The first boat race between the two universities took place in 1829, which Oxford won. That first contest set a precedent in the sheer amount of interest in the country. One estimate had the number of visitors at 20,000, which was four times the resident population of Henley (where the event took place). Oxford may have made a false start in the race but in the end won by multiple boat lengths.
Stephen Davis took much of the credit for Oxford’s victory. Davis, who had only a limited educational background, was now rubbing shoulders with crews that included two bishops, three deans, one prebendary, and thee vicars-to-be.
It is due to the fact that the Oxford crew was made up of four Christ Church men (and the cox) that the college’s colours were worn for the day, although they have remained the basis of Oxford’s dark blue since. In the next race, which was held in 1836, Cambridge’s boat wore the light blue ribbon that would become their own traditional hue. This was likely due to it being Eton’s colour as many of their crew had originally learned to keep good keel and feather their oars.
Stephen Davis passed away in 1837 at just 28 years of age. His 1829 boat, along with his memory, were preserved at Henley’s River and Rowing Museum. The 1836 race, which took place after a seven-year gap, had a different result, with Cambridge winning the time around, on a stretch of the Thames between Putney and Westminster. Cambridge issued the challenge to Stephen Davis before the race. Cambridge went on a run, winning the next three races.
Cambridge’s streak ended in 1842, although the following year’s race was unofficial while becoming the year that established the race as the preeminent university contest. Henley was once again chosen as the venue, which was largely based on the sheer popularity of the first Cambridge-Oxford race in 1839, along with some unofficial races that took place between colleges and crews of the two institutions in the interim.
In 1856, it was decided that the race would become an annual event (the two world wars aside). As of 2019, Cambridge has 84 wins and Oxford, 80. The first women’s race was held in 1927. Cambridge has 44 wins as of 2019 and Oxford, 30.
The race that occurred in 1843 went down in history as one of the event’s more special occasions. This was down to the fact that Oxford won despite being a man down. A highly-respected oarsman by the name of Fletcher Menzies was to assume the position of stroke but was forced to withdraw after been taken ill. There were no substitutes allowed, according to the rules, so Oxford went on to row with seven men, pulling off an incredible victory.
The race today attracts interest from all over the world in a sport with Great Britain’s men and woman consistently performing at international level. It adheres to its original amateurism intentions, with no monetary reward.