Rowing Through The Ages

Viewed from Barnes Railway Bridge, competitors for the 2017 Schools Head of the River Race Marshall at Mortlake.

27 March 2017

In a preface Tim Koch writes:

I started to write this post before the 2017 Head of the River Race was cancelled. My intention was to report on the four major ‘head races’ held on the Thames Tideway in March in one article titled, ‘Four Heads Are Better Than One’. I am continuing with this idea – even though the piece is now one race shorter that I expected. 

Unlike Julius Caesar, I rather look forward to the Ides of March. It marks the mid-point of the third month of the year, a time when there are many indications that the end of the dreary winter period is just about in sight and that the summer regatta season is on the horizon. There are at least three pointers to this eagerly anticipated time: the announcement of the crews and the weigh in for the Oxford–Cambridge Boat Race takes place; members of Stewards’ Enclosure and of Leander Club receive their badges for Henley; and, in the space of two weeks, four major British ‘head races’ take place over the Thames Championship Course, Mortlake to Putney. Rather like the ancient joke, ‘old statisticians never die – they just get broken down by age and sex’, this quartet of time trials is respectively for senior women’s eights, senior men’s eights, veterans’/masters’ eights and, finally, juniors. The veteran and the junior events are open to both genders and the youngsters’ race accepts a variety of boat types, not just eights. This year the Women’s Eights Head of the River Race (WEHoRR) was scheduled for 11 March, the Schools’ Head of the River Race (SHORR) for 23 March, the (men’s) Head of the River Race (HoRR) for 25 March and the Vesta Veterans International Eights Head of the River Race for 26 March.

The Women’s Eights Head of the River Race

There are no pictures of the WEHoRR from me as I was a participant, not an observer. I coxed a boat that finished a rather lowly 252 out of 295 (though this was nothing to do with the steering). Embarrassingly, we were 40 seconds slower than the now famous University of Bristol ‘C’ crew. Despite starting 51, Leander produced the fastest boat on the day, covering the 6.8km course under good conditions in a time of 18 minutes 13 seconds. The pennant winners are listed on the official website as are the full results.

An earlier picture of the victorious Leander crew. Photo: @PhelanHill.

The Schools’ Head

The SHORR, organised by Westminster School, is for boys and girls aged between 14 and 18 years old from both school boat clubs and rowing clubs. Composite crews, drawn from more than one club or school, are not permitted and the race offers a large number of events.

A warning at Putney.

For the boys’ eights in the J18, J16 and J15 age groups, there are categories for ‘Championship Eights’ and 1st, 2nd and, in the case of J18s, 3rd Boats. Boys can also race coxless quads at J18 and J16 and coxed fours at J18, J 16 and J15. There are girls’ events for eights at J18 (Championship and 1st Boat), J16 and J15. Girls’ coxless quads and coxed fours are offered at J18 and J16. There is also a mixed coxless quad event.

Grange School, entered in the Girls’ Championship Quads, on the way to the start.

The distance is usually a fractionally shortened full Mortlake to Putney course, truncated a little as the finish is the boathouse flagpole of organisers, Westminster School. However, race day 2017 saw strong winds and rough water, with conditions particularly poor over the final two-thirds of the distance, and a last minute decision was made to make the finish the bandstand at Dukes Meadows, changing the fastest crew’s expected finish time from sub-eighteen to sub-five minutes. All the parents that were gathered at Putney and Hammersmith to spectate had to suddenly and quickly make their way towards Chiswick and Mortlake. The resulting movement along the towpath looked like a flight of refugees, albeit in this private school dominated event, one composed of higher-rate taxpayers clad in decaying Barbour jackets and accompanied by corpulent Labradors.

The Bandstand on Duke’s Meadows, Chiswick, a famous Championship Course marker but not usually a finish point.
Marshalling below Barnes Bridge on the Middlesex bank.

In the Boy’s Championship Eights, the finish order for the first four was the same as the start order (Westminster, Shiplake, St Paul’s, Eton) but, when the times were calculated, Shiplake was placed first with a time of four minutes fifty seconds, followed by Eton, then St Paul’s, then Westminster.

Pictured from Barnes bridge, eventual winners, Shiplake College (in stripes), chase Westminster School (in pink). For the benefit of American readers, ‘Shiplake College’ is in fact a high school, as is ‘Eton College’.
At the finish, things initially looked bad for Eton, in the foreground, a long way behind St Paul’s, Shiplake and Westminster. However, they must have started long after the leading three as they were eventually placed second.

In the Girls’ Championship Eights, Headington School won in five minutes twenty-five seconds, closely followed by Henley RC. Full results are on the official website.

A tussle at Mortlake between, on the far side, crew 48, Royal Shrewsbury School, crew 46 in the middle, Radley College, and crew 47, King’s School, Chester.

The Head of the River Race

As we know, this year’s Men’s Eights Head was cancelled. The Women’s Head, usually held two weeks earlier, often experiences better weather conditions. In 2018, both events will be held on the same weekend (Women on Saturday and Men on Sunday) – so perhaps the women’s luck will rub off on the men. For a view on what may have been, see ‘Fatsculler’, Daniel Spring’s predictions made before the cancellation decision.

Hammersmith is usually a very busy place on the day scheduled for the HoRR – but not this year. In the background, frustrated Leander crews load up their boat trailer to return to Henley.

The Vesta Veterans International Eights Head of the River Race

Old rowers, old logo. The event started in 1983 when the HoRR became too popular to accommodate both senior and veteran rowers. Age categories are explained here.
Going to the marshalling area – which was between Hammersmith and Putney.
Minerva Bath RC Masters C crew warm up.

Perhaps out of respect for the age of the competitors, the Weather Gods provided good conditions for the Veterans’ Head. Temperatures were 15℃/59℉ and, while there was some wind, this was largely mitigated by the fact that the race was on a rising tide.

Going through Hammersmith Bridge to the start – The Thames Rowing Club Masters A crew who eventually won their category and who also proved to be the fastest crew overall.
The race is on and the Royal Air Force Masters C crew approach Chiswick Bridge, trying not to be Tail End Charlies.
The finish was just upstream of Mortlake, Anglian and Alpha RC (left) and of Quintin BC, (right). In exactly one week’s time, the eyes of millions will be on this beach as the Oxford–Cambridge crews come ashore from the University Boat Race finish, just downstream of Chiswick Bridge (on the right).

There were 235 entries, 32 of them from abroad. Italy had the largest number of foreign crews with seven, Germany six, France four, the United States and Denmark both three, Switzerland two, and one each from Poland, Hungary and Norway.

In the background is the Eton Excelsior RC Masters C entry, while returning from the finish in the foreground is the Milton Keynes RC Masters B crew.
Passing the Putney Town RC boathouse. The club started life in 1922, boating from the basement of the Dukes Head pub in Putney. It moved to this site in Kew in 1986 and the splendid boathouse dates from 1995.
A supporter of Cygnet RC. In the background, the Reading RC Masters E crew.

The results are here, showing the Thames RC Masters A crew as the overall winner. For those that did not do so well, they can at least comfort themselves with the rowing veterans’ refrain, ‘The older I get, the better I was’.


  1. Tim
    I don’t want to be a pedant but I will :-), Quintin is a Boat Club not a Rowing Club. Perhaps a story for HTB’s future. Why are some clubs RC’s whilst others are BC’s?

  2. Thank you Martin, my mistake made in haste. I think that a ‘rowing club’ is open to all, but a ‘boat club’ is part of a closed institution, usually a school or university (Quintin has its origins in the Regent Street Polytechnic). However, I am not sure why Molesey is a Boat Club or why Leander is just ‘Leander Club’.

  3. Tim,

    If only it were that simple …

    You’re right that Quintin has its origins in the Regent Street Polytechnic. However, the Polytechnic’s rowing club was called Polytechnic Rowing Club. Quintin was founded in 1907 as an offshoot of that club. Quintin’s original name was Polytechnic Boat Club and, under that name, it raced at regattas during 1907. However, after a few months the ARA sensibly suggested that having two concurrent clubs called Polytechnic Rowing Club and Polytechnic Boat Club might lead to confusion. Polytechnic Boat Club accordingly agreed to change its name. After considering and rejecting several possibilities including Quintinian Rowing Club, it alighted on Quintin Boat Club. ‘Quintin’ was in honour of Quintin Hogg, who had founded the organisation that eventually became the Regent Street Polytechnic.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.