The first ever run by Cambridge University Hare & Hounds took place on Saturday 7 February 1880. It was followed by a meeting at which C. J. Johnstone was elected president, T. L. Shaun was elected Captain, W. W. Hough was elected Secretary and there was a committee of J. G. Bradshaw and R. Hall.

It would seem likely that a running race against Oxford was already uppermost in the minds of those who formed the club and December was chosen so that athletes could rest and recuperate before beginning track running the following summer. That, at least, was the explanation given in the sporting newspaper Pastime in 1894. The first ever match against Oxford was accordingly held at Oxford on 2 December 1880. It covered road, grass fields, and plough in the Cherwell Canal – Woodstock Road area of Oxford. A. F. Hernaman of Oxford was first home and Oxford won the team event 23-32. Thereafter the venue alternated between Oxford and Cambridge. The Cambridge races began by the Hills Road railway bridge. Oxford’s success in the first race was followed by a run of seven successive Cambridge victories. In the second race one of the Oxford runners fell heavily and everyone stopped ‘to see what had happened’, which may suggest a certain lack of concentration. However in succeeding years the race began to attract attention and for the sixth race in 1885 a ‘large number of spectators’ gathered, and for the 1891 race this was put at ‘several hundred’.

All the early matches featured teams of five, with all five runners scoring. The procedure was for ‘hares’ to go off leaving a paper trail which the race then followed. The trail was not always as obvious as the runners might wish it to be, and in many races some runners would loose the course to a greater or lesser extent. It is not clear at this early date whether spying out the paper course was a skill expected of runners – analogous to that of map-reading in orienteering – or whether it was simply the way in which the correct course was indicated. It would seem to be a method which would give considerable advantage to the home team. Nevertheless, one of the most chaotic races for runners going off course, the 1886 race at Oxford, was won by Cambridge.

However there was some concern that home advantage counted for too much and in 1890 it was decided to switch the race to Roehampton, where the teams ran at the invitation of Thames Hare & Hounds. The result was a catastrophe when the entire race went off course and was unable to get back on it. The race was declared void and re-run over Shotover the following February.

The race then continued to alternate venues until 1896, when it was decided to return to Roehampton. Thus the first valid Roehampton race was run on 4 December 1896. The teams arrived, as was to become traditional, at the King’s Head. It was a morning of cold, driving rain, but it cleared by the time the race started. The runners had to plunge through two now-swollen streams, some up to their shoulders and some up to their waists, which presumably relates to differences in technique for getting across rather than an extraordinary disparity in heights. The race was won by W. W. Gibberd for Cambridge, and Cambridge also won the team event. Some runners had temporally ‘lost the scent’, but there had been no repeat of 1890. After the race the teams were entertained to dinner at the Railway Hotel in Putney.

Gibberd won again the following year, 1897. It was also the first race to end in a ‘whitewash’, with all the Cambridge runners coming home nearly a minute ahead of the first Oxford runner. The next year Oxford won a close race. They were helped in that one Cambridge runner, E. Balgarmie, became lost several times ‘and having studied a large part of Surrey, came home last’.

Cambridge whitewashed Oxford for the second time in three years in 1899, when they were led home by the freshman C. E. Pumphrey. As one newspaper commented:

The supporters of the Cantabs were sure of victory, whilst the sympathisers with Oxford were of the opinion that the Dark Blues, who were a level lot, would create just as big a surprise as last year. As it turned out, both Universities had a level lot, but one side was first and the other nowhere.

The account added that ‘such a crushing defeat for the Oxonians no sane person would have predicted’. Step forward E. Balgarmie, explorer of Surrey the year before, and not selected for this year’s match. According to the Hare & Hounds log, ‘to E. Balgarmie alone belongs the credit of having prophesied what actually came to pass’. The log also says that some attribute Oxford’s failure to the folly of wearing rubber-soled shoes.

Two years on Oxford had their revenge inflicting the same defeat on Cambridge. Oxford also whitewashed Cambridge in 1910, 1926, and 1932. The 1926 defeat seems to have been so traumatic that the page in the Hare & Hounds log which should bear the result is blank!

Like so many sporting events, the race was suspended during the First World War, and it did not resume until 1919. In the later 1920s the race moved to Horton Kirby in North-West Kent. Five victories in six years for Cambridge at the end of the 1920s was followed by a period in the early 1930s when Oxford had a particulaly strong team. Their 1932 team was led home by the New Zealand Rhodes Scholar Jack Lovelock. The following year Lovelock, running for a combined Oxford and Cambridge team against Princeton and Cornell, broke the world mile record.

The race was again suspended between 1939 and 1944. Although Cambridge won two close races in 1945 and 1946, in the late 1940s and early 1950s Oxford were able to field some exceptional teams. Roger Bannister won the 1949 race, and from 1950 to 1952 (the last of these a legendary race held in impenetrable fog) Chris Chataway became the first athlete to win three successive races. The Oxford victory of 1955 meant they nosed ahead in the series for the first time since their initial victory in 1880. However the Cambridge victory of 1956 ushered in a particularly golden period for Cambridge. M. J. Palmer won the 1956 race and went on to equal Chataway’s record by winning the 1957 and 1958 races. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Cambridge was able to field teams packed with present or future internationals including Bruce Tulloh, Tim Briault, Herb Elliott, Mike Turner, and Tim Johnston.

The late 1960s saw some solid Oxford victories, with the exception of the close-fought and snowy 1967 race. In the years that followed Cambridge had some team successes, particularly in the early 1970s and the early 1980s, but Chris Garforth’s 1972 victory was Cambridge’s only individual win between A. I. C. Heron’s in 1964 and N. Thin’s in 1981. Thin repeated his victory in 1982, and the following three races were won by J. D. Barton. Oxford individual dominance returned the following year however with a victory for Richard Nerurker, and four successive victories (the first athlete to achieve this) for Simon Mugglestone. In 1987 Oxford took the lead in the series for the first time since 1955. In the 1990s Cambridge began to get back on terms winning eight of the eleven contests between 1990 and 2000, and with individual victories for Donald Naylor, Dan Leggate and Alex Hutchinson. Last year’s victory (2003) meant Cambridge edged ahead with 57 victories against Oxford’s 56. Despite such a close contest, in 113 years Oxford has been ahead in the series in only nine:
1880, 1955, and 1987-1993.

The club, of course, is more than just the men’s first team race against Oxford, and details of other fixtures and other teams, and of women’s running, will appear here in due course.

Andrew Hope