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Friday, October 5, 2018

The Gentleman's Sport of Rowing, Early 19th Century Britain

Row, row, row your boat, swiftly down the Thames...

From The Telegraph, "Boat Race 2015" by Rachel Quarrell
Link to Article
Rowing is one of the oldest sports known to man and began as a necessary part of ancient life. If you lived on the shores of a river in the ancient world, you most likely would like to get across from time to time. So, you needed a boat and rowers. Historians believe the Ancient Egyptians would've been the first to "row for sport," with boatmen challenging each other to races or the wealthy pitting their slaves against each other to see whose fancy river barge was faster. 

While boat races have been going on for a very long time, they started getting popular among England's young elite in the late 18th century. All those young sons of noblemen and wealthy gentlemen needed something more to occupy their time than their classes at Oxford, and since there was a river a stone's throw away, why not? (The River Isis was their favorite spot.)

For the most part, these races took place between friends, and though Rowing Clubs were established, university students didn't actively compete against rival universities for a few decades. The first race known to have taken place between Oxford and Cambridge, kicking off what has been a rivalry for nearly two centuries, didn't take place until 1829. This race is such a big deal, and so early established, that it's official name is simply The Boat Race. (As an aside, one of the Oxford rowers at this first famous race, Charles Wordsworth, later went on to be the Bishop of Saint Andrews. And apparently most of the credit for instigating the race goes to him. He was twenty years old at the time.)

Before long, private clubs were formed for amateur rowers, and the gambling books at White's have plenty of mentions of gentlemen racing one another. I found a news article in the London Chronicle, July 6, 1836, "Grand Rowing Match for a Purse of Sovereigns, Given by the Duke of Buccleuch." This race took place just outside of the House of Lords. The article mentions crowds of spectators. 

When we think of Regency men and their exercises, we often picture the few things we've seen in BBC productions: horse-back riding and fencing. Moving into the Victorian age, authors love to put their gentlemen in boxing clubs. But rowing, a sport which demands physical prowess, technique, teamwork, and often began attracting sportsmen at an early age, has been an important part of English athletics for a very long time. 

In my novel, Miss Devon's Choice, my hero is a graduate of Oxford and his absolute favorite exercise, especially to relieve frustration with my heroine's determined arguing, is rowing. 

Find out more about rowing here (and yes, I'll link Wikipedia, b/c the footnotes here are incredible):

Miss Devon's Choice
by Sally Britton

Sweet Regency Romance

An arranged marriage, a choice to love, and the hope for happily ever after.

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