The Queen Adelaide straight, on the River Great Ouse north of Ely provides 5km of unobstructed water, with little river traffic, and wide enough for several boats side by side. 

Historically, it has been used as a training ground for elite rowers including Cambridge University and Olympic crews, but with little other rowing taking place.

Aerial Photo of River Great Ouse

During the war years, the Boat Race couldn’t be held on the Thames in London, but Churchill believed that the race would raise national morale, and should go ahead. 

So in 1944, it moved to the Queen Adelaide straight – the only occasion when the Boat Race has not been competed for on the Thames! 

Oxford won by 3 / 4 length.

1944 Crews racing on River Ouse
Boat Race 60th anniversary event

After the excitement of the 1944 race, the river returned to its former Fenland self – until 2004, when a group arranged a celebration of this unique occasion; and the “Diamond 44” event was staged to re-run the race to commemorate its 60th anniversary.

The stage was set, veteran blues from Oxford and Cambridge were mustered, and the public were encouraged to join in in period style.

Diamond 44 Boat Race

This time, Cambridge won by 3 lengths – so the honours were now even!

The prospect of Oxford and Cambridge rowing on this wonderful stretch of water raised a question in some people’s minds “why isn’t there a local rowing club, so that the local community can enjoy rowing on this local facility?” 

From this thought, and as part of the preparations for the event, the Isle of Ely Rowing Club was born. 

To reflect these origins, the club chose Oxford blue and Cambridge blue as its colours, and the four diamonds on the logo reflect the “Diamond 44”.

Club logo

The link between the Boat Race and the club was strengthened when Martin Whitworth, who rowed at 4 for Cambridge in 1944, agreed to be club’s inaugural President (Martin far photo 4th from left.)

1944 Crew with blades

Martin took a close interest in the club, and attended many club events until his death in September 2016. 

In 2019 his son, David Whitworth, and daughter, Christine Churcher, presented one of his Cambridge blades to the club, which has pride of place.

1945 CUBC Blade
Martin Whitworth 1944 Light Blue

To maintain the light blue / dark blue balance, Michael Brooks, who rowed in the 1944 Oxford boat (in no 3 seat in photo on left), also took a close interest in the club.

1944 Oxford Crew

So, with much enthusiasm and a prestigious pedigree, but with very little equipment, the club took to the water in 2004. 

Initially Kings School Ely kindly made boats and facilities available, then other local clubs kindly donated some old boats, which enabled the club to become self-sufficient.

Ely rowing club first boats

Ely has another connection with the Boat Race – the event came about when two former school friends Charles Merivale and Charles Wordsworth left school; one going on to Oxford, the other to Cambridge. A challenge from one to the other at their new colleges led to the first race in 1829.

Charles Merivale went on to become Dean of Ely Cathedral; and in 2008, an event to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth was held in Ely Cathedral to bring together the families of the founders.

Boat Race anniversary diner Ely Catherdral

The club was closely involved in supporting the event, including a race using replicas of the boats used in the 1829 inaugural race, kindly loaned by the Boat Race Company – a far cry from modern boats! 

Period costume was again called for!

Period costume
2004 Boat Race crews
Juniors and Michael Brooks boat

And two single sculls were named after the boat race founders.

By this time, the club was well established, and building up a fleet of modern boats. Here a group of juniors is naming a coxed quad after Michael Brooks.

Two Ely boats named after Boat Race founders

Each year since 2009 the club has been able to let many other rowers experience the Queen Adelaide straight. The Great Ouse Marathon run by the club has become a national event, attracting crews from Newcastle upon Tyne in the north to Totnes in Devon. 

The 22km course winds through Norfolk, ending with a 5km “sprint for home” down the straight – finishing at the plaque which marks the finish of the Boat Race at Queen Adelaide.  

The event was featured in Rowing and Regatta magazine.

Ouse Marathon Article in Rowing and Regatta

A history is a record of the past. What happens tomorrow will be the next day’s history. 

The club has made huge progress. However, we are conscious that we need to move forward, and improve facilities on land. Until now, we have only been able to obtain short term leases on our site which means that we cannot build a proper boathouse and facilities. 

The club is actively trying to secure a long-term arrangement but this is proving very challenging.

Portacabin at Isle of Ely Rowing Club

We have just heard that the Boat Race is to return to Ely in 2021. 

A combination of Covid 19 and damage to Hammersmith Bridge means that the Thames again cannot be used, so the Queen Adelaide straight will again see battle of the blues. 

This time the club is well established and will give a warm (but socially distanced) welcome, and we are here to help in any way we can.

Ely Standard Boat Race Announcment