The origin of Gravesend Regatta is lost in the mists of time, but there is little doubt that they were held as far back as Tudor times.
The first definite records of properly organised rowing matches date from 1698, with the Mayor of the Borough and Sir John Marsham being particularly enthusiastic patrons. According to legend, Thomas Doggett, of Coat and Badge fame, patronised the Town Regatta in 1715.
In 1827, with Mr W Ditchburn, one of the principle figures on Gravesend waterside, as the moving spirit, the Regatta consisted of two sailing matches, a rowing match and a boat race, with numerous sideshows. It was such a success that the then Earl of Darnley took an interest the following year, and the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV, accepted an invitation to see the fun. Sadly, he was prevented from attending at the last moment.
In succeeding years, sailing matches were prominent not only attracting some first-class yachts, but also the sailing match boats which were used to carry fish from the smacks off Gravesend to Billingsgate Market. They raced from Town Wharf to Coal House Fort, up to Northfleet Hope and back again, three times. The river was tough in those days and it was difficult to keep the course clear from unpopular competitors. In 1836, the feeling was so strong that riots in the town after the Regatta resulted in the Military being called upon to restore order with fixed bayonets.
In 1837, the prize list was believed to be the best offered in this part of the country. Crews entered from the Medway towns and London.
Back then, the best vantage point for spectators was Clifton Parade, but commercialisation of the river necessitated the event being moved down river to the Terrace Pier Gardens and Clarendon Lawn. It was not until the end of the 19th Century that the Gordon Promenade became the centre, where it remains to this day.
In the early years, regattas were organised by private enthusiasts, and what is now Gravesend Town Regatta, became sponsored by the Corporation in 1846. This year was also notable because it was the first time that a fully equipped waterman’s boat was awarded as a prize for the most prestigious race among apprentices of the Waterman’s Company. This remained the principle prize for many years and was well worth winning. Even in the 1890’s, prize money was £38-£50 and the inhabitants of Gravesend were so enthusiastic that the races always aroused tremendous excitement. Winners included a large number of members of ancient families, and backboards, elaborately painted with the winner's names, have been treasured for many generations.
The 1880’s were marred by a great deal of bitter feeling and fighting, and because of this, different bodies decided to organise their own regattas. For example, the Order of Buffaloes did for several years, along with the local rowing club. Waterman held their own regattas limited to entries from their children.
The Town Regatta then suffered from a gap of some 12 years, following the outbreak of the Great War, before being revived in 1925 and despite the diminishing numbers of river workers, it then continued without interruption until the onset of the Second World War. In fact, the 1939 programme had been organised and printed ready for 6th September but with war being announced on the 3rd, the Regatta would not take place for a further 7 years. The usual Regatta Prize, of a fully equipped Waterman’s skiff plus decorated backboard had already been built and amongst the entrants was local notable sculler, Eric Lupton, who had to wait until 1946 to win the race. The decorated backboard is displayed in Gravesend Rowing Club, of which Eric was a long term member. Eric also went on to win the prestigious Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race, scheduled for 1940 but again postponed, which was raced in 1947.
After the war, the building of six traditional waterman’s skiffs was undertaken along with, it is understood, Gravesend Borough Council. They were named after local notables George White, A W King, John Burberry, Percy Sargent, James Hearnden and R D McKellar. The new skiffs were 21 feet long traditional oak replicas of the clinker built boats, which were worked by local watermen in their day to day business, before the advent of powered motorboats. Basically, this included mooring duties, conveying passengers and carriage of light goods etc.
As years went by, new events were introduced due to the different types of boats dropping out of use on the river. Gradually, the fine boat sculling races were dropped from the programme and the Regattas just used the Waterman’s boats to race. Although in recent years, the Committee has, once again, teamed up with Gravesend Rowing Club to showcase club boats alongside the skiffs.
In more recent times, versatility has been necessary to sustain interest. In 1967, the Long Ferry Race was introduced, this is rowed from Westminster to Gravesend, a course of some 26 nautical miles. It is believed that the Hythe and Milton mentioned in the Domesday Book was the Gravesend Terminal of the Long Ferry that flourished between London and Gravesend before the Norman Conquest. In 1379, the Thames Estuary was invaded by the French and the town of Gravesend was burnt. In order to help the survivors, the Abbot of St Mary Graces at Tower Hill London, who was also the Lord of the Manor of Parrock, obtained, for the people of Gravesend, the privilege of transporting person’s to London. The Royal Grant of the Long Ferry was continued by Henry V, Henry VI and the Edward IV. The ferry was used by a number of famous people, including Sir John Howard and Cardinal Wolsey in 1467.
The Long Ferry was well used as from London to Gravesend was quicker by boat than by road. However, by the end of the 18th Century, with the advent of improved transport systems, use of the Long Ferry declined.
Although there is still a trophy for the Long Ferry race, it had not been rowed since around the year 2000 for various reasons, including the cost and organising of towing the skiffs to Westminster. It was revived for one year only (around 2008/9) but due to the Westminster Pier area being so busy now with new river traffic, i.e. passenger clippers, it was decided not to bring the race back onto the event calendar at that time.
The introduction of the School’s Regatta, later known as the Junior Regatta, saw an upsurge in interest, from which came the introduction of the Junior Long Ferry Race from Greenwich to Gravesend, a course of 18 nautical miles. This was open to boys up to the age of 16.
In order to move with the times, women and girls have, over recent years, played a major part in the development of the sport, and all today’s events for women are on the same exacting courses as their male counterparts.
New constructions on and around the river also give rise to new events, such as the Dartford Bridge Race, now open to both men and women. Unfortunately, along with changing times also comes the demise of some races and, due to lack of numbers, the Junior Regatta and Junior races are now no longer held.
The wooden clinker built boats continued to be raced in the Regattas right up until 2003. Unfortunately, over the years the James Hearnden, A W King, R D McKellar and John Burberry were lost to the Committee but two further boats were built by a local skilled craftsman, Eric Mastin, bringing the fleet back up to four. Eric was a Life Vice-President and had been on the Committee for over 50 years, up until his death in January 2004. A former Borough Councillor and Mayor of Gravesend (1962/63), he had helped maintain the wooden boats over this time and then, as a shipwright by trade, built the Tertius Metcalf in 1988 and the Stefan Scott in 1999. Tertius Metcalf was another local businessman, being the Director of C Crawleys a well-known Gravesend river company. The Stefan Scott was named after a local man who lost his life in a boating accident. His family commissioned the building of the boat and it was blessed at the launch off Gravesend Promenade by the Mayor’s Chaplain.
Since Mr Mastin’s sad passing, there were few people on the Committee able to maintain the wooden skiffs and no one with the skills to build further boats. With this in mind, the Committee decided to look for an alternative and over the next few years, gradually purchased fibre glass Clayton skiffs. 2007 saw the final purchase bringing the Regatta fleet back to four boats. They are a much lighter boat, maintenance is far easier and the boats are less likely to deteriorate due to weather conditions. The boats were bought from private owners in Felixstowe, which had been racing these Clayton skiffs for many years and entered them into races, such as The Great River Race, with great success.
2003 was the last year the wooden boats were raced at Gravesend and the following years saw the sale of the Percy Sargent and Tertius Metcalf to a Medway enthusiast, Edward Sargent, who has since restored both boats. The Percy Sargent has entered the Great River Race every year since restoration and although not on the Committee, Edward is a helpful participant in meetings regarding the continuation of Regatta racing in Gravesend. George White was eventually sold to a school in Dartford, whilst the Stefan Scott remains with the Committee at present.
The current fleet of fibre-glass Clayton skiffs now comprises the Alf Saunders, Russell Marsh and Gary John Gray, which were already named, plus Nora Pockett which was named by the Committee back in 2014.
This brings us more or less up to date, apart from one last wonderful thread of history which connects the early days right up to the present day…
……the wonderfully decorated backboards, mentioned previously, are now a thing of the past, but can often be found in the homes of relatives, museums or local pubs/clubs with a connection to the Regattas – the Three Daws has at least two behind their bar. The Rowing Club has a second one, won in 1938 by another notable sculler, Eric Phelps, who had a great rivalry with Eric Lupton.
The winner of the backboard pictured here, for the 1881 Apprentice Race, was one Henry Mastin. Henry was the late Eric Mastin’s Great Grandfather. Ian Stevenson, long-standing Committee member and 2017 Chairman, is Eric’s nephew – making Henry, Ian’s Great, Great Grandfather. The backboard is now in the possession of Gary, Eric’s son.
Finally to raise funds to keep the Regattas running, from 2006 the Committee has sought sponsorship of the skiffs plus it’s motorboat. This is a much needed source of income to ensure the boats can be maintained and raced year on year. If you would be interested in sponsorship of any kind, please go to ‘Our Sponsors’ for more details.