Competitive athletics at Cambridge University began with the holding of two “College Sports” (separately by St. John’s College and Emmanuel College) in November 1855. Various running, jumping and throwing events were held, along with more “rustic” events (e.g. sack races); the whole reminiscent of “village sports” or country fairs of the day. Other Colleges soon followed this lead. These “Sports” were either held on the College’s own land or, increasingly, at Fenners (where the University Cricket Club had been holding their matches since 1848).
It was soon apparent that a University-wide “Sports” would be popular, and the first such was held on March 16-18 1857 at Fenners. These University Games, or University Foot Races as they were first called comprised races over 100yards, 440y, 880y and Mile, High Jump, Long Jump, 14lb Shot put, sack race and “scurry hurdle race”. In the next year, in these same University Games, there were added the 2 miles, the standing high jump, the 28lb weight, throwing the cricket ball and a 200y hurdles race. The 1861 Games included an event called the cannon ball (presumably the shot).
In the meanwhile, the individual Colleges had been continuing to hold their own “Athletic Games” which were initially restricted to members of the named College. These College sports, and the University sports, were annual events, held between November and March. There was no summer athletics.
In Michaelmas 1862, influential undergraduates Henry Kennedy (matric 1859), Percy Thornton (1860), Richard Webster (1861), Charles Lawes (1862) and John Chambers (1862) reorganised University athletics, setting up the Cambridge University Athletics Association (the Association being that of all the Colleges), shortly after renamed the Cambridge University Athletics Club. The new CUAC became subtenant (to the CUCC as tenants) to Fenner’s ground. Kennedy, the Secretary, contacted Oxford to suggest the first Oxford-Cambridge athletics competition (to be held at Whitsun 1863), but Oxford declined.
In 1863 Trinity Hall broke new ground by including a “strangers race” (over 440y) in their Sports. These strangers races soon became very popular and attracted the best athletes of the whole University, and sometimes beyond, and valuable cups (£25 in value in the mid 1860s is quite a large sum) were awarded.
The events in the first Varsity Match (actually called the “Cambridge and Oxford Athletic Games”), held at Oxford in March 1864, were just eight in all: the 100y, 440y, Mile, Steeplechase, 120y hurdles, 220y hurdles, High Jump and Long Jump.
At this time all Cambridge Sports always were “individual” competitions, with no interCollegiate component. There were often trophies for each event: a few of these (notably the Mile trophy) survive.
From the mid-1860s the regular CUAC “programme” was expanded to include, early in the Michaelmas Term a “Freshmens sports” and later a “Seniors Sports”, self explanatory. There were also University-wide “handicap events”. Throughout both the Michaelmas and Lent Terms there continued the individual Colleges’ Sports, largely confined to members (or former members) of those Colleges, but included the “strangers races”, mentioned above. In 1866-7 the grass track at Fenners was turned into a 3 laps to the mile, cinder surface. In 1875 a new pavilion was erected, CUAC contributing substantially to the cost. In 1892 (long after Fenner himself had left Cambridge), CUCC and CUAC, acting together as a company, bought Fenners ground outright, from Caius College.
Apart from the annual competition against Oxford, initially there were few other “outside” matches (partly because not many other clubs existed). In 1890 CUAC held a match against the United Hospitals; and from 1891 an annual series against the London Athletics Club. Many of the CUAC matches against home opposition were of short duration, so other contests were tried (e.g. in 1892 a match against Trinity College, Dublin). From 1893 some Colleges began to hold competitions against Oxford colleges, but still not against home (Cambridge) Colleges.
In 1895 CUAC, after winning the Varsity Match, sent a team to the USA to compete against Yale – the beginning of the “transatlantic series”. From 1898 there were CUAC matches against teams raised by Old Blues.
In 1909 Magdalene held a successful competition with St. Catharine’s. Soon after this Philip Baker (President of CUAC) initiated a much more comprehensive inter-Collegiate programme of matches. An Inter-College relays competition was begun in 1910, although initially there was only a single event – a medley (in 1921 the programme was increased from one relay to three – there were later additions): the winners were Pembroke. In 1912 the Colleges were divided into two Divisions for the realys. The Division 1 winners were awarded the Malloch Cup; the Thom cup went to the winners of the Division 2 relays. Relay running became popular - so an interVarsity Relays Competition (supplementing the Varsity Match) was introduced in December 1920.
A formal Inter-College competition, with all the normal individual events, with points scoring, was inaugurated in 1911. A distinguished Fellow of Trinity, William Rouse Ball gave the valuable Bowl, which remains the trophy awarded in this competition, known simply as “Cuppers” – the first winners were Emmanuel. At the start, it was a sort of “knockout” competition, with three Colleges competing against one another in a series of three successive heats, and the winning College then proceeding to a final, also of three Colleges. From 1912 there were two Divisions; thus the 18 existing Colleges could be included. Later modifications saw the competition compressed: in 1975 the Second Team competition was abandoned, all Colleges now competing together. The second team Cuppers trophy (the Macaulay Cup) was now to be awarded to the College placing second in the overall competition. This Cuppers competition, as it became known, was popular from the outset, and resulted in a rapid decline in the holding of individual College Sports (even with their strangers races).
Further supplementing the Varsity Match, a Freshmens Varsity Match was initiated in 1935, and after the 1939-45 War almost caused an end to athletes (war-time “Varsity matches” were held) post-War enthusiasm resulted in a widening of competition: a second-team Varsity Match match, Alverstone v Centipedes was initiate in April 1949; the first interCollegiate Field events competition was in November 1949, and the first Varsity Field Events match in 1954.
In 1970 CUAC elected its first Ladies Captain : Rosemary Jukes of Girton. The first Womens inter-Varsity Match was a “Freshers” match (but not exclusively Freshers) in November 1974 (the Freshers Varsity Match became restricted to “real” Freshers in 1987); the main womens Varsity Match followed immediately in May 1975. 1975 also saw the first Womens Relays Match and February1984 the first interVarsity Womens Field Events Match.
But InterCollegiate competitions (apart from Cuppers) slowly subsided, with the last Relays held in 1968 and last Field Events in 1970. A Ladies interCollege Cuppers competition was started in 1980 (the winners being a combined Queens/Selwyn team!). The beautiful Parker/Lewtas/ bowl is now awarded for this competition.
But in February 1997 InterCollegiate Field events and relays (combined – 5 relays and 4 field events) were re-initiated, with the Malloch Cup now awarded to the mens winner (Corpus), and the Thom Cup to the womens (St. Catharines), but this arrangements was of short duration.
Cuppers, for both men and women, has, for many years, been held in October; the Freshers Varsity matches in November; the interVarsity Field Events and relays (now combined, and with many events held indoors) in February or March. The main Varsity match is held in mid-May, preceded by the National Student Championships (now called BUCS) in early May (moved from late June). Summer Term events used to include matches against clubs like Woodford Green, but there is now little time for other events (but usually a “CUAC Sports” or “CUAC trials” finds space in that busy Easter Term).