The River and Rowing Museum at Henley explores the history of the upper River Thames, competitive rowing, and the town of Henley. Henley has been central to rowing in Britain since 1839, when civic leaders of Henley organised a few summer days of socialising and rowing races on the stretch of Thames running through their town. Sport history can be very revealing about changing values in society generally. This is certainly true of Henley and the sport of rowing.
Before the establishment of Henley Regatta rowing competitions had taken place amongst professional Thames watermen. The world's oldest rowing race, the Dogget Coat And Badge Race, established in 1716, was created to hone the skills of men rowing ferry craft taking people across and along the Thames. But into the nineteenth century things changed. It was an age of industrialisation and revolution. In many ways British society hardened in the face of this turbulence. Rowing was pervaded by an amateur ethos. In 1878 Henley changed its rules to exclude anyone who had worked "in or around boats", and also exluded anyone who had ever worked as a manual labourer. In 1886 the Amateur Rowing Association decided to adopt those rules in force at Henley (see Henley Royal Regatta - A Celebration of 150 Years by Richard Burnell). In this way Henley's unforgiving definition of amateurism was applied in British rowing generally. The Henley philosophy also had a resonance world wide. Pierre Coubertin, keen rower and founder of the modern Olympic games visted 1888's Henley Regatta. He was impressed by what he saw, and used a Henley and British public school example of amateur competiton in setting up his Olympic movement. Henley hung onto its amateur ideals for a long time. In 1920, there was a scandal when an American rower named Jack Kelly was refused entry as he had once worked as a brick layer - Kelly went on to win an Olympic gold medal. The last straw came in 1938 when an Australian crew on its way to the Olympics applied to compete at Henley as part of its preparation. Since the crew were all policeman they were considered "manual workers" and their application was refused. Following protests the "Mechanics Clause" was finally removed from Henley and Amateur Rowing Assocation rules in 1937. In 1949 the rule excluding those who had worked "in or about boats for money or wages" was withdrawn. Professionalism was now defined as racing for money, or earning a living from coaching. But even this was to change. The best athletes were obliged to take their sport beyond the confines of a hobby, which meant that events wanting to attract top talent had to accept professionals. The Olympics accepted this from 1986. Henley and British rowing generally finally followed suit from 1998. Today Henley Royal Regatta, in the words of Richard Burnell "epitomises the 'golden yesterday' without falling too far behind 'the insistent today' ". Visiting Henley there is a strong sense of tradition, when there have actually been fundamental changes to the event, reflecting fundamental changes in society generally. Although the whole atmosphere of Henley is one of a lost elegance, this is really something of a delightful illusion. Henley still provides elegance, but has moved with the times, and in many ways is all the more elegant as a result.
The temple at the start of the Henley rowing course
All of this history can be explored at the award winning River and Rowing Museum. Fittingly the museum opened in 1998, the year that Henley finally moved with the times and opened events to professional competitors. The museum is arranged by themes, which include the history of rowing since its origins in ancient Greece, the University Boat Race, and Kenneth Grahame's book Wind In The Willows. There is also a Thames Gallery focusing on Thames history, wildlife and environment.
Address: River and Rowing Museum, Mill Meadows, Henley On Thames, Oxfordshire, RG9 1BF
Directions: The museum provides a large car park. From the centre of Henley follow signs. Getting to the museum by train is easy. There are hourly services from Paddington, and the museum is only a few minites walk from Henley Station. Click here for an interactive map centred on River And Rowing Museum.
Opening Times: Please use contact details below.
Access: There is level access to all areas, wheelchairs avilable on loan - contact the museum to book one 01491 415600. Guide dogs are welcome. There are many audio displays. Adapted toilet facilities are provided.
telephone: 01491 415600
web site: http://www.rrm.co.uk/home.aspx