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185 years in the making

Magdalene Boat Club was founded in 1828 coinciding with the 400th anniversary of the Monk’s Hostel or Buckingham College – the original foundation of Magdalene in 1428. MBC has a rich and vibrant history and has been racing on the River Cam since its first entry on 7th March 1829.

The first hundred years

Anchor 1

In the beginning...

During the early 19th century, rowing clubs and competitions were becoming more formalised. Leander Club, one of the oldest rowing clubs in the world, was founded in 1818 and is based in Henley on Thames (the famous regatta there beginning in 1839). Cambridge University Boat Club was founded in 1828, as was Magdalene Boat Club (or MBC for short). The first ‘Bumps’ races occurred on the river Cam in 1827, where college crews race to ‘bump’ the boat in front to move up a place in the rankings, with the ultimate accolade of becoming ‘Head of the River’.

MBC Virtual Exhibition Part 1 Item 1 Secretary’s book Magdalene College Archives G11 ff. 2

Secretary’s book, Magdalene College Archives G/1/1, ff. 2v-3r

The Boat Club’s triumphs and tragedies are recorded in the Secretary’s and Captain’s books. The first Secretary’s book dates from 1835, extremely early for College Boat Club records still extant, and lays the foundations for the traditions adopted and maintained by the club for the following 200 years.

The image above shows the various shields and symbols which were used to show which status each rower had acquired during the term. For example, a Fleur de Lys symbolised membership of the 1st crew, a quill for the secretary and a rudder for the steerer (or cox).

The College’s first boat was called ‘The Tea Kettle’, a reference to the vast quantities of tea consumed at Magdalene College at this time. The second boat was known as the ‘Cannibals’, represented by a shield of three sharp teeth in the image above. Originally all College 2nd boats were known as 'Cannibal' named after the captain of the first 2nd College boat to appear on the Cam, who was known as 'Cannibal Carlton'. MBC is the last to keep the traditional Cannibal badge of 3 shark's teeth as the emblem of the 2nd Crew.


The novelist Charles Kingsley (of Westward Ho! and Water Babies fame) rowed for the ‘Cannibals’ at MBC shortly after his matriculation in 1838.

MBC Virtual Exhibition Part 1 Item 2 The MBC flag 1838.jpg

The MBC flag, 1838

MBC Virtual Exhibition Part 1 Item 3 Cannibals flag.jpg

Cannibals flag

Early Successes

MBC achieved early success climbing to 3rd place ‘on the river’ in 1836. In the Secretary’s book seen above, the Club records commissioning a new flag in November 1838, at a cost ‘not exceeding £14’ which in modern money is around £850. The aforementioned ‘Cannibals’ had a skull and crossbones flag, and both are still in the possession of MBC.

When Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, MBC’s fortunes consistently rose, and three members of the first boat also rowed in the University ‘blue boat’ in 1840. In the Bumps races, MBC briefly rose to second ‘on the river’ in 1840 and 1842 but were unable to maintain this position in either year. It was in 1842 that the first ‘Bumps Supper’ was recorded, the traditional dinner after the end of the Bumps racing in Lent and Easter terms. This Supper was attended by 25 people and gifted two dozen bottles of claret by Dr Waud, a Magdalene fellow. Indeed an account by F.C. Penrose when he relinquished the post of Captain in 1842 recalled that the Supper that year went down 'extremely well’ – no doubt due to the ‘Champagne which was sent for from London (Nisbet’s) and needless to say was ‘universally approved of ‘. On this occasion 54 bottles of champagne, 12 sherry, 12 bottles of wine and 20 bowls of punch ‘were emptied’

F.C. Penrose himself was a talented rower and during his 3 years at Magdalene (1840-42) he was jointly Captain and Secretary of both MBC and the University Boat. It was Penrose who devised the system of recording bumps which is still used in the coloured charts hanging in the rooms of the Union Society. A portrait of F.C. Penrose (painted age 71) still hangs in the Magdalene MCR.

Penrose was succeeded as MBC Secretary by Mynors Bright, well known later as munificent benefactor to the College with the ‘Bright’s Building’ one of the most recognisable of Magdalene College, looking over the Second Court and the River Cam. Bright re-deciphered Pepys’s Diary and later became President and Tutor of the College. He was in turn succeeded by L.W. Denman, Secretary and Captain, who as a Blues rower, rowed in two, and would have rowed in three, University crews had there been a race in his last year. Denman was also a Blues cricketer and played cricket for England! He enjoyed the reputation of being ‘the most stylish oar of his day’.

The chance of colliding with a horse is never zero...

It was in this period where MBC has recorded one of the more bizarre incidents to occur on the Cam.  In November 1852, it is recorded that ‘the Magdalene Boat, while proceeding down river, the rudder broke and the boat swerving, the bow went between the fore and hind legs of a horse which was standing in the river offloading goods from a barge’. Apparently, ‘most fortunately little damage was done; however, ‘bow and two were sent flying into 3 feet of water!'

Blades and Blue Boat

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1879 blade

‘Blades’ or oars, are the cameo histories of any Boat Club. The original blades were narrower, ‘pencil’ blades which were used until the 1960s. This blade from 1879 is the oldest surviving example held by the College. The name just visible on the bottom right of the blade is that of J A Watson Taylor. The history of MBC published in 1930 states that ‘it was long since the Club had enjoyed the services of so successful an oar as J A Watson-Taylor who rowed in the University Blue Boat for four years and filled the offices of Secretary and of the Cambridge University Boat Club in turn.’

Watson-Taylor has the distinction of being the first Magdalene Student to have won the ‘Magdalene Pairs’ Race which was established in 1844, the heyday of MBC rowing, when the Club decided to present a pair of ‘silver challenge’ oars to be competed for by members of the University. It was most recently won by a Magdalene crew in 2019.

The years following Watson-Taylor were disaster years, undoing his good work, and between 1885 and 1892, not a single ‘bump’ was made – a melancholy period. The Watson-Taylor family however, continued to support MBC and his sister, Mrs. Ward, presented a new boat The Rose, which marked a revival in the Clubs fortunes.


Magdalene rowing pair, Lewis and Kerrison, 1893

MBC, Lent 1876

George Mallory

Magdalene began the new century with an improved record. Mr Stuart Donaldson, a teacher at Eton and no mean oar himself, was appointed Master of Magdalene and his encouragement of the sport enabled MBC to flourish once again.

Between 1904 and 1919, MBC crews competing in the May Bumps made 17 bumps in total. The Secretary of the club, R F Kindersley, was ‘spare man’ for the Cambridge VIII which rowed at the Olympic Regatta.

Magdalene’s well-known alumnus George Mallory played his part in the Boat Club’s successes between 1906 and 1908, first appearing in the record book in the Lent Term 1906 and progressing to become MBC’s secretary and Captain. His contributions to a successful three years were capped at a finale at Henley Royal Regatta in 1908, where his crew competed for both the Ladies’ Plate and the Thames Cup. He later became famous for his mountaineering exploits, last seen accompanied by Sandy Irving at 28,000 feet, ascending Everest in 1924.

MBC Virtual Exhibition Part 1 Item 5 Photograph of Mallory Magdalene College Archives EP24

Photograph of Mallory. Magdalene College Archives E/P/24 p. 15

MBC Virtual Exhibition Part 1 Item 7 Photograph of Mallory Magdalene College Archives EP9

Photograph of Mallory. Magdalene College Archives E/P/24 p. 17

MBC Virtual Exhibition Part 1 Item 6 Photograph of Mallory Magdalene College Archives EP24

Photograph of Mallory. Magdalene College Archives E/P/9 p. 8b

In these images we see Mallory in a formal crew photo (far left), and two images at the Lent Bumps of 1907, where he rowed at ‘seven’ (the person who sits in the seventh seat from the bow of the boat). In the third image, the crew are wearing their blazers the colours of which were confirmed in the Minutes of a meeting in February 1863 as being lavender and indigo. The flag, seen flying behind the Cox, is the same flag illustrated earlier.

The success of Lent Bumps 1907 was achieved under the leadership of George Mallory as Captain who placed great stock in the coach acquired from Jesus College that term. 

‘What great things are now expected of this Jesus method of rowing! The style of the captain, the style of the secretary, the style of stroke, all imaginable styles except that peculiar to Mr Rogers, all are to be blended in an homogeneous, ergocosmic device, the ingenious and possibly ingenuous Quintessence of a Facile, Indefatigable Compendulum. We are to have a Jesus coach. Goldsmith has said: ‘God will provide. But alas, how fickle, how selfish the Theocracy’. A fortnight has passed, and still no god to coach us. And so perforce we must go to the Hall, and get some sturdy unintelligent to ‘bid him forward, breast and back as either should be’, and teach us to shove it along by sweat and swearings, with all the horror of the ancient Swinck Misspent. And yet when he is secured he makes us row not a whit differently from the elegant, divine way, the way we rowed at Henley. He is none of your cursing, blustering, hell-for -leather, body-swing-overdone-at-all-costs, stupendous-recovery fellows at all. He is shy and rosy-checked, modest as any maiden, and makes a considerable effort to be sensible when sober and obscene when drunk’.

In this year when the College boat went up three places into Division I and celebrations got seriously out of hand. Following the Bumps Supper the traditional burning of a boat had been forbidden by a College Tutor, and so spare panelling from the Chapel stored in an outhouse was burned instead.

The Modern Era

MBC’s Henley Winners, 1967

MBC Virtual Exhibition Part 2 Item 1 Magdalene winning the final at Henley on 1st July 196

Magdalene winning the final at Henley on 1st July 1967. Bow: Geoffrey Lubbock (steers), 2: Michael Davis, 3: Robert Crichton, Stroke: Francisco de Sola.

In 1967, MBC won the world famous Visitors’ Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta. Below one of the members of the crew, Michael Davis, shares his reminiscences of this outstanding achievement:

‘Magdalene’s first eight was one of the best crews in Cambridge.

The Visitors’ Cup had thirty entries, so we faced five days of competition. On the first three days we always felt in control but in the semi-final London’s Imperial College stayed with us all the way and we won by only ¾ of a length.

In the final we met First & Third Trinity of Cambridge. They were the largest club in the event and we were one of the smallest but we started well and took the lead. At the Barrier we were two lengths up and equalled the record. Then for the rest of the course we endured the usual need to maximise every stroke and relax and ignore staggering pain in every muscle, acutely aware of Trinity attacking all the way.

We kept our nerve and pulled away to win by three lengths.’


The 1967 Visitor's Challenge Cup blade mounted in the Captain of Boat's room.

Here Come the Girls - MBC women make a splash

The first Magdalene women matriculated in 1988 and lost no time in making a splash on the river, the Ladies 1st IV+ achieving Blades (‘bumping’ in every day of competition) in their inaugural May Bumps campaign in 1989. Their commemorative blade can be seen here, one of many on display in the Boat Club Captain’s room.

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The first Women’s crew blade.

An MBC Olympian

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Famous Faces: Francesca Zino (Magdalene ‘94) and Katherine Grainger are presented with the U23 pairs trophy at Henley Women’s Regatta by Steve and Anne Redgrave, 1997.

In 1994 a Fresher, Francesca Zino, learnt to row at Magdalene and although she was not a fan of the early mornings, the club spirit was enough to persuade her to stick with the sport. “Not only was MBC a fun group, our novice ladies won all our novice races somehow which is always encouraging!”

By 1996/7 she was MBC Women’s Captain, rowing in the CUWBC Blue Boat, trialling for the GB National Squad, and winning at International level events such as Henley Women’s Regatta and the U23 Nations Cup.

In 1997 her crew became the first ever GB women’s VIII to medal at a World Championships, winning bronze in Aiguebelette. Francesca then went on to race in the GB VIII at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, making her undoubtedly MBC’s highest achieving rowing Alumna to date.

The MBC Blues – trialists and tribulations

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‘Little did they know’: Cass, Tuck, Ronnie and Burrows make up half of all MBC’s Openweight Women’s Blues to date.

Although the 32 year history of Magdalene’s women rowers is brief indeed compared to the University Women’s Boat Race which dates as far back as 1927, there has been plenty of time for significant ups and downs on the river. In contrast to the celebrations attached to achieving ‘Blades’, crews that are bumped every day of a campaign are traditionally awarded ‘Spoons’. One particularly notable set of spoons was won by the Women’s 1st VIII in May Bumps 2007, which plummeted a rather spectacular 6 places into the 2nd division thanks to an ‘overbump’ from Queens’. Although they did not know it at the time, this crew included four once-and-future Openweight Blues: J. Ronnie (2005 Blue Boat) and J. Burrows, S. Cass and H. Tuck (2009 Blue Boat). On only one other occasion has a university first crew included three Magdalene rowers – namely G.C. Uppleby, F.C. Penrose and H.C. Jones – in the Blue Boat of 1840.

High Aspirations – Our first CUWBC President and the next chapter for MBC women

MBC Virtual Exhibition Part 2 Item 5 Magdalene’s first CUWBC President Daphne Martschenko.

In 2018 Daphne Martschenko was elected as Magdalene’s first President of the Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club. She competed three times in the University Boat Races – first in 2015 (whilst a student at Homerton College), in the first year the women’s race was held in London on the same day as the men’s. In an interview for ‘This Cambridge Life’, she says of the 2015 race: ‘I became the first person of colour to row in the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Races...Rowing has always been seen as an elitist sport but I hope this is changing.’ In addition to competing for the University, she helped MBC ‘s 1st women’s VIII to blades in the 2016 May Bumps.

The next chapter in the history of MBC’s women is yet to be written. Our crews currently sit in middling positions in the Bumps charts, leaving plenty of room for future growth. As a stalwart supporter of MBC’s women’s crews, Richard Hammersley, would have said – onwards and upwards MBC!

Magdalene’s first CUWBC President, Daphne Martschenko, sporting her Blues blazer in the Master’s Garden.

A Blessed Bump

In 2018, the ‘Fellows’ Frigate’ became the first crew in the history of the May Bumps to achieve a Quadruple Overbump, and rose from 17th to 6th overall in their division.

Their coach, Perran Ziar, recalls that ‘a number of boats immediately ahead bumped out quite soon leaving us rowing up towards First Post Corner with an apparently empty river ahead and the prospect of a row-over. Coming round Grassy I noticed something red in the distance just before it disappeared around Ditton Corner. When our boat came on to the Long Reach, however, the red thing was closer so the cox rallied the lads and we caught LMBC [Lady Margaret Boat Club] somewhere after the Railway Bridge. The first ever Quadruple Overbump in the history of the May Races and therefore a University Record!’.

There was a particularly ecclesiastical theme to the day. The boat being used by the crew was named after Simon Barrington-Ward (1930-2020), the former Bishop of Coventry and Honorary Fellow of Magdalene. He was there to watch the race alongside the Master, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. To complete the theme, the then College Chaplain, Nick Widdows, was rowing in the crew.

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Quadruple Overbump. Crew order: Bow: Greg Gakis, 2: Julian Tollestrup, 3: Alex Thom, 4: Jeremy Bennett, 5: Nick Widdows, 6: Chris Meiring, 7: Luke Skinner, Stroke: Pedro Magalhães de Oliveira, Cox: Harriet Lamden.

Magdalene Triumphant

MBC Virtual Exhibition Part 2 Item 7 MBC M1 competing in the most recent May Bumps

MBC M1 competing in the May Bumps, 2019.

The Magdalene M1 (Men’s first VIII) has recently seen a powerful resurgence to become one of the top collegiate teams in Cambridge (and Oxford).

In 2014, Magdalene M1 sat glumly at 2nd in Division 2 of the Mays. Over the next 5 years Magdalene rose 16 places to 2nd on the river. This is the fastest ever rise by a college crew from Division 2 to a top 3 finish position. This impressive climb has been marked by an award of blades in 2018 for four consecutive bumps as well as the highest ever placing overbump from 5th to 2nd.

Magdalene’s M1 has often outperformed crews with many more university oarsmen, and will continue to do so. Much of this success is owed to a robust program and training culture pioneered by MBC stalwarts including, George Wallace, Patrick Elwood and Angus Knights.

2019 saw Magdalene M1 sit at their highest ever finishing position since the Club’s establishment in 1828. They were eagerly poised to take on the task of racing for the college’s first ever Headship but  unfortunately, the crew was not given that opportunity due the Covid-19 pandemic. It is interesting to note that the Bumps races were cancelled by the Vice Chancellor in 1831 and 1832 due to an outbreak of cholera, proving that history often repeats itself.

Both Magdalene Men's and Women's first boats compete in Division I of Mays with M1 still maintaining a place within the top 3 on the River.

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“This information is from Magdalene College Pepys Library Virtual Exhibitions, Magdalene Boat Club: The First Hundred Years and Magdalene Boat Club: Part Two and has been shared under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license. © Magdalene College Cambridge.”

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