István Széchenyi introduced rowing to the Hungarian capital almost 200 years ago
Hungarian version of the article: Közel 200 éve honosította meg az evezést a magyar fővárosban Széchenyi István
August 7, 2021 at 10:00 AM
Rowing came to Hungary from the Thames in England. Like so much, this is also the merit of Count István Széchenyi, who, together with Baron Miklós Wesselényi, became acquainted with the sport during their trip to England in 1823. Wesselányi also recorded the common experience in his diary:
“Most of the youth were out on the river boating. What a beautiful thing to play with boats built with this taste on the water and what a great empowering exercise and movement it is for the youth.”
Danube rowers on a detail of a cross-section in the 1830s made by Fr. Weiss, based on a drawing by Carl Vasquez, with the classicist row of houses of the Danube bank in Pest in the background
Returning home, in 1826, Széchenyi brought a two-seater boat from London, on which he paddled from Vienna to Bratislava on 16 May 1827, in the company of two English friends.
The count soon founded Csónakda, which was a gentleman's association and from this, the Rowing Association was formed in 1841, which organised the first rowing competition in Hungary between Margit Island and Redoute, the predecessor of Pesti Vigadó. At the “regatta” held on 19 March 1843, Ádám Clark, the construction manager of the Széchenyi Chain Bridge and the designer of the Buda Castle Tunnel, won with his ship called “Béla”.
The momentum of the beginnings soon came to a halt, as the War of Independence came, after which a decade of silence sat on the waters. After Széchenyi's death in 1860, in 1861 the count's friends founded the Buda-Pest Rowing Association (Buda-Pesti Hajós Egylet), the first Hungarian sports association.
Its legal successor became the National Rowing Association (Nemzeti Hajós Egylet) from 1871, then in 1892, the National Association of Hungarian Rowing Societies (Magyar Evezős Egyletek Országos Szövetsége) was formed. From the end of the 19th century, rowing competitions and regattas were held regularly in Budapest.
Hungarian rowers took part in the Olympics in London in 1908, and then in the decades between the two world wars, Hungarian rowing rose to the forefront of the world.
Eight of the Ludovika Academy sports association (Photo: Képes Pesti Hirlap, 27 May 1931)
The name Oxford – Cambridge, used for university rowing competitions in Budapest between the two world wars, refers to the traditional rivalry between the two ancient English universities. The legendary rowing race, held with the participation of the rowing eights of the two institutions, was first held in 1829 on the Thames, a distance of 2.25 miles, corresponding to roughly 3,621 metres.
The ideal of “Hungarian Oxford – Cambridge” dates back to the end of the 19th century. Since then, the possibility of institutionalised competition between college and university sports clubs has arisen from time to time and has preoccupied the public. At this time, college and university students had a leading role in the sport. They were world champions and world record holders, and they also took a significant part in the competitions of the modern Olympic Games held since 1896.
In this situation, the 13 July 1902 issue of the Pesti Napló urged the organisation of a national university rowing competition:
“Our educational circles are already convinced that the cultivation of physical strength is as important as the spiritual's in the education of young people, and so it is hoped that rowing will soon conquer more space among young people. Then perhaps the old dream of our sportsmen will come true: in addition to the Hungarian Oxford – Cambridge: Budapest – Cluj-Napoca athletics and other sports competition, the regatta match of the two universities.”
Unfortunately, by the time all this was realised, the other university pole of the country mentioned in the article, Cluj-Napoca, was already separated from the motherland by a border...
Five years after Trianon, in 1925 - a little over a century after Széchenyi admired the rowing life on the Thames in England - the first Hungarian Oxford-Cambridge rowing competition took place in Budapest.
Rowers on the Danube at the 1926 Hungarian Oxford – Cambridge Rowing Competition (Photo: Pesti Napló Képes Melléklete, 30 May 1926)
On the day of the competition, 31 May, an article in the daily A Nép appeared to be a slightly belated continuation of the above Pesti Napló quote, as it was enthusiastic about the competition:
"The sky of Hungarian college sports is already clear, the clouds are shattering and the time is not far when our college sports will take their rightful place in all branches of sports."
Creating a tradition, the competition was held on Whitsun Sunday starting at 11 a.m. with the participation of the University of Technology Rowing Club (Műegyetemi Evezős Club - MEC), the University Rowing Club (BEAC, the rowing department of the Budapest University Athletics Club), and the Ludovika Academy Sports Association (LASE). The eight, by the way, also referred to Oxford and Cambridge, as in England on the Thames the royal barges were traditionally driven by a crew of ten and the aristocracy by an eight-man crew and the latter spread among the university youth. The team from the Ludovika Academy won the competition starting from the boathouse of the Hungarian Athletic Club on Margit Island, from the Danube branch of Buda near the island and reaching the finish line at the main entrance of the University of Technology. Leading the way, the prospective military officers completed the distance with a “start-finish victory” of 12 minutes 45 seconds.
After the competition, the participants also celebrated the fifteenth anniversary of the second-place University of Technology Rowing Club (MEC) at a banquet held at the Gellért Hotel, as the competition was founded by MEC to honour this.
University and college athletes also competed in other sports, but the other competitions were held in Debrecen at the same time.
In 1926, the race was held again, which was again won by the Ludovika team, as in the following years, until 1933. The 1927 competition was also filmed by a film newsreel.
Group photo of the winning eight of Ludovika in 1928 from the 30 May 1928 issue of Képes Pesti Hirlap
Incidentally, according to contemporary papers, Ludovika gained such a depressing superiority that the other university eights only meant the “also-ran” category. But all successful series are once coming to an end...
In the early 1930s, there was a break in Ludovika's ranks: over the years, József Platthy, Kázmér Hartyánszky, János Ivánkovics, Zoltán Véniss, Miklós Hederváry, Ödön Dienes, János Marno, Zenó Osskó, Jenő Kalándy, Rezső Vály, Béla Ficzere and László Knoblauch, the key members of the unbeatable company left after completing their studies, so this team practically disintegrated.
The escort boat of the competition with a lot of people interested (Photo: Pesti Napló Képes Műmelléklet, 30 May 1926)
Finally, in 1932 and 1933, the Academy launched two teams and Ludovika 2nd defeated Ludovika’s weakened 1st team in both years and thus won the competition.
Ludovika's second team won the 1932 competition (Photo: Tolnai Világlapja, 25 May 1932)
Then in 1934, the ice broke: that year the team of the Budapest University Athletics Club (BEAC) won the competition. In 1935 and 1936, Ludovika was successful again and doubled, now with the first team again.
The year 1937 marked a dramatic turn in the history of racing. At Ludovika Academy, rowing was abolished for “higher command”. Thus, the previous favourite fell out of the field at once. That year, three teams, the University of Technology Rowing Club, the Budapest University Athletics Club and the Physical Education College Sports Club took part in the competition, which was won by the University of Technology team.
An interesting recording from the 9 May 1934 issue of Képes Pesti Hirlap: "The new eight of the University of Technology is being prepared for the big Whitsun match with Ludovika and the University eight."
The 1938 race was held in unfavourable conditions and strong winds. Thus, it may have happened that the eight of the long-winning Budapest University Athletics Club, when it had almost repeated its success in 1934, had an accident: their ship simply turned into the Danube in front of the then Ferenc József Bridge, today's Liberty Bridge. The rowers who fell into the water found refuge by clinging to the accompanying speedboat. Thus, for the first time in the history of the competition, the team of the University of Technology Rowing Club reached the finish line before the main entrance of the University of Technology, of course in the midst of a great cheer.
A film newscast was also made about the event.
Accompanying speedboat in the race (Photo: Pesti Napló Képes Műmelléklet, 30 May 1926)
The weather was not favourable the following year, in 1939, and the latter won the duel between the Budapest University Athletics Club and the University of Technology Rowing Club in the wet, rainy weather.
The winning team of the University of Technology Rowing Club in 1937 (Photo: Képes Pesti Hirlap, 19 May 1937)
In 1940 the team of the Budapest University Athletics Club, in 1941 the 'A' team of the University of Technology Rowing Club won.
In 1942, a kind of house competition was held unusually, as only the University of Technology Rowing Club started teams. Team 'A' of the University of Technology won in front of the other two boats of the university. In 1943, the University of Technology won again, now against the Budapest University Athletics Club.
In 1944, for the twentieth time, the last battle for a long time was held, which was also won by the University of Technology.
Although the competition was held several times after the Second World War, the history of the Hungarian Oxford-Cambridge rowing fights is long over... However, recently, in 2013, the Danube rowing competition of colleges and universities was revived, called the Danube Regatta. The last race in the series took place in 2018 and has unfortunately been on hiatus ever since. However, the glorious past obligates, as are the facilities of Budapest, so it would definitely be welcome if we did not have to wait long for the next regatta.
Cover photo: The first Hungarian Oxford-Cambridge rowing competition in 1925 (Photo: Pesti Napló Képes Műmelléklet, 7 May 1925)