Tim Koch writes from London,
Just over a year ago I visited the Cambridge Lent Bumps where I was particularly struck by two things. One was the madness that is ‘bump’ racing and the other was the sight of the beautiful Victorian boathouses that belong to many of the Cambridge colleges. A report on the latter is a HTBS story that has yet to be written as I did not have time to cover the bumps and to investigate the many attractive buildings that line the River Cam along Midsummer Common. However, on a recent trip to Oxford I decided to investigate the Dark Blue’s equivalent, the college boathouses by Christ Church Meadow along the Isis (as the Thames at Oxford is called).
My investigations started well. On approaching Folly Bridge, the western end of the approximately 2,000 metres of river between the bridge and Iffley Lock used by the boat clubs, I came across the appropriately named ‘Head of the River’ pub.
Most college boathouses are on the north bank of the river and, approaching from Folly Bridge, the first of these that I encountered was the shared home of Wadham, St Anne’s and St Hugh’s. It was built in 1990 and is most generously described as ‘architecturally inoffensive’ though ‘bland’ also comes to mind.
The next club houses are a semi-detached pair from 1968 belonging to Pembroke and St Edmund Hall. Both are utilitarian buildings, they are simply boxes with a roof terrace.
The next two buildings are a pair, more attractive than their neighbours, slightly ‘art deco’ in style, their curving lines reminiscent of a 1930s liner. In fact they were built in 1964, one for Corpus Christi and St John’s and one for Jesus and Keble.
Three more ‘boring boxes’ from the 1950s or 1960s follow, ironically housing some of Oxford’s oldest boat clubs. The trio are the bases for Brasenose and Exeter, then Lincon, Queen’s and Oriel, then Balliol and New College (typically of things at Oxford, ‘New College’ was founded in 1379).
The south bank of the river has only two college boathouses but between them they house twelve boat clubs and include the most controversial building on the Isis. In 2007, University College opened an ultra modern £2.7m / $4.1m structure which subsequently won a Royal Institute of British Architects prize.
University College also shares with Linacre, Somerville, Wolfson, St Benet’s and St Peter’s. This most modern of buildings is on the site of a very traditional one, the former Oxford University Boat Club boathouse. The old building was an ornate, typically Victorian riverside construction which was erected in 1881 by University College who then leased it to OUBC. Sadly, it burnt to the ground in 1999 taking much of the University Boat Club archive with it. OUBC did not take a lease on the replacement building as its crews now train on better water in Wallingford where a state of the art boathouse was opened in 2006.
By the time I had got to Long Bridges I began to wonder why the Cam is lined with many beautiful Victorian boathouses while the Isis boat clubs have relatively modern and largely unattractive functional buildings? A coach that I fell into conversation with told me that the answer lies in the fact that originally Oxford college boat clubs based themselves not on land but on large ornate barges that were moored along the river in front of where the boathouse now stand. These were employed as locker rooms and to host social functions and for spectators to use as a viewing platform during bump racing and regattas.
Like the one above, most pictures featuring college barges seem to have been taken during ‘Eights Week’ such as the splendid photographs here and here. Strangely, the Flickr photostream of the Swedish Heritage Board has a couple of nice images, one of the Pembroke Barge and one of the St John's Barge. As this picture shows, transport to the barges from the opposite bank cared little for health and safety.
The first barges found their way to the Isis in the 1840s and were originally highly ornate craft built to be rowed by eighteen or more men with much ceremony in grand river processions by the ancient City of London trade guilds known as Livery Companies. By the mid-nineteenth century these processions were, after several hundred years, going out of fashion. Luckily this coincided with the rise of amateur rowing at Oxford and so the barges were sold off to become the static headquarters for the emerging boat clubs. They were adapted slightly to their new role but the spirit and grand appeal of the original ceremonial craft was maintained.
For those who wish to know more about these craft, there is a book (which I have not read), called The Oxford College Barges: Their History, Architecture and Use by Clare Sherriff. It is published by Unicorn Press.
At their Victorian peak there were perhaps thirty barges moored along the Isis but their numbers declined throughout the first half of the twentieth century. In 1936, Christ Church was the first college to decide to replace their deteriorating hulk with a boathouse. At the time they were widely criticised though possibly more by the social types than the rowing men. Not only were barges very agreeable meeting places and viewing platforms during Eights Week, they were commonly towed down to Henley to serve the same purpose during the Royal Regatta. The final abandonment of barges between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s were all in favour of land based boathouses. In an article in The Times in June 1956 it was noted:
The boat club barges which bring an Edwardian grandeur to Eights Week in Oxford are one by one yielding their stations along the Isis.... To-day there are thirteen of them.... in little more than a year the number may be six or seven...... Rowing opinion in recent years has hardened against them...... Oxford rowing men are sternly bent on ending the long ascendency of Cambridge; and they feel that an important requirement is properly equipped boathouses.
The Times further quoted RH Carnegie, the then President of OUBC as saying:
I hope the barges will all be gone in ten years. I don’t mean this from the aesthetic point of view, but from the point of view of rowing. Boathouses are more efficient. The disappearance of barges is a sign of the fact that there is no longer a leisured class at Oxford.
Considering their numerous disadvantages it is strange that barges lasted as long as they did. Firstly, anything that is made of wood and that sits in water will need constant and expensive maintenance – something that the Jesus barge at least could not have got as it actually sank in 1955. Secondly, the barges could not store rowing boats and, inconveniently, these had to be racked in boat sheds some distance away. Thirdly, conditions in the cabin changing rooms were cramped and squalid. In a 1936 letter to The Times regarding the then Cambridge domination of the Boat Race, GA Ellison, President of OUBC 1933-1934, said:
Cambridge with its boathouses makes rowing reasonably comfortable for all crews. The College Barge at Oxford makes rowing moderately comfortable for one crew, barbaric for the rest.
Finally, the plumbing in the barges was probably non existent. There were certainly no showers or baths and this extract from the history of St Catherine’s College Boat Club gives an insight into what served as lavatories as late as the 1960s:
The College Barge was still very much in use as a base for outings, and in 1964/5 we actually lived in it for some time to save money while doing long terms of research. We cooked on a gas stove and invented the Bucket and Blade Club for those who shared this probably illegal residence, and its basic bucket sanitation. John Haden, Captain of Boats 1965-1966.
By 1966, ten years after the 1956 Times article, only Hertford, Pembroke, Wadham and St Catherine’s retained their barges. Hertford’s went in that year, Pembroke’s two years later, Wadham’s in 1973 and in 1978 Catz was the last college to give up their relic of Victorian boating.
Another question arises. Why was the use of floating barges purely an Oxford phenomenon, why did Cambridge clubs base themselves on land from the start? Again, the answer is simple. The Cam is too narrow to comfortably moor barges and to allow reasonable space for rowing boats. Also, it was easy to get the former Livery Company boats along the Thames from London to Oxford. To move a barge from London to Cambridge would require a difficult journey via the sea.
Thus, the Light Blues built along the Cam in a time of Victorian confidence and affluence while their Dark Blue counterparts erected most of their boathouses in the 1950s and 1960s, a time of considerably less wealth and certainty. The difference is clearly reflected in the quality of the respective buildings. However, things are slowly improving along the Isis notably with the new University College and Long Bridges boathouses. It looks as if things will only get better.
As usual, the British Pathe cinema newsreel site provides wonderful moving pictures that serve as a memorial to this splendid (if not very practical) part of the history of rowing at Oxford. Watch it here.
© Photographs Tim Koch