On a bend in the River Thames in what is now Berkshire stands the old Eton College boathouse. This is not the original boathouse and the building of locks and weirs has radically changed this part of the Thames in the last 200 years, but it was on this stretch of the river at some point around the turn of the 19th century that the young men of Eton College decided to use their (hired) boats to chase each other in single file with the aim of catching and bumping the boat ahead. These races were not sanctioned by the College authorities, who appeared to regard rowers in much the same way that ‘joyriders’ are regarded today and punished them if they were caught. According to the Eton Rowing Book “It must be remembered that until 1840 boys were not officially allowed on the river, and on several occasions those caught there were flogged”.
The processional race format may have been an evolution of the 18th century tradition of the “Procession of Boats”, originally arranged by Eton boys – again not Eton College – every 4th June (King George III’s birthday) and still held today – although not always on that exact date.
When they began, bumps at Eton were not so much an event as a season. Racing would continue over several weeks until no more bumps were achieved at which point the competing crews were considered to be ranked in order of their performance, which was after all the original point of the races. So although ‘bumps races’ are today associated primarily with Oxford and Cambridge universities, the tradition seems to have begun at Eton and to have been taken up to these universities by Etonian undergraduates. We know that bumps races were established at Oxford by 1815 and at Cambridge by 1827. It is therefore at least 200 years since this form of racing began. And Eton still holds bumping races – now approved by the college authorities – over four evenings in early May every year using coxed fours.
As is typical of old British sports, bumps racing takes a simple idea, embellishes it with complicated and apparently arbitrary rules and then limits participation to a group of more or less exclusive clubs. Today at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities there are two bumps events every year, one in winter and one in early summer. In Cambridge they are called ‘Lent Bumps’ and ‘May Bumps’ and in Oxford they are known as ‘Torpids’ and ‘Summer Eights’. In both Oxford and Cambridge, there are also separate Town Bumps races in which local clubs compete. Cambridge’s races are run by the Cambridgeshire Rowing Association (CRA) and are run exclusively in eights and take place over 4 consecutive days in July. Oxford’s City Bumps races, run by the City of Oxford Rowing Club (CORC), are open to all comers and are raced in coxed fours, all races taking place on the same day, usually a Saturday in April. Outside Oxford and Cambridge, bumps races are held at Shrewsbury school (Shrewsbury’s first bumps are thought to have been raced in 1839 – perhaps brought to the school by Oxbridge graduates?) and the United Hospitals Boat Club in London (since 1954).
If you have never seen a bumps race, while rules vary (and this article is not going to document the labyrinthine complexities of the various different sets of rules) the essentials of the format are as follows:
Duration. Bumps racing events vary from one day to four days in duration and in the past took even longer. Depending on the number of entrants, boats will be organised into several ‘Divisions’ for men or women, each of approximately a dozen boats, with boats ranked in descending order of their expected performance – which is usually based on their performance the previous year. Boats in the top divisions will generally be crewed by experienced or even elite rowers. Boats in the lower divisions are rather less experienced and often much less competent. Usually each division will race on each day of the event and and generally the divisions will race in ascending order – so the faster crews will tend to be rowing later in the day. This also allows the boat at the top of each lower division to race as the bottom boat in the division above.
Distance. The course is usually shorter than would be the case for a Head Race – about 1.8km in Oxford and 2.2km in Cambridge for example.
The boats used are usually eights, although in the past boats with anywhere between 2 and 10 blades were used. At Eton, Shrewbury and at City Bumps in Oxford they are now coxed fours. Boats are not modified in any way.
The start involves marshalling the division’s boats in line astern ranked in descending order with the fastest boat at the front and about one and a half boat lengths of clear water between boats. Start positions are marked by a ‘bungline’, a length of rope or chain attached to the bank, the free end of which is handed to the boat’s cox – who must hold onto it until the race starts. Just before the start of the race, the boats are pushed away from the bank by ‘polemen’ so that they are in clear water away from the bank, when the starting gun is fired. All the boats of a division start simultaneously.
The race. Each boat sets off from a standing start in pursuit of the boat in front, with the boat at the head of the division aiming to row the complete length of the course without being bumped. On the towpath alongside each boat an umpire and a bankrider keep pace on bicycles. The umpire’s job is to adjudicate impartially on the bump if or when it happens. The bankrider is a member of the same college or club as the crew he is following and is there to observe fair play in the race and to shout encouragement and tactical information to the crew.
Tactics play a greater role in bumps racing than they would in a head race or a side-by-side race. If the boat ahead can be bumped quickly, the successful pursuers can retire from the race immediately and cannot then be bumped by the boat behind. On the other hand, if a crew burns out after the starting sprint but fails to get the bump, they risk being bumped by the following boat. Crews gaining a bump will start higher in the rankings for the next race, taking the position of the boat they have bumped.
Results are counted not in race times but in bumps and one of the key advantages of the bumps race format is that boats in every division and of widely different abilities will gain bumps. Crews who manage to bump every time they race are traditionally awarded ‘Blades’, decorated with their names and a list of the boats bumped on each day. The boat which ends the competition at the top of the First Division earns the title of “Head of the River”.
Bumps racing puts a premium on a reliable, fast start and the ability to maintain good rowing technique under the stress of a rapidly changing tactical situation. Bumps racing also makes extraordinary demands on the coxwain, who must be simultaneously aware of the situation ahead of and behind his or her boat while steering the best racing line and securing a bump as soon as possible.
The Thames at Oxford follows a meandering course and is constricted by a narrow bend downstream of the city centre called The Gut. While two boats can pass in The Gut if they both stick to their own side of the river, collisions there remain a hazard to the present day. The first recorded bumps race in Oxford was in 1815, when Brasenose beat Jesus and so became the first college to be Head of the River. The event now known as Summer Eights had become an annual contest at Oxford by 1826, with four colleges participating and an agreed set of rules. Each crew started alongside a post in the bank (with an umpire to check that each boat was in place), and a pistol shot signalled the commencement of racing. This event was intended for ‘first’ boats, so ‘second’ boats were given their own event, “Torpids”, in 1838. Initially this was run during Trinity (summer) term alongside Eights. Bunglines and the ‘three gun’ system (guns fired at 5 minutes before the start, 1 minute before the start, and at the start) both still in use today, were introduced in 1840. Outrigged boats came into general use in Oxford in 1845. Until this time the boats used were usually ‘whalers’ somewhat similar to the boats still used in coastal rowing. Torpids was moved to Hilary (spring) term in 1852.
If the Thames at Oxford was less than ideal for rowing, the Cam at Cambridge was worse. In the 18th century it was little more than a stream, choked with vegetation and sometimes dry in summer. It was only made navigable in about 1800 when it was dredged, widened and furnished with locks to allow coal barges to reach the backs of the colleges (coal-yards in those days rather than the well-kept lawns we see now). As elsewhere, rowing at Cambridge evolved from the hiring and racing of boats of various configurations from local boat-yards. Bumping races have been held on the River Cam since 1827 following the formation of Cambridge University Boat Club during the 1826/27 academic year. The first official races were held on February 26th 1827 and thereafter “for three days every week through Lent term and throughout the Easter term of that academic year”. The rowers were not college crews but informal groups of friends, usually named after their boat, and boats were crewed by between six and ten rowers. By 1834 there were 19 boats taking part in two divisions. Later that year the first of several changes to the hydrography of the river Cam was made with two locks being removed and a new one installed at Jesus Green. This required that the course of the race be modified and in order to formalise agreement on the new course a set of rules for Bumps was agreed in 1835. In 1846 another change was forced by the building of a railway bridge across the Cam, the piers of which were too close together to allow boats to be rowed through.
The University Boat Race started in 1829 and as this grew in importance the better Cambridge oarsmen were withdrawn from Lent Bumps. As a result, Lent and May bumps, while originally a continuous series of races, became in effect two separate events, a fact formalised by the complete separation of Lents and Mays in 1887.
The first clear record of bumps racing at Shrewbury School dates from 1854, although as at Eton, boys had been rowing boats hired (against the wishes of the school authorities) from local boatmen for at least a couple of decades previously. The clear similarities between bumps racing at Shrewsbury and Oxbridge are probably not a coincidence, but as to who or what the link was, we can only speculate. The first School Regatta possibly took place in 1839 when an eight crewed by a mixture of pupils and rowers from the town club was bumped by a four crewed by two pupils and two old boys from the school. Bumping races (or “Bumpers” as they are known at Shrewsbury) were first held as an official school event in 1867 and they are still an intramural 4-day event at the school, generally taking place during the last week of the summer term. The boats used are coxed fours and there are three divisions. Each house has a crew for each division, so there are up to 13 crews/boats racing in each division. Since 2009, girls have competed and are currently working their way up the divisions.
Bizarre footnote or eccentric export?
In the early 1800s when bumps racing began, the boats were sturdy, clinker-built wooden vessels, well able to withstand impact with another boat or the bank. Bumps racing today using thousands of pounds worth of precision-moulded and very fragile composite shells can be an eye-wateringly expensive spectacle. For this reason, bumps racing in its original form seems destined to remain a bizarre footnote in the wider story of world rowing, but it’s slightly tamer version, ‘non–contact’ bumps (as at Shrewbury School’s “Bumpers” or Oxford City Bumps for example), has perhaps a wider appeal and could yet make an exciting addition to the rowing calendar in more clubs, particularly those obliged to row on narrow rivers or canals. The format has been adopted for example for “Orca Bumping”, an annual rowing race over 3km on the Merwede Canal in Utrecht in the Netherlands. So you never know, after 200 years, bumps racing could still, eventually, go global.
Sincere thanks are due to Anu Dhudia for his “History of Oxford Rowing”, to George Gilbert for “The Bumps” and the school archivists at both Eton College (Miss Eleanor Cracknell) and Shrewsbury School (Dr R Brooke-Smith) for their invaluable help with this article, which was originally published in Issue 4 of Row360 Magazine.