20 July 2017
Tim Koch has been upriver:
Famously, nostalgia is not what it used to be. Of course, few things are, and the annual Molesey Regatta, held a little way upstream of Molesey Boat Club, close to Hampton Court Palace, 12 miles south-west of Central London, is no exception. The event’s website tells us:
The 2017 REGATTA, which takes place on the weekend of 15-16 July, will be a celebration of 150 years since it was first started by Molesey Boat Club. This anniversary is shared with Canada, the London Fire Brigade, Barnardos and the British Red Cross – so we are in good company!
Molesey Amateur Regatta (MAR) was founded by Molesey Boat Club (MBC) in 1867 (though, in many of its recent communications, MAR seems to have dropped the prefix ‘Amateur’). The club decided not to take on the running of the regatta in the following year, because ‘it was too onerous an undertaking’, something that anyone who has ever been involved in organising boat races will be able to sympathise with. An independent committee was then formed to run the event (though with considerable support from the club) and this is still the case today.
While it would be rather surprising if the regatta had not changed since 1867, it is interesting to compare the event’s ‘glory years’ to what it is now. In modern times, Molesey is a charming local regatta run by a hard-working committee and which receives support not only from parts of the rowing fraternity, but also from the local community. It maintains some nice ‘old fashioned’ aspects that most contemporary regattas have abandoned and these include a subscriber’s membership, a break in racing for lunch, the availability of a formal luncheon, wonderful silver trophies, and an evening music concert. This year saw 152 races for seniors and masters on the Saturday, and 267 races for Juniors on the Sunday. While a good day’s sport was had by all, the first day’s racing had a disproportionately large entry by Masters, while the Seniors were mostly of a lower rowing status. On the riverbank, a few hundred spectators enjoyed the show. Nothing wrong with any of this, of course, but until perhaps the 1939 – 1945 War, Molesey Regatta was a very different affair, both in a sporting and a social context. Writing on the 1900 Regatta, a local newspaper, The Surrey Comet, summed up the esteem in which MAR was held for the first 70 years of its existence:
The body of the gentlemen constituting the executive of this popular regatta must be heartily congratulated on having again achieved a brilliant success. For years the gathering has been increasing in favour both with our best amateur rowing clubs, and with that very numerous class who treat such regattas as river picnics, so that in rowing and attendance it has grown to be recognised as, next to Royal Henley, the principal meeting of the river season.
In the same year, the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News wrote, ‘Next to Henley, the regatta at Molesey is of the greatest importance in the rowing world’. In 1902, The Times stated, ‘[Molesey] marks as the next in noteworthiness on the Thames to Henley…’
However, in 1881, a reporter from The Sportsman newspaper considered that he had been slighted by the regatta organisers and damned the event with faint praise (and perhaps unknowingly forecast future decline):
Few more charming spots can be imagined for aquatic picnicking purposes than the banks of old Father Thames in the vicinity of Hampton Court, and thus it comes about that the annual regatta at Molesey is invested with more importance than it is intrinsically worth. As the picturesque locality of Henley is responsible for the greater part of the popularity of that gathering, so in a smaller way at Molesey, the annual race meeting of that ‘important’ body, the Molesey B.C., receives more notice than it otherwise deserves.
The social importance of Molesey in the late Victorian, Edwardian, inter-war period (when all classes seemed determined to go afloat whenever possible, in any craft available) is best illustrated visually, though the Surrey Comet of 1876 produced a nice image in words:
It was evident that the majority of the company had come with the sole object of having a pleasant picnic in a very picturesque reach of the river, and it was patent to the most casual observer that the chicken and lobster salad, and claret cup and champagne came in for a much larger share of attention than the racing.
As the above sepia pictures show, keeping the racing lane clear was a problem, one that Henley had dealt with a few years earlier by the introduction of booms. In 1894, the local newspaper was exasperated by the bad behaviour of the spectators in small boats:
[They] continually obtruded themselves into the course while the races were in progress, there being several narrow escapes… It is quite useless, as the committee have done for years, by the legend on their programmes to ‘gentlemen as sportsmen’ to do their utmost in keeping the course clear, for the majority are clearly not sportsmen, and many of them can hardly be described as gentlemen…
Molesey’s reign as a fashionable and prestigious regatta survived the 1914 – 1918 War and this is well illustrated by the iconic ‘jazz age’ posters that London Transport produced to promote travel to the event in the 1920s.
Ephemeral posters aside, the most obvious, tangible and long-lasting reminders of Molesey’s glorious past is their collection of very impressive solid silver trophies which are still lovingly produced for display and presentation every year.
Most of the quotes that I have used come from the excellent history section of the Molesey Regatta website.