Downing College Boat Club was established in October 1863. Although the College was founded in 1800, financial concerns prevented it from admitting undergraduates for the first 21 years of its existence; and even by 1863, there were only 14. That, however, was not going to stop 21-year-old Irishman Richard Henn Collins. He was the man who first put forward the motion “let there be a boat club” – and saw it unanimously passed. The first committee was formed, with Brickwood (captain), Bradbury and Collins, and they set about finding a boat and rack space.
Downing made its racing debut in the 1864 Lent Bumps. They made an admirable start, going up two in the Lents, and then five in the Mays. Casual observers along the banks of the Cam that day would have struggled to identify them as Downing, however – only four of the crew had actually matriculated there; and with no official colours, they raced with violet blades adorned with black Maltese crosses. In 1866 they switched to green and silver blades – only to then pass a motion that the Club adopt black and magenta. This was a defining moment not just for the rowers, but for the college: since then, all Downing sports clubs have used these colours.
Between 1863 and 1882, Downing made decent progress for such a young squad, moving from rock bottom to 10th on the river. This success included the crew’s withdrawal (though maintaining their position) in 1868 on the grounds that MacMichael was required to row in the Blue Boat – the only oarsman to represent Downing at university level in its first century. With the college being so small, a single oarsman’s disappearance was clearly significant. However, this 10th position was to be an 80-year high. Downing slipped into the Second Division in 1887 – a place it would stay until after the Second World War.
That did not mean they did not develop in other ways, however. The Club gained its first boat house in 1893, with the generous sponsorship of then-Tutor Rev’d J Saunders. He bought the land, and an appeal was launched to pay for the construction of the Boat House – an appeal that was swiftly successful; the new Boat House was officially opened in May Week of 1895. Such generosity from tutors and alumni by no means meant the Club was well-funded, however – indeed, in 1897 a motion was made for a subscription to cover ‘tea things.’ Things were desperate, and shortly afterwards came the lowest point of the club’s history, with the Captain being sent down from college and the committee subsequently resigning. With no suitable replacements to be found, the minute book was signed off with the bleak words, “Finis DCBC”.
But the Club could not remain dormant for long. Support once more came from alumni who took it upon themselves to buy new boats. In 1902, the Master cleared the Club’s arrears from his own finances. In 1903 the Club passed a motion to put on a College Ball, and for the next few years continued to run the Ball. A year later the Club was still short of money – indeed, it was passing a motion to buy a new hairbrush and comb – but it was determinedly continuing, into a period of stability broken only by the Great War.
In 1920, Downing’s 2nd VIII qualified for the Bumps for the first time. Both crews won blades. The celebrations resulted in a very lively dinner – and a bonfire composed of several doors from around college!
By 1938, the desperate need to properly repair the Boat House could not be ignored any longer. It was fully rebuilt, and fitted with hot water for the first time. At the re-opening, Mrs Gray (daughter of FG Pilley, of the Pilley Scholarship) declared, “Let us have some more rowing blues. Although I am told it is a mathematical impossibility, I would like to see you Head Of The River one day. Good luck!”
And before long, that luck began to have an effect. Shortly after the Second World War, DCBC finally returned to the First Division. They were on a roll. By 1960, Downing had seven boats racing in the Mays. The novice section of the Club was particularly strong in this period, winning the Clare Novice Regatta in 1965 and 1967. At the other end of the spectrum, in 1963, Downing had its first Blue since MacMichael way back in 1869. The 1971 crew collectively funded £230,000 – some £3.2m in today’s money – towards the cost of another new Boat House. Such generosity ensured their influence lasted long beyond the last memory of their exploits on the river.
In 1979, Downing finished 6th on the river and had its best Henley result, finishing runners-up in the Ladies Plate. The following year the crew rowed over every day – and the year after got blades and moved up to 2nd on the river. Finally, in 1982, it all went right. For the first time in 119 years, Downing finished Head of the River. A year later, the crew rowed over for three days – before heartbreakingly being bumped on the last day by LMBC. This, however, only increased their determination. In 1984, Downing came back ready for the challenge and went Head of the Lents and Head of the Mays, stroked by Dominic Reid – the first Double Headship for the Club.
The success of the 1980s carried over into the women’s side of the Club as well. Downing’s women put their first crew on in the Lents 1981. They remained fairly stationary until 1987 – but then began a meteoric rise; blades were secured for the next three years.
In the 1990s, science took hold of the sport. Rowing machines, new blades and lighter boats increased costs dramatically. At the same time, the old Boat House was once again deteriorating. This led to the foundation of the Centenary Trust, with the aim of channelling and allocating the donations of the Club – and maintaining a perspective on future expenses. The Club also arranged sponsorship – while individuals continued to make very significant donations for equipment.
In 2001, another new Boat House was opened – this one fully equipped for the demands of the modern rowing crew. Downing now boasts one of the finest fleets on the Cam. In the last few years Downing has been hovering near the top of all the Bumps charts, and has produced rowers who have gone on to shine not just for their college but for Britain. Tom Middleton competed in men’s lightweight double sculls in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Eight years later, ex-DCBC member Annie Vernon went even further – picking up silver in the Quad at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She later rowed in the women’s eight final at London 2012. Mark Aldred, who also learnt to row at Downing, has recently been selected to row in the GB lightweight IV at the 2015 World Championships. Holly Hill, the 5-seat in the 2015 Mays boat, won a bronze medal for GB at the Under 23 World Championships that summer.
Both squads continue to further the Downing legacy today, with the women and men doing their college proud on and off Cam.