1856 was the first in what was to become an uninterrupted series of annual races, save the gaps during the two world wars. As ever the races of this period had their share of controversy.
The 1856 race started at Mortlake from ‘Barker’s Rails’, thought to be about three minutes rowing upstream from The Ship. At the start the Cambridge number six Joseph M’Cormick caught a crab and cascaded backwards, causing the light blues to lose a length. However with the advantage of Middlesex they were still in contention when two barges impeded the race along Corney reach, and it was only with quick thinking by the coxswains that neither crew hit them. Despite these mishaps Cambridge went on to win by half a length.
1857 was notable as the first race in which a carvel-built keelless boat was used, built for Oxford by Matthew Taylor of Newcastle and rigged to the northern pattern with stroke rowing on bow side. This was also the first race for Edmond Warre, he was to exert a profound influence on Oxford rowing for the next 50 years, particularly as assistant master, headmaster and finally provost of Eton College. The race was an easy win for Oxford.
Oxford caught the crab at the start of the 1858 race, bending a rigger. Despite this Cambridge nearly threw the race away, for they hit a moored barge, before going on to win by 22 seconds.
In 1859 there was a northerly gale blowing. Oxford won the toss and chose Middlesex for more protection, while Cambridge asked for a postponement but were refused. When the race eventually started, Cambridge in the rougher water gradually filled up and became the first boat race sinking.
The slowest winning time over the championship course was achieved by the winning Cambridge crew of 1860. Early in the morning, on a slack tide with interruptions by steamers Cambridge came home in 26 minutes 5 seconds, one length ahead of Oxford.
In the early 1860’s there was still considerable interference with the races, both from normal river traffic and the numerous steamers following the race. In 1864 when the race was scheduled from Mortlake to Putney on the ebb tide, the two presidents attempted to control steamers by threatening to postpone the race if any steamers were in front of the crews at the start. With an ebb tide the steamers would have been marooned on the Thames mud. Unfortunately the presidents could not carry out their threat because the Prince of Wales, who was following the race, had an urgent appointment shortly afterwards. However in 1870 the steamer problem was substantially curtailed when the Thames Conservancy limited the number of following steamers to two.
Oxford moved into the ascendancy and won every race for nine years from 1862 to 1869. In 1864, after 21 races, the last four won easily, they took the lead in the series, which they were destined to retain for over 60 years.
There appear to be two main reasons for this superiority. The first was the presence of George Morrison, initially as oarsman, then as non-rowing president and subsequently and most importantly as leading coach in six of the nine Oxford-winning years. Warre, Walter ‘Guts’ Woodgate and George’s younger brother, Allan, also played apart in the coaching team. Secondly, Cambridge’s rowing technique declined when Tom Egan stopped coaching them in 1861.
In 1869 and 1870 George Morrison coached Cambridge and was credited with the change in the light blue fortunes. This coincided with John Goldie joining the Cambridge crew, which gives an alternative explanation for their improvement.
Within these nine races, 1863 saw the third and last ebb tide row, starting again from Barker’s rails Mortlake, with Oxford winning on Middlesex. The 1866 race was notable for the watermanship of the Oxford coxswain, Charles Tottenham, when faced with an apparently inevitable crash with a barge that had swung across the river just below Barnes bridge. Tottenham managed to scrape under the stern, avoiding the clash by a matter on inches.
The Cambridge coxswain Arthur Forbes tangled with a barge in 1867 but not as effectively as Tottenham, for to avoid a clash with the bows he had to make such a violent correction that he lost over three lengths.
1868 was tragic for Cambridge when one of their promising blues from 1867, the Hon James Gordon, accidentally shot and killed himself while cleaning a rifle. During the race when Oxford took the lead, Cambridge completely lost their cohesion, losing by 6 lengths.
Cambridge’s fortunes revived with Goldie as president and stroke and Morrison coaching in 1870. Goldie stroked and won all three races between 1870 and 1872. In 1872 Goldie broke a bolt in his rigger during the race so couldn’t do any work, yet still managed to set an exceptional rhythm to help his crew to victory. The Cambridge boat house and reserve crew are named after Goldie.
Sliding seats were used for the first time in 1873. Cambridge adapting to them first with victory’s in 1873 and 1874, though Oxford won by 10 lengths in 1875.
In 1877 the only dead-heat occurred. Doubts have been expressed about the probity of the finish judge, ‘Honest’ John Phelps. He is reputed to have declared it as a ‘dead-heat to Oxford by five feet’, a decision subsequently recorded by the umpire Joseph Chitty as ‘dead-heat’. It should be remembered that there was no defined finish line in 1877 and that the crush of craft around the finish was such that the skiff of the judge may well have been substantially out of position. This was rectified in 1878 when the finish was marked by a post and Edward Fairrie, a Cambridge blue from 1856, took over as finish judge.
The race of 1880 was notable for being the only one which has been postponed from Saturday to Monday, due to thick fog.
1883 saw a fiasco at the start. Since 1840 Edward Searle had started the race from a skiff between the crews, shouting ‘Are you ready?’ and dropping a white handkerchief while saying ‘Go’. By 1883 he was old with a feeble voice. Neither crew heard the order ‘Go’. The Oxford stroke, Leonard West, saw the handkerchief fall and moved away, Cambridge stayed put. Oxford then temporarily halted, but realising there was to be no recall, rowed on leaving their rivals in confusion. From the following year the umpire took over starting duties, initially with a pistol.
After the 1883 race the scores stood at 21 wins to Oxford, and 17 to Cambridge with one ‘dead-heat’.