In the second quarter of the 19th century, there was plenty of sport being played or watched in England. The Public (boarding) Schools, burgeoning at about this time, were trying to limit the bad behaviour of pupils during their free time between lessons (killing wildlife and insulting the locals both being popular), and sport was deemed a useful way of diverting the boisterous activities of the young.
At Cambridge University, perhaps influenced by the school experiences of the undergraduates, cricket, rowing and football were already popular, and athletics (in the modern sense) arrived when Colleges began organising annual sports (St. Johns and Emmanuel were the first, both in November 1855). These College sports were restricted to their own students, with no inter-College competition (although “strangers races”, allowing outsiders, were introduced some while later). So, feeling a need for a University-wide competition, open to all, a Committee was formed, probably in 1856 under the Secretaryship of Robert Barclay (matric 1855) of Trinity, to organise a “University Sports”, the first of which were successfully held at Fenners ground, on 16, 17 and 18 March 1857. These became the main annual University Athletic competition ever after. Times and distances at these College and University Sports were, for amateurs and by the standards of the day, often very good – and several “world” and British records were set.
By late 1862, under the leadership of Henry Kennedy (matric 1859, Trinity Hall, Secretary), Percy Thornton (matric 1860 Jesus), Richard Webster and John Chambers (both matric 1861 Trinity) and Charles Lawes (matric 1862 Trinity), aided and abetted by the eccentric don Leslie Stephen (1850 Trinity Hall), the Cambridge University Athletic Association (the title before CUAC used the word “club”) was confident enough to invite Oxford to participate in what would have been the first inter-Varsity “Athletic Games” in Cambridge (or on “neutral ground”) in the summer of 1863. Oxford had held their first University Sports on 4 December 1860, but were less enthusiastic than Cambridge, and declined the invitation for 1863, protesting inability to raise a team in the summer months. But Cambridge pressed matters, and with the help of the Oxonian officers, H. Middleton (Magdalen), W.M. Hoare (Exeter), R.A.H. Mitchell (Balliol) and O. Mordaunt (Christchurch), the first Oxford-Cambridge Varsity Athletics Match, consisting of eight events, was successfully held the next year at Christchurch ground, Oxford on 5 March 1864, ending in a tie (the 150th anniversary match will take place in May 2014).
Thus 1857 can certainly be counted as the beginning of the Cambridge University Athletic Club.