier, particularly related to COVID compliance. I imagine that Oxford will soon be allocated half of the Cambridge boathouse and that both clubs will be in the strange situation of training and doing trials ‘cheek by jowl’. There will be lots of avoiding eye contact.

CUBC’s Ely Boathouse, opened in 2016. Picture:

There were a few other options for the 2021 Boat Race course, but I imagine that they were quickly dismissed. Wallingford, 13 miles south of Oxford, is where OUBC trains but it is too accessible for spectators – as would be Henley. One place where the public could be easily excluded would be the 2012 Olympic Rowing course at Eton Dorney. However, making the Boat Race a 2,000-metre race on a sterile course is not in the traditions of the Boat Race. Ely was really the only choice.

There is a historical precedent here. During the 1939 – 1945 War, there were four unofficial Oxford – Cambridge races held, two at Henley, one at Sandford-on-Thames and one, in 1944, at Ely. Various newspapers say that the 2021 course will be as it was in that wartime race, from Ely to Littleport, about three miles (in fact the 1944 race only did part of this course, about a mile-and-a-half). In 2021, I would have thought a Littleport to Ely race finishing at the CUBC Boathouse would be better, certainly from a television viewpoint.

‘L to E’ or ‘E to L’? Picture adapted from Google Maps.

It could be said that Cambridge will have a ‘home advantage’ on a stretch that they have trained on for many years (even though Oxford won there in 1944). I do not think this is significant. The Ely course is very straight, and victory will be much more down to speed than steering – unlike the ’S’ shaped Tideway course where the cox’s abilities have a much greater effect on the result. However,  @EmilyDourish tweeted: ‘Good luck to the coxes keeping out of the reeds if there’s a cross-wind…! Voice of bitter experience.’ So, possibly the noisy deadweights will have their skills tested to the maximum. According to the Telegraph, Oxford are ‘particularly excited about trying to turn Cambridge over on their home water’. Perhaps the crews can get tips from some film of the 1944 race.

Wrongly I think, some online editions of the newspapers stress the Hammersmith Bridge situation over the COVID one, the online Daily Mail in particular. This has allowed the Mail’s readers, using the ‘comments’ section, to blame the Mayor (Labour), Hammersmith Council (Labour) and the ‘health and safety obsessed nanny state’ (which, according to one voice of reason, is a ‘socialist woke kindergarten of cowards and fools’).

Of course, this is not the first time that the official Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race (for open weight men) has been held somewhere other than on the Championship Course, Putney to Mortlake (or, rarely, Mortlake to Putney).

The first University Boat Race was held in Henley.

In 1829, the first race was at Henley, raced over 2 1/4 miles between Hambledon Lock and Henley Bridge.

The 1841 Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race was between Westminster Bridge and Putney Bridge. Here, it is passing Lambeth Palace.

The second race occurred in 1836 on the 5.75 mile stretch between Westminster Bridge and Putney Bridge, a championship course for professional scullers. This was used for the five races run between 1836 and 1842.

The Putney to Mortlake course, ‘P to M’, illustrated here in 1875.

The 4 1/4 miles between Putney and Mortlake was first used in 1845 and has been the course used by the men’s Blue Boats ever since – though the Boat Race only became an annual event in peacetime from 1856.

A sign in Cambridge’s Ely boathouse. For the 2021 race, however, Ely will also be the place that Oxford prepares. Strange times. Picture:


  1. My local contact has confirmed my view that the 1944 race was raced towards Queen Adelaide, and sent me a photo of the finish mark on the bank just short of Queen Adelaide.

  2. A contemporary newspaper report says, ‘The event will take place over the eights trial course, a distance of one-and-a-half miles, between the Branch and Adelaide Bridge. The crews will change at Ely and paddle down to the starting point at the Branch… the finishing point will be Adelaide Bridge’.

  3. Very good news that Ely has been chosen, and congrats to the Oxen for showing the spirit to come and see how the ‘Tabs do things.

    On a point of historical interest, this is not the first (nor indeed the second) time that the Boat Race has been stopped because of disease. There was supposed to be what would have been the second Boat Race in 1831, on the Tideway, but it was cancelled because of a nasty epidemic of Cholera afflicting London.

    As they say: “not a lot of people know this”.

    Kind greetings to all.

    Pat Delafield.
    CUBC 1966/7/8.

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