A Brief History of Rowing on the River Thames

The Professionals

As it is stated in the recital of the first charter of incorporation, granted to the Company of Watermen and Lightermen in 1514 by Henry VIII, that 'it had been a laudable custom and usage tyme out of mind to use the river in barge or wherry boat,'rowing on the Thames may be said to date from time immemorial, but until the beginning of the nineteenth century it appears to have been entirely professional.

It must not, however, be forgotten that the Thames watermen were the first exponents of the art of rowing, and that the sport of rowing today is a development on more scientific lines of the craft from which they derived their livelihood.


The oldest rowing fixture on the Thames instituted nearly four centuries ago is the annual race for Doggett's Coat and Badge. The prize is a waterman's coat and silver badge given to be rowed for by six young watermen on the first anniversary of George I, 1 August, 1715, by Thomas Doggett, an eminent actor of Drury Lane, who, at his death in 1722, bequeathed a sum of money for the continuance of the custom.

The first regatta is stated in the Badminton volume on Rowing to have been rowed in front of Ranelagh Gardens in 1775 (presumably by professionals); and there is a reference to a similar event on 6 August, 1795, in the Sporting Magazine of that year where it is described as 'the contest for the annual wherry given by the Proprietors of Vauxhall by six pairs of oars in three heats.'

Coming to the next century, during 1822 we find reports in Bell's Life of 'the anniversary of the Grand Aquatic Regatta of the inhabitants of Queenhithe,' when 'a handsome Wherry' and other prizes were contended for on 31 July by 'six of the free watermen belonging to those stairs;' and of a similar contest on 30 June between eight watermen belonging to the Temple Stairs for 'a prize wherry given by the gentlemen of the Inns of Court.'

Another report in the same paper during this year is deserving of notice on account of its allusion to amateur oarsmen. It relates to a 'match' on 8 July between seven pairs of oars for a prize of thirty pounds which was given by 'The gentlemen of the Frederic and the Corsair,' or in other words by the Amateur Rowing Club, which is composed of noblemen and gentlemen nearly the whole of whom are in the Life and Foot Guards.

The course for the first heat of this race was from Westminster Bridge to the Sun at Battersea round a boat moored off there and back to a boat moored off the Red House; and for a second heat from Vauxhall Bridge round a boat moored off the Red House and back to a boat moored off White Hall.

The patronage of the Amateur Rowing Club and the fact that the competition was not limited to the watermen of any particular 'Stairs' seems to have made this regatta of exceptional importance, and we are told that 'the river was literally covered with boats and cutters, and the duke of York was present on the Frederic.'

The Amateurs

Boating at this period was already beginning to become a popular sport among amateurs. We hear of 'long distance' rows, such as that of 100 miles rowed by 'six gentlemen of the Amicus Cutter Club crew' from Westminster to Gravesend, from Gravesend to Twickenham, and from Twickenham to Westminster in 1821; and another in the following year of eighty miles from the Tower Stairs to the Nore Light by eight members of the same club, performed in eighteen hours nineteen minutes with only half an hour's rest.

A four composed of officers of the Guards, stroked by the Hon. John Needham, afterwards tenth Viscount Kilmorey, rowed from Oxford to London in a day; and the Westminster Boys on St. George's Day, 1825, rowed the Challenge to Eton and back, only fourteen of the twenty hours occupied in covering the 115 miles being spent in the boat.

Four amateur clubs are known to have been in existence early in the nineteenth century-the Star, the Arrow, the Shark, and the Siren, which rowed races among themselves in six-oared boats, generally over long courses. The members of the Temple seem, too, like the officers of the Guards, to have formed some sort of rowing club, for Mr. Sargeant, in his Annals of Westminster School, says that the Defiance-the first racing boat which the school put on the river-'in 1818 lowered the unbeaten colours of the Templars.'

It is stated in the Westminster Water Ledger, which is probably the oldest contemporary record in existence with respect to rowing on the Thames in London, that the school had a boat on the river in 1815. This six-oared boat, the Fly, though not apparently built for racing, won a race against the Temple in 1816 and another with the Defiance; and two subsequent boats, the Challenge and the Victory, are said to have never been beaten in the races with London clubs to which the rowing of the school was limited till 1829.

It was not until this year that the first race with Eton-previous challenges from which, between 1814 and 1820, Westminster had been prevented by the prejudices of its head masters, Page and Goodenough, from accepting, took place. This was the first recorded amateur race of importance and two subsequent contests in 1831 and 1835, ended in a victory for Eton.

In 1837, however, Westminster had its revenge in a race which is further memorable for the fact that it led to the adoption of pink as the recognized colour of the school, the crew of which had previously, like that of Eton, worn blue and white; and also for the attendance of King William IV, whose rashness in insisting on witnessing the race seriously aggravated the fatal illness from which he was suffering.

In 1846 Westminster again beat Eton but was easily defeated in the following year. Under the head-mastership of Liddle, who did not regard rowing with favour, the sport was banned for a while. In 1853 the school rowed Leander in a race from Battersea to Putney, losing by a length, and in 1854 it defeated the club in another contest from Vauxhall to Putney.

The Rise Of The Clubs

Leander, presumed to be the the oldest non-academic club in the UK, is was founded in the 1820s by members of the old Star and Arrow Clubs, and was at first limited to sixteen, then to twentyfour and later to thirty-five members, until the removal of this restriction in 1857 (following the success of the London Rowing Club founded in the previous year) converted it into the largest club on the river.

In 1831 the club had defeated Oxford in a race rowed from Hambleden Lock to Henley Bridge, but when it lost the match with Cambridge six years later, the members are said by Lord Esher to have been 'verging on being middle aged men.' In 1858 it began to be recruited from both the universities, but it was not until 1875 that it won its first victory at Henley with an eight of one Oxford and seven Cambridge men, stroked by J. H. D. Goldie.

The London Rowing Club and the Thames Rowing Club, have had similarly successful careers, though both of these famous clubs are many years younger. The London was founded by members of the Argonauts Club in 1856, and was the first really large rowing club unlimited in numbers. Within three months of its creation it had 150 members and in the year after its foundation it won the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley. It was prominently associated with every advance in rowing except the keelless eight, and was the first to introduce the sliding seat in 1872 at Henley.

The Thames Rowing Club, which started life under the name of the City of London Boat Club, was instituted as a pleasure-boat club in 1861, but soon became a serious rival to London and made its first appearance at Henley in 1870.

In 1879 the Thames and London Rowing Clubs co-operated in establishing the Metropolitan, which went on to become the Amateur Rowing Association, and combined the various Metropolitan Clubs under one flag for promoting the interests of amateur oarsmanship.

Among the remaining Middlesex clubs, the Twickenham Rowing Club was founded in 1860, the same year as the Thames, and thus shares with it the honour of being the third oldest club on the river. It won its first regatta prize four years later by securing the Junior Fours at the Walton-on-Thames regatta but did not make its first appearance at Henley till 1879 when a crew, coached by J. H. D. Goldie, won the Thames Cup which it also secured in 1881 and 1884.

In 1883, when the club was strengthened by the accession of D.E. Brown, J. Lowndes, E. Buck and G. E. Roberts from Hertford College, Oxford, it rowed in the final for the Grand Challenge Cup, but was beaten by London. It also succeeded in getting into the final for the same event during the two following years, but was defeated by London in 1884, and by Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1885.

In addition to the above clubs there were five other Middlesex rowing clubs:-The Kensington, founded 1873, the North London about the same date; and the Auriol, founded 1887, at Hammersmith; the Anglian, founded 1887, at Strand on the Green; and the Staines Rowing Club, established in 1894. St. Paul's School has been rowing on the Thames since 1882.


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