Shared by Hemingford Grey and Hemingford Abbots, the Hemingfords’ Regatta is the oldest village rowing regatta in the country.

The Regatta is held on the River Great Ouse and comprises a day of racing in double and single coxed pleasure rowing boats, canoes and punts. The entry is largely restricted to residents of both villages, and there are races for children (including those attending Hemingford Grey Primary School), adults and veterans.

For five weeks prior to the Regatta, the rowing boats which are owned by the Regatta are available each evening for practice and training. Children are given the opportunity to learn how to row and cox.

In 2001, the regatta’s centenary year, the history of the Regatta was published ‘A Story of Village Rowing’ by Bridget Flanagan.*

The Regatta was founded by the Vicar of Hemingford Grey, the Rev. Byrom Holland (above, left), and his friend the artist Walter Dendy Sadler (above, right). 

Between them they gathered the support of the influential families in both the Hemingford villages to donate trophies, lend their boats and use their expertise to set up a Regatta so that everyone could enjoy friendly competition on the river.

The Regatta was an instant success and was so well-loved that it has continued uninterrupted (except for the War years and 2006 when the Environment Agency was carrying out flood prevention work) for over a hundred years.

Rev Holland donated a pair of silver oars,‘The Vicar’s Sculls’, as the trophy for a men’s double sculling race (pictured, right) which would end at Hemingford Grey Church when the Church bells would ring and coloured rockets be fired from the Church tower. Today this is traditionally the last race of the day.

The book recounts all the stories of this unique Regatta, described by Neil Wigglesworth in ‘The Social History of English Rowing’ as the sole remaining example of the Edwardian ‘garden-party’- style regatta – decorated boats, Lyons Corner House Nippies, Three men in a Boat, and A Sturgeon caught in the river.

Social history and inclusivity

One of the very best things about the Hemingfords Regatta – and there are many to choose from – is that the Regatta is inclusive. It was how it was designed to be, and how it has remained. 

When the Rev Byrom Holland and Dendy Sadler wrote the rules for the Regatta in 1904, they stipulated that the races were to be rowed in ‘pleasure boats’ rather than racing rowing boats. This was to ensure that everyone – both men and women and, most importantly, all social classes, could compete.

The background to this was very serious at the time, whereas now the social segregation seems absurd and offensive. The Amateur Rowing Association (ARA) ran, and continues to run, rowing in Britain and in 1886 issued General Rules for Regattas. 

The ARA adopted Henley Royal Regatta’s restrictive definition of amateur, which not only excluded those who made their living as professional oarsmen (e.g. the Thames watermen) but also anyone "who is or has been by trade or employment for wages a mechanic, artisan or labourer." 

Moreover, the new rules stated that only clubs affiliated to the ARA could compete in regattas held under ARA rules, and that ARA affiliated clubs could not compete under any other rules, nor against crews not affiliated to the ARA. This ruling was extremely socially divisive, effectively excluding any club with a socially mixed membership. 

It resulted in the formation of a breakaway organisation in 1890, the National Amateur Rowing Association, whose clubs could draw their membership from all social classes and occupations. 

This schism in English rowing was to remain for over half a century as a regular cause of controversy and bad feeling. In 1920 Henley Regatta refused entry in the Diamond Sculls to the American Jack Kelly (father of Princess Grace of Monaco) because he had served an apprenticeship as a bricklayer. 

This caused a transatlantic furore – and made Kelly a hero. A month later, at the 1920 Olympics in Belgium, Kelly won the single sculling gold medal, beating Jack Beresford, the English winner of the Diamond Sculls, by a second. And, as if that affair wasn’t bad enough, worse was to follow before change finally came. 

The Australian national eight, preparing for the Berlin Olympics in 1936, was excluded from the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley because the crew, who were all policemen, were deemed to be ‘manual workers’. The enormous embarrassment caused finally persuaded the ARA and the Stewards of Henley Royal Regatta of the need for change. In June 1937, the offending references to manual labourers, mechanics, artisans and menial duties were deleted from the ARA rules, with Henley following suit the following day. But it wasn’t until 1956 that the ARA and the NARA were finally amalgamated.

So the Hemingfords Regatta set itself up, like many other village regattas and water carnivals, as an independent body. But in the early 20th century it must have still been difficult for Holland and Sadler to bring everyone together on the river. Pre-WWI, village society remained hierarchical. However prizes, particularly prize money, made the racing more attractive for the working classes, whilst Sadler and Holland’s persuasions encouraged the gentlemen to be philanthropic and their grown-up children to compete. 

Clearly there would still be advantages for those wealthy enough to own boats or with more funds to hire them from Giddins’ boathouse for practice – but we can see from the record books that the winners came from a cross-section of village society. And so, because the Regatta was popular, it prospered.

Today the Hemingfords' Regatta is in an extraordinarily fortunate position due to the dedication of countless committee members and generous benefactors now owns a fleet of singles and doubles boats, kayaks and a pair of punts. The Regatta allows everyone to enjoy the river and practise for free for two weeks. For the following two weeks there is the cost of a small entry fee. 

No special clothes or kit are needed; no previous knowledge or skills are required as coaching is given. It is sincerely hoped that everyone who wants to join in, can do so and will. The Hemingfords Regatta has a very honourable tradition which is fundamental to its existence; ‘Sport for All’.

* A Story of Village Rowing’ by Bridget Flanagan

A few copies of the book, which is now out of print, are still available to purchase for £5.00 (plus £1 P&P). There are 120 pages with over 100 pictures. All the proceeds go towards Regatta funds. If you would like a copy, please contact a member of the Regatta Committee.