The Royal Henley Peace Regatta 1919
26th June 2019
At 3.12pm on Saturday, 28th June 1919, Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles officially bringing the First World War to an end. What followed was a huge outpouring of celebrations, official and unofficial, throughout the United Kingdom that lasted for weeks. Every household, club and society resolved to mark the occasion in some way. On the Thames, there were swimming races from Kew to Putney and a host of peace regattas.
In fact, within a fortnight of the signing of the Armistice on 11th November 1918 a letter had appeared in The Field advocating the revival of Henley. A meeting arranged at Leander on 22nd January 1919 to consider the proposal concluded that it was too soon to arrange a conventional Royal Regatta. However, a one-off Peace Regatta was deemed appropriate, and the Stewards were requested to set the wheels in motion.
They were not alone. Marlow was also keen to get back to business as usual and had arranged a 'Victory Regatta' for 21st June 1919. The London Times reported "A big list of entries has been received for the first of the 'Victory' regattas at Marlow on Saturday" from Australia, New Zealand, United States, Thames and Third Trinity. Allied Eights, Open Coxswainless Fours and senior sculls all promised keen competition.
The Royal Henley Peace Regatta was scheduled for two weeks hence commencing on 2nd July for four days. In place of the usual events, the Stewards commissioned ten special trophies including The King's Cup for eights for crews consisting of Allied forces; the Leander Cup and the Wargrave Manor Cup for Allied Forces fours; and the Hambleden Pairs and Kingswood Sculls which were restricted to entrants from 'allied countries'. There were also races for Public Schools and Oxford and Cambridge trial eights. A novel fundraising idea was the establishment of a Stewards' Enclosure Club.
WW1 wrought many changes in everyday life and social mores. In the rowing world, however, it had little impact on the archaic distinction between 'amateur and professional'. Thus, war veterans from the National Amateur Rowing Association (the working man's ARA) were not permitted to enter The King's Cup, which was presented to the winners - the Australian Army - by King George V. The King was incensed at this act of class distinction and allegedly vowed never to attend the regatta again until the rule was changed.
Despite poor weather and royalist rancour, the regatta was deemed to have been a great success, attracting an appreciable number of spectators and supporters, including a significant overseas contingent from the Dominions, France and the US. In reality, many of these men had been amateur oarsmen before the war and were biding their time in the UK awaiting demobilisation.
On Sunday 6th July, the Sunday Pictorial reported "The great attraction at Henley yesterday was the race for The King's Cup between the Australian Army crew and Oxford University Service crew. The colonials scored a great victory." They won by a length in 7 minutes 7 seconds.
Regatta goers were treated to a 'splendid struggle' in the University Eights, while Hadfield, the amateur champion of New Zealand, dispatched Nussey (Rhine Army) easily in the Kingswood Sculls. 'The Englishman steered badly'. All winners received silver medals.
The Royal Henley Peace Regatta marked an important milestone in both the regatta's and the competitors' rehabilitation following WW1, but it would be another ten years before overseas entries attained pre-war levels.
On 23rd January 2019, almost 100 years to the day when Leander instructed the Stewards to mark the outbreak of peace, Sir Steve Redgrave, Chair of the Regatta's Committee of Management, announced that to mark the centenary of the 1919 Peace Regatta HRR would be restaging the King's Cup over the final three days of the 2019 regatta - with crews from eight nations expected to enter, it promises to be a compelling addition to the standard programme of events.
Peace Regatta Official Programme
Programme reproduced with the kind permission of Tim Koch