One of the most controversial yet classic races was in 1877. Although a good race all the way along the course the main drama came in the final three minutes. Shortly after Barnes Bridge in very rough water the Oxford bow caught the top of a wave and his blade was damaged.
Cambridge crept back and were level with their rivals as they crossed the finish, in 24 minutes 8 seconds.
The broken blade didn't help Oxford but there were other issues concerning the verdict. At that stage there were no finishing posts and therefore no clear finishing line. Moreover, ‘Honest John Phelps’, the professional waterman who had judged the finish for some years, was in a small skiff, which it appears had drifted off the reputed finishing line. With the swarm of steamers and other boats surrounding him there is a probability that his view was partly obscured.
Certainly Oxford felt that they had won by a matter of a few feet and, ‘Honest John’ in the contemporary records is said have announced the result as “Dead-heat to Oxford by 5 feet.”.
Subsequently, representatives of the two Universities and ‘Honest John’ met with the Umpire Mr Chitty Q.C. at the Law Courts where Mr Chitty confirmed that the official record should read ’Dead Heat’ .
The problems involved led to two changes in the arrangements. First, posts were placed at Mortlake so that there could be no doubt about the finish line. Second this was the last time that a professional waterman acted as judge, this function from then on being taken by a member of one of the two Universities.
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