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Early races

Early races
1830 - 1855

Following the first race in Henley in 1829 the next twenty five years only saw irregular races.

The second race in the series was rowed between Westminster to Putney as were the next five up to 1842.

The course was altered for the next race in 1845 which saw the first Putney to Mortlake race, though three subsequent races, 1846, 1856, 1863 were rowed on the ebb tide from Mortlake to Putney.

The last of these 12 irregular meetings was in 1854 prior to the race becoming an annual event in 1856.

In 1849, after a gap of two years and for the only time, there were two races. The first in March from Putney to Mortlake was won by Cambridge ‘easily’.
Oxford felt that their craft was a major factor in their defeat and challenged Cambridge to a further race in December. This second race of 1849 is the only time in the series to date that the boat race was decided by a disqualification, following a foul by Cambridge at the finish.

The eleventh race in 1852 saw the great Oxonian Joseph Chitty as president and stroke. This race was at the height of the argument which had started in 1846 about the use of professional coaches and steersman and which was the biggest factor in the decision to settle for amateur coaches (mainly old blues), a decision which held for more than a century.

Cambridge were coached by the waterman Bob Coombes, who instructed his crew to take the inside arch under Hammersmith Bridge. Oxford a technically excellent crew, were coached by Thomas Egan, the Cambridge amateur coach who had offered his services to Oxford because of the Cambridge employment of Coombes. Oxford took the traditional centre arch. Cambridge lost the stream and a considerable margin by this manoeuvre, and lost the race by six lengths.

Egan of Caius and Arthur Shadwell of Balliol exerted a great influence on university rowing. They developed the longer smoother style used by early amateurs as opposed to the choppy stroke of the professional waterman.

Racing was still undertaken in cutters and gigs with fixed seats. Limited sliding was sometimes achieved by oarsmen greasing the seats of their trousers or the use of sheepskin covers on the seats. The oars had heavy square shafts and narrow blades, some only about two inches wide which could easily break. There was no button to hold them into the rowlocks which consisted of two thole-pins projecting from the gunwale. These were subsequently incorporated into the boat itself for greater strength. The benefit of long leverage on the oars was recognised early, and the boats were broad in beam to allow the oarsmen to sit on the opposite side of the boat to their rowlocks and reach past the man in front at the start of the stroke. In 1846 the introduction of outriggers allowed boats to become much narrower.

The twelfth and final race of this irregular period took place in April 1854 and again resulted in a win for Oxford. Of the twelve races thus far, Cambridge had won seven and Oxford five.

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