History of Henley

Henley-on-Thames evolved in a typical English-village fashion, being an important crossing point for a river, and also sitting under the edge of the Chiltern Hills. It became an important market and ferry town for the locality before the bridge was first built, and watercraft were seen on the river from very early on. The restrictions of geography have limited Henley's expansion, so that it remains a reasonably small town with the larger municipalities of Reading, Oxford and Maidenhead not far away. But another factor was the effect that rowing had on the town's development.

The establishment of a great regatta, the Henley Royal Regatta, in 1839 in the town, made Henley a sporting mecca for several weeks a year. As the regatta evolved from a weekend into something which occupies five full days of racing, with qualification and other procedures beforehand, its international reputation grew. For a long time Henley Royal Regatta was the sole preserve of rich amateurs (men only, of course), who could not compete in the professional sculling matches such as the Thames World Sculling Challenge.

Some of the best oarsmen of the 1800's were unable to compete at Henley because they had to earn their living. So the trappings of elitism surrounded this annual event, and all sorts of "gentlemanly" customs and traditions arose, many of which can be seen in the way the event is run today. It was not until after the first Great War that those who earned their living as manual workers were permitted to compete, and not until the later part of the 20th century that oarswomen were invited to take part in selected events (women coxes were less of an issue). By then the regatta already had a full programme of nearly a week, and this made it very difficult to open the racing up completely to the equivalent women's events, without losing half the men's crews (seen as a bad thing for British rowing). So the Henley Women's Regatta was established two weeks earlier, under separate management, and is now growing in reputation.

Throughout all this development, and perhaps affected also by its relative proximity to London and the natural beauty of the region, Henley became a town stuffed with large landowners. Vast tracts of estate around the town have single owners, and this has clearly affected the way that the town has evolved. It is not purely the preserve of the rich by any means, and has a flourishing town community, but it is an enviable place to live, with facilities which towns larger would be proud to own.

Henley's river is probably one of the most photographed and painted rowing reaches in the entire world. If you can persuade a local club to lend you a scull, going for a paddle on this revered piece of water, scene of some of the most exciting rowing races of the last two centuries and still home to Britain's top oarsmen, is an experience to remember.

Have a good row.