The history of racing boat building

The famous boat race between the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge receives a huge amount of attention, but the eights that the oarsmen use are seldom mentioned, even though the craft can make a difference to the contest. By examining the boat-builders associated with the contest (in the era of wooden construction), one can see which were the leading constructors at any period (see table below).

The design of the craft was slowly refined in an on-going ‘arms race’ between the boat-builders (many of whom were professional rowers themselves). The craft were tested in competition and the designs could be altered accordingly. The first winning boat of 1829 was 45ft in length and weight 972lb and resembled a pilot gig from Cornwall, whilst the ones used a century later were 62ft 6in long and weighed approximately 350lb. There were many factors that dictated whether a firm was commissioned to build a craft for one of the crews. They were:

  • Success at a lower level (which was partly dependent on the technology)
  • Location (being based in Oxford or Cambridge was advantageous)
  • The result of the contest itself (which could be affected by a whole host of factors. A loss could cause the losing crew to switch boat builder)

There were also:

  • Different rowing styles at certain points (in the 1860s the Oxford style was loftier and slower than that of Cambridge’s)
  • Schools of boat-building (Thames boat-builders dominated the contest initially and in much of the twentieth century, but those from the Newcastle ‘stable’ led in the late nineteenth century)
  • Family business connections (Many of the leading firms were linked with one another. The Salter family worked with the Clasper family before dominating the contest in the 1860s. John Clasper was the leading constructor at the end of the nineteenth century and his business was superseded by that of his brother-in-law, Frederick Rough. George Sims dominated the contest at the start of the twentieth century, whilst his son’s firm (of the same name) became the market leader in the late 1930s).
  • Design innovations (New technology was introduced on the boats at various different points, although it had already been tested at a lower level beforehand. These included outriggers in 1846, a carvel-built hull in 1857 and sliding seats in 1873)
  • Fast bespoke craft (The eights were bespoke craft built to accommodate the specific weight of the rowers and some of the vessels just happened to be particularly fast)

The following table shows the leading racing boat builders from 1829 – 1976 (the wooden era), based off the winners of the (Oxford-Cambridge) boat race. Other firms occasionally won races, but the table shows the dominant constructors.

Date Leading firm Number two
1829-1836 No market leader
1839-1856 Searle King / Hall
1857-1860 Taylor Searle
1861-1869 Salter
1870-1875 Clasper Salter
1876-1881 Swaddle and Winship Clasper
1882-1891 Clasper
1892-1898 Rough Clasper
1899-1908 Sims and Sons
1909-1914 Rough Sims and Sons
1920-1936 Sims and Sons Bowers and Phelps
1937-1954 Sims
1955-1964 Banham Sims
1965-1972 Sims Stämpfli
1973-1976 No market leader

(You can read more about how one of the firms (Salters) came to dominate the racing boat market here).

In 1977 a carbon fibre craft was used and the development of new composite building materials led to new firms dominating the contest.

More on this topic can be read at S. M. Wenham, ‘Oxford, the Thames and Leisure: a History of Salter Bros, 1858 – 2010’ (Oxford University DPhil Thesis, Michaelmas term, 2012), pp. 23-64, G. Ross, The Story of the First Hundred Races Between Oxford and Cambridge (London, 1954) and S. M. Wenham, Pleasure Boating on the Thames, a History of Salter Bros, 1858 – Present Day (Stroud, 2014), pp. 21-46.

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5 Responses

  1. Stuart Marshall

    George Harris racing boats at iffley where a major boat builder, wooden and later carbon supplying racing boats the whole range eights,sculls etc for city, university and world wide.
    If you would like more information please contact me.

    1. Arthur Bullard

      On the offchance you might see this, Stuart – I’ve just come into possession of a Harris single scull. I know they operated from the Isis Boathouse, but any other info on their boats would be most welcome!

  2. Duncan Spencer

    I’m the former owner of a Harris single built By George in 1965 still in use. I invited George to coach the Blue Boat for a period in ‘65, but the class barrier was too high for his comfort and he did not deliver his best-,which I knew as a rowing undergrad and a blue ‘63-‘65. He was an amazing teacher, a wise man and a superb craftsman..,Duncan Spencer OUBC ‘63-‘65.

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