1893-1913: The Beginnings
Boats were in use before bicycles at Newnham (bicycles being allowed for those already proficient only in 1894). Entries in A Newnham Anthology for 1876 and 1879 record visits to the May Races, in the second of which a Newnhamite, Edith Sharpley, coxed a boat. Another Newnhamite, Kate Rathbone, recorded in 1880 that she and another student, chaperoned by a member of staff, took a boat on the Backs and through Jesus Lock to row past the men's college boathouses. Finally, the Newnham College Roll Letter of 1883 contains reports of boating parties, in which all participants would take turns at the oars. It is clear the students had a great interest in the Cam and boating upon it, and matters seem to have come to a head in May 1893, resulting in two key meetings. The first of these was held on Sunday the 28th May 1893, an informal meeting among members of staff to discuss the possibility of forming a “boating society”. This group drafted a list of suggestions for presentation to the General Committee. The second meeting was the meeting of the General Committee on Tuesday 30th May 1893, at which the formation of a society for the regulation of rowing was sanctioned.
Thus, the birth of Newnham College Boat Club (formerly Newnham College Rowing Society) was May the 30th 1893, making NCBC by some margin the oldest women's college boat club in Cambridge.
For the first 20 or so years of its existence, the boating provided by the Rowing Society was purely for pleasure, with no question of competition. However, the coming of the First World War caused great social change in the perception of what women were capable of, and what they could or couldn't do. NCRS of course partook in this spirit of emancipation, and confidence in managing their own increasingly complex affairs grew. In Michaelmas 1916 it was decided that the Rowing Society should be governed by its own internally elected committee. The committee met on 23rd October 1916, and its first act was to officially change the name from Newnham College Rowing Society to Newnham College Boat Club, as it has remained ever since.
This first committee was also responsible for determining the colours of NCBC, which were chosen to be dark brown and gold (colloquially known as “mud and mustard”). Club blazers were ordered in dark brown, with a gold braid edging.
By 1917, NCBC was rowing in IVs, and moving its way towards competitive racing for the first time. Girton was challenged to a race, but was unable to accept. A challenge was received from the University of London, which was regretfully declined due to the difficulties of the logistics. Nonetheless, the clubs thoughts were firmly heading in the direction of beginning serious racing.
1919-1926: Racing Begins
From 1919, NCBC made rowing in VIIIs its principal activity. At the time, this was unheard of for women, who had only used pairs and IVs up to that point. Having bought NCBC's first eight that year, the next step was finding some opposition. The obvious choice, for a club representing the women of Cambridge University, was to challenge Oxford to a race. However, in 1919, the Oxford authorities would not permit the race, nor would they when the challenge was repeated in 1920.
Whilst Oxford were not willing to make the step to women racing in VIII's, the London universities were more open to the idea. The London School of Medicine for Women (LSMW) agreed to race Newnham over half a mile at the Marlow Regatta, Newnham winning by 1 ¾ lengths. This race was the first between women's college VIIIs in Britain.
In the following years, NCBC continued to seek races in VIIIs, expanding its opposition to include crews from Marlow Ladies RC, Reading UWRC, King's College London, and University College London. However the increasing focus on racing brought with it concerns for the health of female rowers, both over whether the female body was robust enough for the sport, and on speculation that the act of rowing would damage a women's ability to bear children. Simultaneous issues were being raised over attire, with the oarswomen petitioning to be permitted to discard their gym tunics for more suitable shorts, which were considered to be indecent at the time. Permission was only granted by the Principal once the Captain had rowed around her office on a footstool to demonstrate the suitability of the shorts!
In addition to the new shorts, in 1925 the gryphen's head from the College's arms was chosen to be the emblem of NCBC, embroidered on blazer pockets and emblazoned on trophy blades. The gryphen remains the symbol of NCBC to this day, and alumnae of the Club are collectively known as “The Gryphens”.
In the eight years following the end of the First World War, NCBC broke the mould of women's rowing by choosing to race in VIIIs. Furthermore, it had not only raced but beaten other university VIIIs. All that remained was to race Oxford.
In January 1927, Newnham received a challenge from the newly founded Oxford University Women's Boat Club. College authorities would not permit a conventional side by side race, so instead the contest was to be a competition in style and time. The crews would row twice over a half mile course on the Isis, being judged on style in the first instance, and timed on the second run. Despite being held at lunch time to discourage viewers, large and hostile crowds gathered on the towpath, heckling the crews. Large numbers of reporters were also present, producing less than flattering accounts of the occasion. The overheard exhortation by a former member of NCBC for the crew to “row like hell” made headlines and nearly resulted in the Principal banning the Club from the remainder of that year's races. Both crews were awarded equal points for style, and as such the winner was determined by time only, Oxford winning by 13.6 seconds.
Despite the restrictions and unconventional arrangement, this, as the first competition between crews representing Oxford and Cambridge, is regarded as the first University Women's Boat Race.
The unfortunate publicity created by the first race meant that the contest did not repeat the following year. In the meantime the Club adopted the then divisive rowing style “Fairbairn” or “Jesus” style of rowing invented by Steve Fairbairn of Jesus College Boat Club. The switch in styles was responsible for a long series of coaches from JCBC, and a close association with that club remains today, with NCBC boating from the JCBC boathouse.
Subsequent years brought new opposition in the form of the University of London, and races continued to be held against old adversaries, often on the Tideway itself. In 1931 NCBC competed in the Fairbairn Cup for the first time, finishing 62nd of 63, beating the JCBC 7th VIII. However, it was the opportunity to race against Oxford that proved the most attractive, and in 1929 the second women's boat race was held. The format was the same as in 1927, and once again the crews were judged to be equal in style. However on this occasion NCBC were 0.6 seconds faster than OUWBC, and so won a first boat race for Cambridge.
A further six boat races were held before 1941, with Newnham winning the 1930 edition and Oxford the remaining five. The two University Boat Races won by the Club is a record unmatched by any other Cambridge College.
As 1941 dawned, the committee of NCBC reflected on the fact that they were not able to win blues, unlike their Oxford counterparts, as with the women of Girton not rowing a truly representative Cambridge crew was not possible. The idea was put to friends at Girton that they should have their own boat club, but using NCBC's facilities and equipment to row in joint crews. This paved the way for the birth of a combined, truly representative, club, Cambridge University Women's Boat Club. As the rowers from GCBC were all novices, the president and secretary of NCBC became the equivalent officers of CUWBC, and in February permission was granted for blues to be awarded to the members of the CUWBC crews that rowed against Oxford.
The first Blue Boat, that of 1941, was solely crewed by Newnhamites. While later women from increasingly wider range of colleges competed for seats, a great many Newnhamites have competed for the University against Oxford, and representation in the CUW squads remains strong 90 years after NCBC first raced Oxford.
1942-1990s: Life post CUW
Following the foundation of CUW, life continued in much the same fashion for NCBC, as it continued to produce rowers for the university. CUW continued to race Oxford, and also took part in the May Bumps for the first time in 1962, competing against the male college crews. However, with the formation of a new women's college, New Hall (now Murray Edwards), and then the move by some of the all-male colleges to admit women and subsequently develop women's sections in their boat clubs, interest was growing in developing inter-college competition. To begin with, these women's crews followed in the footsteps of the early women of NCBC and raced the Fairbairn Cup, but the desire was to eventually create a women's division in the May Bumps.
This finally came about in 1974. It was decided to race in IVs rather than the VIIIs of the men, due to the concern that the newer clubs would not be able to provide eight rowers of a sufficient standard. The first Headship was claimed by Clare, with NCBC's four crews all bumping up to finish 2nd, 3rd, 8th and 10th.
The following year the 1st IV won Newnham's first Headship, and retained it in 1976. The 1976 Mays campaign was a notable one, as on the second day the 2nd IV bumped Clare to move 2nd on the river. This was the first and only time in the history of Cambridge bumps racing that any college club (male or female) has held the top two places on the river simultaneously.
1976 also brought the introduction of women into the Lent Bumps, and Newnham once again claimed the second Headship, in 1977. The club continued to grow in both numbers and strength. Regularly entering five crews into Bumps, the early 80s were a time of great success for the club, winning two further Lent Headships in 1982 and 1983. By 1990 the strength of the women's field was such that VIIIs replaced IVs, and the start order was rearranged to start anew. NCBC remained strong through the 90s, fielding at least two crews for the Lents and three for the Mays.
During the 90s the decision was made to change the club's colours from the brown and gold it had sported since 1916 to the navy, silver and gold it sports today. Those who rowed and coxed the 1st Mays VIII were awarded the right to purchase and wear a white blazer with a navy, silver and gold striped trim.
2000-Present Day: The modern era
NCBC has remained a formidable presence on the river in the new millennium. In the 2003 May Bumps, the 1st VIII bumped Jesus, Caius and Emmanuel to win the club's most recent Headship, and its sixth in total. In that crew was a young Anna Bebington, who would win a bronze medal in the woman's double sculls at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Four years later, as Anna Watkins, she famously joined forces with Katherine Grainger to win the gold medal in the double at the 2012 London Olympics. Anna Watkins learnt to row with NCBC, and is to date the only woman who noviced at Cambridge to go on to win an Olympic gold for Great Britain.
Since the 2012 Olympics, the club has attracted a massive number of new rowers, and is frequently able to put out 5-6 novice VIIIs in the Michaelmas term. Recent years have been successful and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd VIIIs not only lie in the 1st 2nd and 3rd divisions of the May Bumps (no mean feat when each division has only seventeen places for thirty-one colleges to fight over), but are each in the top ten positions of their respective divisions. This achievement is only matched by one other college, Emmanuel.
In 2014 it was decided to celebrate the 2nd Mays VIIIs continued achievements over many years in beating and bumping other college's 1st boats, and a new blazer was designed to recognise the achievement of those who are selected to row in that crew. The new blazer is navy with navy, silver and gold trim, and complements the white blazer with the same trim, which remains the preserve of those who are selected to row in the 1st Mays VIII.