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Light Blue domination

Light Blue domination
1920 - 1939

In the 25 years before the 1914-1918 war, Cambridge won only nine boat races. In the 20 years from the recommencement of the race in 1920 to the start of the 1939-1945 war, Oxford won only three. Cambridge regained their overall lead, lost in 1863, in 1930 and have not lost it since.

Both universities had competed in the peace regattas in Henley and Paris in 1919, but the first post war race in the official series was in 1920. Cambridge fielded five of their ‘peace’ regatta crew, one of whom Percival Hartley, went on to stroke three winning crews.

Doubt existed in 1920 as to whether the public would still be as enthusiastic about the race, but the towpaths were as crowded as ever to see the first Cambridge win of this remarkable series, by four lengths.

Cambridge won again in 1921 and 1922, but despite this sequence were criticised for their style by sceptics who thought they had become far too influenced by the Australian coach Steve Fairairn, who had brought Jesus College to prominence before the war.

Oxford won their last race for thirteen years, by three quarters of a length, in 1923. Cambridge then dominated with a formidable coaching team of David Wauchope, Francis Escombe and William Dudley Ward, reintroducing orthodoxy and big winning margins.

1925 was particularly miserable for Oxford who had been beset by illness and then lost the toss in a ‘sinking wind’ to be handed the almost unrowable Surrey station. Despite carrying extra buoyancy they quickly filled with water and sank off the Doves, leaving Cambridge a comfortable paddle to victory.

1927, the first race to be broadcast by the BBC, was close until the Oxford number five, Hugh Edwards, cracked under pressure, letting the light blues in for a five length win. Both crews had suffered from illness with Oxford losing their stroke and his substitute to German measles, while Cambridge also rowed with a substitute.

Cambridge progressed quite comfortably over the next few years. Oxford didn’t help themselves in 1930 when, with a stronger squad, the president, Alastair Graham, resigned following an argument with the coaches.

1932 was the first race for BBC commentator John Snagge, who went on to commentate on radio and then television until 1980.

By 1932 Oxford, realising they were falling back sought assistance from the Cambridge coach John Gibbon. However he was unable to reverse the decline in four attempts. The Cambridge crew of 1932 not only contained the experienced David Haigh-Thomas, Tom Askwith and Kenneth Payne but also two of the Leander oarsmen who represented Britain at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, Harold Rickett and CJ Sergel.

Perhaps the best crew of the era was the 1934 Cambridge crew that contained Payne as President, Nick Bradley, Ran Laurie, Douglas Kingsford, Jack Wilson and the Australian Donald Wilson, they beat the course record by 26 seconds, winning in 18 minutes 3 seconds.

Cambridge saw their own minor controversy in 1935 when they finally abandoned the fixed pin gates and older coaching methods, in favour of swivels. This saw the departure of coaches Escombe, Payne and Haigh-Thomas to Oxford. However with the conditions rough Oxford could not overcome the light blues. While in 1936 the president R Hope clashed with the three coaches and resigned, leaving morale at rock bottom and another victory to Cambridge.

1936 was the last in Cambridge’s thirteen year winning sequence. Oxford rebuilt morale under Australian president Jock Lewes, who dropped himself when he saw the crew was faster without him. Cambridge lost their president Ran Laurie when he took up a post in the Sudan, lost Olympian Douglas Kinsford who had to go down unexpectedly and reserve stroke High Mason broke his leg. In a close race of changing fortunes, Oxford eventually won by three lengths.

Oxford won again the following year, having been coached for the first time by John ‘Freddie’ Page, who had coached Oriel College for many years. 1938 was also the first television broadcast of the event, though not very successfully.

In 1939 Oxford went into the race as favourites, following Alan Burrough, the Cambridge president’s sacking of Olympic champion Jack Beresford as coach, claiming he had done little other than to provide the beer. Yet Cambridge slipped away off the start never to be caught, winning by four lengths.

Cambridge moved from being six wins down on Oxford in 1914 to six wins ahead in 1939, leading the series 48 to 42 with one dead-heat.

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