Backsplash: The Rowing History Conference – Talk by Peter Mallory, Part II

17 August 1829
A Singular Day on the Thames Tideway
“a scene of animation scarcely, if ever, equalled.”
Part II

28 December 2017

Here Peter Mallory continues his Backsplash presentation from yesterday.

Having gotten some sense in Part I of what the Thames River was like 188 years ago, let us now review some of the aquatic events which took place on 17 August 1829, perhaps the busiest day of rowing competition in urban Thames Tideway history, before or since. Though it would rain the rest of the week, it was cloudy that Monday. At noon, the temperature stood at 61 degrees and the barometer at 30.02 and falling.

As we shall discover, regattas of that era needed to be run during high water. High tide at London Bridge on that afternoon of 17 August took place at 6 minutes past four, ideal for a competition that might begin around 2pm and end around 6 – sunset on the 17th was at 7:18 – so all the regattas that took place on the river that day occurred virtually simultaneously.

Two of the contests took place in the Pool of London. We will first examine the . . .

St. John and St. George’s Regatta
Annual Contest for a Wherry and Other Prizes
Given by the Inhabitants of
St. John (Wapping) and St. George’s in the East

Here are the two churches today . . .

. . . and on the 1827 map, St. John is the black square one block northeast of Wapping Old Stairs (near the “E” of THAMES), on the corner of Church Street and Green Bank, while St. George’s is clearly labeled several blocks further north of the Thames at the corner of Cannon Street and Ratcliff Highway.

The individuals invited by the organizers to participate and compete for the prizes were six professional watermen assigned to the neighbourhood, three at Wapping Old Stairs and three more at Wapping New Stairs, a block or so downstream.

Both locations were depicted by Rowlandson.

So why would the inhabitants of a neighbourhood sponsor a regatta for their local watermen? In London culture for hundreds of years, the roughhewn Cockney-speaking waterman had been a sympathetic and even romanticised figure.

Popular songs and theatrical plays were written about them. But watermen were starting to fall on hard times. “Above bridge”, Westminster, Blackfriars’, Vauxhall, Waterloo and Southwark Bridges were already in place, allowing citizens to walk rather than be rowed across the Thames. Worse, steam-powered launches were beginning to compete with oar-powered wherries, a fight that watermen were bound to lose.

Whereas there had been 40,000 watermen in London during the time of Samuel Pepys, there were only perhaps 10,000 left by 1829. The handwriting was on the wall.

Still, the daily lives of Londoners depended on their watermen. An annual regatta with a valuable wherry and cash prizes was a way for the community to financially support and encourage the watermen that they relied upon to continue to work their stairs in their community. Handbills would often include phrases such as: “as an encouragement to skilful and industrious Watermen of the River Thames” or “as an encouragement to civility and industry of the watermen at [Such-and-Such] Stairs”. This handbill is from the Guy Nickalls scrapbooks in the Leander Club Library.

The prize wherry at stake often had an elaborately-painted backboard . . .

. . . like this one from 1852 on display at the River & Rowing Museum in Henley.

These wherries were worth as much as a year’s pay to a waterman supporting his family, and the backboard would be perfect advertising for him in the years that followed.

But that’s not all. Since the 18th century, rowing contests on the Thames in London had been occasions for raucous street carnivals attracting truly enormous crowds.

Horace Walpole, art historian, antiquarian and man of letters, in a letter to the Countess of Upper Ossory written on Friday night, 11 o’clock, 23 June 1775, described attending a regatta earlier that day. The crowd was estimated at a jaw-dropping 200,000 in very blustery weather.

“I went at six o’clock to Richmond House, and it was beautiful to see the Thames covered with boats, barges, and streamers, and every window and house-top loaded with spectators. I suppose so many will not meet again till the Day of Judgement, which was not to-day.”

It was indeed Judgement Day for a few. Seven people drowned during the excitement.

In The Life of Samuel Johnson L.L.D., 1791, biographer James Boswell described attending the same regatta:

“Scarce any thing could be seen for clouds of dust that intercepted one’s sight . . . It was however a real pleasure to look at the crowd of spectators. Every shop was shut; every street deserted; and the tops of all such houses as had any catch of the river swarmed with people, like bees settling on a branch. Here is no exaggeration, upon my honour; even the lamp-irons on Westminster-bridge were converted in to seats, while every lighter lying on the Thames bore men up to the topmast-head . . . they sat so thick upon the slating of Whitehall, that nobody could persuade me for a long time out of the notion that it was covered with black, till through a telescope we espied the animals in motion, like magnified mites on a bit of old cheese.”

And here is a description of a typical regatta written in 1835 by none other than Charles Dickens:

“A well-contested rowing match on the Thames is a very lively and interesting scene. The water is studded with boats of all sorts, kinds, and descriptions —places in the coal-barges at the different wharfs are let to crowds of spectators —beer and tobacco flow freely about —men, women, and children, wait for the start in breathless expectation —cutters of six and eight oars glide gently up and down, waiting to accompany their proteges during the race —and bands of music add to the animation if not to the harmony of the scene.”

This Rowlandson watercolour of the Doggett’s Coat and Badge competition in 1805 captures well the atmosphere. The Doggett’s race continues to be held annually since its first running in 1715, making it the world’s longest running athletic contest. The 1829 edition had been held on its traditional point-to-point course two weeks prior to 17 August, the day we are examining, but such events have many similarities. Boats of all sizes accompanied the participants, rowing behind, beside, even ahead and often in the way of their forward progress, a free-for-all, not a scintilla of discipline, a far cry from the races of today on pristine buoyed courses.

Incidentally, one of the six-oared cutters mentioned by Dickens and drawn by Rowlandson might well have been the cutter Leander. Such clubs had existed for at least half a century.

And one more thing. Besides being exciting and entertaining, rowing contests were an ideal occasion to place wagers. Gambling was the obsession of Georgian London, and bookmakers were omnipresent among the crowds on regatta days, adjusting the odds as the racing advanced. Betting was intense, often amounting to many thousands of pounds.

And the contestants, often referred to as wagermen, were well-known to the onlookers. For years, members of the community had entrusted their very lives to them daily . . . getting to know them while sitting face-to-face with them in their wherries. How natural it was to sing songs about them, relate to them personally and support them by placing bets on their success.

Dickens continues:

“‘Here they are’ is the general cry —and through darts the first boat, the men in her stripped to the skin, and exerting every muscle to preserve the advantage they have gained —four other boats follow close astern, there are not two boats’ length between them —the shouting is tremendous, and the interest intense. Every little public-house fires its gun and hoists its flag . . .

. . . and the men who win the heat come in amidst a splashing and shouting, and banging and confusion, which no one can imagine who has not witnessed it, and of which any description would convey a very faint idea.”

So wrote Charles Dickens. This image is an 1837 engraving by Thomas Cruikshank aptly titled “AUGUST. – Regatta”.

Briefly, here is how the competition at the 1829 St. John and St. George’s Regatta went: the six men competed in two heats of three each, the winners qualifying directly to the final. The remaining four went out again in a third heat, the winner of that joining the winners of the first two heats for a fourth and final three-boat heat.

The location used for this regatta was the open corridor of water between the riverbank and boats anchored in mid-stream. You can get some sense of what this looked like from this contemporary Picture of the Putney embankment.

Anchor any closer to land, and you are hung up at low tide. The result is an avenue of clear water on each side of the river during periods of high tide forming perfect venues for rowing competitions.

On 17 August 1829, each heat was contested in full sight of the gathered crowd, beginning at Union Stairs . . .

. . . rowing down to and round a boat anchored off King Edward Stairs, back to Union Stairs, back to King Edward Stairs and finishing at Union Stairs, altogether 2.25 miles with three 180˚ turns, extremely treacherous to negotiate in close no-holds-barred competition. Think of the Ben Hur chariot race.

During the afternoon of 17 August, the winner would have had to negotiate this course at least twice to earn his victory. In the heavy working wherries they used in these neighbourhood regattas, that was A TON of exertion! Only later in the 1830s were specially-designed “wager boats” employed in some arranged matches.

As the sun set at the end of the day, all the contestants of the St. John and St. George’s Regatta were towed the length of the course to receive the accolades of the assembled crowd. Five of the six received generous prizes.

The second regatta we will examine took place on the opposite bank of the Pool of London:

St. Olave’s Regatta
For a Prize Wherry
Given by the Inhabitants of
St. Olave’s Tooley-street

Returning to a detail from a polychrome copy of Visscher . . .

. . . the distinctive tower of St. Olave’s Tooley Street can be seen in the center foreground, just a stone’s throw from the Southwark Gate of Old London Bridge. Note the severed heads impaled on pikes above the Gatehouse. In 1305, the first head to appear had been that of William Wallace, the Scottish nationalist portrayed in the movie Braveheart. As many as 30 heads at a time were reported during the 16th century, and the last was only brought down sometime after 1772.

St. Olave’s was named for King Olaf II, the patron saint of Norway, beloved in England after fighting alongside the Anglo-Saxon King Ethelred the Unready against the Danes in the Battle of London Bridge in 1014. Olaf later attempted to convert his people to Christianity and was martyred in 1030. There were five churches in the City of London alone dedicated to him. Samuel Pepys is buried in St. Olave’s Hart Street, built on the site of the battle.

On 17 August 1827 the racing took place between six watermen belonging to Battle Bridge Stairs . . .

. . . shown here c. 1900 and easily located on the 1827 map . . .

. . . just downstream of St. Olave’s.

The regatta followed the same format of four heats as the previous regatta, beginning off Chamberlain’s Wharf, immediately adjacent to St. Olave’s and the Bridge Yard, down round a boat moored off George’s Stairs, back to Battle Bridge, again to George’s, and finishing at Battle Bridge, a total of 1.32 miles with three 180˚ turns.

Reported Bell’s Life, “At the conclusion of the wager, the prize was conveyed round the parish in procession.” The wherry, the winner aboard, was hoisted on the shoulders of his supporters, many of whom might have won healthy sums wagering on his prowess.

The third regatta we will discuss is the

Ninth Annual Lambeth Regatta
For a Prize Wherry
Given by the Ladies and Gentlemen of
St. Mary, Lambeth

The church with its stone tower on the right in this 1802 painting by Daniel Turner, along with the adjacent Lambeth Gardens and Palace, residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, still exists today.

Unfortunately, just about every other trace of the Lambeth of 1829 is gone . . .

. . disappeared behind the Albert Embankment and beneath St Thomas’ Hospital.

Here is the river view of the palace and church from the phenomenal Panorama of the Thames, published in our year by Samuel Leigh.

This astonishing book shows in detail how both banks of the river looked in 1829, all the way from Westminster Bridge upstream to Richmond . . .

. . . this particular portion showing Battersea Bridge and its environs. Altogether, the Panorama portrays in exquisite detail fifteen miles of river view on both banks, in one continuous strip more than 60 feet in length, neatly folded like an accordion between its covers.

We will turn to this incredible resource several more times this afternoon.

But let us now return to Lambeth and focus on the area between the Palace and Westminster Bridge, which over the years has received a great deal of attention from rowing historians since Leander Club came into existence in this location around 1818. The club will be celebrating its 200th Anniversary next year.

The 1827 Cruchley map detail on the left shows the river between Westminster and Vauxhall Bridges. In the further closeup at right, you can clearly see the church and the palace at the bottom. Between the gardens and the river is the area known as Bishop’s Walk, and between the gardens and Westminster Bridge Road is the neighbourhood of Stangate. During the 19th century, the entire riverfront of both locales was dominated by Searle Boat Builders, along with other oar and boat makers and numerous sheds for rental boats and state barges.

Here is a map from The Brilliants, the 1997 Leander Club history, showing various Searle properties and Leander locations.

Let us examine the Stangate neighbourhood first.

Here is the view from the 1829 Panorama of the Thames . . .

. . . another circa 1840 from Thomas Rowlandson . . .

. . . and three of the five known views painted by Richard Pembery around 1851. Count one state barge . . .

. . . now three . . .

. . . and again three in this version.

The nearby Bishop’s Walk area was also a jumble of boat sheds and boat builders . . .

Around 1830, Searle’s expanded their customer service beyond their downstream Stangate yard to several properties they had been leasing along Bishop’s Walk, including what became the first meeting rooms for Leander Club, shown under the Searle sign at right in this print by E.F. Lambert from around 1831.

This photo from 1866 by William Strudwick shows Bishop’s Walk with the palace garden wall on the left. This is the view that members of Leander would have had as they arrived to meet and to take to their boats.  The sign on the third house reads “E. Searle, Boat Builder, Boats Let & Housed.”  This row of five attached houses . . .

. . . is clearly shown here on this detail of the map from The Brilliants.

Lambeth Regatta on 17 August involved twelve watermen assigned to Lambeth Stairs . . .

. . . directly in front of the Church of St. Mary. The men rowed six wherries as pairs in two heats of three each, the two winning boats advancing to the third and final heat.

Starting from Westminster Bridge . . .

. . . shown here in a 1742 painting by James Nicholls looking upstream with Lambeth on the left and the Palace in the distance, the competitors rowed upstream, round a boat moored off the Nine Elms, returning down the Surrey bank, round Carey’s Floating Bath and then back to Lambeth Stairs, around 3.2 miles with two 180˚ turns.

This detail from Pigot & Co.’s Miniature Plan of London & Vicinity of 1820 shows a village upstream of Vauxhall Bridge named Nine Elms, but the turnaround for the race was probably in front of a nearby tavern of that name, likely closer to Cumberland Gardens.

Carey’s Floating Bath?

Here is an 1874 engraving of another floating bath nearby. Earlier in the century, Carey’s Floating Bath was moored off the downstream end of the pier of Westminster Bridge closest to the Surrey bank, a bit past the left frame of this print, so it was possible to row round it.

Here is an image of the interior of a floating bath. They were all the rage.

Incidentally, Dickens’s Dictionary of the Thames, 1880, describes the two turning points, Carey’s Floating Bath below Westminster Bridge, and Cumberland Gardens at the mouth of the River Ephra, as favourite sites to fish for roach, the unfortunate name for a quite edible fresh and brackish water fish common throughout Britain, an interesting reminder that the Thames Tideway was still a functioning ecosystem upstream as the City of London expanded during the Industrial Revolution.

Bell’s Life reported a lot of “fouling” during the Lambeth Regatta in 1829, which makes this a good moment to say a word or two about the nature of the competitions that spectators up and down the Tideway that day were viewing.

Take another look at the Rowlandson rendering of the 1805 Doggett’s race. The river was not cleared of the dense normal traffic for any of these regattas, and as already described, the courses were jammed with spectator boats, many intentionally or unintentionally getting in the way of the competitors. Picking one’s way through such a maelstrom, “fake left, go right”, would have provided much of the challenge.

In addition, after centuries of organized competitions there had evolved very specific “rules” of boat racing, rules that seem totally arbitrary and even bizarre to modern sensibilities, which value fairness and respect for one’s opponent. Such “gentlemanly” ideals only began to take hold later in the 19th century.

All “watermen’s wagers” were tests of tactical shrewdness and cunning at least as much as rowing. Anything and everything was permitted as long as (1) no hands were ever put over the gunwales of one’s boat to grab something or to fend off obstacles, opponents, spectator boats, barges, bridge abutments, sand bars, mud flats, etc., and (2) no competitor ever rose from his seat for any reason.

Fouling, basically anything else you could possibly think of to do to your opponent, actions such as impeding their progress by crossing their bow to block them or cut them off or drive them to shore or into a fixed obstacle or another boat, actions such as ramming them from behind to swamp them, break their oars, disable their rudder or push them sideways to the stream or into a bridge or another boat or the shore, all this was de rigeur amongst London watermen, and it was celebrated amongst onlookers and newspapers of the day, up to and including The Times of London, as a sweet science, an artful skill to be admired, even revered.

It also made for tremendously exciting, unpredictable racing, “splashing and shouting, and banging and confusion” as Dickens described it.

We will journey further upstream in Part III.

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