The Varsity Match

The year 1864 has been described as the birth date of modern organised athletics. The scene of the birth was Christ Church Ground, Oxford; the occasion was on Saturday, 5th March when the first Oxford and Cambridge Sports were held, and the players were 28 unsuspecting undergraduates. The result was a tie with 4 events each. So was born the oldest dual athletics contest in the world. The final results are interesting to compare against the highwater marks achieved during the subsequent matches. It should at all times be remembered that the Sports were until 1959 a March/April event (except in 1895 and 1898) and hence often blighted by cold and wet weather.

The first minute book of the O.U.A.C. remarkably still survives. It was sent in 1954 in a parcel from Canada by the headmaster of a school in British Columbia to Dr. R.G. Bannister. This precious book had been converted into a personal scrapbook by the 1866 President of the O.U.A.C. The record is clear that, although held at Oxford, much of the credit for arranging the first match must go to R.E. Webster (later Lord Alverstone, Lord Chief Justice of England) of Cambridge.


The Early Years 1864-68 (Running Match Score (1868): Oxford 1, Cambridge 3, and 1 tie)

The second match was held at Fenner's, Cambridge, where the hosts won by 6-3 a revised programme, from which the 200 yards hurdles and the steeplechase were dropped and a two miles (to be changed in 1868 to three miles), putting the 16 lb. weight and throwing the cricket ball were added.

When Oxford had the Sports back again in 1866, throwing the hammer was substituted for the cricket ball. In 1867 and 1868 a "neutral" ground was chosen at Beaufort House, London which had a cinder path. In the latter year Oxford won the encounter for the first time.

Lillie Bridge 1869-1887 (Running Match Score (1887): Oxford 11, Cambridge 12 and 1 tie)

The Sports settled down with an unchanged programme for 19 years at this new London home. Highlights were the amazing cat jump style clearance of 6 ft. 21/2in. by Marshall Brooks (Ox.) in 1876 which stood as a series record for 72 years; and E.J. Davies' (Camb.) world best, a record of 22 ft. 10 1/2 in. in the long jump in 1874.

The Old (3 laps) Track at Queen's Club 1888-1914 (Running Match Score (1914): Oxford 22, Cambridge 25, and 4 ties.)

The Sports become thoroughly established at Queen's Club (Barons Court), London for the next 36 occasions up to 1928. Except for the institution of the half-mile in 1899 (temporarily dropped for 1902 only) the programme remained unchanged until 1922.

Milers were among the greatest heroes of the late Victorian era with Oxford's F.J.K. Cross lowering the record in 1889 to 4 min. 23.6 sec. at his fourth attempt and W. Pollock-Hill (Ox.) promptly lopping 2 sec. off that record next year.

Cambridge replied in 1894 with W.E. Lutyens' 4 min. 19.8 sec. Probably Britain's greatest ever all rounder, C.B. Fry (Ox.), added lustre to the Sports with a record long jump of 23 ft. 5 in. (11/2 in. inside his week-old world's best performance) in 1892.

Into Edwardian days R.W. Barclay (Camb.) became the first athlete to record six track wins with a 100 yards - 440 yards double in 1902, 1903 and 1904. Next year C. C. Henderson-Hamilton (Ox.) later to be killed in the 1914-18 War, set a famous mile record of 4 min. 17.8 sec., which remarkably withstood all assaults, including those of J.E. Lovelock, until R.G. Bannister's third win of 1949.

From 1908 until the First World War was predominantly a Cambridge era. The outstanding names were those of K. G. Macleod (100 yards); K. Powell (hurdles); P. J. Baker (half and one mile); the sprinters D. Macmillan and H. M. Macintosh, and the most versatile man in the history of the Sports, H. S. O. Ashington. He won the half mile, the high hurdles (twice), the high jump, the long jump (thrice), and even ran in the 1911 mile. Oxford recovered their mile dominance with the 1912-13-14 victories of the Olympic champion A. N. S. Jackson, while in 1914 G. M. Sproule set a 3 mile record, which stood for 35 years.

The New (4 laps) Track at Queen's Club 1920-28 (Running Match Score (1928): Oxford 25, Cambridge 29, and 6 ties.)

The Sports revived miraculously after the war with Cambridge personalities tending to dominate them, but with Oxford wins in 1920, 1923, and 1925 and exciting ties in 1921 and 1924. The sprinter, Harold Abrahams, achieved the remarkable record total of eight individual wins. Other personalities contributing three or more track wins for the Light Blues were miler H. B. Stallard; the double Olympic 800 metres champion D. G. A. Lowe; Lord Burghley with a hurdles double for 3 successive years; and sprinter J. W. J. Rinkel. Oxford kept her end up with the sprinter A. E. Porritt; a succession of winning three milers; and solid achievement in most of the field events. In 1922 the 220 yards low hurdles was added to the programme and throwing the hammer omitted. The next year the pole vault was included.

Stamford Bridge and the White City 1929-37 (Running Match Score (1937): Oxford 27 Cambridge 36, and 6 ties.)

The Sports moved, after a three-year stay at Stamford Bridge, to their seventh venue, the White City, in 1932, in which year Cambridge recorded their seventh successive victory. R. M. N. Tisdall created great interest in 1931 when he set a record by winning four events - the 440 yards, the high hurdles, the long jump, and the shot putt. Oxford came back with wins in 1933-34, thanks notably to a double triple by the American C. F. Stanwood in the two hurdles and the high jump; the record-breaking half miling of his compatriot, N. P. Hallowell; and the miling of the New Zealander, J. E. Lovelock.

Cambridge won the next three sports with A. G. K. Brown and the massive Turkish shot putter, A. Irfan, making outstanding contributions.

Point Scoring Arrives 1938-39 (Running Match Score (1939): Oxford 29, Cambridge 36 and 6 ties.)

After much heated debate, points scoring (5 for a win, 3 for second and 1 for third) arrived. So also did the discus and javelin events. Oxford won the first points match by 3 points, the narrowest margin yet and the next easily by 35 points.

The Post-War Era 1946-63 (Running Match Score after 100 years: Oxford 41, Cambridge 42 and 6 ties.)

The Sports were revived in 1946 (temporarily without the pole vault) following a series of unofficial war-time matches. The Programme was extended by the addition of the 220 yards in 1947; the triple jump in 1959; and the 440 yards hurdles and 3,000 metres steeplechase in 1963, to bring the total of events up to 17. Cambridge won in 1946 and 1947, and then Oxford embarked on ten successive years of victory with public interest heightened notably by the performances of R. G. Bannister and C. J. Chataway, who won the mile from 1947 to 1953, and D. J. N. Johnson who won the quater/half mile double in 1954, 1955 and 1956 and took his seventh event by winning the mile in 1957.

Much interest centred on whether Cambridge could produce a miler to break Oxford's long post-war sequence of victories. At last, in 1961, H. J. Elliott, the Australian world record holder, broke the spell in the comparatively modest time of 4 min 7.2 sec.

In 1962 A. Metcalfe of Oxford recorded a dazzling triple over the 100, 200, and 440 yards in times of 9.7 sec., 21.0 sec., and 47.0 sec, - all new match records; while in 1963 T. N. Blodgett - that rarity, a Yank at Cambridge - won both high and low hurdles and the pole vault, all three with match record performances, and took the javelin throw for good measure.

The Twenty Five Years 1964-1988

Metcalfe continued to shine in 1964. Then in the next two years Wendell Mottley, bronze medallist behind Metcalfe's silver in the 1964 Olympic 4x400 metres relay, set magnificent match records of 46.3 and 46.0 for the quarter mile. This golden era of one lap running continued with Martin Winbolt Lewis' three wins from 1967-1969.

As the league system and club athletics flourished, so during the late '60's the Varsity Sports slipped from public prominence. A more intimate environment for the match became desirable, and after the White City closed, following brief sojourns at Crystal Palace and then at West London Stadium, the match has since been held at Iffley Road, Oxford (pending the long-awaited construction of an all-weather track at Cambridge).

Although Oxford dominated during the 10 years to the mid 70's with Phil Lewis, Steve White and Julian Goater to the fore, the match continued to be as fiercely contested as ever. Olympic Champion David Hemery won the high hurdles for Oxford in 1970, but it was his brother John, appearing for both Universities in the course of time, who has left the greater mark on the Match's record books. Having tied the match in 1973, after Peter Arbuthnot snatched the 4x100m relay on the line, Cambridge finally reversed 10 years without a win in 1975 and stayed ahead for three years with teams which included Tony Shiret (who set a record number of individual wins in 3 appearances) and Gordon Wood (whose 400m hurdles/100m double within 30 minutes in 1976 was exceptional).

From 1972, the mens' second team match, Centipedes (Oxford) v. Alverstone (Cambridge) was incorporated in the Sports, as at last, in 1975, was the first Women's Match, joined by Women's second teams (Millipedes and Alligators) in 1987. During this period the men's programme was expanded to include the Hammer (absent since 1921), the short and the long relay, and the 3000m Walk.

In the 105 years before Trevor Llewelyn came up in 1981, the high jump record had advanced just 13cm/5" from Marshall Brooks' world record 1.89/6'2 1/2" in 1876, to John Ellicock's 2.02/6'7 1/2" in 1971. In the space of 3 years Llewelyn added 16cm/6 1/4", taking the record to 7 ft and beyond, culminating in 7'1 3/4"/2.18, and triggering a golden period of Oxbridge high-jumping continued by Phil McDonnell and Mike Powell.

Meanwhile in the horizontal jumps, Dwayne Heard also broke new ground, erasing long-standing records in both the Long Jump and the Triple Jump, and over a 6 year period scoring more individual wins, 11, than anyone in the history of the match.

The late 80's  brought us to the Ridgeon era. In 1988 he achieved a record 5 individual wins for Cambridge, including match records in both the 110m hurdles and the 200m hurdles. Oxford, too, had an outstanding athlete in Simon Mugglestone, who set a new record at 1500m in 1988, as well as winning the 5000m.