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The first University boat race was held in 1829 {i}. Rowing races were held on the Thames from 1715 {ii} the song might be referring to rowing race or it may be a refernce to reckless use of the river fro which the steamers became notorious.

References:
{i} http://www.historyhouse.co.uk/articles/boat_race.html
{ii} https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doggett%27s_Coat_and_Badge

 

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