Rowing on the River Thames

Historically, rowing on the River Thames was purely a professional activity for the thousands of watermen and lightermen who had boat licences. These men provided vital services and were highly skilled. Due to their strength and speed, it wasn’t long before wagers were set among the working man’s rowing community, encouraging competition in races.

As these races grew in popularity, so did the crowds who came in huge numbers to the river banks to watch and place bets on a winner. The Race for Doggett’s Coat and Badge, set up by actor Thomas Doggett in 1715, survives today as one of the most sought-after titles of this time.

By the early 1800s, rowing began to be taken seriously as a sport for gentlemen. Oxford and Cambridge university students began racing each other in around 1815, and the first of the now famous races took place in 1829. Henley Royal Regatta followed in 1839, attracting large crowds of spectators over its five days, and becoming a great social and sporting event.

Men who rowed for a living were initially excluded from amateur racing as it was thought they had an unfair advantage. It wasn’t until 1956 that professionals were allowed to compete at Henley. While the closure of the docks and mechanisation of river industries saw a steep decline in the watermen and lightermen’s trade, Doggett’s is still raced by Thames river workers today.

Although the sport of rowing is thriving on the Thames, it may never again have the mass popularity that it once had when fuelled by those who made their living on the river.

  • 'Boat Race' London Underground created posters advertising the University Boat Race, including this by Percy Drake Brookshaw, 1937. © Transport of London

  • Birds-eye view of London from Somerset Gardens in the City of Westminster, showing the City of London and boats, barges and ships on the Thames, 1790 © City of London, London Metropolitan Archives (Collage: the London Picture Archive, ref 27643)
  • The Oxford University boat race crew in their blazers. Photograph by Christina Broom, 1929 © River & Rowing Museum, Henley on Thames