The ‘Town’ I Loved So Well

The Town Cup dated to the first Henley Regatta in 1839. Picture taken 4 August 2018.

19 December 2018

By Greg Denieffe

This year, three new trophies joined the Henley Royal Regatta silverware family. In 2017, the Stewards added three new events to the racing programme and that decision was followed swiftly by commissioning the new trophies in time for the 2018 regatta. Before this year’s racing began, Tim Koch reported on the impressive (in size, at least) pots that were to be presented for the women’s fours, women’s pairs and women’s double sculls’ events. Read his article, Henley: Adding to the Family Silver, written after he attended their official unveiling at Regatta HQ. One of the new trophies, The Town Challenge Cup, echoes back to the first Henley Regatta in 1839 when the similarly named Town Cup joined the Grand Challenge Cup as the only two prizes on offer for amateur oarsmen when racing began on 14 June.

It’s all Greek to me – my 17-year-old Ναυτικός Όμιλος Ρόδου (Nautical Club of Rhodes) t-shirt gets an annual airing, this year it was at HT&V Regatta. No better place than beside the Thames to reflect on a passage from Eavan Boland’s lengthy poem Anna Liffey: “Consider rivers. They are always en route to their own nothingness. From the first moment they are going home.”

The 1839 ‘Town Cup’ has had a seesaw history but it is still raced for each year and is shown annually in the prize tent at Henley Town and Visitors’ Regatta. I’m a regular attendee at ‘Town’ regatta and have often admired the historic cup. This year’s regatta was held on one of the hottest days of the year and after a morning well-spent in the River and Rowing Museum and picnicking on Mill Meadow, #1 daughter and yours-truly went up the course to watch a few races. Owing to the extreme heat, the prize tent, which is never that busy, was an attractive alternative to the riverbank and we got a good look at the trophies and in particular the Town Cup. The regatta committee has produced a booklet about the trophies and the following is an extract from same about this historic cup:

The Town Cup for four oar boats with Coxswain, together with the Grand Challenge Cup were the first two trophies of what is now the Henley Royal Regatta. The Town Cup was for local crews only, that is residing within five miles of Henley Bridge, later extended to twenty-five miles. As the HRR grew in popularity and prestige, the events with local geographical qualifications became less popular and were finally withdrawn from the programme in 1884.

In 1885 the Stewards of the HRR offered the cup to be completed for under the same conditions as the HRR. The offer was not immediately taken up due to concerns about finding funds for providing prizes. However, in 1891 the first race was held between Marlow and Henley.

The cup is a beautifully shaped water lily vase, 9” high and 7 ½” in diameter, ornamented with garlands of flowers supported by Father Thames and swans whose necks form the handles.

Size isn’t everything, especially in silver! This was well understood by the silversmiths, Makepiece and Co. of Searle Street, Lincoln’s Inn, London, who charged 30 guineas for the cup. In comparison, the Grand Challenge Cup cost 100 guineas. In its lifetime, the Town Cup has appeared on the racing programmes of Henley Regatta, Henley Royal Regatta, Henley Town Regatta and Henley Town and Visitors’ Regatta. Plus ça change etc. as they say.

A bird’s-eye view showing the clever design of the cup’s lips – perfect for engraving.

A quick look at the statistics of the results of the Town Cup races from 1839 to 1883 reveal the lack of competition that lead to its withdrawal by the Stewards; in those 45 years, there were 12 row-overs (RO) and in three years (1851 – 1853) there wasn’t a single entry. The lack of local crews entering in 1851 lead the Stewards to extend the radius of eligibility from five-miles to 25 miles.

Henley Royal Regatta (1989) by Christopher Dodd describes the first race in 1839 as follows:

There followed the four-oared race between three Henley crews – The Wave (Capt. Mr Z. Allnutt), The Dreadnought (Capt. Mr James Forrest), and The Albion (Capt. Mr Robert Webb). There was bad temper and furious activity at The Albion boathouse because during the pairs race some shuffling parties had entered the building and chalked all over the bottom of the boat, but the misdemeanour was discovered in time to be remedied. The Wave got ahead during the struggle on the turn at the island and were first back to the bridge, winning the handsome Town Cup.

The pairs race referred to above was a £12 wager race, between three pairs of London watermen, from Henley Bridge round Temple Island and back. Thus, it always amuses me that the first overall winners of an event at Henley Regatta, that bastion of amateurism, was a professional duo by the names of Phelps and Campbell.

The Town Cup prize medal for 1839 – note the suspension ring and that the medal is gilded – was this how it was presented? The medal declares that it is for the “Town Challenge Cup” and was won by Henry Sergeant, a member of “The Wave” crew. Picture: River and Rowing Museum Collection.

Henry Sergeant (see 1839 medal above) was also a member of the Henley Aquatic Club that won the Town Cup in 1844 and in 1845. Perhaps the crew of The Wave formed themselves into Henley Aquatic Club following the example of the crew of The Dreadnought who raced as the Dreadnought Cutter Club. He also won The Local Amateurs Scullers’ Race in each of its first three years (1846 – 1848).

Sergeant’s win in the Town Cup in 1845 came in a row over resulting from a late withdrawal by the said Dreadnought Cutter Club. This snippet from In Retrospect 1839 – 1989 (Item 44 in the booklet that accompanied HRR’s sesquicentennial exhibition at Stoner Park).

A. Town Cup Medal 1845 won by Henry Sergeant (bow) of The Henley Aquatic Club in a row over, the Dreadnought Cutter Club withdrawing in consequence of the melancholy and sudden death of Mr. W. Plumb who while sitting in the Steward’s Stand was attacked with apoplexy and died in the course of the night – his demise was the subject of deep regret and threw gloom over the proceedings of the day.

Henley Aquatic Club also won the District Challenge Cup for Fours in 1845.

Captain Forrest’s boat, The Dreadnought, was a multiple winner of the Town Cup, winning it in 1840, 1841 (RO), 1842 (RO), 1846 (RO), 1847 (RO), 1848 and 1860. You can see a picture of the seven Town Cup medals won by John Page, a member of The Dreadnought crew in the RRM’s Online Collection.

Prints of Henley Regatta Town Cup and the Order of the Races from 1839. Both the work of Hickman & Kinch, Henley. Pictures: River and Rowing Museum Collection.
List of “Entrances” for 1839 and 1840 Henley Regattas – the Town Cup has become the Town Challenge Cup. Pictures: ‘In Retrospective 1839 – 1989’ (1839 print) and River and Rowing Museum Collection (1840 print).

It was in 1852 (the middle year of three without an entry) that the radius for eligible crews was extended to 25 miles and in 1854 the cup was won by a crew from Wargrave in a boat called Defiance. Henley BC won it in nine of the next 11 years with The Dreadnought winning in 1860 and Oxford Staff RC winning in 1862. The cup was then won by a succession of clubs that still exist: Eton Excelsior RC and Reading RC (both four times) and Marlow RC, who won it six times including its last appearance on the Henley Royal Regatta programme in 1883.

Henley Royal Regatta “Town Challenge Cup” prize medal for 1880. Picture: River and Rowing Museum Collection.

When the Cup next appeared on a regatta programme it was at the Town Regatta of 1891 and, in that year, it was again competed for by crews from within a 25-mile radius of Henley Bridge. That first race was not without incident: Henley RC broke an oar; there was a restart, and then Marlow RC broke a rigger. After the third start, Marlow took the lead but was overhauled by Henley who won by a length-and-a-half. In 1924, the Town Cup became an event open to all amateur clubs and three years later it became coxless.  The cup and its base are heavily engraved with the names of the winning crews right up to 1991.

A further extract from the booklet about the HT&V trophies:

Cup supplied by Robert Makepeace of Searle Street, Lincoln’s Inn; the original value being thirty guineas. Plinth supplied in 1891. In 1939, the case needed repairing and a case was required for the base. In 1992, the cup was valued at £3,500. In 2002, the base was extended by John Eatwell of Gallowstree Common – cost £30 and the engraving was brought up to date by Barry Hines of Reading – cost £85 kindly donated by the Stewards of Henley Royal Regatta.

A comment on some of the clubs and noteworthy individuals that have risen to the challenge and won the Town Cup at its new home may be of interest to readers. After Henley RC won back-to-back in 1891 and 1892, Marlow RC won three-in-a-row and in the stroke seat of their victorious 1893 and 1894 crews was R. C. Lehmann; I guess one more tag on HTBS won’t do him any harm. The last cox to win the Town Cup was L. Green of Henley RC in 1926. One other name, also of Marlow RC, is worthy of mention: M. A. Spracklen was the winning bowman in 1972 before becoming a successful coach whose long list of international successes can be read here.

The humble Town Cup, once competed for by clubs from within a five-mile radius of Henley, has now been won by crews with unusual names and by crews from unusual places: Oriel Tortoises were the fastest crew in 1949, Argosy BC was the quickest boat of the fleet in 1951; Tweedledee RC won the battle in 1960 whilst Mossman RC, Australia, marched to victory in 1975; St. Petersburg University ‘Neva’ had it better than in 2011 and in 2014, Nonesuch BC were shipshape and Bristol fashion in taking the home the silverware.

The cup itself is in splendid condition thanks to the care lavished on it for nigh on 180 years. All hail those who continue to look after it so well. Many of HTBS’s loyal readers do more than their bit to preserve our rowing history and document it. Like me they understand that each artefact tells a story, each object is a time portal and our job is that of custodian – or as the old song goes:

… what’s done is done and what’s won is won
And what’s lost is lost and gone forever.

– Phil Coulter (a lyric from his song The Town I Loved So Well).

One comment

  1. Thank you, Greg, for a most well conceived, excellent and interesting article. I’ve only owned one “Town Challenge Cup” medal, which was from the HRR period, the reverse of which included the lettering “Henley / Regatta / Established / 1839”. Do you know whether medals were provided to the post-HRR victors, and, if so, how the regatta affiliation was expressed?

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