Eton College has played a huge part in the boat race, just over a quarter of all competitors in the race have been educated at the school. While this influence has declined in recent years in the period between 1884 and 1914 it was in its ascendancy. During this time just over 34 percent of Cambridge competitors were from Eton, while at Oxford it was an astonishing 60 percent. Eton were undoubtedly the country’s best rowing school at this time, judging by their results at Henley Regatta, and Oxford benefited from this.
Between 1884 and 1889 Oxford only won one race, in 1885. This was largely due to the Cambridge oarsman Frederick Pitman who was a superb athlete and stroke man. Despite giving away eight pounds per man in the 1885 race, and with a late replacement in the crew, due to injury, Cambridge made a tremendous fight of it. Though Oxford may have been affected by their three man, Percy Taylor, dislocating (and re-locating!) his shoulder through Hammersmith Bridge they were still well ahead at Barnes. This is where Pitman put in his burst, rating at 41 to get back on level terms. While they lost eventually this race gave Pitman great heart and he went on to win both of his next two races, becoming the first crew to win from being behind at Barnes in 1886.
1887 was as eventful as ever with Oxford looking for revenge and rapidly coming back on Cambridge at Barnes bridge, their number seven Hector Maclean, saw his blade snap in two at the button allowing Cambridge to row away to victory.
Cambridge won in 1888 and 1889 but then saw another nine year winning streak by Oxford starting in 1890. There were close races in 1890 and 1891 but success went to the dark blues even in 1891 when they carried two men with influenza. The stroke of the 1891 crew, Charles Kent, went on to become finishing judge between 1928 to 1951, while the crew also contained four other outstanding oarsmen, Lord Ampthill, William ‘Wal’ Fletcher and brothers Guy and Vivien Nickalls.
The 1893 race saw Oxford set a formidable time, the first crew under 19 minutes won in a time of 18 minutes 45 seconds, a record that would stand until 1911. While the 1896 race, which was notable for very rough water from Hammersmith onwards, was again won by Oxford who, using the conditions to best effect, came from behind to win by just one second, the closest race thus far.
During this period the influence of Eton was at its height for Oxford. Edmond Warre, by then headmaster, coached at the school assisted by Reginald de Havilland (Oxford president 1884) producing 11 Ladies’ Plate winning crews for the school at Henley and 70 percent of Oxford oarsmen between 1890 and 1898.
By 1898 Cambridge took steps to stop the rot. President William Dudley-Ward invited Oxford coach ‘Wal’ Fletcher to the light blues. They lost that year but won in 1899 with the help of another Oxford coach Rudie Lehman.
1900 saw Cambridge continue their rise, winning by 20 lengths and equalling the record time. They went on to win eight of the ten races between 1899 and 1908.
1903 saw another fiasco at the start. Frederick Pitman was by now starter, however his pistol stuck at half cock. Not noticing that Cambridge had been dragged off the stakeboat by the tide, Pitman eventually got the pistol to work but with Cambridge already half a length up Oxford’s rowing went to pieces. Cambridge won by four and a half lengths.
1904 was notable as neither president could row, due to injuries. The races of 1905 to 1908 excited controversy because of the technique used by both crews. The orthodox long stroke with good swing, quick catch and good draw had been replaced by a short, fast, jabbing stroke with little swing and shorter oars. This was attributed to the Cambridge stroke Douglas Stuart, though adopted by both crews, and was regarded as something of an ugly aberration. In 1908 the Oxford trial eights saw both techniques tried with orthodoxy coming out the winner.
In 1909 both crews returned to orthodoxy, Oxford contained two of the GB medallists from the 1908 Olympic four and the first appearance of Robert Bourne who went on to win four successive races.
The 1911 race produced a very fast time with Bourne at stroke, beating the previous fastest time by over 15 seconds, Oxford winning in 18 minutes 29 seconds, a record that would stand for the next twenty three years. This race was followed by the Prince of Wales and his brother Prince Albert and was the first race in which aeroplanes flew over the competing crews.
In 1912 both crews sank though Oxford managed to empty their boat and row on to the finish. Pitman the umpire declared the race void and it was rearranged for the Monday. A gale was still blowing on Monday but with the wind coming from the north conditions were slightly better and Oxford went on to win by six lengths.
Honours were shared with a victory to Oxford in 1913 and then one to Cambridge prior to the outbreak of war in 1914. Of the 71 races to 1914 Oxford won 39, Cambridge 31, with one dead-heat. There were to be no more boat races until 1920 due to the world war, in which 42 blues lost their lives.