27 June 2020
By Daniel Walker
On the day of Richmond Amateur Regatta, Daniel Walker looks at Richmond regattas, past and present.
Today should have been the 285th anniversary of Richmond Regatta and, I think, my 27th as a member of the committee. However, the global pandemic means that this year there is no Richmond (Amateur) Regatta, as indeed there have been no other water-based regattas this season.
I say (Amateur) in brackets as the earliest references to a regatta in Richmond are not, of course, to an amateur regatta but rather to watermen’s regattas. The very earliest reference dates back to 1735, making Richmond not quite the oldest regatta we know of, honours there go to Chester Regatta by a bowball, as it claims a history back to 1733. I am unsure of the provenance, but the regatta website tells us that in 1776, the year of American Declaration of Independence,
A Regatta was celebrated on the River Thames between Richmond and Kew in honour of the Prince of Wales’ birthday. Their Majesties, and all the rest of the Royal Family were present and received by all ranks with the greatest marks of Affection and Respect: but excepting the number of boats and the crowds of people the show afforded little diversion. In the evening some very curious fireworks were displayed on an ait on the River Thames which had a very fine effect.
Assuming the report is reliable, the Prince of Wales in 1776, would have been George, later George IV. His birthday was 12 August – a very suitable time of year for a regatta. The reference to royal attendance at a regatta is interesting, because in the archives of the present-day Richmond Amateur Regatta is a programme printed on silk for the “Second Annual Richmond Junior Watermen’s Royal Regatta” which “respectfully informs … The Nobility, Gentry and Inhabitants generally of Richmond … that a ROWING MATCH will be contested on Monday, the 9th day of August 1869 BY FREE WATERMEN OF RICHMOND”.
The prize for this contest was declared to be “a purse of sovereigns … And other prizes …”. If we assume that sovereigns plural, means at least two sovereigns (and probably quite a few more) then this is a very worthwhile reward.
Although obviously intrigued by both the duck hunt and the pig hunt my attention turns first to the “canoe racing, by Watermen’s sons” for the prize of a suit of clothes. I presume unrelated but on display at my rowing club, Auriol Kensington in Hammersmith, is a red “Richmond Royal Regatta” coat and badge, won by HJ Cole in 1921, very similar in style to a Doggett’s Coat & Badge.
Secondly, we turn to the programme of Watermen’s and Apprentice Watermen’s races. Based on how the programme is laid out with three pairs of names against each heat, I assume that the races were in double skiffs, raced three abreast. Amongst the Watermen named on the programme, we find Thomas Young, Doggett’s winner in 1863 and amongst the apprentices are Thomas Mackinney (went on to win the Doggett’s in 1871) and Henry Messum (Doggett’s winner in 1873). I should very much like to see the results from Richmond, 1869.
The course in 1869 is described as “Start from Richmond Bridge down round a Boat moored off St. Margaret’s, up round a Boat moored off the Duke of Buccleugh’s, and finish at the Bridge.” This is all in the stretch downriver from the course used by today’s Richmond Amateur Regatta. The finish line of the modern regatta is at Buccleugh Gardens (presumably the “Duke of Buccleugh’s” in the 1869 programme) and the start is 1250 metres further upriver by Ham House.
From its heyday in the 19th century, the fortunes of Richmond Regatta have waxed and waned, including as a series of Boxing Day Regattas (one of which can be seen on a film from Pathé News). The modern Richmond Amateur Regatta was resurrected in 1950 as part of the borough Diamond Jubilee.
Richmond is a traditional river regatta – crews race side by side 1250 metres downstream from the start by Ham House. The course is not, shall we say, quite straight, and, as a consequence, both the start and the finish are staggered in order to offset the shorter course experienced by the crew on the inside (Middlesex) station. The stagger on the finish has caught out many a crew who have relaxed too soon believing they were comfortably ahead.
One of the great challenges in putting on a rowing event (which I am sure holds true for similar events for any amateur sport) is that of finding sufficient volunteers, but Richmond has some particular tests all of its own in this regard. Unlike almost every other rowing event, Richmond is not associated with an organising club, the only fine boat club on this stretch of the river, Twickenham RC, already run their own regatta. As a result, Richmond has no pool of resources to which it can turn, instead it has relied on an informal group of men and women who have helped keep the regatta going despite the difficulties.
Note 1: The silk programme for the 1869 regatta had been in the possession of the BBC broadcaster and Boat Race commentator John DM Snagge OBE. On his death it passed to his brother Ralph Snagge MBE, who offered it to John Garton CBE for his collection. Together, they presented it to the Committee of Richmond Amateur Regatta. The programme was on display at the Museum of Richmond for some years.
Note 2: As well as the Boxing Day race mentioned in the article, Richmond Regattas appear several times in the Pathé News archives, a search for ‘Richmond Regatta’ on the British Pathé website will find them.
Daniel Walker has been in and around rowing since he was a schoolboy in the 1980s. He is a British Rowing Umpire, is a member of the Thames Regional Rowing Council and the National Umpiring Committee. He has been on the committee of Richmond Amateur Regatta for a long time.