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History Of Rowing

The Hugin Ship, Broadstairs, commemorating the arrival of Saxon invaders in the fifth century

As an island water bourne transport has been an integral part of British history. The English Channel was opening up around 5000 years ago, and coincidentally the first depiction of a rowing boat dates to around this time. The first recorded boat with oars appears in an engraving on an Egyptian stone wall dating to between 3300BC - 3000BC (see Complete Book Of Rowing by Steven Redgrave P1). The various major periods in British history were in many ways driven by oars. Sails and oars helped propel Roman galleys to southern Britain in the early first century. Then following the Roman withdrawal in the early fifth century, the next great wave of Saxon invaders came in ships driven by sail and oars. The same is true of Viking invasions from the late eighth century.


Within Britain itself, oars provided the motive power for movement along waterways. On the lower Thames, then much wider than today, there were few crossing places. The lowest fordable point was at the present site of London Bridge, and there was also an ancient ford at Chelsea. The Romans built the first London Bridge, but anyone wanting to cross anywhere other than London Bridge or Chelsea required a waterman rowing a ferry craft. Watermen started competing to give the quickest journeys, and eventually the gentry, to whom gambling was a major interest, began betting on the outcome of races between watermen. Interestingly in the history of British sport the early history of competitive rowing is professional. This professional ethos continued into the eighteenth century when Thomas Doggett established the Doggett Coat And Badge Race in 1716. The idea behind the event - apart from celebrating the first anniversary of George I's accession to the throne - was to improve the quality of rowing by professional Thames watermen. The race started at the Old Swan pub at London Bridge and ran five miles along the Thames to the White Swan pub at Chelsea. It still takes place today every July. Rowing looked ahead to modern sport in these professional origins, and also in the large numbers of people who came to watch events along the Thames. In many ways rowing was one of the first mass spectator sports.

Ironically the professional sport of rowing was the first to succumb to a very different sporting philosophy which emerged in the nineteenth century. It was at this point in the history of British sport that a pervasive amateur philosophy took hold. Amateurism allowed upper class control of sport by making it difficult for competitors to make money from their talent. Serious participation in sport generally meant having independent means. Money was made not by competitors but by wealthy gamblers. It was as part of this move towards an amateur philosophy that on 10th June 1829, crews from Oxford and Cambridge universities first raced each other over a course from Hambledon Lock to Henley. This race, the University Boat Race still takes place every spring from Putney Bridge to Mortlake. Ten years later the Henley Regatta, a programme of summer boat races and socialising began at Henley, a town on the Thames. This was a firmly upper class affair, as is clear from the name of the event - regatta is an Italian word for a boat race held in a grand manner. In 1851 Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria, granted his patronage, and Henley became a royal regatta.



Boat houses at Richmond where Thames river boats are still built in a traditional manner

By now the watermen from whose work competition rowing had evolved were firmly sidelined. The moment this happened can be dated quite clearly to 1878. During the Henley Regatta of that year two American scullers took part, who were both suspected of being professionals. There was also a crew of French Canadian lumberjacks who issued battle cries as they rowed along the Thames. This was not looked upon kindly at Henley. In 1879 the rules were changed so that no one who "has been employed in or about boats" could take part. Even more controversially exclusion also applied to anyone "who is or has been by trade of employment for wages, a mechanic, artisan or labourer" (quoted in Henley Royal Regatta - A Celebration of 150 Years by Richard Burnell). The "Mechanics Clause" was suspended in athletics in 1880, but in 1886 the Amateur Rowing Association adopted rules in force at Henley which meant that Henley's definition of amateurism was applied in British rowing generally. To an extent the Henley philosophy had a resonance world wide. Pierre Coubertin, keen rower and founder of the modern Olympic games visited the 1888 Henley Regatta. He was impressed by what he saw, and used the Henley and British public school example of amateur competition in setting up his Olympic movement (see Coubertin, Britain and a British Chronology Ch 4 by Dr Don Anthony). But Henley was to take a harder line on amateurism than Coubertin. In 1920 the American Jack Kelly, who went on to become an Olympic gold medallist, was banned from rowing at Henley as he had once been a brick layer (see Professional Sport in Britain 1875 - 1914 by Wray Vamplew). There was an outcry but Henley and the Amateur Rowing Association were unrepentent. It took another controversy in 1938 to finally change things. An Australian crew on its way to the Olympics applied to compete at Henley as part of its preparation. Since the crew were all policeman they were considered as "manual workers" and their application was refused. Following protests the mechanics clause was finally removed from the Henley and Amateur Rowing Association rules in 1937. In 1949 the rule excluding those who had worked "in or about boats for money or wages" was withdrawn. Professionalism was now defined as racing for money, or earning a living from coaching. But even this was to change. The best athletes were obliged to take their sport beyond the confines of a hobby, which meant that events wanting to attract top talent had to accept professionals. The Olympics accepted this from 1986. Henley and British rowing generally finally followed suit from 1998.



The start of the traditional rowing course at Henley

Rowing still has a traditional image in Britain, and, as Richard Burnell says in his book on the Henley Royal Regatta, this is an image which has been nurtured over the years. Rowing is in a difficult financial position, since unlike other sports, its sports ground cannot be enclosed, making it difficult to earn money from paying spectators. Anyone can watch rowing races along the Thames from tow paths. In some ways the continuing rather privileged image of rowing is its way of trying to throw up a stadium around its pitch. At Henley a number of enclosures have been created, the Stewards's Club, or the Courtyard Enclosure for example. To access the facilities of these areas an entry payment has to be made. Burnell talks of complaints about exclusion which greeted the creation of the Stewards' Enclosure Club. In a sense a smart club area at Henley is the same as a football stadium with its turnstiles. Both are controlling access to a sport in an effort to make money from expensively organised entertainment. As Burnell says: "What actually happened was that the Stewards' Enclosure, by attracting more spectators and ensuring an income which was not dependent on the vagaries of the English summer secured the future for just those rowing men who were supposed to be squeezed out." (Henley Royal Regatta - A Celebration Of 150 Years).

Ticket prices for enclosures at Henley range from around £55 to £100, which is roughly the sort of price range you'd expect when going to see Arsenal play. In many ways the privileged image of rowing today has little to do with the amateur ethos which once prevailed. Now the welcome smartness of Henley is a "golden yesterday" without the darkness of those times. The exclusive Henley image now serves the business of making a living in a commercial world. It is no accident that corporate entertainment is now an important part of Henley's financial security.