Gentlemen Amateurs vs Tradesmen & Professionals

Rowing was once a purely practical trade carried out by tough, working men who carried goods and people on the river. Competitions between these professionals were popular, with wager races and regattas being held up and down the country. In 1831 the first World Professional Sculling Championships was held. Winners such as Ted Phelps were sporting celebrities of their day.

As rowing for wagers grew in the 18th century, young gentlemen at Eton and Westminster Schools and Oxford and Cambridge Universities began to hire boats from professional watermen who taught them to row.

For the first half of the 19th century, gentlemen and professional rowers enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship. Watermen’s trade was in decline, so they welcomed new business from teaching. Early gentlemen rowers were not opposed to competing for prize money but soon the relationship became strained. The upper-class became fanatical about ‘amateurism’, sport done purely for pleasure and with no financial reward. This therefore excluded their professional rivals.

Based on the idea that money brings corruption, amateurism was initially part of an attempt to make sport fair. Unfortunately, there was a lot of confusion defining what made an amateur rower. In the 1870s, the Amateur Rowing Association decided that an amateur could not be ‘a labourer or anyone engaged in any menial duty’.

Privileged gentlemen may have made this rule because they didn’t want to compete against strong men who performed tough, physical labour. However, these gentlemen suffered as they could not employ the professionals to coach them. Although the rule preventing gentlemen amateurs and tradesman from rowing together was abolished in 1938, the legacy of these divisions lasted well into the modern era.

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Official programme from the World's and English Sculling Championships, 1930. Courtesy of John Skelton

Click on the images to enlarge

London's Rowing Clubs

Rowing clubs have their origins on the Thames from the early 1800s, starting out as small groups of enthusiasts hiring boats and renting changing rooms from pubs and boathouses along the river.

As rowing grew in popularity among ‘gentleman amateur’ rowers, new elite clubs were established, serving rowers from public schools and universities. These were distinct and different from the established clubs, which served the professional and tradesmen community.

One of the few original tradesmen’s clubs that still thrives today is Poplar, Blackwall and District Rowing Club. Founded in 1854 by watermen and lightermen of the Thames, it remains one of the oldest rowing clubs in the country. Due to their trade, the club’s members were categorised as professional and so could only compete against other professionals and members of the Trademen’s Rowing Association.

Poplar has a long rowing tradition and has seen over forty-five winners of The Race for Doggett’s Coat and Badge. Members have also represented Great Britain and have won medals at World and Olympic level. By 1951 the club was admitted to the National Amateur Rowing Association. This meant that members could compete in all amateur regattas and were no longer discriminated against for their tradesmen’s status. In 1956, the club was admitted to Henley Royal Regatta for the first time with their ‘Lighterman’s Eight’ and reached the semi-finals.

Clubs such as Poplar provide an important hub for the watermen’s rowing community. They have long traditions of hosting the celebratory drinks after a Doggett’s race, as well as being venues for weddings and parties. Race winners attend in their prestigious Doggett’s uniform as recognition of its importance.

Special thanks to Tim Koch