Built in 1891, St. John’s Barge is one of the very few survivors of the many traditional College barges which, for more than a century, lined the Thames at Oxford. Originally used as the bases for College rowing clubs, each had its own character and architectural style, and together they formed a splendid spectacle, particularly during Summer Eights week when, with flags flying and crowded with visitors, they were ablaze with colour and activity.
The tradition of ornamental barges at Oxford began when some magnificent London livery company barges were brought upstream in the 1850s for use by College oarsmen and to replace the huts on rafts first introduced when rowing became popular. These and other ornate barges had been used in the eighteenth century for ceremonial occasions on the Thames and their unique architectural style became a feature of their successors.
St. John’s Barge is said to be one of the finest examples of the college barges with its striking swept up deck and rear windows modelled on the gallery of an eighteenth century warship. When St. John’s College built its own boathouse in 1961, the barge was put up for sale; it was bought by a few former members of St. John’s College Boat Club for the princely sum of £115. The group’s aim was to preserve this beautiful vessel in its historical setting on the River Thames at Oxford. Now a registered charity, St. John’s Barge Limited continues to achieve this objective with the support of its members.