The first Henley regatta was staged on this date in 1839 and proved so successful that it was expanded the next year from one day to two. As the regatta’s popularity has grown it has further expanded: to three days in 1886, four days in 1906 and five days in 1986. The regatta has been known as Henley Royal Regatta since 1851, when Prince Albert became the first royal patron. Since his death, every reigning monarch has agreed to be the patron.
At a public meeting in Henley town hall on 26 March 1839, Captain Edmund Gardiner proposed “that from the lively interest which had been manifested at the various boat races which have taken place on the Henley reach during the last few years, and the great influx of visitors on such occasions, this meeting is of the opinion that the establishing of an annual regatta, under judicious and respectable management, would not only be productive of the most beneficial results to the town of Henley, but from its peculiar attractions would also be a source of amusement and gratification to the neighbourhood, and the public in general.” The “various boat races” included the first Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race in 1829, which by 1839 had officially moved to London’s Tideway, where it remains.
At the regatta’s inception it was intended for amateurs rather than those who rowed professionally. In 1879 Henley produced its first formal definition of an amateur:
No person shall be considered an amateur oarsman or sculler, or coxswain:
Who has ever competed in any open competition for a stake, money, or entrance fee. (Not to apply to foreign crews.)
Who has ever competed with or against a professional for any prize.
Who has ever taught, pursued or assisted in the practice of athletic exercises of any kind as a means of gaining a livelihood.
Who has been employed in or about boats for money or wages.
Who is or has been by trade or employment for wages a mechanic, artisan or labourer.
You can tell that the last rule has class implications of a rather unsavory kind. Put in a crude paraphrase, “We don’t want our high-born men competing with manual laborers because they have bigger muscles because they do physical labor every day, and our chaps are much more refined, and so not as beefy.” That is, being muscular was a negative class marker. Henley was for the gentry, not the masses. To a degree the event still has that aura – among spectators. The regatta began in the high Victorian era, but the image conveyed on the banks is Edwardian. In the Steward’s Enclosure, for example, there is a strict dress code for men and women. Men must wear jacket and tie, which normally means boat club blazer, club tie, flannels, and a straw boater. Women must wear skirts or dresses with hemlines below the knee, but many of them look like refugees from the royal family.
In 1884, amateur status for overseas competitors was put on the same basis as for home oarsmen, thus ending the concession on racing for money prizes. By 1886 a phrase had also been added debarring any person “engaged in any menial activity. “These rules would become the cause of growing controversy as international entries to Henley increased; most foreign countries having a different definition of amateur. The adoption of Henley’s definition of amateur by the Amateur Rowing Association of Great Britain would also cause a 66-year schism in British rowing, when in 1890 a rival National Amateur Rowing Association was set up, with a much more inclusive definition of amateurism.
One well-known incident was the exclusion of future Olympic champion John B. Kelly Sr., from the 1920 regatta because he had served an apprenticeship as a bricklayer. According to the minutes of the regatta’s Committee of Management, Kelly was excluded both because he was not eligible under the manual labor rules and because he was a member of Vesper Boat Club, which was banned in 1906 because members of its 1905 Henley crew had raised money to pay for their trip through public donations – making them professionals in the eyes of the Henley Stewards. Kelly’s exclusion was widely reported in newspapers in both the UK and USA, with many seeing it as an attempt to prevent an American from winning the Diamonds. Kelly’s son John B. Kelly Jr. would dramatically win the 1947 Diamond Sculls, and his daughter would become the famous Academy Award-winning actress turned Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly, keeping the incident in the public eye for years afterwards.
In 1936, there was a further controversy when the Australian national eight, preparing for the Berlin Olympics, was excluded from the Grand Challenge Cup because the crew was composed of policemen, deemed to be ‘manual workers’. The resulting embarrassment persuaded the Amateur Rowing Association and the Stewards of Henley Royal Regatta of the need for change. On 9 June 1937, the offending references to manual laborers, mechanics, artisans and menial duties were deleted from the ARA rules. Henley’s rules were changed the following day, coming into effect from the 1938 regatta.
The first ‘overseas’ entry to the regatta was in 1870 when Trinity College, Dublin entered the Grand, Ladies’, Visitors’ and Wyfold. As Dublin was at that time within the United Kingdom, this was not a foreign entry. Trinity won the Visitors’ and reached the final of the Ladies’. The first international competitors came in 1878 when G.W. Lee of New Jersey and G. Lee of Boston entered the Diamonds, Shoe-wae-cae-mette BC of Monroe, Michigan, a crew of French Canadian watermen, entered the Stewards’, and Columbia College entered the Stewards’ and Visitors’. Lee of Boston made little progress but Lee of New Jersey lost his heat in a very close race against T.C. Edwards-Moss, the eventual winner. Shoe-wae-cae-mette, rowing with then-unusual swivel rowlocks, reached the final of the Stewards’ but lost to London Rowing Club. Columbia won the Visitors’ Challenge Cup, becoming the first foreign winners of a Henley trophy.Unfortunately, there were accusations that both G.W. Lee and the Shoe-wae-cae-mette crew were not amateurs. This led in 1879 to a new, tighter, definition of amateurism and a requirement that any entries from outside the United Kingdom must be made on or before 1 March and must be ‘accompanied by a declaration made before Notary Public with regard to the profession of each member of the crew’, and this must be certified by the British Consul, the mayor, or the chief authority of the locality. Under these new rules, Shoe-wae-cae-mette were refused entry in 1879 as were Hillsdale Boat Club of Michigan in 1882.
The Germania Ruder Club of Frankfurt became the first entry from continental Europe in 1880, losing in a heat of the Grand to London Rowing Club. Foreign entries grew over the next twenty years, to the consternation of some who felt that the regatta should be restricted to domestic entries only. There were also a number of disputes over amateurism and the two issues were often bound up together, as in this letter to The Times from Edmond Warre, headmaster of Eton College in 1901:
I most earnestly desire that our amateur oarsmanship may be preserved from the deadly inroad of professionalism, which is already making a business of so much that ought only to be pleasure, and threatens to crush the life out of the sports of “merrie England”. Let us restrict our Henley pots to the United Kingdom and set up a proper international regatta elsewhere, if that is thought desirable.
W.H. Grenfell MP proposed a motion for a special meeting of the Stewards that:
This meeting…while fully prepared to promote the establishment of an international regatta upon a proper course and under suitable conditions, is of the opinion that Henley Regatta does not provide either a proper course or suitable conditions for international competitions.
He proposed amendments to the rules restricting entries to the United Kingdom, and for the Goblets and Diamonds to British subjects domiciled in the UK. Warre seconded his proposals. The Amateur Rowing Association canvassed its member clubs on the proposal and the results were decisive: all clubs opposed the proposals save for Oxford University Boat Club which supported them with the caveat ‘Committee decide against foreign entries provided they can row other than Henley’. At a special general meeting of the Stewards late in 1901, a motion moved by Colonel Makins ‘that in the opinion of this meeting it is inexpedient that any alteration in the rules of the regatta be made at present’ was carried by 19 votes to 5.
In 1906, Royal Club Nautique de Gand of Belgium became the first foreign crew to win the Grand Challenge Cup. A different Ghent Club, Sport Nautique de Gand took the Grand in 1907. In advance of 1908, with the Olympic Regatta to be held on the Henley course in mid-July, the Stewards announced a temporary rule change excluding overseas entries from the 1908 regatta (which would take place two weeks before the Olympics). This led to criticism of the Stewards in the British and American press, particularly since it would not permit the Belgians to defend the Grand. The Stewards pointed out in a letter to The Times that the decision had been taken before the 1907 regatta and after consultation with the Belgians. A letter from Oscar Gregoire, President of the Belgian Rowing Federation was quoted:
In a year like 1908, which will see the Olympic Regatta take place at Henley…it is not reasonable to hold an international regatta 15 days previously…the Belgian holders of the Grand Challenge Cup would not have any objection in going to defend it in 1908…
Overseas entries and wins at the regatta have continued to multiply. Since the 1960s, the open events in particular have almost exclusively become the province of national squad crews. Up to 2007, the Grand Challenge Cup had been won by overseas crews 46 times: 12 times by crews from Germany, 11 from the USA, 9 from the USSR, 4 from Canada, 3 each from Belgium and Australia, 2 from the Netherlands, and 1 each from Switzerland, France, Bulgaria and Croatia.
If you are a Brit you will hear echoes of so many jingoist and class privilege arguments that you are familiar with that have resonated throughout the 20th and into the 21st century in this summary. Personally, I don’t care one way or another about how Henley conducts its business. I rowed for my college at Oxford and paid a certain amount of attention to rowing at the time – a tiny amount. I did wear a blazer and boater on occasion and attended rowing events now and again. You can get caught up in the drama if you also participate, and a club you are affiliated with is involved. But nowadays I find the whole Edwardian dress up, with accompanying attempts to act the part (think Three Men in a Boat) perfectly silly. I expect a number of younger people who take part do so with a touch of parody, but old gits my age who still attend are perfectly serious. I find the whole Victorian and Edwardian ethos of England unpalatable in the extreme these days. Why we should want to celebrate people who got rich by oppressing the poor in their own country and trampling over countries worldwide is inexplicable to me. I have attended traditional boat races in different parts of Asia – many of which are older than Henley – and enjoy them much more because they are all inclusive, without the trappings of privilege.
It’s conventional to drink Pimm’s (now only available as No.1), or champagne at English rowing events, accompanied with strawberries. That could work for your celebratory “meal” of the day. Or, you could pack a traditional English picnic, which I have given directions for already. I’m going to be a trifle more democratic (commonplace if you like), and note that Berkshire, Henley’s county, is noted for its pork production. The Berkshire hog is now classified as a heritage breed, which is much in demand by gourmets worldwide, especially in Japan. It was first noted by Cromwell’s troops stationed in Reading, and by Victorian times was the subject of intensive breeding programs. Queen Victoria herself was a fan, and Isabella Beeton sings its praises as the finest breed of hog in England. I’m, therefore, going to go with roast pork (whether you can get Berkshire pork or have to settle for a lesser breed).
I roast pork the same way that I roast every other meat – turn the oven as high as it will go, let it heat, and then roast the meat until it is cooked. Most recipes will tell you to turn the oven to 220˚C or so, cook the pork for 25 minutes, then lower the temperature to 190˚C and cook for 35 minutes per pound. The “theory” behind this practice is that the initial high heat sears the meat (maybe also crisps the skin), and then the lower heat lets the meat cook all the way through. But . . . for centuries cooks did not have ovens that they could adjust. They spit roast over coals, and the coals were hot. Contrary to what you may think (or intuit), lower temperatures dry out the meat. I keep the heat high for the entire cooking process. Admittedly you often get a really smoky kitchen roasting this way, but that’s what windows are for.
Pork does need a little prep before roasting. Choose a nice joint with the skin on. Score the skin deeply (down to the fat) and rub it well with coarse salt. I score it in diamond patterns, but strips also work. You need to do this so that you can break it up easily when serving, and also so that the fat can escape during cooking. Place the joint, skin side up, in a roasting pan with some quartered potatoes. There is no need to baste pork as it is roasting because it has ample fat. A 5 lb joint on high heat will be cooked through in 2 hours or less. You can use a meat thermometer to check for doneness, or insert a skewer after the first 90 minutes, and stop cooking when the juices run clear – or a tad before. Remove the pork and let it rest under a foil tent on a carving platter for 15 minutes. Keep the potatoes warm. They should be well cooked at this point (crisp on the outside, soft in the center). Pour the roasting juices into a skillet and mix them with an equal quantity of flour. Heat on medium heat, whisking well, to make a roux. Add light stock to make your gravy, and season according to your taste. I usually use rosemary as the primary herb along with parsley and garlic. Apple sauce is, maybe, overdone for accompanying pork, but if you insist on something sweet and fruity then experiment with different jellied fruit, such as cranberry, or cloudberry. I tend to omit the fruity stuff. When it comes time to carve, remove the crackling (skin) first, chop it in large pieces and serve it on a plate separate from the meat.