The History of the Punt

Lottie Limb 10 May 2015

With the joys of summer approaching, the appearance of sunshine and warm weather invite us to indulge in one of the stereotypical ‘Cambridge’ past-times: punting. Yet where did the punt come from? What is its history? Why do we really stand on the edge of a long plank of wood and paddle up and down the river? And, is it really that simple…?

The origins of the punt stretch back to their use in commercial trade in transporting cargo, hunting wildfowl, eel-fishing and reed-cutting along the narrow, shallow waters in the Fens. Yet it was not until the river trade and consequential traffic died-down that pleasure punting established itself as a trend along the River Thames in the late 1860-80s. This practice first came to Cambridge in 1903 with Maurice “Jack” Scudamore’s building of the first punt in Cambridge at Chesterton Boatyard during his boat-building apprenticeship. Jack’s pioneering introduced the pleasure punt to the Cambridge College Backs, a concept that was furthered as river traffic diminished and punting became safer, more popular and an indulgence – especially during the summer months.

Yet not only did it become a luxurious past-time but a new tradition of touting and so-called “punt wars” also developed. Due to the close proximity of the different colleges and their prime punting companies, competition arose whereby smaller companies attempted to compete through employing touts to bring in customers. Thus punting became more than an indulgence in its newly-arisen competitive nature that forced subsequent laws and regulations to be imposed to control competition! Not all punting-related competition remains reduced however… other “competitions” still continue, at least in terms of the Dampers Club…open membership to “all those who have unwillingly entered the Cam fully clothed”.

But…is it really that hard to punt without “unwillingly entering the Cam fully clothed”? In 2008, the Punt Society of St John’s College published a manual on punting, including the necessary lessons of how to start, lift the pole, steer, and not fall in! It pays attention to warnings against punting with Arts students, advocating that you “ask an engineer” and, most importantly, instructing against standing at the front of the boat as they do in Oxford!

So if you really want to impress this summer and take a de-stress-break from the hectic term of exams,  indulge in a popular Cambridge past-time and take a punt up the Cam. Yet be warned… as told by Jerome in Three Men in a Boat: “Punting is not as easy as it looks”.