This edited article about rowing originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 710 published on 23 August 1975.
It was an Irish actor named Tom Doggett who first thought up the idea, long before the Oxford and Cambridge boat race and Henley regatta, which has resulted in rowing becoming an international sport.
His name is preserved in the title of the race, Dogget’s Coat and Badge, which he instituted in 1715 for the London taxi-drivers of the day, the watermen who carried their fares by boat up and down the river Thames.
In those days, there were several thousand men who earned their living in this way. Dogget’s race, from London Bridge to Chelsea, about 200 yards (approx. 182 metres) further than the 4 and a half mile (6.840 km.) boat race course, became one of London’s most popular sporting events.
Thousands lined the course, and the House of Commons used to adjourn so that MPs could have a grandstand view of the race from the riverside terrace outside. The contestants were tough, brawny men, and one of the earliest winners was a man named Jack Broughton, later to find fame as the champion prize-fighter who introduced gloves and rules into boxing.
Tom Doggett died six years after the first race, and left £350 to ensure that the event, from which the winner received an orange jacket and a silver badge, continued. It is still held annually, although now confined to apprentices in the year in which they finish their service. It is the oldest sculling race in the world.
But the word most often associated with rowing races – regatta – is of Italian origin and dates from events held along the canals of Venice among the gondoliers, who are today’s romantic survivors of the watermen taxi-drivers.
Today, the only rowing event which gives any idea of how crowded with boats the Thames was in 1715, is the annual sculler’s Head of the River race from Mortlake to Putney.
This year was only the 25th anniversary of this event, but it attracts several hundred entries. So many in fact, that a few years ago, an intrepid woman sculler was able to slip unnoticed into the usually all-male race and finished 224th out of 360 starters.
Now the women have their own Head of the River races, for eight-oar boats as well as scullers; and they have made such progress in rowing that next year, for the first time, they will compete in the Olympic Games.
Although men’s rowing has been a feature of the modern Olympics since its earliest days, world championships have only been held since 1962. They were staged in Britain for the first time this summer to set the seal on the building of the first international class 2,000 metres course in the country at Holme Pierrepont near Nottingham.
But the first recognised international amateur rowing race took place in 1869 on the Thames from Putney to Mortlake between coxed fours from Oxford University and Harvard University, USA.
It aroused tremendous interest and thousands of spectators packed Hammersmith Bridge and barges and steamers to see the crews, each man wearing a straw boater, race past.
But it nearly ended in disaster. Although an iron chain boom had been stretched across the river to prevent any other craft getting on to the course during the race, one young man appeared rowing his lady-friend across the bows of the Oxford boat just before the finish.
Fortunately, Oxford had a good lead at that time, and although they lost some distance in frantically trying to avoid the intruder, they eventually won by 1 and a half lengths.
An account of the race took up a whole half-page in The Times, and the result was considered so important that a telegraph company employed a fast runner named Lewington but called ‘Electric Jack’ to carry the news from the finishing post to their office from where it was flashed across the Atlantic to America “within 23 minutes”.
But professional rowing races, particularly between scullers, quickly became the most popular events in Britain, America and Australia.
In America, in the 1870s, rowing was described as “Second only to horse-racing in public popularity’ and regularly attracted crowds of 30,000 for big challenge races in which men competed for winner-take-all prizes of several thousands of dollars.
Such huge prize-money, and the gambling which went with it, inevitably brought dubious elements into the sport. On one occasion, a race between an American champion, Charles Courtney, and a Canadian, Ted Hanlan, had to be abandoned because on the morning of the race it was discovered that Courtney’s boat had been sawn nearly in half.
Such skullduggery eventually ruined professional rowing, but in Britain the preservation of amateurism reached ridiculous lengths.
This was particularly so at the major regatta of the year, Royal Henley, site of the first Oxford and Cambridge Boat race in 1829 and which, 10 years later, first laid claim to the title of the oldest regatta in the rowing world.
But for the first 100 years or so of its existence, Henley was reserved strictly for the aristocracy of rowing. It was a social as much as a sporting occasion and patronised by Royalty. In 1912, King George V and Queen Mary were rowed up the course by the King’s Watermen in the Royal Barge.
Henley’s amateur rules were even more strict than those for the Olympic Games. In 1920, an American sculler named John Kelly was barred from competing in Henley’s premier event, the Diamond Sculls, because his club had been accused of infringing amateur rules 15 years before.
Later that same year, Kelly became the first American to win an Olympic sculling title. But he was still barred from Henley. Later he became a millionaire and his daughter, Grace, a film star who is married to Prince Rainier of Monaco.
In 1947, he had the satisfaction of seeing his son, John Kelly junior, cheered home at Henley in winning the Diamond Sculls.
But decorum at Henley still had to be preserved, and Henley did not take kindly to an independent Australian, Stuart Mackenzie who was the leading sculler of his day in the 1950s, won everything in sight but offended the unwritten rules of the regatta.
One year he was was severely criticised for stopping rowing just short of the winning post, when he was so far ahead that he could not possibly be overtaken.
On another occasion, applause from the exclusive Steward’s enclosure abruptly stopped when Mackenzie on the way to another victory, raised his cap in reply. Of course, he had to stop rowing to do that, too.
One of rowing’s greatest claims is that it helps longevity. Jack Beresford, one of Britain’s greatest scullers was 91 before he missed his first Henley, at which he had rowed 63 years before.
In 1964, the entire eight of a Harvard crew which had won at Henley 50 years before, got together and again rowed the course in celebration of the 50th anniversary of their victory. Their average age was 71.
Five years ago, a 51-year-old oarsman from Birmingham became the first Briton to row the Atlantic alone from west to east. His only aids to navigation were a wrist watch, a sextant and a school atlas.
And he succeeded despite the fact that during the journey, his boat was hit at night by a steamer and began to sink. But Sid Genders baled it out and continued his 143-day rowing journey.
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