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Tales from the Archives: the Secret History of Oxford Punting

An insight into the history of punting at Oxford ahead of Cuppers this month.

With the Final Seed of Punting Cuppers just around the corner, we share three of the more intriguing anecdotes from the records of the competition, dwelling upon the more subversive and revolutionist undercurrents that swept along some of our Oxford punts. Though Punting Cuppers is often considered a “stuffy bastion of flat Englishness,” one can easily determine, from nought but a perusal of the ensuing yarns, that the history of this quintessentially Oxonian sport is only too chequered.   

For those interested, this year’s Grand Final Seed can be both attended and spectated on 18 June, 12 sharp, at the Victoria Arms. Facebook: Oxford_Punting_Cuppers_2019. 

A Phantom Puntsman: 

The first legible entry in the annals of Oxford punting is – perhaps predictably – a good old-fashioned ghost story. Veteran punters will no doubt be aware of Percie Punting, the patron saint of competition punting, who, as legend has it, spent thirty years punting the length and breadth of England to escape the reproaches of his “Shrewishe and Nagginge Wyfe”. In the years after his death (c. 1840), the so-called Phantom Puntsman morphed into a popular mascot for students boating on Cherwell, becoming the subject of ballads and drinking-songs. 

One still May night in 1913, the officials of the newly founded Punting Cup were making their way up to Parson’s Pleasure to clear the course for the next morning’s race, when they spied a peculiar light in the distance:

P.P. – coming down the Piste as we were putting away the fallen branches – what a joy! He waved at us and bade us sing of him on the morrow. P.P., P.P. – what a sheer joy!

Was it in fact an epiphany of the Ghostly Boatsman that the proctors (among whom was none other than Aldous Huxley) spied? Or just a phantasm borne of too much late-night port? Unfortunately, the true facts are lost to time.

The Suffragettes Storm the Cherwell:

Protesting social issues by jumping in front of races has a long and illustrious history in this country. From Emily Wilding Davison to Trenton Oldfield, countless activists have seized the limelight of high-stakes sport to draw the eyes of the nation to vital and important issues. 

The 1921 final seed of the Oxford Punting Cup was to be a grand affair: in the twenty or so years since the competition’s inception, the number of competing boats had swelled to the point where most colleges fielded a main and a reserve team (at least). And that year, there were some big names: the future novelist Graham Greene was to captain Balliol’s 1st, and no less an international celebrity than Prince Paul of Yugoslavia stood at the helm of Christchurch’s 1st

By all accounts, it was a race hard-fought and hotly contested; but by the second-to-last bridge, the royal punt had opened a decisive lead. That was when Mary Ellen Elin, a student of Lady Margaret Hall and a committed suffragist, leapt in front of the Christchurch boat, wrapped in a banner reading “DEEDS NOT WORDS”. The race, now disrupted, was put off to another time; but for that day, it was the subversive message of votes for women that took the biscuit, if not the Golden Punt.  

Punts for World Peace:

Fast forward a few decades to the “groovy” era of the 1960s, and punt activism had become rife amongst the hipper undergraduates of the university. According to Dr Ffrench, renowned punter and ornithologist, one particularly “saucy” outcome of this development occurred in a Trinity term near the close of the decade. Writing in the ’68-70 Punting Cuppers Annal, French relates that students of Wadham College, overcome with the zeal of May ’68, decorated a punt with flowers and “sailed” down Broad Street, singing anti-war protest songs and, in general, carousing in the manner typical to that set at that time. Finally, after some invigoration at the KA, and no doubt part-ameliorated by marijuana, they attempted to secure entry at the very doors of their college. 

Though the infamous ’68 “peace punt” was equipped with wheels that had been screwed on for the purpose of land manoeuvring, it was unfortunately unequipped with brakes, and the ensuing collision between porters, students, and 17th-century oaken door, resulted in more than a half-dozen bone fractures. The incident began to sour when the Warden, Maurice Bowra – renowned, at that time, for his acerbic wit – attacked the “peace punters” with the following couplet:

The blossom of ’68, sailing for peace in their punts,

Crashed on the sturdy gate, the moronic, ambisinistrous c –. 

So potent was the reputed force of his lashing tongue that some undergraduates collapsed at the spot. 

Dr Ffrench: Ornithologist and Puntsman

Postlude: 

In these months of predictably large and unexpected change, who knows with which verge or gurge the barge of Punting Cuppers shall merge in the coming weeks? Already, the competition of this academic year has seen, if we are to believe Kee’s Exeter First boat, the re-emergence of Percie Punting himself onto the esteemed waters. Though the times be difficult, and the threat of Monkeypox squares itself ever more heavily upon our bosom, the punters of this year remain, as ever, “hot-blooded by temperament, risk-takers by disposition.” We wish best of luck to the colleges and boats in the “Final Eight” Seed, and competing in private engagements this week: Wolfson (1), Exeter (1), St. Hugh’s (2), Oriel (4), Christ Church (3), Oriel (5), St. Hilda’s (1), and St. Hugh’s (3). 

The Oxford Punting Cuppers 2022 Team 

For queries, or for more on the history of the sport, please find: [email protected].

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