The Reading Amateur Regatta - A brief History

Reading Amateur Regatta’s popularity and importance today stem from its date immediately before Henley entries close, together with its facilities, a mile of wide, gently bending river, a capacious enclosure, and its atmosphere. This last is most difficult to sum up but the facilities have an important bearing on it because although it doesn’t have the splendid Edwardian garden party atmosphere as at Henley, Reading still carries the feeling of an important rowing occasion in which the competitors are even more important than the condition of the beer.

The regatta was started three years after Henley in a local fit of “anything-Henley-can-do, Reading-can-do-better”, the same course has been used ever since. The regatta in 1842 must have been an occasion for great excitement, "notwithstanding the intense heat" said the Berkshire Chronicle, "the attendance was far more numerous than could have been expected. On the Oxfordshire side of the river a considerable union of the beauty and fashion of our good town had congregated giving a charm to the scene which, lovely as it is at all times, we may safely affirm it never excessed."


Ten thousand people were estimated to be there and since the five races were rowed off at hourly intervals the boredom of the spectators made the paper comment to the organisers "something to fill up the intervals between the races, which sometimes make these entertainments dull and tedious affairs. A good donkey-race would produce capital fun; and other rustic amusements to add for the labouring classes who resort to these holiday occupations; while at the same time the more aristocratic of the assembly would not be interfered with in their promenading to the Warren."
The Warren is the local beauty spot, some high ground on the Oxfordshire bank with chalk cliffs overlooking the river, all shown in the drawing of the regatta in 1844 (see illustration above). In making this illustration the artist did not know that he was to draw attention to the dangers inherent in umpiring, for in those early years competition at the Regatta was confined to scullers and the crews who were already competing for the District and Town Challenge Cups at Henley. There was sculling for a silver cup, and a cutter match for coxed fours, in the Regatta's second year an additional fours race, a race for double funnies and a waterman's race for a purse. This last event led to the first of a number of crises for it was won by one Peter Freebody who was not awarded the stakes because of a charge of fouling.

The weather may have caused such a loss that the committee abandoned thought of holding a regatta in 1844, but at short notice it was organised by the inhabitants of the village of Caversham, on the other side of the river.
That year, at long last, came the diversion the crowd was looking for in the intervals between the races.

Peter Freebody, the waterman, was ferrying passengers from one bank to the other when he "delivered an unprovoked attack on the umpire with his punt pole, then deliberately tried to sink the umpire's six-oared galley", and later "threw him into the water which was seven or eight feet deep". (He paid with four months in Oxford Gaol). So the second of the four races was rowed off without an umpire and, it need hardly be added, led to more fouls and appeals. Perhaps the disqualification for fouling the year before had started a vendetta, or maybe Freebody was just short sighted, because it was a different umpire that he had attacked.

The regatta gradually wound down. In 1845 it was still the Caversham Regatta, but with smaller entries. By the next year it had become a series of matches rowed in the evening and the press was demanding "what has become of the Challenge Cup which the pensive public subscribed for to afford sport at regattas to present to future generations?" No one has ever answered.

By 1870 several regattas were being held on the Thames. Henley, of course, had existed since 1839, and in 1842 Oxford held a two-day City Regatta for eights, fours, skiffs and punts. Pangbourne and Whitchurch, Kingston, Maidenhead, Molesey, Wallingford and Walton all had held regattas by 1869 and the time had to come to start the Regatta at Reading once again.

Members of the newly formed Reading Rowing Club established it as a much enlarged version of their own club regatta that had been held since 1867. The meadows on the Berkshire side of the river were owned by a number of farmers and the club committee instructed their secretary "to wait on Mr. Piper (when sober) and ask him for permission to use his land". Another farmer signified his intention to stop people going on the towpath on regatta day, but evidently both of these men were sufficiently amenable to allow the public into their fields. In later years, by charging one penny for admittance, the committee found that nearly 20,000 people came to the Regatta each year. This was the modest price of admission to the meadows until the land was bought by Reading Corporation in 1907 and turned into the fine public park that it is today.
Even with the Rowing Club behind it the Reading and Caversham Regatta, as it was now called, did not thrive and in five years it had petered out again.
1877 saw the start of Reading Working Men's Regatta on a lower reach of the river. It has been held there annually in peace time ever since. Perhaps this Working Men's Regatta (called Reading Town Regatta since 1965) was to stimulate the town to reform the Reading Amateur Regatta on a more lasting basis. The Mayor presided at a meeting, the Governor of Reading Gaol presented a trophy, subscriptions were collected, a programme drawn up and, thankfully, minutes kept. That year's Regatta attracted six entries for the new Grand Challenge Cup, but it was to be a long time before the same crews entered for both the Grand at Reading and Henley, it was in fact in 1948 that a Thames RC eight was the first to win both.

The Regatta in 1877 was most successful, even from the townsman's point of view. There was a brass band and a display of "aerial and aquatic fireworks". The following year the shops closed for the afternoon and Huntley & Palmers closed their biscuit factory, all for the Regatta.

The attraction of the townspeople was always in the committee's mind and singers and minstrels were engaged. Swings were later placed on the fields and after the racing the tradition grew of holding a procession of pleasure craft decorated with Chinese lanterns. But by 1887 the Regatta was in financial difficulties and four years later subscribers had withdrawn their support. The local paper spoke of the "dreary recollections of the steady decline of this regatta year by year until in 1891 it died of inanition."

The subscribers appealed to Reading Rowing Club to save the Regatta and once more new life was injected into it. This time prizes were given for illuminated boats, two bands engaged, Caversham Bridge illuminated and a Venetian Fete held after the Regatta. Events for mixed skiff and gondolas were included and the course swarmed with small craft and houseboats. "Years since Reading held such a successful Regatta," says the minute book.

In 1894 the Regatta was held on the August Bank Holiday which was to become its established date for many years. Two years later the secretary records breathlessly that there were "no less than 25 races". Still the satisfaction of the people of the town was worked for. Over the next few years a naval display and Baden-Baden concerts were given, Morris Dancers, pipers, sword dancers and banjo duettists were engaged and the enclosure illuminated with fairy lights and Chinese lanterns. The press reported the Regatta with perpetual awe at the value and splendour of the prizes and the Prince of Wales conferred his patronage on the function.

The bank-holiday atmosphere must have held the regatta in a sound state for many years. As the last best-boat regatta of the season it continued in health and prosperity until the Great War broke out and on the bank-holiday of 1914 that was the last best-boat regatta of an era.

Other regattas were fairly quickly on their feet after the war, but Reading ended 1914 with sundry liabilities which took a lot of hard work to wipe off, so that when those of the committee who survived the war met again in 1920 they resolved not to hold a regatta because of the probable difficulty of raising money.

In 1921, when Reading was immersed in the post-war depression, the committee was discussing whether to disband and if so how to dispose of the trophies. The Mayor, an old member of the Rowing Club, arrived at the meeting and urged the committee to hold together for one more year. When they met in 1922 the industrial situation was even worse, and unless the ARA were to relax their rigid rules about amateur status no viable entry could be foreseen. Accordingly the Mayor was made a trustee of the trophies and with many regrets the committee declared itself disbanded.

The officers were left to dispose of the Regatta's accumulated funds (all of four Pounds) and attempted to give the money to the Rowing Club, who, with characteristic high-mind-edness handed it back saying that this was not what the money had been subscribed for. In the next three weeks the Club had formed a sub-committee to revive and run the Regatta. Once more, Reading Regatta had been saved by Reading Rowing Club. No wonder that to this day the Town Hall finds it difficult to distinguish between the two. 

In the years between the wars the Regatta grew, with increasing help from the new University College Boat Club. Although by 1925 it was still not in the Rowing Almanack's top nine. The pattern of dates that now has such a bearing on the Regatta's growth had begun to emerge and by 1938 it was Reading, Marlow and then Henley, the same order in which they are held today. It means that Reading Amateur Regatta is frequently held before the Oxford and Cambridge colleges can take part, but being held before Henley entries have closed The Times has said, "is always looked on as the first real preview of Henley form."
After the Second World War there was no delay in bringing the Regatta back to life, and between 1946 and 1952 the entries grew from 49 to 136. This was an embarrassment of riches, for how could all these crews be accommodated? There were two answers, three abreast rowing or race off some events on a separate day.

The Clinker Boat Regatta was launched in 1954 when it was thought that the towns-people may again like to spend a bank holiday by the river. It was a success over the next ten years so the Whit Monday date was abandoned and what had started as an embryonic autonomous regatta was absorbed as a separate but integral part of the Reading Amateur Regatta, to be known as the Reading Amateur Junior Regatta, and to be held a fortnight, or if possible, a week before the main event.

Even with the establishment of this subsidiary event, entries continued to grow. If 136 was considered too many for one regatta in 1952, what was the committee to do when this subsidiary event itself had attracted 129 entries and the main regatta 174 ten years later? Rowing three abreast had to come. Reading University's Head of the River Race had shown since 1935 that the Reach would accommodate the crews. Although this measure is sometimes frowned on by English oarsmen and rowing correspondents and they inveighed against mammoth regattas with events for everybody and astronomic entries in all classes, this seemed the only way of shedding the financial load of running regattas from the oarsmen, who compete, to the spectators they attract.

The last Saturday Regatta over a seven and a half furlong course was in 1971, metrication bringing in the 1500 metre course at the 1972 Regatta. This was accompanied by a more profound change with the introduction of the first women’s event over a shortened course.  In this event for Women’s Elite Fours, Civil Service RC defeated St Georges RC by 3 feet in 3 minutes 22 seconds. It was not until the eighties that the number of women’s events increased and spread into both days of the Regatta. This was the start of a period of steady growth in the women's rowing program, with women's senior A and senior B eights, senior A and senior C fours and senior C sculls being added in 1980. This growth continued unchecked until the early 1990s when two and three week racing cycles conspired to take Reading off the racing calendar of senior women's crews preparing for the increasingly important Henley Women's Regatta, a week later.

In 1979, Reading Amateur acquired its current format of two separate one day regattas over a single weekend with the incorporation of the Junior Regatta over a 500 metre course from a free start providing additional racing on the Sunday.

Increasing costs have prompted changes in the presentation of the regatta over the years, forcing the boat tents to be dropped in the late 1960s while the regatta was made more accessible to the wider population with the elimination of the enclosure perimeter in the late 1980s.

With entries for the 1996 Saturday Regatta reaching a record 334 crews, Reading Amateur reached another significant milestone. To accommodate all the entries, racing took place at three-minute intervals for the best part of ten hours. Even though the traditional umpires' launches had been replaced by catamarans, their continuous circulation created water conditions more reminiscent of the Tideway. Launch breakdowns in 1997 disrupted another busy 300-plus Saturday race program and demonstrated that the Regatta had reached a natural limit. The 1998 entry was significantly lower but it had become apparent that a root-and-branch review was required.

However, before changes could be implemented, the 1998 Regatta secured a place in the record books. Met Office records show that the average June rainfall in Reading is  63mm. The 1998 Regatta was far from average, during the afternoon of the Regatta Saturday alone 42mm of rain drenched the enclosure. With stakeboats rapidly filling, stakeboat boys and girls and crews waiting to race in danger of contracting hypothermia, near zero-visibility for umpires and coxwains and three inches of standing water inside the marquee abandonment of the regatta with 20 races still to go was, sadly, unavoidable.

The popularity of the Regatta with races three abreast, umpiring from the same launches as at Henley Royal Regatta and the river’s solid banks not dampening the wash gave poor racing conditions. Twin-hull boats gave less wash but did not solve the problem. There was also a problem in providing a sufficiently wide navigation channel towards the finish. So in 1999 the decision was made to move to the current arrangements with a fully buoyed course allowing two crews to race at 3-minute intervals with umpiring from the bank. This has provided far better racing conditions and improved conditions for competitors, raising the quality of racing and thereby raising the status of the event.  A return to one-against-one racing also allowed the course to be lengthened to 1500m on Saturday, making the Regatta more relevant to crews preparing for Henley. The 1100m course retained for the Sunday is the same distance as the Henley start to Fawley.
The course with its increased length and improved water is proving increasingly popular. The 2001 Regatta saw a record number of crews competing and also the introduction of the Mini Regatta for junior rowers & scullers under 14. The 2002 Regatta was another great success following the same set up as the previous years and on the Saturday the winners of several events were presented with Trophies for the first time in many years.
Things have changed from the days when the Regatta was frequently saved by the Rowing Club. The Rowing Club now benefits from the Regatta. From the days when Reading lagged behind other regattas, to the time a senior coxed four race was re-instituted five years before Henley did so, from the days when the Regatta aimed to provide a day's amusement for the people of Reading to now providing a valuable service for British, rowing the Regatta has gone from strength to strength. Every year the number of crews wanting to compete exceeds the number the Regatta can possibly accommodate.

This history was first published in 1966 by John Allen, secretary of Reading Amateur for many years and subsequently President and updated in 2011 by Andrew Wilbey Regatta chairman.