A regatta is a series of boat races. The term comes from the Venetian language regata meaning "contest" and typically describes racing events of rowed or sailed water craft. Chester is often claimed to be the "oldest regatta in the world", although the regatta's own website is a little more accurate in stating that it is "the oldest rowing regatta of its type in the world". Some sources reduce the claim further to the "oldest regatta in the UK". Durham, which dates back to 1834, claimes to be the second oldest after Chester.
Boats on the Dee
The River Dee must have been used as a navigable waterway for thousands of years. The Romans built a dock at Heronbridge and probably brought tiles downriver from Holt. They also engaged in shipping on the lower reaches below Chester, besides the dock facilities at Chester there was a harbour at Pentre Ffwrndan, where a timber-revetted tidal channel was excavated in 2007, and the industrial/maritime activity was sufficient to support a small Roman cemetery. Shipping apparently came to Roman Chester from considerable distances. In the Grosvenor Museum is the tombstone of one Callimorphus who was possibly a Greek trader.
During the Dark Ages Chester remained an important port and on occasions was a gathering place for considerable numbers of boats. King Edgar the Pacific brought his fleet to Chester several times, and on one occasion is said to have made a noted ceremonial voyage from Edgar's Field upriver towards St Johns. The various chronicles differ as to the size of Edgar's crew: some say six and some say eight. Edgar himself took the tiller. According to tradition, the oarsmen were the rulers of various kingdoms with which Edgar had either obtained "overlord" status or with whom he had made peace. Several were quite elderly, but Edgar had one advantage as cox in that he was said to be a man of short stature. Opinions vary on how far he was rowed, and whether he was actually rowed upstream as in the tradional version or downstream, from Farndon, where there may have been a royal stronghold.
Edgar does seem to have maintained a considerable naval force, although the fleet of 3,600 ships which he had apparently amsssed at the time of his death does seem like an exageration taken to the point of absurdity. Viking fleets are known to comprise a hundred ships only in exceptional circumstances, and most raiding parties would be much smaller. The early English fleets were never otherwise described as so large - a fleet of 3,600 ships at Chester would have been one of the greatest collections of shipping of all time. Marc Anthony's fleet at the Battle of Actium was "only" 500-strong and took several months to gather before the battle.
The Norman Earls of Chester built a weir just above the Old Dee Bridge to supply a head for the Dee Mills and this had at least two aquatic consequences. Above the weir there was a level reach of water far upstream, below the weir a salmon fishing industry developed. The port of Chester moved downstream with the silting of the river, only briefly returning to the Portpool when the "New Cut" was constructed. However, pleasure boating and sports boating developed above the weir.
In common with many other rowing venues Chester had separate rowing clubs for gentlemen amateurs and working men. Its distinctiveness was that the amateur club was especially early among provincial towns and that it clung tenaciously to social exclusivity into the 1950s. The definition of "amateur" can be viewed as elitism, but also gave the "gentlemen" the benefit that they would not be competing against those who had professional skill and experience with boats and would have developed strength and technique through years of hard work. In Chester this meant that the salmon fishermen and ferrymen would not walk away with the biggest purse, and the "valuable" silver cup, from any competition for prize-money. Henley's 1879 definition of an amateur is typical, with exclusions of anyone who has taught athletics for a living, been employed in any connection with boats for a living, or even has been by trade or employment for wages a mechanic, artisan or labourer. One notable instance of exclusion of a tradesman was when Jack Kelly was unable to compete at Henley (1920) after being an apprentice bricklayer. The case stayed in the public eye for years as his daughter was Grace Kelly, later Princess of Monaco. Any view of social exclusion in rowing at Chester needs to take into account the overall picture and prejudice on both sides.
The club was founded, as the Chester Victoria Rowing Club, in May 1838. The title "Royal Chester Rowing Club" was conferred on the club at the end of June 1840. Royal patronage had been granted to the club through the assistance of Lord Robert Grosvenor. It drew its patrons from landed society, went in for elaborate banqueting, and in 1843 even had its own chaplain. There appears to have been an earlier "gentlemans" rowing club just prior to 1838 as in the Chester Regatta of 1837 there was an event from which manual labourers were specifically banned. The 1838 event included the "Coronation Cup", which was:
- "..to be rowed and steered by amateurs being persons not normally employed in manual labour."
The early organisation of the club seems somewhat chaotic with the club being so much in debt at one point that it organised a raffle to dispose of the "club silver". The rowing itself was also taken as seriously as the feasting, albeit at first by small numbers: 70 had joined the club in 1838 but there were only c. 20 rowing members in 1841. In 1876 the Royals were still counted among only 10 rowing clubs catering exclusively for the "upper class of amateur", though the ethos was only then being finally refined: in 1872, for example, completely against the spirit of gentlemanly amateurism, there was heavy betting on the outcome of a race with the Mersey Rowing Club of Birkenhead. The Royals only lifted an outright ban on manual workers and weekly wage earners in 1950 only in order to secure a grant towards a new eight from the Ministry of Education. In the 1950s new members were closely vetted by the committee and the main annual social event was a white-tie ball.
Despite its social exclusivity the Royals do seem to have had an impact on the national development of the sport. Original "rowing boats" had been "clinker built" with overlapping planks and an outside keel. These eventually developed into the "carvel-built" design with smooth planking and an internal keel - something which would be unsuitable for use as a work-boat but would have a smooth hull adapted for speed. This new technique was used by Matthew Taylor of Gateshead in the construction of a smooth-skinned four-man boat (the "Victoria", which still survives) used by the Royals in the Henley Regatta of 1855 - the first time that they had competed there. Royal Chester won both the Stewards' and the Wyfold challenge cups at Henley in that year. Taylor was apparently not a relative of the Taylor family who for many years carried out boat building and repairs at Chester (see: Canal and Boatyard).
The success of this new boat set the fashion for the adoption of the smooth hull nationally. In the following year the club ordered a "shell" eight from Taylor in which they won the Grand and the Ladies' Plate. There is some evidence that another Tyne professional, Harry Clasper, built a keel-less boat in 1842, and there are some pointers to an even earlier radical design at Tyneside: "Experiment" in 1821. Between them, the Geordie boatbuilders opened the way to widespread use of shell construction - Oxford were to win The Boat Race 1857 with one. Taylor had been employed as a professional coach at Chester, something which was frowned upon in some gentlemen's and university rowing clubs, so for Oxford he was employed as a builder and engaged to instruct the crew how to "send his boat along as quickly as possible".
Other technical advances further distanced the racing rowboat from the traditional workboat. These included the provision of outriggers to allow for longer oars and the use of sliding seats. The latter innovation replaced the earlier practice of the oarsmen greasing their buttocks to reduce friction.
The Grosvenor Rowing Club was founded in 1859 "to serve the clerks and assistants in the city". i.e those barred from the "Royals". The club's crest states "Virtus non stemma" which translates to "Valor, not garland" or "Virtue, not pedigree" derived from the motto of the Duke of Westminster's Eaton Hall home, and having a canting reference to the exclusivity of the "Royals".
The boathouse of the Grosvenor Club was built in 1877 and designed by Lockwood. It was probably built at the expense of the first Duke of Westminster.
Even since the earliest recorded references to rowing, the sporting element has been present. An Egyptian funerary inscription of 1430 BC records that the warrior Amenhotep (Amenophis) II was also renowned for his feats of oarsmanship. In the Aeneid, Virgil mentions rowing forming part of the funeral games arranged by Aeneas in honour of his father.
There is no certain information on the beginning of the regatta tradition in Venice. The earliest historic accounts date back to middle of the 13th century but it is likely that this kind of competitive rowing was already practiced for entertainment during free time or as a form of training for crews. The term "regatta" appears for the first time in an anonymous manuscript of the 13th century, whilst the first representation dates from the 16th century within a section of the famous Venice Veduta map by Jacopo de Barbari, which apparently depicts a competition of a small number of boats with the associated notation "regatta".
"Doggett's Coat and Badge" is the prize and name for what is often said to be "the oldest rowing race in the world", which has been held every year since 1715. The winner's prize is a traditional watermen's red coat with a silver badge added, displaying the horse of the House of Hanover and the word "Liberty", in honour of the accession of George I to the throne in 1714. Thomas Doggett was an Irish actor and comedian who became joint manager of Drury Lane Theatre. He relied heavily upon the watermen of the Thames, who were then the equivalent of the modern taxi driver, to convey him between the various "plying stairs" near his workplaces in the City of London and his residence in Chelsea.
The Henley Regatta dates from 1839 and is sometimes also claimed to be the "oldest Regatta". 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."
As will be seen below, there is pleanty of documentary evidence that the Regatta at Chester was a thriving event before this date.
The earliest record of organised boat racing at Chester, something that could actually be called a "regatta" is sometimes described as a print of the "Chester Regatta" from 1733. The competitors were people who worked on the river, the fishermen and ferrymen rather than "amateurs". The boats used would not have been special racing boats but the everyday working boats rowed by their owners and their apprentices. Coracles also took part and there most likely would have been wagers placed on the outcome of the races.
It appears that a Regatta was organised in 1814 to celebrate the "Peace of Paris" and this became an annual event (much the same is claimed at Durham). Prize money was offered in races for men (four guineas), women (two guineas), and boys (two pounds), watched by crowds reckoned to be up to 10,000 strong. For the members of the boat club, the boat race was preceeded by:
- "..an ordinary at the Bear and Billet, Dinner on the table at one o'clock".
Firm evidence exists for a regatta in 1819, especially in the form of a hand-bill showing racing "cox-less fours" passing the Hermitage below St Johns and heading up-river. The illustration is accurate as regards the background and so might be assumed accurate as regards the details of the vessels. The boats shown are not the long and narrow racing boats which developed later for improved performance, but appear to be similar to large rowing boats with quite a high free-board. These are typically 20-30 feet long, about six feet wide and have over a foot of free-board as well as a heavy external keel and fixed twarts (seats). The oars were pivoted on the hull rather than making use of outriggers. They must be very similar to the boats used by the Dee fishermen, and indeed, given the names of the competitors it appears that several members of the same families were doing the pulling. This might be taken to indicate that the crews were professional boatmen. There is even a Bithell amongst them: a family who would later run the pleasure boats on the Dee (see: Souters Lane). Notably, as well as the fours the Regatta also includes "boats regularly used for fishing" (rowed by men or boys) and a race for coracles. There is the usual informal dinner at the Bear and Billet beforehand.
Specialised racing boats were developed shortly afterwards and appear to have originated in Tyneside. In 1821 thirteen ordinary work-boats were to be raced there for cash prizes, but twelve of the crews refused to take part because the North Shields boat, the "Experiment", had been built specially for the race and was apparently much more like a modern racing rowboat than the other entrants. "Experiment" won the race but was disqualified (for being different) and the race was re-run some time later with only conventional working-boats.
It is likely that at some time after the 1819 Regatta the "ban" on using professsional boat-crew emerged. Races for "amateurs" at Chester in 1832 still excluded only those actually employed on the river, allowing other working men to take part. Eventually, the 1843 regatta again included a race for "mechanics or fishermen" besides one for gentlemen. As initial races were back and forth on the river there was a turn at one end of the course, which must have become increasingly difficult to negotiate as boats became longer to improve performance. An engraving of the 1843 race shows the boats possibly in a turn near the Hermitage, and while the boats are not as long as modern "fours" they appear longer and lower in the water than traditional working boats. They also appear to have gained a "cox". However, in 1851 it became clear that an apparently regular competitor from Manchester, who would take part in the Regatta of that year, was building a shorter than normal boat so as to make the turn more efficiently. The shorter boat would probably be slower on the straight, but could make up distance in the turn. The course of the race was then changed, so that there was no longer a race along The Groves with at least one turn, and the race was rowed from Heronbridge down to the "Dee Ford" at Boughton. The rivalry between Chester and Manchester must have been intense, given that such a boat would be disadvantaged on anything other than a "hairpin" course, and might have been built solely for the race at Chester.
The Raft Race
Since 1990, Chester has been the venue for the Chester Raft Race. This is an often comic charity event and starts from the Royal Chester Rowing Club and passing under the Suspension Bridge. Until 2013 it continued over and down the weir at the Old Dee Bridge (since omitted). The event is seen as an advertising opportunity by many local businesses and a good deal of effort goes into the design of some of the more outlandish "rafts", which often have little regard for hydrodynamics. Others seem to make a determined attempt to win the race, whether propelled by paddles or pedals.
So what about the claim for the Chester Regatta being the first "of its type", given that it dates from 1733? It is obviously not the first boat race (they are documented since ancient Greece and Egypt), nor the first rowing race (Dogget's was in 1715). However, it might be considered one of the first organised and regular modern set of races for amateurs (from 1814) being well in advance of Henley (1839).
As well as priority it is also interesting as a case-study of the shifting definition of amateur and the impact that technology would have on boat racing: Chester being largely responsible for the 1850's introduction of the smooth-hulled, close-boarded and internally keeled "shell" design, despite the "Experiment" having possibly first introduced this in Tyneside in 1821.