Henley 1851

Henley Programme, Day 1, 1851, front

Here HTBS’s Tim Koch tells a story of a great find on eBay and the background of the item:

Anyone who bids regularly on eBay will occasionally experience winning a rare piece for a price far below what was expected, prompting surprise that no one else wanted what appears to be a desirable item. This happened to me two years ago when I won a programme from the first day of the 1851 Henley Royal Regatta for less than £10. Double click on the pictures to view them full size. It was crudely printed by C. Kinch, Market Place, Henley on stiff card and it measures 23 cm by 11 cm. The front has the race programme for 17th June 1851 and the back gives the so called ‘regulations’ (two minor rules and two pieces of information on the prize-giving) and describes the gun and flag signals used to communicate in those pre-electronic days. In 2009 it was found by an antiquarian book dealer between the pages on an old tome, presumably serving as a long forgotten bookmark.

Henley Programme, Day 1, 1851, back

The first Henley, held in 1839, had just two events: a Town Challenge Cup for professionals (aka ‘The Champion Prize’, last held in 1884) and a Grand Challenge Cup for gentlemen amateurs. The ‘Town’ allowed both the deliberate clashing of boats and for Watermen to act as coxswains and had a money prize of £30. The ‘Grand’ did not allow any of these. Over the next few years the number of amateur events grew rapidly with the establishment of the Stewards’ for coxed fours in 1841, the Diamonds for single sculls in 1844, the Silver Wherry for scullers in 1845, the Ladies for (men’s) eights in 1845 and the Visitors’ for coxed fours in 1847.

Henley 1844

The year 1851 saw the 13th Henley Regatta. It was the first one entitled to use the prefix ‘Royal’ as H.R.H Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s husband) had just become patron of the event. It was a two-day affair with eleven races on the Tuesday and nine on the Wednesday. The ‘Four-Oared Champion Race, open to all the world’ had a first prize of £100 which is about £6000 / $10,000 in today’s money. The Times newspaper of 18th June 1851 sets the scene:

“The Henley Regatta commenced on Tuesday…. Event followed event so rapidly as to leave the visitors but little leisure and to render the task of recording them a busy operation. The committee had been indefatigable in their endeavours to promote sport and to ensure the comfort of all concerned…. The grand stand, as usual, was filled with the elite of the neighbourhood, and two lines of splendid equipages (horse-drawn carriages with attendants) were drawn up on the bridge, from which a view could be commanded of nearly the whole course… The weather was remarkably fine, and the scene was altogether one of the most animated and picturesque character.”

The first race of the day started at 12 noon and was a heat of the professional fours race. The Feathers (Pub) Crew from Wandsworth were beaten by Mc Kinney’s Crew from Richmond (the Hoxton Crew listed did not show). The second heat produced more excitement as it was between a boat stroked by Robert Coombes, ‘The Champion of the Thames’, and, to quote the Times, “… the renowned Clasper brothers of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, whose extraordinary boat and beautiful rowing seven years ago at the Thames Regatta rendered them objects of considerable interest. Large sums of money have been speculated on this event.”

Unfortunately the Clasper boat suffered a broken pin on the second stroke. The rule was that ‘every boat must stand by its accidents’ and so Coombes won easily. In the final later that day his crew met Mc Kinney’s. The Times describes the race:

“They were at oar to oar at a most surprising pace – such a pace as we have never seen on this reach before – up to Popular Point (near the finish), when Coombe’s boat, which was outside with a slight lead, was steered so closely…. that Mc Kinney’s party had not room to row…. (The umpire) decided that Mc Kinney’s crew were entitled to the victory – the foul being too palpable to admit of a dispute.”

This may have been fine sport but that fact that gambling was a very important part of professional rowing is shown by what happened the next day. The Times of 19th June 1851:

“In consequence of the disappointment expressed owing to the Claspers being unable to contend in the Champion Prize….. the committee, assisted by gentlemen of the Universities, got up a purse of £40 to be rowed for by them and Coombe’s crew. The match created the most lively interest and a great deal of money was laid out…. The race amply repaid the subscribers for their liability; a greater race was never seen upon the Thames….. Nothing could be…. finer than the pace and style, the latter of which in both boats was of the most finished order… (They) continued oar to oar to (near the finish) where, by a most gallant effort, the Claspers drew their boat’s nose about half a length in advance. In this position, still at the same extraordinary pace, they continued pulling with all their might to the finish…. The distance was performed in the time ordinarily occupied by an eight oared boat – 8 1/2 minutes.”

In the three heats for the Diamond Sculls, the winners who were to race each other (three abreast) the next day were Edwards of Thames, Mcnaghten of Trinity College, Cambridge and Clarke of Wadham College, Oxford. In the final Edwards won ‘easily’.

Two heats of the Stewards’ Challenge Cup (for coxed fours in those days) saw ‘Cambridge University Qualification’ (crew members from St John’s, Sidney Sussex, Trinity and Caius Colleges) beat ‘Oxford, Christ Church (Eton and Westminster)’ in what the Times called ‘a splendid race, neither having any advantage for a long way up….’ In the second heat, ‘Brazenose Colege, Oxford (Childe of Hale Boat Club)’ rowed over. Cambridge won easily in the final on the 18th.

In the first heat of the Silvery Wherry for Scullers, Ives of Henley ‘won easily’ and, in the second heat, Pobjoy of Wallingfod ‘won with the greatest of ease’. Ives repeated his easy win in the final the next day.

The Grand Challenge Cup for Eight Oared Boats was between the boat clubs of Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Both crews would be able to row lightweight today, the heaviest man weighing 11 stone 10 pounds (164 lbs / 74.5 kgs), the lightest 10 stone (140 lbs / 63.6 kgs). The Times reports:

“….both parties seemed extremely confident… A beautiful start at a fine pace having been effected, the Cantabs pulled the nose of their boat a trifle in front, and in this position and oar to oar a most beautiful race was continued up to Remenham with undiminished pace. Oxford here gradually began to shake their opponents off and continued to improve her position, the Cantabs having broken a pin, owing to which the Oxonians acquires a greater lead than before.”

I apologise if I have recalled Henley 1851 in too great a detail but the pleasure of holding a one hundred and sixty year old programme that was present at the event (and perhaps pinned up for all to see judging by the hole at the top) does not have to be explained to anyone who loves history, particularly the rich history of rowing. One day I will give the card to Henley Royal Regatta – but before that I intend to enjoy it for myself for a few more years yet.


  1. Thank you Bryan. It's always nice to know that there are people out there reading this stuff! I'm afraid that I cannot remember the bookseller.


  2. A friend of the club has just pointed out that Sons of the Thames were listed as third in the Town Challenge Cup of 1850. They have Wallingford against their name. We think of our history as dating from 1886. Does anyone know if the name was used as a descriptive term or is it likely to refer to the club? We are slowly pulling together some photos and stories from the past at http://www.sonsrowing.com/history

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