The 80th Anniversary of the Boat Race

On 2 April 2017, the Boat Race takes place almost exactly 80 years after Oxford put paid to the longest series of wins by both Light and Dark Blue boats. Oxford had managed two different runs of nine consecutive wins before the twentieth century but it would not be until 1976 that the Dark Blues would begin a run of ten victories. Jock Lewes, the President of the Oxford University Boat Club (OUBC) and the future SAS founder, made a significant contribution to ending Cambridge’s string of victories.


By 1937, the longest period of Cambridge wins had lasted thirteen years and things didn’t look as if they would improve for Oxford: in 1936 Cambridge had won by 5 lengths and the average margin of water that the Light Blue boat cleared ahead of Oxford worked out at about four lengths year by year. That was the era when Jock Lewes was unanimously voted to change the fortunes of the Dark Blues. What is also incredible about the 1937 Boat Race is that after so many Oxford losses, Jock Lewes didn’t choose the best eight oarsmen in the university.


It is true that the new President had persuaded the powerful Jan Sturrock to stay on and do research while rowing at 6, building the crew around him and the Olympic oarsman, Con Cherry. Jock had thought through carefully how each of the different personalities would either gel or clash. Ronnie Rowe, at No.4, was poles apart from the heavyweight, Sturrock, in terms of rowing ability and temperament. Jock had been developing the Isis crew alongside the first eight and in his diary revealed why Ronnie was rowing:


There were better oars than Ronnie in the Isis crew. I chose Ronnie because of his tireless good nature, his complete naivety and because he plays the piano extraordinarily well, he was a continual source of amusement, the butt of the crew…it really was that he kept Jan in such sweet temper during training.


R.D. Burnell considered that Jock was ‘passionately convinced that the need was for men… who would be happy together.’ It seemed to have worked as Jock wrote later how Jan ‘did not find fault with our efforts after his experience in the Olympic crew’. However, others did: Rennie Rodgers on the morning of the Boat Race bravely declared in the Sporting Life that since 1884 he ‘has never tipped a loser’, the paper read, ‘Cambridge to Win the Boat Race.’


The fan mail echoed the national headlines and ranged from the zany to the banal; ‘an old varsity man’ informed Jock: ‘Do get your crew to have their hair cut before the race’, and ‘Broadway Bum’ from the Putney Men’s Institute preferred his assessment to be anonymous too with, ‘I bet Cambridge will win if you don’t lar’n it up quick.’


In The Field in January 1937, Haig Thomas suggested that Jock’s success lay in his ‘real fighting spirit and devilry.’ Thomas might have added modesty. The crew were gaining weight in the last weeks and that was a sign of development. However, Jock Lewes did find fault with his own rowing and days before the Boat Race he decided the OUBC would be more likely to win if his great friend, David Winser, took his place in the crew.


Cambridge won the toss and after one of the first false starts in the history of the race both crews were abreast at Hammersmith Bridge. R.D. Burnell writes ‘each time that Cambridge gained’ Oxford ‘made good without raising the stroke.’ Rennie Rodgers started to eat humble pie whilst the crews were virtually level for three-quarters of the journey. Oxford shot Barnes Bridge at a length ahead and while the Light Blues rowed at 34, Oxford jumped from 32 to 38, winning by three lengths in the slowest time for sixty years.

Never underestimate a happy crew.

RowGlobal and John Lewes are supporting Help for Heroes with this article


John Lewes is the nephew and biographer of Jock Lewes (Jock Lewes Co-Founder of the SAS, (Pen and Sword Books). His novel, A Spy After All, is published in May 2017.

Links: ;  ‘Dan Snow’s History Hits’ ; BBC 2’s ‘SAS: Rogue Warriors’ presented by Ben Macintyre.                                                                                        

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