Bedford Amateur Regatta prepares for 150th anniversary

Ahead of its landmark 150th anniversary in May, take a closer look at the history of the Bedford Amateur Regatta and the celebrations in store of this year’s blockbuster event.

Bedford Amateur Regatta will celebrate its 150th Regatta on May 10th. To mark the occasion, the Committee is offering a £1,000 cash prize to the winners of both Men’s and Women’s Elite Eights at the May 10th event. In addition, every competitor will receive a commemorative medal while event winners will take away specially inscribed pewter tankards. A great day of racing is in store, and we look forward to welcoming competitors and spectators to the picturesque Embankment.  If you’ve ever wondered how and why rowing started in Bedford then look no further as Chris Barcock (BAR Committee Member) explains the history of the sport in the Town…

The success of the regatta is something which has evolved over the 150 years of its existence by key individuals and committees, responding with intelligence and innovation to changing patterns of society, expectations of leisure time activities and developing technologies. Herein lies the life-blood of the event’s continuing success.

From the completion of the Ouse Navigation in 1689, Bedford’s place as a rowing arena amongst all sorts of other water-based activities was firmly established. The world of busy wharves, quays and moorings; stevedores ferrymen and bargees which extended from the watery enclave of Duck Mill (adjacent to Bedford Rowing Club) as far as the site of the main railway bridges by the end of the C18th seems worlds away and there is very little trace of them today. Bedford’s engineering and industrial development, which saw it grow from simply a small market town, were dependent on the iron ore, coal and other heavy goods coming from King’s Lynn: in return the barges carried all manner of cloth and other manufactured goods and, later, great quantities of beer in the opposite direction.

Hence the tribe of watermen who dwelt and worked close to the river grew as industry and commerce thrived. And, as in many such aquatic centres, albeit on a smaller scale than Newcastle, London and Bristol, athletic competition was an inevitable outcome. There were, no doubt, many private rivalries, grudges and scores to be settled that led to claim and counter claim being resolved over a set course on the river and at a set time for a set sum in a particular craft: the evidence that this was becoming rather more codified and organised comes from the 1840s onwards. Despite a splendid picture of “Bedford Regatta 1851” in the Cecil Higgins Museum (opposite Bedford Rowing Club) the first “official” regatta took place on Thursday 25th August 1853 and by all accounts was well attended. It was, like many other similar events of its time pre-eminently local. As everyone worked for six days a week and Sunday was reserved for church attendance, one weekday was as good as any other. It’s a custom that survived at Durham and elsewhere in the north of England into the 1970s.

The features of the C19th regattas that were critical to what we see today were these:

Firstly the rapid removal of the “closed” and entirely local events rowed for prize money which elsewhere persisted much later than at Bedford. It took only eight years for these to be replaced by trophies, which eventually became entirely symbolic incentives rather than the literal winning of cash prizes and wagers. There was a period when crews winning a trophy three or four times continuously were entitled to keep it but even this had faded by the turn of the century.

The formation and rapid growth of the two boys’ schools’ boat clubs were a part of the rapid expansion of their numbers in mid-century, and this led subsequently to the creation and development of the town rowing club: all attained a fairly high standard of oarsmanship as a result of the numbers and the competition that they generated. Whether their influence on other crews who saw them in action or the reputation of the crews visiting the regatta came first in attracting oarsmen from a very wide geographical catchment is debatable. But the outcome was clear: by the high Victorian era crews from all over Midlands, London and the Metropolitan counties were regular visitors to the regatta which had been moved to a slot in mid-July. Where London and Thames Rowing Clubs as well as Evesham and Nottingham’s finest came, so others would want to test their mettle. In 1868 the first race for the Public Schools’ Challenge Cup was won by the Derby Grammar School four against strong local opposition.

More subtly perhaps, but equally significantly, the arrival of the railways in the middle of the century heralded the end of the Ouse navigation as a major industrial artery and its taking up as a provider of leisure-time opportunities. The adoption of the ARA rules of racing in 1885 which included the infamous exclusion of competitors who were “engaged in manual labour” passed Bedford by without restriction on the many who wished to row and train and compete. Although bitter rivalries and recriminations lay in the future for Bedford and its rowers, the seismic fissures which underlay the formation of the National Amateur Rowing Association (for those who had been manually engaged) as a class-based rival to the ARA passed the town and the regatta by without incident.

Certainly the digging and laying out of Bedford’s embankment started to move the focal point of rowing in the town away from the western side of the town bridge to the eastern and completed the very attractive course which provides for today’s competition.

The regatta continues to benefit as it has done continuously from its inception from the enthusiastic support of the Bedford Town (and later Borough) Council in its organisation, facilities and personnel. Then, as now, it was and is a happy coalescence of public and private enterprise.

In short, by the end of the C19th and the outbreak of the first World War, the regatta was strongly established as a prestige event in the right place at the right time for as wide a range of competitors as (was then) possible. Shades of 2014, for sure.

Up to 1914 (there was a regatta on Thursday July 14th, a mere three weeks before the outbreak of war), races had been between fours, pairs and sculls.

In 1919 there was one cup and one race: the Public Schools Challenge Cup rowed between Bedford School and Bedford Modern School (and won by the former) in eights. This was a crucial development: first to have a regatta at all and second to move the class of boats upwards. Was it really worth organising a full-blown regatta for two local crews who probably paced each other and competed on a regular basis? The resounding answer is yes. The date, social prominence, strategic importance and status of the regatta were immediately re-stated and potentially enhanced by these two crews reprising the glamour of their recent Henley performances for the local populace.

As in so many other areas the inter-war years were ones of stable growth and consolidation. Their influences on today were principally threefold:

The maintenance of the date of the regatta which eventually moved to a Saturday; the development of a meticulous organisation and the pioneering of bank umpiring (earlier races had been umpired on horseback) with further refinement of the rules of racing and their adaptation to the local idiosyncrasies of start, course and stream: and the continued growth of events for eights.

The Bedford Rowing Club 1st VIII and Regatta of 1933 represent the pinnacle of the period’s achievements and suggests why rowing in the town had grown in both numbers and quality and why the post-Henley date was ideal. At Henley, Bedford lost in the final of the Thames Cup (then the event for club eights) that year with a crew which comprised four old boys of each of the two schools, coached by schoolmasters. The attraction of the regatta as a second run after Henley and reworking of, or at any rate aspiration to its prestige, must have been irresistible. And all stemming from a brave decision in 1919. It would be a brave man or a fool who would tamper with either…

The regatta was slightly slower to get back on its feet after WW2, in common with almost all events of its type: but the old motivators of inter-school and inter-club rivalry (especially after the formation of Star Club in 1960), successful and attractive crews from all quarters and massively energetic and personally effective committee members ensured that entries had doubled their 1938 totals by 1950.

Another period of consolidation and stability led up to the Centenary Regatta in 1963. There were 169 entries for this and racing was between 9.30am and 7.30pm, to the usual assiduously contrived and observed timetable. There were races for five classes of eights and four classes for fours: and all were well subscribed. Crews from London, University of London and Quintin BC, as well as Royal Chester took on the locals in the Senior Eights and an equally prestigious line up in the Senior Fours featured crews from Thames, Molesey and the winners of the Wyfold Cup at Henley that year, Norwich Union. The Senior Pairs included entries from Penang and Rudergesellschaft Heidelburg, again emphasising the importance of the date and the attractiveness of the event. But there was little that would have distinguished the regatta in any major way from the regattas of thirty years previously.

It was just at this point that what had seemed for so many years solidly dependable, predictable and a jewel in the crowns of both town and rowing started to shift…

For many years the poor state and performance of British rowers on the international stage had been noted and lamented. In a famous article in the late sixties, The Times’ rowing correspondent Richard Burnell had asked “why have we not achieved success?” He concluded: “we have not achieved success because we have not deserved it: and if you don’t believe me, remember what that coach said about that other crew and that other club just last week”. Even Bedford was not entirely exempt from such local myopia at the time.

One of the prescriptions all agreed on for the long-overdue restitution of successful British international rowing was the creation of an international standard 2000 metre course capable, eventually, of staging a World Championship Regatta and equipped with all that was necessary for a national rowing squad to compete with the world’s finest and move on from the parochial rivalries that had driven the success of provincial rowing and regattas. Being the best in the country or the best at Henley was simply not good enough to sustain international success, let alone the best in Bedford.

The first crews went out to train and not long afterwards compete at Holme Pierrepont in 1971 and the next year plans for a National Championship of Great Britain were laid and executed. The date? Well, fairly obviously, a fortnight after Henley, when all the top crews were still at a peak of fitness and performance.

The death knell for Bedford Regatta as it been for the best part of fifty years had sounded. By the eighties it became apparent that the regatta no longer attracted many if any top class crews who were concentrating on the bigger event to come: earlier and earlier public examinations meant that the Schools were often on holiday at the time of the regatta and college crews had generally been disbanded post Henley.

Radical changes were needed and in 1989 the committee made the decision to change both the date of the regatta and the shape and length of the course. The former was momentous but the essential change in securing the event’s long-term success. After protracted negotiations with the ARA, the regatta moved to its now firmly established early May date and has made a host of virtues out of its perceived limitations as a side-by-side river based competition. Many of the top crews will prefer to race at Eton Dorney on a purpose built eight-lane course. But many more come to Bedford: it is an ideal date for School crews preparing for the National Schools Regatta two weeks hence and for Oxford and Cambridge Colleges at the height of their season: not to mention the numerous other University crews who join them. In many years, the Open Eights are competed for and won by the top school crews: an interesting parallel to the days of the first races for the Public Schools Challenge Cup and the establishment of the Open Eights all those years ago.

The regatta was in the vanguard of the move in the seventies and eighties of seeking to cater for the huge increase in women’s and girls’ rowing. No wonder we now cater for double the entries we took in 1963.

The 1,000 metre course from Star Club to the Suspension Bridge was tried and abandoned after some years and in the 1990s the “original” course was reintroduced: this, with the introduction of new technologies allows the regatta to be organised to take over double the number of crews who competed here fifty years ago. It is now one of the largest one day river events of its kind in the country.

We look forward to welcoming you to this year’s event and hope you have success and fun in equal measure.

Hugh Maltby
BAR Hon. Regatta Secretary