Henley Regatta celebrates its 180 year anniversary this year

PUBLISHED: 16:56 17 June 2019 | UPDATED: 16:56 17 June 2019

Regatta participants and spectators, c1890-1900. Photo: US Library of Congresss Prints and Photographs Division

Regatta participants and spectators, c1890-1900. Photo: US Library of Congresss Prints and Photographs Division


Stephen Roberts casts an eye over the history of the Henley Regatta (from the safety of the river bank)

Now, I'm a bit of an aquaphobe. Yes, I admit, I am abnormally afraid of water, so like to have plastic ducks and submarines about me when I take my evening bath (moral support you understand). I'm not great, either in, or on, the water, but will step aboard a boat if it weighs in at about 100,000 tons. For my next venture, which involves rowing boats, I shall have to report from the safe vantage point of the riverbank (unless informed otherwise).

Henley Regatta is 180 years old this year. It was conceived at a public meeting at Henley Town Hall on 26th March 1839, with the first races being staged later that year. It was a Captain Edmund Gardiner who proposed that an annual regatta be held, as races taking place on Henley Reach were already generating much interest, and a regular event would undoubtedly benefit the town and its denizens.

Henley was (and is) the perfect place for such a spectacle. A picturesque Thames riverside town in south-east Oxfordshire, it is shouting distance from both Berks and Bucks and has an elegant multi-arched bridge of 1786 crossing the river. It is the Regatta that has brought fame over and above all its other associations, including all its inns (visitor friendly), a residence that once belonged to a Speaker of the House, and a visit by the poet and landscape gardener William Shenstone.

Henley Bridge, engraved from a drawing by JP Neale (from ‘The Beauties of England and Wales’, 1812).Henley Bridge, engraved from a drawing by JP Neale (from ‘The Beauties of England and Wales’, 1812).

The first races, held over just one day, would be watched by genteel crowds sipping 'champers' and partaking of picnics. The sport, viewed by some as 'unusual' (what, men propelling themselves along a river in a long, thin boat?) was nevertheless growing in popularity across the country and Henley was to be its apotheosis (the high watermark of its development), to the point that today the Regatta is the most famous in the world.

Covering this story might entail a nod to sartorial elegance, for not only is Henley a fixture in the UK's summer sporting calendar (alongside the likes of Wimbledon and a Lord's Test Match), but it's also a diary entry 'must' for the social season and its calendar. O.k. so I might need to invest in a natty striped blazer, some slacks and a boater. I'm fine with that, as I take my writing for Cotswold Life seriously, and always like to blend in. Depending on where you're ensconced there can be some strict dress codes: lounge suits for the gentlemen and dresses/skirts with hemlines below the knee for ladies (and encouragement to sport a hat). It just sounds like my kind of shindig. In an age when we generally seem to have lost our sense of style (scruffy-looking shorts becoming 'de rigueur' when the sun shines), it's nice to find an occasion where tradition prevails.

Henley Royal Regatta HQ, by Henley BridgeHenley Royal Regatta HQ, by Henley Bridge

The Regatta has certainly expanded from its first staging in 1839. A single day of racing became two the following year, three by the end of the 19th century, and five by the culmination of the 20th. This year's 180th anniversary 'bash' will see races take place between 3rd and 7th July, when Henley will expand as it welcomes thousands of expectant visitors from around the globe. All told, there will be over 200 international-standard races, which will include competitors ranging from experienced Olympic oarsmen to crews new to Henley.

This carnival of rowing is not just about the races, but also about the ambience and atmosphere, the enclosures, restaurants, bars and shops, and the vistas that make Henley a unique and captivating event. There is an amalgam here of tradition and modernity, with those in attendance last year enjoying a view from Henley Bridge that is little changed, whilst those utilising Wi-Fi could happily watch every race live on Henley's own YouTube channel. There was little excuse for missing anything (and, quite frankly, who would wish to?)

The race no-one would wish to miss is the prestigious Grand Challenge Cup for Men's Eights, which has been competed for since that very first event in 1839. The winners were exclusively British until 1906, when a Belgian crew prevailed (that must have felt a bit like the 1983 'America's Cup', when an Australian crew won). The first 'international competitors' had arrived in 1878, so it had taken a good few years for the Grand Challenge Cup to fall. Overall British dominance of the 'GCC' continued until the 1950s, however, when foreign crews really began taking over. The 2018 final was contested between Australian and Romanian eights, with the former crossing the finish line by a winning margin of ¾ length.

Regatta moorings, Henley-on-Thames (c) CaronB / Getty ImagesRegatta moorings, Henley-on-Thames (c) CaronB / Getty Images

The Regatta acquired its 'Royal' moniker in 1851 when Prince Albert, husband and consort to Queen Victoria, became its first royal patron. I'm surprised he had the time just then, as that was also the year of his 'Great Exhibition', which must have absorbed an inordinate amount of its time. Since Albert's death in 1861, every reigning UK monarch has acted as patron, meaning that Queen Elizabeth II currently acts in that capacity.

One of the early issues that Henley (along with rowing in general) had to wrestle with was the definition of an 'amateur'. Rowing, along with a lot of other 19th century sports, such as cricket, football and rugby, had been conceived as amateur pastimes, however, there would soon be professionals about, obliging Henley to issue its first formal definition of an 'amateur' in 1879. This, basically, said that you couldn't row for cash, earn a livelihood from sport, earn money from boats, or earn a living in pretty much any other way. There would be controversies along the way, including the exclusion of an American, John B. Kelly (the father of actress Grace Kelly), in 1920, for having been an apprentice bricklayer. The rather archaic rule about being excluded for earning, not from rowing, but as a 'mechanic, artisan or labourer', persisted until 1937, whilst the insistence on being 'amateur' was finally dispensed with in December 1998, acknowledgement that this rule was simply no longer enforceable.

Green Lake Crew Junior Men’s 8 racing at the 2007 Regatta (c) TgamenGreen Lake Crew Junior Men’s 8 racing at the 2007 Regatta (c) Tgamen

Henley's course has also changed, to try and negate any advantage from being on either the Buckinghamshire or Berkshire side of the river, with today's 'Straight Course' being adopted in 1924. It's a length of one mile and 550 yards, or 2,112 metres (just for comparison, the University Boat Race, which predates Henley by a decade, is competed for over a course of 4.2 miles, or 6.8 km). Interestingly, that first 1829 staging was at Henley. As a dedicated landlubber and aquaphobe, I'm full of respect for the lot of them, whether they row at Henley or in London. The Henley course starts downstream of Temple Island and proceeds towards Henley Bridge. Talking of other events, incidentally, the Olympic Games has rocked up at Henley on two occasions, in 1908 and 1948, but not 2012, when the rowing events were staged at Dorney Lake, in Buckinghamshire.

It took some considerable time for ladies to be allowed into Henley as anything other than spectators. In 1975, women coxswains (coxes) were permitted in male boats for the first time, and it would be a further six years before exhibition events were staged for female crews (1981), with women's events (proper) being introduced from 1993. Ladies now compete in seven of the 23 events that are currently rowed for.

The format of those events is head-to-head knockout, so two crews vying for the right to progress to the next round or phase, until just two boats are left for the final. There will have been against the clock 'qualifying' first to whittle the crews down to a manageable number. In another nod to tradition the draw for the knock-out stages is held in the Town Hall, where it all began, 180 years ago. Just like that inaugural meeting, the draw is a public event that can be attended by anyone.

I've been hard at it, training feverishly for the 2019 racing, which kicks off on Wednesday, July 3. Now, where did I leave my armbands, rubber ring and other buoyancy aids?


1829 - First Oxford-Cambridge boat race is held at Henley.

1839 - Regatta conceived at public meeting at Town Hall and starts as one-day event.

1840 - After just one year the Regatta becomes a two-day event.

1851 - Becomes known as Henley Royal Regatta with Prince Albert its first royal patron.

1878 - First international competitors (Americans and Canadians).

1879 - Henley produces its first formal definition of an 'amateur' competitor.

1886 - The 'New Course' adopted and the Regatta expanded to a three-day event.

1906 - Regatta is expanded again to a four-day event.

1908 - Olympic rowing events held at Henley.

1924 - Adoption of today's 'Straight Course'.

1948 - Olympic rowing and canoeing events held at Henley.

1975 - Female coxswains of male crews allowed for first time.

1981 - Exhibition events for women, a precursor to women's events being introduced.

1986 - Regatta is expanded once again to today's five-day event.

1998 - Henley becomes an 'open' event, so amateur and professional rowers can compete.

2018 - Every race broadcast live on Henley's YouTube channel.

The Henley Royal Regatta 2019 will take place between July 3-7 (Wednesday-Sunday). Visit hrr.co.uk for more details.

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