Downside and The Boat Race

On Sunday 2nd April, Oxford and Cambridge will gather on the banks of the Thames to contest the 163rd Boat Race, a gruelling test of endurance over 4.2 miles, from Putney to Mortlake. This annual tradition dates back to 1829 where the first challenge was laid down in Henley on Thames and of which Daniel Parsons, who would later have a strong connection with Downside, was a spectator

Writing for the London Society Magazine many years later as an old Oxonian, Parsons described the race:

‘The race was pulled as evening came on… The whole crowd of Oxford and Cambridge men swelled down to the riverside… Very soon – the boats showed themselves rounding the bend of the river… The first corona navalis was to come to Oxford… The Cambridge boat had no chance.’

(from the 1865 edition of London Society, written by Daniel Parsons)

Oxford won the race, ‘easily’ in a time of 14:30.

However, this is not the only time that Downside would have a strong link to the Boat Race. Sixty-eight years later, Downside alumni Cyril Burnand was selected for the Light Blue (Cambridge) Boat which took place over the current championship course which was set in 1864. Cyril, a talented oarsman at First Trinity Boat Club Cambridge, recorded his achievements in two large scrapbooks which were found recently in the Downside archive collections.

Unfortunately for Cyril, Oxford repeated their win as in 1829 with the 1911 Oxford team winning by 3 1/2 lengths, a record loss and time of 18 minutes and 29 seconds which would not be broken for at least twenty years. Cyril was the first Downside pupil to take part in a Boat Race, and it seems that he took great pride in his Downside connection, sending Abbot Leander Ramsey a postcard on the receipt of his rowing ‘blue’. Cyril was the first professed Catholic oarsman to row the Boat Race and the first Downside pupil to do so. It was a remarkable race for several other reasons, chief of which was that it was the first to be viewed from the air as the launches were followed by an aeroplane which took off from the neighbouring bank and was started by obliging members of the crowd. It was also followed by the then Prince of Wales (later to become King George V) and his brother Prince Albert who watched the race from the Oxford launch.

Due to ill health Cyril would not take part in another Boat Race for Cambridge, but remained a key fixture of Trinity Boat Club as a coach and occasional rower. He joined Leander Rowing Club which remains to this day the premier destination for rowing, and was instrumental in securing his college crew wins at Henley Royal Regatta. After Cambridge Cyril enjoyed a brief spell at the East Midlands Railway, where he joined Nottingham Rowing Club.

The Great War would signal the end of Cyril’s rowing career, as in 1914 he enlisted in the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards as a Lieutenant and was sent to the front lines in France. During this time he paid his membership to Downside’s Old Gregorian Society but sadly Cyril would never use his membership as on the 10th March 1915 at Neuve Chapelle he was killed aged 23.

He is commemorated several times at Downside (war memorial, west end of the Abbey Church and on a plaque near the choir), Trinity Chapel Cambridge, Leander Rowing Club, Nottingham City Memorial and Rowing Club and on the Le Touret Memorial in France.

An exhibition of the rowing life of Cyril Francis Burnand is on display in the Downside Abbey Visitor Centre.

The images below show Cyril Burnand with his ‘blue’ scarf and a portrait of him from the same image; the postcard he sent to Fr Ramsay about gaining his ‘blue’; the Cambridge team about to enter the water for the 1911 boat race (Cyril is the man looking at the camera) and pictures of the Boat Race within Cyril’s scrapbook.