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 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 Gorden 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 winners 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 saw a revival in 1925, despite the diminishing numbers of river workers, and they continued without interruption until the outbreak of the Second World War.
As years went by, new events were introduced due to the different types of boats dropping out of use on the river.
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 has not been rowed in recent years due to the cost of towing the skiffs to Westminster.
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 many events exist today for them 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, open to men, women, boys and girls alike.
The boat crews always raced in Gravesend skiffs. These are 21 feet long traditional oak replicas of clinker built boats. Some of these boats have been built by a local skilled craftsman, Eric Mastin. Gravesend Regatta Committee has, in recent times, commissioned the building of two new skiffs, and these, too, were built by present day members of the committee. However, since Mr Mastin sadly passed away in January 2004, we no longer have anyone on the committee with the expertise to either build new boats or maintain the existing ones. With this in mind the committee has over the last few years, gradually purchased fibre glass Clayton skiffs. 2007 saw the final purchase bringing our regatta fleet 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.
To raise funds to keep the regattas running, the committee has had to sell two of our old traditional wooden skiffs. The Tertius Metcalf (also built by Mr Mastin) and the Percy Sargent are both being restored and will be entered into the Great River Race.