Victorian Happenings: March 26, 1839 ~ The First Henley Royal Regatta Is Held

240px-Henley_crest Henley Royal Regatta is a rowing event held annually on the River Thames by the town of Henley-on-Thames, England. The Royal Regatta is sometimes referred to as Henley Regatta, its original name pre-dating Royal patronage. It should not be confused with the three other regattas rowed over approximately the same course (Henley Women’s Regatta, Henley Veterans Regatta, and Henley Town and Visitors Regatta), each of which is an entirely separate event.

The regatta lasts for 5 days (Wednesday to Sunday) over the first weekend in July. Races are head-to-head knock out competitions, raced over a course of 1 mile, 550 yards (2,112 m).[1] The regatta regularly attracts international crews to race. The most prestigious event at the regatta is the Grand Challenge Cup for Men’s Eights, which has been awarded since the regatta was first staged.

As the regatta pre-dates any national or international rowing organisation, it has its own rules and organisation, although it is recognised by both British Rowing (the governing body of rowing in England and Wales) and FISA (the International Federation of Rowing Associations). The regatta is organised by a self-electing body of Stewards, who are largely former rowers themselves. Pierre de Coubertin modelled elements of the organisation of the International Olympic Committee on the Henley Stewards.

The regatta is regarded as part of the English social season. As with other events in the season, certain enclosures at the regatta have strict dress codes.

Format of Competition:

Entries for the regatta close at 6:00 P.M. sixteen days before the Regatta.In order to encourage a high quality of racing, create a manageable race timetable and to ensure that most crews race only once a day, each event has a limited number of places. Qualifying races are held on the Friday before the regatta. The regatta’s Committee of Management decides at its absolute discretion which crews are obliged to qualify; the Committee will examine the form and calibre of the entrants and may choose to pre-qualify some of them.

The qualifying races take the form of a timed processional race up the regatta course, with the fastest crews qualifying. Times are released for non-qualifying crews only. This does not stop an enthusiastic band of unofficial timers with synchronised watches working out how fast their first round opposition might be.

If it is apparent that there are a number of outstanding crews in an event, they may be ‘selected’ by the Stewards, to prevent them from meeting too early in the competition. The regatta insists that selection is not the same as seeding, the main difference being that there is no ‘rank order’ as is usually the case in, for example, a tennis tournament.

The Draw
The draw is a public event that takes place in the Henley town hall, normally at 3 P.M. on the Saturday before the regatta. For each event the names of all selected crews are placed on pieces of paper which are then drawn at random from the Grand Challenge Cup. These crews are then placed on pre-determined positions on the draw chart, as far apart as possible. The remaining qualifying crews are then drawn from the cup, filling in from the top of the draw chart downwards, until all places have been filled.

Each event in the regatta takes the form of a knockout competition, with each race consisting of two crews racing side by side up the Henley course. The course is marked out by two lines of booms (wooden bars which float on the water, secured between vertical poles), which are placed along the river to form a straight course 2,112 metres long. The course is wide enough to allow two crews to race down with a few metres between them. As such it is not uncommon for inexperienced steersmen or coxswains to crash into the booms, possibly costing their crew the race.

The race begins at the downstream end of Temple Island, where the crews attach to a pair of pontoons. The race umpire will then call out the names of the two crews and start them when they are both straight and ready. Each crew is assigned to row on either the ‘Bucks’ (Buckinghamshire) or ‘Berks’ (Berkshire) side of the race course. The coxswains or steersmen are expected to keep their crew on the allocated side of the course at all times during the race, else they risk disqualification. The only exception is when a crew leads by a sizeable margin and is not deemed by the umpire to be impeding the trailing crew.

There are several progress markers along the course. Intermediate times are recorded at two of them – “the Barrier” and “Fawley,” in addition to the time to the finish. The regatta has official commentary, which is announced at these points along the course. The commentary is renowned for being unemotional and factual, with the commentator only allowed to announce the rate of striking, which crew is leading, the distance between the crews, and the progress marker which the crews are passing.

The Course
Henley Royal Regatta has always been raced over a distance of ‘about one mile and 550 yards’ from Temple Island upstream towards Henley Bridge. However, four distinct courses have been used over the regatta’s history, with smaller changes also being made incrementally. Changes to the course have all been aimed at improving the prospects for fair and safe racing.

The Old Course (1839-1885)

An 1877 painting by James Tissot showing the Old Course

An 1877 painting by James Tissot showing the Old Course

This ran from a point just upstream of Temple Island. At the first regatta in 1839, the finish line was Henley Bridge itself, but it was presumably quickly realised that this had inherent problems. From 1840 onward the finish was moved downstream slightly; eventually a point opposite the lawn of the Red Lion hotel became the standard finish line. A grandstand was erected for the Stewards and their guests outside the Red Lion. Other spectators could watch from the adjacent roadway (in front of the Little White Hart Hotel) while those with carriages surveyed the scene from a vantage point on Henley Bridge. There were three racing stations (Berkshire, Centre and Buckinghamshire). When only two crews raced, the Centre Station was not used.
The Old Course had a large lefthand bend in the last quarter-mile. This benefited the crew on the Berkshire side of the course not only because they raced a shorter distance but also because they avoided the worst of the river’s current. Between 1866 and 1885, 57.7% all races were won by the crew on the Berkshire station, with the Buckinghamshire and Centre crews sharing 42.3%. The course was not boomed or piled, although between 1871 and 1873, poles were roped across the bay on the Berkshire side upstream of Poplar Point, in an attempt to minimise the advantage given to the crew on the Berkshire station.

The New Course (1886-1922)
In 1884, a sub-committee of the regatta’s Committee of Management discussed options for reducing the unfairness of the course. Their recommendation was to move the finish line downstream to Poplar Point (thus avoiding the bend) and the start to the bottom of Temple Island. This was not popular with spectators as it made previous viewing points obsolete. The sub-committee also recommending reducing the racing lanes from three to two and extending racing from two days to three. The Committee gained support from the Captains of competing Clubs and the changes were introduced for the 1886 Regatta.

The New Course started just downstream of Temple Island, on the Buckinghamshire side and finished opposite the upstream end of Phyllis Court, very close to the current finish line. There were two slight bends (at Remenham and just after Fawley) and a staggered start to compensate for them. The course was also piled for the first time, although not boomed. Unfortunately, it became apparent that in trying to eliminate the unfairness of the Old Course, a new problem had been introduced. Downstream of Fawley, bushes grew alongside the Buckinghamshire bank and provided shelter from the prevailing wind. The course now ran close to this bank and crew on the Buckinghamshire station gained the advantage of shelter whenever a ‘Bushes Wind’ was blowing. From 1886 to 1905, Bucks took 59% of wins against 41% on Berks.

To attempt to reduce the effect of the Bushes Wind, the course was narrowed and pushed further to the centre of the river. The width was 135 feet in 1887, in 120 feet in 1888 and then progressively until by 1914 it was down to 100 feet at the start tapering to 80 feet at the finish. In 1899, floating booms secured between the pilings which mark the course were also introduced along part of its length in an attempt to keep spectators from obstructing races.

The Experimental Course (1923) and the Straight Course (1924 onwards)
In around 1920, the Stewards carried out a survey canvassing the idea of a moving the start of the course to the Berkshire side of Temple Island. At the time this channel was a winding, shallow backwater and it would clearly not be possible to lay a course of the full Henley distance without significant alteration to the bank, the island and the riverbed.

For the 1923 regatta, the Stewards therefore decided to try a shorter experimental straight course which started at the top of the island. This produced 53.2% wins on Bucks and 46.8% on Berks, deemed enough of an improvement on the New Course to justify a permanent change. The consent of the landowners of the Berkshire bank and Temple island (Lord Hambleden and W.D. Mackenzie respectively) was obtained to widen and deepen the Berkshire channel; 10,000 cubic yards (7,600 m3) of material were excavated. The Straight Course was now ready for use.

The Straight Course runs from the upstream end of Temple Island to a point opposite the upstream end of the Phyllis Court. It is 80 feet (24 m) wide. The Straight Course has generally addressed the problems of unfairness: for example, between 1975 and 1984, 50.52% of races were won on Bucks and 49.31% on Berks (with the remainder dead heats). However, when a strong stream is flowing, the Berks station enjoys considerable shelter from the stream, particularly in the last ¼ mile. Conversely, when there is a strong south-westerly wind it is better to be on the Bucks station because it is more sheltered from the wind. The course is now piled and boomed along its entire length, except for crossing points. The booms can present a hazard for the inexperienced coxswain or steersman.

Precise Length of the Course
When the start and finish positions of the Old Course had become established, the distance between them was found to be 1 mile 570 yds (2131 metres). However, boats were aligned by their sterns at the start and judged by their bows at the finish. This meant that the course was slightly longer for single sculls than for eights. The length of an eight was assumed to be twenty yards and as such the course came to be described as ‘about 1 mile and 550 yards (2112 metres)’, which was the distance covered by an eight.

In 1967 the start of the Straight Course was relocated exactly 1 mile 550 yd from the finish. In the same year, moving pontoons were introduced at the start which allowed all boats, from singles to eights, to be aligned by the bows precisely on the start line. Since then all crews have raced a course of exactly one mile and 550 yards (2112 metres).

At a public meeting in Henley town hall on 26 March 1839, Captain Edmund Gardiner proposed “that from the lively interest which had been manifested at the various boat races which have taken place on the Henley reach during the last few years, and the great influx of visitors on such occasions, this meeting is of the opinion that the establishing of an annual regatta, under judicious and respectable management, would not only be productive of the most beneficial results to the town of Henley, but from its peculiar attractions would also be a source of amusement and gratification to the neighbourhood, and the public in general.”

The regatta was first staged in 1839 and proved so successful that it was expanded the next year from one day to two the next year. As the regatta’s popularity has grown it has further expanded: to three days in 1886, four days in 1906 and five days in 1986. The regatta has been known as Henley Royal Regatta since 1851, when Prince Albert became the first royal patron. Since his death, every reigning monarch has agreed to be the patron.

At the regatta’s inception it was intended for amateur oarsmen rather than those who rowed professionally. In 1879 Henley produced its first formal definition of an amateur:
No person shall be considered an amateur oarsman or sculler, or coxswain:
Who has ever competed in any open competition for a stake, money, or entrance fee. (Not to apply to foreign crews.)
Who has ever competed with or against a professional for any prize.
Who has ever taught, pursued or assisted in the practice of athletic exercises of any kind as a means of gaining a livelihood.
Who has been employed in or about boats for money or wages.
Who is or has been by trade or employment for wages a mechanic, artisan or labourer.

In 1884, amateur status for overseas oarsmen was put on the same basis as for home oarsmen, thus ending the concession on racing for money prizes. By 1886 a phrase had also been added debarring any person “engaged in any menial activity.”

These rules would become the cause of growing controversy as international entries to Henley increased; most foreign countries having a different definition of amateur. The adoption of Henley’s definition of amateur by the Amateur Rowing Association of Great Britain would also cause a 66-year schism in British rowing, when in 1890 a rival National Amateur Rowing Association was set up, with a much more inclusive definition of amateurism.

One well-known incident was the exclusion of future Olympic champion John B. Kelly, Sr., who had served an apprenticeship as a bricklayer, from the 1920 regatta. According to the minutes of the regatta’s Committee of Management, Kelly was excluded both because he was not eligible under the manual labour rules and because he was a member of Vesper Boat Club, which was banned in 1906 because members of its 1905 Henley crew had raised money to pay for their trip through public donations – making them professionals in the eyes of the Henley Stewards.

Kelly’s exclusion was widely reported in newspapers in both the UK and USA, with many seeing it as an attempt to prevent an American from winning the Diamonds. Kelly’s son, John B. Kelly, Jr.. would dramatically win the 1947 Diamond Sculls, and his daughter would become the famous Academy Award winning actress turned Princess of Monaco Grace Kelly, keeping the incident in the public eye for years afterwards.

In 1936, there was a further controversy when the Australian national eight, preparing for the Berlin Olympics, was excluded from the Grand Challenge Cup because the crew was composed of policemen, deemed to be ‘manual workers.’ The resulting embarrassment persuaded the Amateur Rowing Association and the Stewards of Henley Royal Regatta of the need for change. On 9 June 1937, the offending references to manual labourers, mechanics, artisans and menial duties were deleted from the ARA rules; Henley’s rules were changed the following day, coming into effect from the 1938 regatta.

In September 1997, FISA removed all references to amateurism in its rules and in December 1998 Henley followed suit. The regatta is therefore now entirely open.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in British history, buildings and structures, Great Britain, real life tales, royalty, Victorian era and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.