Ely has two words for Boat Race enthusiasts: Stay Away

Throwback to Ely Boat Race 2019

Throwback to Ely Boat Race 2019 - Credit: THE BOAT RACE YOUTUBE

Residents are being urged not to venture into Ely on Sunday April 4 in the hope of watching the boat race which is closed to the public. 

East Cambs District Council's message, instead, is that "the best place to watch the events unfold is from the comfort and safety ofyour own homes on television".

Councillor Anna Bailey, Leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council, said: “After many months of organisation we had hoped that by the time the Boat Race was upon us we would be welcoming people to enjoy the event in person. 

Ely Boat Race takes place on Saturday April 4 

Ely Boat Race takes place on Saturday April 4 - Credit: JANET PORTER

"Sadly this is not possible, but the safety of residents and the people involved is paramount and the roads, footpaths and the river in the area will be closed to public access.

“The closed event does not mean that anyone has to miss out. I urge everyone to settle down on their sofa, to tune in to the TV coverage on the BBC, and of course to shout loud in support of Cambridge." 

The Boathouse in Ely

The Boathouse in Ely - Credit: SAM COGHLAN

She added that there will be several Covid-19 marshals working on behalf of the district council within the city centre "to safely engage with and support residents". 


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Ely Boat Race: Things you probably didn’t know 

Boat race history 

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The race was started by Charles Merivale and Charles Wordsworth in 1829. 

The two had rowed together at Harrow and were close friends but Merivale went to St John’s college Cambridge and Wordsworth to Christ Church college Oxford.  

Rowing together on the Cam during the university vacation they decided that Cambridge would challenge Oxford to a race “at or near London each in an eight-oared boat during the ensuing Easter Vacation”. 

The stretch of River before Queen Adelaide Bridge where the start of this years' Boat Races will be.

The stretch of River before Queen Adelaide Bridge where the start of this years' Boat Races will be. - Credit: Cambridge University Boat Club

The challenge was promptly accepted, though the race took place at Henley, and Oxford won convincingly.

The winning boat is on show at the rowing museum in Henley. 

Races took place erratically and at a number of sites over the first 25 years but since 1845 it has always been run over the Putney to Mortlake stretch of the River Thames except for 1944 when it took place between Queen Adelaide and Littleport on the Great Ouse -  as it will again in 2021! 

Since 1856 it has been an annual event except during war and – last year – Covid.   The race of 2021 will be the 166th. 

The current “score” is  Cambridge 84 to Oxford 80 and one “dead heat” in 1877. 

Historic photo of Prickwillow 

Historic photo of Prickwillow - Credit: MIKE PETTY

The Thames can get rough in strong winds and there have been six sinkings.   

Light blue v dark blue 

The now familiar university “colours” originated with the boat race. 

In the first race half of the Oxford crew were from Harrow and rowed in their school colours of dark blue. 

The following year the largest contingent in the Cambridge boat were from Caius college and they adopted the college colours of light blue – though in 2011 the light blue became somewhat more green! 

Historic photo of Prickwillow

Historic photo of Prickwillow - Credit: MIKE PETTY

These colours became linked to competitions between the two universities and eventually to all university sport.

To “get a blue” – indicating that you have represented your university in sport – is still a great honour.  

Links between the boat race and Ely 

Charles Merivale became a prominent historian and then Dean of Ely cathedral, a post he held for 24 years until his death in 1893. 

Historic photo of Adelaide

Historic photo of Adelaide - Credit: MIKE PETTY

There is a plaque in his memory in the South transept of the cathedral. 

In 2008 the Cathedral marked the 200th anniversary of his birth with a gathering of his descendants and those of Charles Wordsworth and a race using replicas of the 1829 boats. 

In 1944 the race was switched to Ely because of the risk of V1 flying bombs, large numbers of which hit London in the final year of the war.    

In 2004 The “Diamond 44” group re-enacted this event, with locals in period costume, a spitfire flypast and veteran rowers from Oxford and Cambridge in the audience. 

Historic photo of Adelaide rail and road bridges

Historic photo of Adelaide rail and road bridges - Credit: MIKE PETTY

They didn’t re-enact the result though – Oxford won in 1944, Cambridge in 2004! 

Page BreakRowing in Ely  

The 5km stretch of the Great Ouse between Queen Adelaide and Littleport is ideal for rowing, dead straight, carrying little river traffic and wide enough for two full sized “eights” side by side. 

University race crews at Littleport

University race crews at Littleport - Credit: MIKE PETTY

It has been used for many years as a training ground for elite rowers including university and Olympic crews. 

In Victorian times rowing was a popular leisure activity and in the 1890s there were no fewer than five rowing clubs in Ely. 

The current Ely Rowing Club was formed in 2004 as part of the “Diamond 44” project and their logo reflects this with four diamonds in both Oxford and Cambridge blue. 

Sandys Cut

Sandys Cut - Credit: MIKE PETTY

Their inaugural president was Martin Whitworh who had rowed at 4 for Cambridge in 1944. 

The now have about 150 members and host a national competition annually – the Great Ouse Marathon  - which finishes down the Queen Adelaide “straight”. 

Womens rowing 

The womens boat race was founded in 1927 but raced only intermittently until the 1960s. 

The womens boat race was founded in 1927

The womens boat race was founded in 1927 but raced only intermittently until the 1960s. - Credit: JANET PORTER

It was subject to considerable hostility from the men – and hampered by very impractical clothing!      

From 1935 it was raced over a half mile course on either the Cam or the Isis and in 1977 the length was doubled to a mile and the race became part of Henley regatta. 

Since 2015 it has been raced over the same course and on the same day as the men’s race. 2021 will be the 75th women’s race.

The ancient Plough Inn on Old Bank

The ancient Plough Inn on Old Bank - Credit: MIKE PETTY

The early crews were formed entirely of students from Newnham College,  later joined by Girton – at that time the only Cambridge colleges to admit women. 

Newnham is now the only remaining all womens college but remains prominent in rowing and currently holds the women’s “Head of the River” position. 

The college celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. 

The crews 

All crew members have to be full time degree students at the respective universities and they train six days a week on top of their normal academic work.  

The ancient Plough Inn on Old Bank

The ancient Plough Inn on Old Bank - Credit: MIKE PETTY

Both men and women now have reserve crews.  So there are now four races on race day. Lightweight teams compete separately at Henley. 

Padnal which was drained after the Sandys Cu

Padnal which was drained after the Sandys Cut - Credit: MIKE PETTY


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