Fiona Fowler, a volunteer for the LBHF archives and local studies, writes:
Next Sunday is Boat Race day and as you would expect, the LBHF archives contain some interesting prints and photographs of its early history.
The boat race was started in 1829 by Charles Merivale, a student at St John’s College, Cambridge, and his Old Harrovian school friend Charles Wordsworth who was studying at Christ Church, Oxford. Cambridge challenged Oxford to a race at Henley-on-Thames, which they went on to lose easily.
For the next 20 years the races were held at irregular intervals and there was little agreement where the race should be held, with Oxford preferring Henley and Cambridge preferring London. The second race in 1836 took place between Westminster and Putney, as did the races of 1839-1842. It was not until 1856 that the race became an annual fixture and since then it has been held every year except during the first and second world wars.
An early scene of the race, probably about 1850:
The first Putney to Mortlake race was held in 1845, but it was only in 1864 that it became the fixed course. This picture is not dated but the view of crowds on Fulham Bridge shows one of the earliest contests over the present course:
The print below shows the crowds waiting for the start of the 1869 race. Unfortunately the umpire was not able to see the end of the race as his steamer collided with that of the harbour master at Barnes.
Another Putney start is shown here:
The next print shows the dead heat finish in 1877:
This was a very controversial race. At that stage there were no finishing posts and therefore no clear finishing line. Moreover, ‘Honest John’ Phelps, the professional waterman who had judged the finish for some years, was in a small skiff, which appears to have drifted off the reputed finishing line. With the swarm of steamers and other boats surrounding him it is probable that his view was partly obscured. The official view was that it was a dead heat but Oxford certainly felt that they had won by a matter of a few feet. Legend in Oxford has it that the judge, ‘Honest John’, was asleep under a bush when the race finished, leading him to announce the result as a “dead heat to Oxford by four feet”. The fuss generated led to two changes: first, posts were placed at Mortlake so that there could be no doubt about the finish line and second, this was the last time that a professional waterman acted as judge, from then the role was taken by a member of one of the two Universities.
The Boat Race was an immensely popular occasion and London Transport regularly advertised the occasion. Seen here are posters from 1923 and 1937:
Of particular interest in the Archives are a series of photographs of the Oxford and Cambridge crews taken by Christina Broom. She is considered to be Britain’s first woman press photographer.
Born Christina Livingston, she married Albert Broom in 1889. In 1903, following the failure of the family ironmongery business and other business ventures, Broom borrowed a box camera and taught herself the rudiments of photography. She was assisted by her daughter Winifred, who had left school to help her. Albert died in 1912 and Broom and Winifred moved to Munster Road, Fulham. Broom took the professional name of Mrs Albert Broom and for thirty years she photographed the teams and action of the annual Oxford and Cambridge boat race.
One must wonder what happened in the war that followed to the young men in her photograph of the Oxford crew of 1913:
Or to Mr F A H Pitman, the stroke in the 1914 race:
And what happened to this Cambridge crew of 1938 in a later war?
Some of the photographs are snapshots rather than studio portraits. This one of the Oxford boat in 1912 has the caption “Mother and I at waters edge – at work 1912, just after dear father died and we were penniless”. You can see the Mrs Broom with her tripod in the top right corner.
And an earlier photograph of 1907 shows her at work on the foreshore:
Mrs Broom evidently liked to have a memento of the race as she is frequently photographed, probably by her daughter, with the boat crews. This one with the Cambridge crew in 1938 must have been one of the last as she died the following year: