A hundred and fifty years of Bedford Regatta – some of them lean and tricky years, hovering on a financial tightrope – some years of anxious uphill endeavour, striving to recover from the effect of two world wars – but also – the fine, exhilarating years of success, of continuing prestige, of recognition as the greatest and now largest one day river regatta in the country, and the best managed, running through eleven hours of racing to a matchlessly executed time-schedule of some 320 races, right down to the last final…… on the dot!
When did it start?
There had been throughout the 1840’s signs of interest in Bedford rowing, and races had been arranged, but the first “official” Bedford Regatta took place on Thursday, 25th August, 1853, and notwithstanding the bad weather a good crowd lined the banks. The regatta comprised eight events, one of them being a four oared race and the others for pairs, sculls and rhandans (a pair of oars and a pair of sculls). The course for the sculling and pair-oared aces was from Layton’s Boathouse at the corner of Newnham Road, round the island which was in midstream some twenty yards below the Hitchin Railway Bridge, and back. (The island disappeared many years ago.). The other races were rowed from “Paradise” (Cauldwell House) to Laytons’ Boathouse. From a contemporary account of the first Regatta it appears that the winner of the sculling event was disqualified on the ground that he “caught hold of the boats”, and the race was awarded to his opponent.
There had been throughout the 1840’s signs of interest in Bedford rowing, and races had been arranged, but the first “official” Bedford Regatta took place on Thursday, 25th August, 1853, and not withstanding the bad weather a good crowd lined the banks. The regatta comprised eight events, one of them being a four oared race and the others for pairs, sculls and rhandans (a pair of oars and a pair of sculls). The course for the sculling and pair-oared aces was from Layton’s Boathouse at the corner of Newnham Road, round the island which was in midstream some twenty yards below the Hitchin Railway Bridge, and back. (The island, disappeared many years ago.). The other races were rowed from “Paradise” (Cauldwell House) to Laytons’ Boathouse. From a contemporary account of the first Regatta it appears that the winner of the sculling event was disqualified on the ground that he “caught hold of the boats”, and the race was awarded to his opponent.
A Social Event
Bedford made a gala day of this first Regatta. In Kingston’s Close (the meadow opposite Star Club) a big marquee was under management of Mr. Foster of the “Hop Pole” in Caudwell Street, and here many hundreds of people “dropped in” between races to refresh themselves. On the wharf opposite, the ladies sat down to tea; after which, the fiddles struck up and dancing went on far into the night. Earlier in the day St. Paul’s bells rang out, and the Bedford Brass Band, played a lively march along the High Street. During the afternoon the band occupied a barge on the river where “its enlivening music proved an agreeable diversion from the dullness of the proceedings”!
At nine o’clock the crews dined heartily at the “Rose Inn”; and on the following night the performances at the Bedford Theatre were under the patronage of the Regatta Committee.
The first eight Regattas seem to have been purely local affairs in which the prizes were awarded in money, but in 1860 open races for fours, pairs and sculls were incorporated in the programme, and thereafter silver cups of declared values were substituted for the money awards.
The Regatta of 1913, was a memorable one. The Bedfordshire Times summed up proceedings by describing the luncheon in the punts inside the booms as proceeding to the “merry popping of champagne corks…..and later there were strawberries and cream”.
The Committee was first established in the Town by those interested in rowing, as might be expected. In 1860, the Committee was greatly enlarged, and for some years from 1862 the names of His Grace the Duke of Manchester, the Rt. Hon. Earl Cowper, the Rt. Hon. Lord Wensleydale and other local dignitaries appeared on the programme as Patrons of the Regatta, and some few years later Earl Cowper accepted the office of President, an office which he filled until his death in 1905. In 1870 and for some years afterwards the Presidents of the Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Clubs were members, as was the Mayor of Bedford who acted as Chairman.
Today the Regatta is organised by a Committee made up of representatives from the local rowing clubs of the town.
The Regatta Draw was once a social event in itself in the days before computers. The Regatta Committee would meet the weekend before the Regatta to work out the racing programme using a card system, from which the programme was taken.
Today the draw is fully automated taking a few seconds to work out taking into consideration doubling-up, boat sharing and two-minute intervals between races.
The Events and Cups
The first eight Regattas seem to have been purely local affairs in which the prizes were awarded in money, but in 1860 open races for fours, pairs and sculls were incorporated in the programme, and thenceforward silver cups of declared values were substituted for the money awards.
In 1863, two Challenge Cups were offered, both “open to the Ouse”, one for sculls and the other for fours. The Sculling Cup having been won in 1863, 64 and 65 by Mr Harry Thody of Bedford Rowing Club (in later life, Chief Constable of Bedford), became his absolute property. The Fours Cup having been won in 1863 and 1864 by Bedford Rowing Club passed from the programme in 1865.
In 1868 a Public Schools Four-oared Race was introduced but only two crews entered, with Derby Grammer School beating Bedford School by two feet! The Public Schools race continued until 1883 when it was withdrawn owing to lack of entries.
In 1873 the Bedford Grand Challenge Cup was added to the prizes. The beautifully designed trophy was purchased by means of a public subscription to which the Duke of Bedford, the Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Clubs, and the Thames Rowing Club generously contributed. It is 21 inches high and its weight is 130oz of solid silver. The cup was designed by Mrs Gillons, wife of C.E.B. Gillons, a Bedford Modern School master, who for many years was the Hon. Secretary of the Regatta. In the 1873 Regatta, Thames Rowing Club beat Bedford School by nearly two lengths to become the first winners of the Grand Challenge Cup. Thames continued this run of form winning the cup on eight occasions up to 1897. After that year it was many years before they came back to Bedford.
To bring some light relief into the programme of racing the Regatta Committee introduced events such as ladies’ and gentlemen’s double sculls and punting races. These proved very popular, especially as the contestants were usually well known in the social life of the town, but when the rowing entries increased, these events had to be reluctantly abandoned.
The first post World War 1 Regatta was held in 1919 with a single event for eights. It was called the “Public School Eights” and there was only one race, between Bedford School and Bedford Modern School. Bedford School who had reached the final of the Elsenham Cup at Henley, won a good race by just over a length.
In 1938, the entries were sixty; in 1939, there were forty, while this continued to grow to 167 in 1959. Today the event regularly attracts up to 350 entries which has to be pared back to 320 to accommodate racing between 8.30am and 7.30pm with some 300 races.
In the mid 1990’s the Committee took the decision to restrict the Regatta to purely eights and fours. This decision was mainly taken due to the demand for entries in these categories.
The early Regattas did not enjoy the same promenade that we have today. The fun and festivity of the Regatta centred around the Swan Hotel and above the Bridge at what is now Star Club. A large marquee was erected for the purposes of the Regatta Committee, their wives, families and friends. Here, refreshments on a lavish scale were dispensed throughout the day. On the opposite side of the river, the townsfolk gathered to enjoy and celebrate the Regatta.
In 1904 the Regatta Committee obtained permission from the Bedford Corporation to enclose a portion of the Duckmill Meadows near the Locks for use of competitors and subscribers for the Regatta Fund, and permission has been annually renewed ever since. At the same time an enclosure for boats was made from the Locks to below the Suspension Bridge by means of booming some 12 ft. width of water along the south bank; this made it more comfortable for the family parties who spent the whole day in their boats and punts and also materially reduced the risk of accident. However, in the 1904 Regatta Bedford Rowing Club was robbed of victory in the final of the Grand Challenge Cup when they struck a family “tub” which had wandered onto the course.
Today the enclosure is positioned upstream of the Suspension Bridge and includes a tented area selling food and beverages for competitors and spectators alike. The facilities are run by the local rowing clubs with proceeds ploughed back into the clubs.
In 1854 the course was changed, the pairs and sculls being from Batt’s Ford (Star Club), round a buoy near the Locks and back, and the fours and rhandans from Mr. Pearse’s boathouse to the locks. It is probably true to say that in those days the rowing played second fiddle to the social aspects of the event as the Regatta for over two decades acted as the chief holiday of the year for Bedford.
From 1863 to 1885 the races were rowed over practically the same stretch of water as the present course but in a reverse direction – upstream. From 1886 the course was from the Caudwell Street Bridge (County Bridge) to the Overshot Island. In later years the winning post was changed to the Suspension Bridge, where it has remained ever since. During the late 80’s the course was shortened with the start being moved downstream from the County Bridge to Star Club making a straightened course. However, in the mid-nineties the start was once again returned to County Bridge where it remains today.
In 1861 London Rowing Club entered and won both the Open Fours and the Open Pairs, and from this time for many years the London and Thames Rowing Clubs figured constantly upon the programme. There came a time when the Tideway clubs ceased to visit Bedford and their place was taken by the many local clubs who still send their crews today.
Today the advent of multi-lane racing hasn’t helped this situation with Clubs such as London and Thames preferring to race at Dorney rather than Bedford. Having said that we have in the last few years welcomed back the University of London and Imperial College to the Regatta.
The Road to International Honours
Many Olympian, Boat Race and International oarsman have competed at the Regatta often in the Junior events before going on to represent their country.
Innovation at the Regatta
The 1933 Regatta was notable for the first demonstration of “syncopated rowing”, which was said to have much to recommend it. A trial match was rowed between a Bedford and Cambridge Crew and was won by the Cambridge Crew. In a four the cox sat in the middle of the boat, separating stroke and three and bow and two. Viewed from behind, the four oars striking the water in succession reminded one of a revolving watermill wheel. The successive striking was said to make for smooth running and better balance, by obviating the checks between the strokes.
In the 1955 Regatta Programme it was noted that entries had continued to grow since the ending of World War II. 1955 saw an entry of 39 eights, 48 fours, 4 pairs, 3 double sculls, 33 sculls competing – a total of 543 oarsmen and 83 coxes. Figures of the entries are available back to 1913. At that time there were no wight-oared events and the total entries in 1913 were 36 in all, and in 1914 24!. Entries in the inter-war year period ranged between 29 in 1920 to a record of 67 in 1937. The Senior VIIIs event was introduced in 1919, when two VIIIs competed. The maiden sculls were introduced in 1924, the coxless fours in 1932, the Junior VIIIs in 1934, and the double sculls in 1938. The number of VIIIs which ever compted prior to World War II was 10. After the war, entries immediately started to increaqse, being 60 in the immediate post-war year and rising to 102 in 1948. The following years saw a steady increase 135, 130, 139, 145, 133 and 148. Fast forward to 2014 the Regatta enjoyed an entry of circa 280 crews with 1,700 competitors.
Extract from Minutes of Bedford Regatta Committee – 30th May, 1876
Mr H Webber brought forward a proposition which was seconded by Capt GP Nash, “That clinker-built boats be five streaks below the gunwale and open fore and aft”. After a discussion re steam launch, it was decided to nominate a small committee, viz. Mr Sargent, Nash and Webber, to make enquiries as to the cost of hire of boat if found suitable for use of umpires.
At the subsequent meeting on 20th June, 1876, there were present Mssrs Sarget, Thody, Bull, Webber, Piper, Glub and Gillons. Extract from the minutes: “The Committee who were appointed to see after the steam launch as to its being able to convey the Umpire near enough to judge the races reported that the teamer was not fast enough for that purpose”.
Other Interesting Facts
In July 1869, the Regatta was marred by a fatal accident which happened to a little girl named Ridge, daughter of the landlord of the Albion Inn in White Horse Street. The child ran in front of the gun with which the races were started just as it was being fired, and received such serious injuries to the upper part of her neck that she died soon after being taken to the hospital. The miniature cannon was at the time being looked after by Sgt. Hartley of the 82nd Regiment, who was in Bedford recruiting service. He was arrested shortly after the incidence and subsequently appeared before the Bedford magistrates. At the inquest it was stated that Hartley had been instructed to fire the shot by the official “gunner”, Sgt. Dyer, while the latter was absent. The jury returned a verdict of “accidental death”, and censured Dyer for delegating the duty of firing the cannon to another person. Sgt. Hartley, who was obviously traumatised by the turn of events, was discharged by the bench.
During the 100th Regatta the Bedford School 1st VIII achieved the rare feat in the Senior-Junior eights event of lowering the event record in all three rounds of the competition. The subsequent record stood for a number of years.
In March 1962, Bill Robertson (a well-known local figure in the Town and Rowing Community) wrote to the Rowing Magazine bestowing the virtues of “bank umpiring”. See article: Rowing Magazine March 1962
As part of our 150th anniversary celebrations we had two articles reflecting on the importance of the Regatta and Rowing in the Town of Bedford.
The first article was written by Angus Robertson, son of the late Bill Robertson, who was instrumental in the success of the Regatta for many, many years. The second piece is by Chris Barcock, a well known member of the local rowing scene in Bedford who charts the history of the Regatta over the last two centuries.
“At Bedford by the River”.
By Angus Robertson (April 2014)
So reads the last stanza of each verse in the Bedford School Song and to most Bedfordians the river holds lasting memories in one form or another. To many it holds the birthplace of their love and involvement in the sport of rowing – a unique form of teamwork, training and commitment, one almost arcane in the pleasure it affords. Few who have not experienced being part of a rowing crew are able to understand the feel of wonder and delight of a boat running smoothly and fast, each member of the crew totally dependent on others who are equally committed and determined.
From its birthplace at Farthinghoe to its final discharge into the sea at Lynn much of the course of the Ouse winds its way through Bedfordshire. It was in the County Town itself that, on Thursday, 25th August 1853, the first organised regatta was held. To mark the centenary of the regatta Christopher Carter, “Touchstone” of The Bedfordshire Times wrote a history of the regatta – “What a Vista..!” That vista has continued and expanded and to-day the 150th regatta is being held. During the last 50 years not only has the regatta flourished but Befordians have contributed greatly in the advancement of rowing in the country as a whole. Bedford rowers have maintained the reputation of having a “proficiency in oarsmanship” that was established in the mid twentieth century. Recent International rowers and coaches of repute have learnt their trade in Bedford and the development of our sport here has been remarkable. Junior rowing is now widespread and growing in Bedford, well supported by the local schools and clubs as well as by British Rowing it is the envy of many.
One of the outstanding oarsmen in recent time is T.J.C. Foster who rowed at three in the crew that won the Gold Medal in the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000. In 2006, at the Bedford Head of the River Race, a crew of International oarsmen from both Bedford Rowing Club and Star Club consisted of: K.I. Armstrong, J.P. Ormerod, G. Smith, P.M.R. Mulkerins, B.G. Dixon, T.J.C. Foster, D.R. Gillard, R.R. Smith and H.C. Bass.
Recent successful coaches from Bedford have included T.J.C. Foster, A.B. Henshilwood, P.M.R. Mulkerrins, and J.G. Singfield while, in the past, P.M.Garner, D.C. Lightfoot, C.E. Poynter and A.S. Rowe have contributed much to rowing coaching in the town.
A Bedford coxswain, J, Deakin, must have achieved a feat that is unlikely to be equalled at Henley Royal Regatta. In 1997 he coxed two successful crews winning The Ladies’ Plate by one foot and The Thames Challenge Cup by two feet.
At Henley Royal Regatta the most memorable year for the Town was in 1986 when a composite Bedford Star Rowing Club crew of K.I. Armstrong, P.M.R. Mulkerrins, R.W.G. White, J.G. Singfield and H.C.Bass won The Britannia Challenge Cup. Many Bedfordians have won Henley medals in the last fifty years but this was, perhaps, the most significant victory in the history of rowing in the Town. Few years pass now when there are not a number of individuals who receive Henley Royal Regatta medals. The Royal Regatta has included many Stewards and members of The Committee of Management who were introduced to the sport at Bedford. Only a very few “Fathers and Sons” have won The Visitors’ Challenge Cup and these include the current Regatta Secretary, H.A.J. Maltby who won in 1986, his Father who won in 1957 and 1959.
Many Bedford rowing families, Beckett, Beresford, Bevan, Godber, McArthur, Owen and Symonds have contributed much to the sport of rowing. Other notable Bedford rowing men include D.A.T. Leadley who with C.G.V. Davidge, won the coxswainless pairs at the European Championships [precursor to the World Championships] in 1957.
On a personal note, I first sat in a boat aged seven, coxing a Bedford Rowing Club eight one Sunday morning during the Second World War. In 1950 my Father organised for me together with three friends, R.C. Godber, M.B. Maltby and L.J. Rose to be taught how to row by the Bedford Boatman, Jack Bowers in a clinker four, on fixed seats with fixed pin oars. We went out every day for three weeks in the Spring school holidays. We all loved every outing and Jack installed in us a true love of our wonderful sport as shown by events to come. Godber became a benefactor of Bedford Rowing Club – donating the Godber Room; Maltby was a Cambridge Blue and President of Cambridge University Boat Club and won three times at Henley Royal Regatta; Rose was later Captain of Bedford Rowing Club and I became involved with the management of Henley Royal Regatta, one of the most important aspects of my life. Thank you Jack.
The Regatta course is unique and many famous oarsmen have fallen foul of the Town Bridge! The landmarks may have changed – The Brewery Bend and The Plaza may have disappeared but the Weir, Green, Town and Suspension Bridges survive. The partisan crowds continue; who has not thrilled at the roar from their supporters as crews from Bedford School and Bedford Modern School race against each other at the Regatta? The many entries from all over the country continue to testify as to the efficiency of a well-run Regatta, always organised by a closely-knit and cheerful group of truly amateur local people – long may it continue. The future will certainly see considerable changes. Plans for it may have started in 1993 but the proposed 2,000 metre, multi-lane rowing course at Willington now looks certain to become a reality – a tour de force by A.S. Rowe – and the Regatta will, no doubt, be held there in the future. But, come what may, there will forever be men and women, girls and boys who learn the art, teamwork, wonders and pleasures of rowing “At Bedford by the River”.
A History of Bedford Regatta
By Chris Barcock (February 2014)
The regatta which we will enjoy today will be well known to many of you: well over three hundred entries, a meticulously organised schedule, much double entering and plate events to ensure as many crews as possible get a second chance. Events for quads, fours and eights only, so as to further maximise pleasure and excitement for spectators and competitors alike, all run within the firm, fair and friendly ethos generated by the starters, judges, umpires and marshals, not to forget the army of supporters without whom the regatta could not operate. And all set in one of the most attractive riparian environments in the country. It can’t fail and it won’t, we promise!
Simple, isn’t it?
Possibly: but 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 social class, 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 took it from being a small and emphatically 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, manly 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” 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 he C19th and the outbreak of WW1 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 V111 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 drivers 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 9.30 and 7.30 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 International Rowing 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 rather parochial rivalries that had driven the success of provincial rowing and regattas seen in their finest incarnation at Bedford and events like it. 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 Pierrepoint 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 painfully 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. Rather than offer this on a piecemeal platform of tokenism (as happened elsewhere) the regatta rapidly developed equal competitive opportunities for not only both genders to compete both together and against each other.
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 the largest one day event of its kind in the country.
We hope that this brief account gives a cogent background to the event you are participating in today. Once again: good luck… and please come back again next year!