Philip Barker

Next year the Universiade will head to both Krasnoyarsk and Naples to celebrate the 60th anniversary of a worldwide event under the control of the International University Sport Federation (FISU). But 2019 will also mark 150 years since a race which could be said to have launched international student competition.

In 1869, oarsmen at the Harvard University in the United States issued a challenge to their British counterparts at Oxford and Cambridge for a race on the River Thames in London.

Universities had been among the first to organise clubs in the early years of the 19th century. In 1827 Oxford played cricket against Cambridge at Lord's and only two years later two friends from Harrow School, Charles Wordsworth of Christ Church Oxford and Charles Merivale of St John's College Cambridge, inspired a famous message.

"The University of Cambridge hereby challenge the University of Oxford to row a match at or near London, each in an eight oared boat during the ensuing Easter vacation."

The first "boat race" took place at Henley, starting a tradition which continues to this day.The example was followed by two great American institutions in 1852 when Yale issued a challenge to "test the superiority of the oarsmen of the two colleges".

There had been an international regatta as part of the Paris Exposition of 1867. Harvard considered entering a crew but in the end their efforts came to nothing.

Even so, there remained a great appetite for competition overseas. Galvanized by a particularly strong crew in 1868, Harvard Boat Club captain William H. Simmons dispatched a letter to Oxford.

"The undersigned, on behalf of the Harvard University Boat Club, challenges the Oxford University Boat Club to row a race in outrigger boats from Putney to Mortlake," it read.

The Americans suggested the end of August. They eventually agreed to a coxed four as the format for the race. They also dispatched a similar challenge to Cambridge.

"Promptly came Oxford's acceptance," said Harper's Magazine. Cambridge later sent their regrets.

A 19th century history book of university sport at Oxford and Cambridge ©ITG
A 19th century history book of university sport at Oxford and Cambridge ©ITG

Even so, as the Harvard party set sail on July 10, there was great anticipation of their arrival.

"An American expedition will be landed on the shores of Great Britain - a body of men small indeed in number but well disciplined, well organised, all in the prime of life and most certainly furnished with excellent arms," noted the Daily Telegraph in London.

The Harvard magazine records that when they arrived they were treated "with great civility".

Their ship docked in Liverpool, where the London and North Western Railway gave them a saloon carriage for the onward journey to London and "ordered particular attention be paid to their comfort".

When they arrived in London they were initially put up in the ‘Star and Garter at Putney before relocating later to what was described as a waterside villa known as the "White House", which no doubt caused a few knowing smiles among the crew.

An article in Harper's Magazine by race starter William Blaikie of Havard suggested that "for the first ten days, the change of climate manifested itself in the looseness of joints and a lack of the springiness and activity one felt at home".

Their first American outing in London was also watched by representatives of Oxford as both crews tried to agree on a suitable date for the race.

"Their boat when seen afloat is very different in appearance from the best English racing craft," said one report. 

There was much discussion about rowing styles and the Americans also used a craft made by the boat building brothers John and Stephen Salter. It was thought that this would be better suited to the conditions on the Thames, a tidal stretch of water. They were to try a range of other craft before settling on their race day boat.

During their stay, the crew visited the inaugural amateur regatta at Staines on the outskirts of London where "they were regarded as the Lions of the day".

As they trained, there was intense scrutiny with progress reports appearing almost every day in the national press of both countries.

"The attendance on the course to see the evening practice is gradually becoming larger and when Oxford come up, there will probably be as great an interest shown in this as in the annual university race," said the Daily Telegraph.

The London Evening Standard admitted "since we last criticised the Harvard oarsmen, a very great improvement must be confessed in their style and pace".

Another paper reported: "It may be interesting to teetotalers to know that all the Harvard party abstain from strong drink." They did, however, consume large quantities of milk and fruit.

Meanwhile, Oxford trained away from the crowds further up the river at Pangbourne in Berkshire, a village "happily free of any particular object of interest to attract the London excursionist".

The date and time of the race was agreed by the two crews and the Thames Conservancy Board Agency. It was fixed for 5pm in the afternoon on Friday August 27.

The Board issued strict regulations.

University rowing has strong traditions to this day ©Getty Images
University rowing has strong traditions to this day ©Getty Images

"No steam vessels will be permitted to accompany or follow the race except one to convey the umpire and one for representatives of the press," they ordered.

They continued: "All sailing barges must lower their rigging when moored".

The Thames Conservancy Act of 1867 gave the police powers to "board any vessel and take into custody the captains and crews who attempt to move in the prohibited hours".

On the big day, some 800 members of the police were drafted along the river banks to keep order as "it is expected an enormous crowd will assemble".

The spectators made a colourful sight as they put on dark blue for Oxford or magenta for Harvard.

"Many ladies wore blue and magenta ribbons intertwined or, in some instances, blue trimmings and a deep red rose, a combination which had a decidedly pretty effect," said one observer.

Many might well have been clutching copies of The Times which had its tongue firmly in cheek when it suggested: "Let the world take notice that if any event of general importance, say a revolution in Paris, a rebellion in China, is on the eve of occurrence, it should be if possible postponed beyond this week but on no account be allowed to occur on Friday".

After a tricky start, Harvard led the way as they passed under the landmark of Hammersmith Bridge but in the second half of the race, the Oxford crew came into their own.

At Chiswick Church, Oxford took the lead and stayed in control until the end. There was no doubt Oxford had won but the margin of victory varied from account to account.

That night, some of the evening editions of the newspapers carried a special bulletin, sent by telegram.


The following day saw long and detailed accounts of the race which the Daily Telegraph described as "one of the most gallant races on record". The Times hailed the race as "henceforth ever immortal in Anglo American annals".

News of the result reached the United States within 24 minutes. It would have been sooner but the messenger had been forced to cycle three-quarters of a mile to the telegraph station at Mortlake. Some speculated that the news might have arrived in the US before those back at the race start at Putney knew the outcome. Details had been sent back by carrier pigeon.

When the American newspapers hit the streets, there was almost a stampede to buy one.

"The Harvards have done manfully," said one journal. "Three cheers and a tiger for Harvard."

Two editions of the Universiade will be held in 2019 ©FISU
Two editions of the Universiade will be held in 2019 ©FISU

The New York Herald talked of "profound grief that the Americans had been beaten". Many were keen for a return match in the US.

After the race, the crews were entertained with a number of banquets. At Crystal Palace they were hosted by the London Rowing Club. A hundred guests joined the celebration in a room that was "gaily decorated by flags and other devices suitable to the occasion". Among the diners was Charles Dickens. It was reported that "when rising he was received with great applause".

Dickens proceeded to toast "the health of the oarsmen of Harvard and Oxford Universities".

Oxford University Boat Club President Frank Willan said he was "proud to have pulled against such a good crew."

"I have rowed so many races at Putney, but had never pulled so hard a race," he said.

After dinner, a firework display included "set pieces in honour of the crews".

The transatlantic rivalry grew with competition in athletics before the turn of the century.

By this time a great academic institution in Paris had been the setting for perhaps the most important sporting conference ever staged. It was in 1894 at the great halls of the Sorbonne that Baron Pierre de Coubertin persuaded delegates from across the world to support his ideas for the revival of the Olympic Games.

It took until after the First World War for an truly international multi-sport Games for students to be introduced. These took place in 1923 at the urging of another Frenchman called Jean Petijean and were held in Paris.