History of the Boat Club

1909 crewChrist Church Boat Club is the college boat club of Christ Church, Oxford, a large and prestigious College and a constituent part of the University of Oxford. It exists, as it has for nearly two centuries, to provide rowing and competition facilities and fellowship for undergraduate and graduate men and women studying up at the 'House'.

Founded ante 1817 (the year of its very first Headship) Christ Church Boat Club has a proud and unmatched history among the ranks of the Oxford Colleges. Each year its crews compete at varying levels in the Oxford bumping races (the annual and historic league of college crews, taking place in the spring and summer) and in other competitions, both in Oxford and in the wider rowing world.

Some of the members of the college Boat Club are already experienced oarsmen and women (the college has been co-educational since 1980) before they arrive: others (these days the great majority) learn their rowing up at the House (a nickname based on the Latin 'Aedes Christi', literally the 'House of Christ'). Novice programmes begin within a short time of arrival in Oxford, culminating seven weeks later in the Christ Church Regatta, a large annual event involving race-offs between the novice crews of all the Oxford colleges.

The following Hilary (spring) term brings Torpids - an annual bumping race in eights - and, finally, in the Trinity (summer) term a second set of bumping races in Eights Week, often attended by many thousands of spectators. A few of the most proficient will be selected to row for the university crews, either in OUBC or OUWBC, or in the men's and women's lightweight or development squads. The variety of levels at which rowing can take place is very wide: from 'Varsity representation, requiring huge commitment, down through the levels of college rowing from 1st VIII down to a 4th, 5th or even 6th VIII composed of those who just wish to give an untried sport a go.

Christ Church Boat Club is also just that: a club, in which the members not only train and compete together, but also socialize and attend various functions, from formal Boat Club Dinners through to informal 'crew curry' evenings and 'dates' with other boats. This is a sport that brings together people of different backgrounds and outlooks and enables them to mix comfortably, and the Boat Club, as the largest College society, is a major part of that.

In addition there is the Christ Church Boat Club Society, an association of old members of the House who come together to provide support in the form of coaching, funding and attendance at races, proving that membership of the club is indeed for life.

A look at our history will soon tell you the formidable past of the Christ Church Boat Club: but it is the current members of the club who shape its future.

Foundation and history

Henley Eight in front of the Christ Church Barge, 1889The exact date of the club's foundation is obscure: certainly it was in existence by 1817 when the House crew first took the title 'Head of the River', which bumping races had commenced in 1815. In 1828 Christ Church men became the first Oxford crew to row against external opposition when they raced Leander Club in the Tideway in London. Formal incorporation of the club followed in 1832, just after the OUBC, to whose crews the House had already contributed significantly. In the very first 'Varsity boat Race of 1829 there were no fewer than five Christ Church men - and the colours of the then Head crew were chosen for the OUBC, thus beginning an appropriate connection between the 'Varsity and the premier college boat club that endures to this day. The House has produced more men's 'Blues' (representatives of the OUBC against Cambridge) than any other college, and use of the famous dark blue colours continues to this day.

During the first half of the nineteenth century Christ Church crews reigned supreme, holding the Headship for most of those years, producing a huge proportion of OUBC men and, in 1827, producing the first-ever second crew. The 1860s to the end of the century saw a relative decline in the rowing fortunes of the House, but by the 1890s there were strong signs of revival, and in the early years of the last century, the club recovered its pre-eminence, winning the Headship and, in 1908, triumphing in the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta by beating the Belgian National Eight.

Overall, the House has won more rowing trophies at Henley than any other Oxford college – a record likely to stand, given the changes in the rowing world since Edwardian times. World War One took a terrible toll of House oarsmen: it was not until the mid 1920s that the Boat Club recovered, regaining the Headship in 1924 for four years before another slight decline in the 1930s. After World War Two the House remained in its usual position in the top half of the First Division, but only again took the Headship in 1958.

1st Eight, 1908The early 1970s again saw a period of dominance at 1st and 2nd VIII level, and the history of Eights for the next twenty years was a battle between Christ Church and Oriel College, with others taking part only intermittently. After another dip in the mid 1990s (when the Men's 1st VIII reached its lowest position of 12th, though remaining in the First Division) a revival took place that saw the boat rise ten places in four years, an achievement that also encompassed the second boat. In 2008 a coxless four composite reached the Final of the Visitors’ Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta – a feat unmatched by any Oxford college in recent times. 

The first women's crew raced in 1981, soon after female undergraduates were admitted to the House. As most of the previously men-only colleges had become co-educational before Christ Church, there was a lot of ground to make up, but within a decade the women had entered the First Division in Summer Eights. 1993 saw First Division status conferred in Torpids for the first time. The 1990s saw less rapid advances, with the 1st VIII/Torpid maintaining a position around the top of the Second Division or bottom of the First Division. However, the lower boats did make progress in these years, with the second boat becoming an established feature, and the advent of third and even fourth boats.

Since 2002, the rapid progress of the early years has been replicated; but this time against the stiffer opposition of the First Division. In the five Summer Eights after 2002, the 1st VIII rose an entire division: Eights 2006 saw the Women's 1st VIII finish Second on the river, with only St. Edmund Hall standing between them and a historic first women's Headship. Progress has also been made in Torpids, with the recent Second place finish in 2009 being a notable high point. These excellent results have been aided by the considerable number of representatives that the House has provided to the OUWBC and the OUWLRC.

Since 2003 women from the House have raced in the Henley Boat Races against Cambridge nine times. The unprecedented success of the women's boat club comes at a time when the House is celebrating the 25th anniversary of co-education, and fittingly the new women's shell, generously funded by the Boat Club Society, has been named for the first women's captain: Ila Burdett.

The greatest number of Headships (thirty-three); the largest number of Blues; the first-ever second boat; the first Oxford college to row on waters away from the Isis; the best rowing record at Henley; and the gift of its dark blue colours to the 'Varsity boats - a proud history, and one for the Christ Church Boat Club to live up to.


First VIII ColoursThe first boat clubs were few in number; back in 1815 it was possible to choose simple designs and still be readily recognizable. In this way, the pioneer oarsmen of Oxford were able, as in the earliest uses of heraldry in the middle ages, to adopt plain colours: Green for Jesus, black for Brasenose, red for Exeter and - of course - dark blue for the House, a colour gifted to OUBC and once disputed with our Cambridge sister college boat club, Trinity First and Third.

These first oarsmen wore clothing that would be considered picturesque by today's standards: few nowadays would relish rowing in tall stove-pipe hats, which seems to have been the norm in the 1820s. From these earliest times Christ Church men rowed in white jerseys with narrow blue horizontal stripes and a dark blue neckerchief - a uniform not dissimilar to that of Royal Naval tars of the time - even down to the long white trousers.

The 'duster', a checked pattern in white and dark blue, is one of the most distinctive and enduring features of the Christ Church Boat Club. This seems to have originated in the mid 1820s when the crew dispensed with tall hats and adopted the 'tam o' shanter' scotch bonnet worn by Caledonian farmers and soldiers. This was dark blue in colour, with a band around the rim diced in dark blue and white. The checked pattern was soon the model for the neckerchiefs and, by the 1930s for the shorts worn by the crews - these bright additions enduring until the late 1960s. The 'duster' tie is now associated with Christ Church Boat Club in particular, though the official Boat Club tie remains dark blue silk seeded with the Cardinal's hat motif in white.

Boat ClubIn 1897 the first VIII adopted the blazer (white, with dark blue Petersham trim and a red cardinal's hat pocket badge) which has been current ever since. The second VIII blazer is as above, only without the blue trim, the third VIII as the second, but with cloth-covered white buttons. The first Torpid blazer (blue with gilt buttons and a white cardinal's hat pocket badge) is not seen nowadays.

The Boat Club flag (dark blue, quartered by a plain white cross) is derived from the Wolsey/Ufford shield on the College arms. This flag was once flown at the top of a pole at the Head of the River Barge, signifying the finishing order of the crews in the bumping races. These days it adorns the Boat House during competition and various crew photographs.


Linked Boat Clubs

First and Third Trinity, Cambridge

Trinity is the House's sister college, also re-founded by King Henry VIII, and also the largest and most prestigious of its peer group. The Boat Club of this very large college was originally no fewer than three clubs: First Trinity for the majority of Trinity men, Second Trinity ('Reading Trinity') for the scholars and Third Trinity for Etonians and Westminsters. By 1945 these had amalgamated, though the name, 'First and Third Trinity Boat Club' endures. The crews row with dark blue blades, once the source of some friction with the Christ Church Boat Club, though relations between the two clubs today are very cordial. Their website is at: www.firstandthird.org

KSRV 'Njord', Leiden, The Netherlands

Formed in 1874 by the Leiden University student corps, Njord is named after a god of Scandic mythology: his swan and his sky-blue robe feature in the club's crest. The association of the club with Christ Church is of relatively recent origin, but has been very warmly celebrated on each side. In 2003 a Christ Church men's crew rowed at Leiden and then in the Head of the Amstel race, while two lightweight fours from Njord came over to Oxford in November 2003 and rowed in the Fours Head and visited again in 2008 and 2010. The link between the two clubs is of great mutual benefit, as well as being enormous fun - as any who have participated in the exchanges will testify. Their website is at: www.njord.nl

Oar blade painted with Arms and names of the 1st Eight, 1908The Headships of the House

1817, 1818, 1819, 1825, 1826, 1828, 1829, 1830, 1831, 1832, 1834, 1835, 1836, 1844, 1847, 1848, 1849, 1907, 1908, 1909, 1924, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1958, 1962, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1985, 2009, 2010.

During the nearly two centuries of contests on the Isis there have been many changes - for example in course raced and in the number of nights rowed - and yet in each year that the contest has taken place there has been a Head Crew.

Of the 181 contests since the inception of organized bumping, Christ Church has held the Headship a total of 33 times. This is still more than any other college, in spite of strenuous efforts on the part of Oriel over the last 30 years, giving that college a tally of 26 Headships overall.

The Headship in Torpids was lost in 1992 and it was not until 2009 that it was regained - the Men's 1st Torpid bumping up twelve places in only three years to capture the Headship in some style and to retain it in 2010. The House had not held the Eights Headship title since 1985: in 2009 it was spectacularly won back and strongly maintained again last year. The previous lapses can truly be said to have been rectified – but the work goes on. The past remains forever glorious – but the future of the Christ Church Boat Club remains, as ever, firmly in the hands of its current members.