The Oxford Blue

By Norris McWhirter

The wearing of dark blue by Oxford was established at the first Boat Race in 1829, while Cambridge adopted their lighter hue in this annual sporting contest in 1836.

The man who began the Varsity rivalry was Charles Wordsworth of Christ Church, nephew of the poet. He arranged a two-day cricket match against Cambridge at Lord’s in June 1827. After Oxford were dismissed for 158 and Wordsworth himself had bowled out seven Cambridge batsmen, who collectively made only 26 runs, Cambridge hung on for a draw.

The first Boat Race was rowed over only 2 1/4 miles from Hambleden Lock to Henley Bridge on 10 June 1829. The Oxford crew was dominated by oarsmen from Christ Church in J E Bates, the first “double-blue” Charles Wordsworth, G B Moore and the Boat Club President, T Staniforth and their cox, W R Freemantle. Dark blue was the colour ascribed to Christ Church and the Oxford crew sported white jerseys with dark blue stripes.

The second Boat Race on 17 June 1836, rowed over more than double the distance – 5 3/4 miles from Westminster Bridge upstream to Putney Bridge. R N Philips of Christ Church is reputed to have tied to the bows of the Cambridge boat a light blue ribbon (Eton College colours since 1625) to show his support for the crew, because their No.3, E S Stanley had been that school’s Captain of Boats the previous year.

It is known that in Oxford, by 1863, the year before athletics matches were inaugurated, University oarsmen and cricketers had taken to wearing dark blue ‘coats’. The introduction of the Oxford ‘Half-Blue’ can be precisely pinpointed to an entry in the Blues Committee minute book dated 10 June 1885. Half-Blues were soon distinguished by a blazer with alternating dark blue and white vertical lines, reminiscent of pyjamas.

There are no doubts about identifying the only two undergraduates who turned out in five full blue sports. The first was C J Ottoway (Brasenose, Oxford). He opened his account in April 1870 as one of Oxford’s winning pair in rackets at Prince’s Club, Knightsbridge. In June he batted No. 3 for the Oxford cricket XI, top-scoring in their second innings with 69, remaining at Lords for two extra days to win his third Blue as a freshman in the victorious Oxford real tennis four. Ottoway repeated this triple in 1871 and 1872, and in 1873 ran the 100 yards as second string. In the following year he won his fifth full Blue, captaining the winning Oxford team in the inaugural Association Football match at the Kennington Oval. He represented Oxford on thirteen occasions, but was robbed in 1873 when he had to choose between cricket and tennis because they fell on the same days. He chose cricket and was top scorer again, helping Oxford to victory.

Cambridge’s answer to Ottoway was the Hon. Alfred Lyttleton (1857-1913), a quintuple Blue in the same five sports in 1875-1879, competing twelve times. He later became a barrister, a QC, an MP, a Privy Counsellor and a Cabinet Minister as Colonial Secretary in 1903-05.

Versatility however was not always appreciated. The 1924 Olympic 100 metre champion Harold Abrahams (1899-1978), co-author of the locus classicus Oxford v Cambridge 1827-1930, recorded that the Oxford University Registry were puzzled by the name of one of the Oxford cuemen in the 1896 billiard match. Years later Abrahams received a letter from E A Elgee revealing that his partner had used a nom de guerre – he was in fact the New College miler, F W Rathbone. Presumably Rathbone had reason to think that his family would cut off his remittance for mis-spending his youth in such a decadent indoor pastime.

The ultimate in versatility among Blues came between 1928-1931 when Kenneth C Gandar-Dower of Trinity College, Cambridge represented his university on sixteen occasions at tennis and lawn tennis, Eton and Rugby Fives and squash and, just to prove he could also hit a stationary ball, he deigned to participate in the billiard contest of 1931 and defeated Oxford’s Nawab of Pataudi.

The respective colours of the two Universities have remained over the years and now sportsmen who have represented Oxford in a Varsity match against Cambridge in a Full Blue sport are entitled to wear a dark blue blazer.

At the last count in 1999 there were 77 different Varsity Matches (men’s and women’s) with new ones being added each year, one of the most recent being Mixed Lacrosse. There are 14 Full Blues sports, which has recently been extended from 12 with the inclusion of Basketball and Yachting. Whether the team involved is the Rugby XV playing at Twickenham in front of a crowd of 70,000 or the Hockey 3rd XI in front of a modest home crowd, the varsity match is still the most important fixture in any Oxford team’s calendar. The training and hard work that go into the run-up to Varsity are exemplary.