River Stories and
Some History of Kingston Amateur Regatta
1857 - 2007

Kingston Regatta - 1911
Kingston Regatta - 1911

Kingston Regatta was first raced on 1st and 2nd of June 1857 after entries were invited in the ‘Surrey Comet’ and ‘Richmond, Kingston and Epsom Gazette’. The entry fee was a staggering 10 shillings for a junior (equivalent to £40 today!) and a senior was around double that amount. 77 competitors competed in 21 races in the pouring rain and afterwards the Chairman, Colonel Challoner, proposed a toast to the ‘Success of the Kingston Regatta’. From such modest beginnings the Regatta was born and would go on to be one of the main events of the rowing calendar. It has had its highs and lows going through 2 world wars but we are pleased to say that in this 150th Anniversary Year the Regatta is on a high with over 1,200 expected to compete in nearly 400 races in front of 4,000 spectators. In the first 80 years, the Regatta was run from its spiritual home at Kingston Rowing Club whose boathouse was on Raven’s Ait - see image from 1911 with the well kept lawn and band. (The photo on the home page is of Kingston RC, winners of the Senior 4s.) The Regatta was a major event in both the sporting and social calendar and would have regular reports in the national and sports press.

Thames RC beating Kingston in the final 1919
Thames RC beating Kingston in the final 1919

However, Kingston RC did not always have its own way as Thames RC demonstrated (looking towards Raven’s Ait from the end of Queen’s Promenade) by beating Kingston in the final of the same event in 1919. At bow of the Thames crew was a young Jack Beresford, the son of Polish immigrants who’s full name was Jack Beresford Wiszniewski. Beresford rivals Steve Redgrave in competing at 5 consecutive Olympics from 1920 to 1936 winning 3 Golds and 2 Silvers. In his first Olympiad in 1920 he lost in the final of the single sculls to American Jack Kelly (Father of actress Grace Kelly who later became Princess Grace of Monaco) by 1 second, still the tightest margin in the events history that left both men too exhausted to shake hands though soon after became life long friends. In his final Olympics in 1936 in the double sculls at the age of 37 he with partner Dick Southwood rowed down the German double in front of Adolf Hitler to take Gold in what he described as “the sweetest race I ever rowed in”.

Boomed course crowd 1933

By the 1920s familiar clubs such as Molesey, Thames, Twickenham and London were racing, plus with less familiar clubs such as the London Joint Stock Bank RC and the Royal School of Mines. The trophies were, by then, pretty magnificent such as the Coronation Eights Challenge Cup for Thames Cup Eights. By 1925, The Duke and Duchess of York gave their patronage to the Regatta. The Regatta was still high on the social calendar in the 1930’s as seen with the large crowds this time viewed from Raven’s Ait looking towards Queen’s Promenade with Kingston RC winning the Coronation Eights Challenge Cup in 1933.

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Another regular competitor in the 1930s was Dick Offer, a past President of Kingston RC and Chairman of the Regatta who sadly died in February this year. Dick was born into a family already living by the river in Kingston. His grandfather, Alfred Burgoine, was a boat builder who proudly produced one of Queen Victoria’s Royal Barges, and a motor launch that held the World Water Speed record. His affinity with the river was already in his genes. His family have paid this tribute to Dick:

Jack & Dick Offer 1936

“Dick’s formal introduction to rowing started at Tiffin School and afterwards at Kingston RC where he was to become a lifelong member. Competitive rowing became a constant factor in Dick’s life and this drive took him to a Henley medal in 1936 (pairing with his brother Jack in the Silver Goblets (see photo of the Offer brothers) - then to Olympic trials and then in 1938 to selection for the British Empire Games in Sydney, where they won a silver medal.

Within only a few months of his return, Dick and Mac were married on the day before war was declared. He gained his Commission in the Royal Navy and found himself on Convoy Escort duties. In the D-Day Normandy landings, by then a Commander of a Tank Landing Craft, it was Dick’s responsibility, with accurate navigation, to be first to his allotted Arromanches Beach to land the Beachmaster and this he did with unerring competence. Dick was somewhat reluctant to reminisce about his war service, but he was clearly proud of the fact that after transferring a badly injured soldier to the hospital ship under enemy fire, he returned the ship and crew to British shores without further serious casualty, despite having hit a mine and with a live shell in the hull!

Dick Offer 2007
Dick Offer 2007

After hostilities ceased Dick was quick to return to Kingston RC, which saw him in many crews up to the 1950’s. It was then that he found a new passion - that of coaching both at KRC and at Tiffin School. There are many who will have happy memories of him in that role, some even who have cause to thank him for the guidance he gave them to reach high rowing honours and international success. He was an inspirational teacher, drawing on his own water skills and watermanship.”

Dick will be greatly missed by all those who knew him, but particularly by those at Kingston RC and those who assisted him with the running of the Regatta which he did for many years in different capacities.

Kingston RC’s current President Alan Spong, a slightly younger peer of Dick’s, also competed in the Regatta shortly after the war and is kindly sponsoring an event at this year’s Regatta. Alan paid this tribute to his love of rowing.

“My Father was responsible for installing in me my lasting love of the upriver part of the Thames and rowing. I was born soon after he had competed in ‘The Doggetts Coat & Badge’ race held annually in July since 1715 and from an early age taught me how to scull, buying me my first sculling boat when I was 12. Even now I can recall the pleasure from sculling along by myself through the various reaches of the Thames. Unfortunately the 1939-45 War interrupted those happy days but nonetheless I was fortunate to be still fit enough on my return to Civvy Street to start again. This time it was in fours and eights and continued to do so for the next 30 years. My best years started when I joined Kingston RC in 1951 and had the opportunity and good fortune to compete in regattas both up and down river, especially our own Kingston Regatta. But it was not only the competing, it was and still is the memories of friendships made, of races won and lost and just being involved in the sport. Finally, I wish to congratulate those persons, mostly Kingston RC Members, responsible for running the Kingston Amateur Regatta and wish them a successful 150th anniversary.”

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J Tann, Tim Crooks Grandfather

Going back for a moment to the crew of the Thames RC 4 of 1919 we find another regular competitor in J L Tann who won senior sculls in 1911 and the famous Wingfield Sculls in 1914.

Some of you may be able to recognise the family resemblance in that Tann is the Grandfather of Kingston’s very own Tim Crooks who won silver in the Montreal Olympics in 1976 and perhaps more famously won the 1977 BBC ‘Superstars’ competition. Tim’s love of rowing and determination is encapsulated in this tribute:

“You set off for an outing. It can be cold, windy and rough, or maybe lovely sun, but it's a challenge to lift yourself to perform to your best for the conditions. You can be stiff, up-tight and tired but you’re getting warmed up and the healing process has begun.

Tim Crooks in the Diamond Sculls at Henley 1969

You’re working to make the boat travel as far as possible between strokes. There's a magic moment when the stroke is released and the boat flies away as you relax, leaving the swirls in the water as the only evidence of the push that you train and train to exert. You've warmed up but you steel yourself to do the set training, and you're off. Quality, speed, it's hard, of course it's hard, conserve or you won't even finish the first one, but keep the boat speed, keep the hands quick, it's good, it's rough now, over the waves, keep pushing, tiring now, push on, keep it quick, don't let it go, push on, and it's finished. Only three more to go...

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It's always good, very satisfying. Just occasionally you have a bad outing, but either way, you did it, you feel better for it, so worth the effort. You always have to keep going – a bit like the Regatta.”

Cox P S Martin of Thames RC, seen left, being carried to his boat for the final of the Coronation Challenge Cup in 1921
Cox P S Martin of Thames RC

As Tim so aptly describes, rowers have qualities of immense determination and no-one demonstrates these better than the disabled Cox P S Martin of Thames RC, seen left, being carried to his boat for the final of the Coronation Challenge Cup in 1921.

The Regatta moved from Raven’s Ait in 1937 to Canbury Park Gardens after the Club moved to Turk’s Boat House in Lower Ham Road. In the late 50’s and 60’s came the new generation often referred to as the ‘MAD’ generation. Literary types probably know that MAD stands for ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ where the threat of nuclear annihilation by either of the super powers led to a generation who believed that life should be grabbed with both hands and lived to the full. In keeping with this approach was Colin Ellis aka ‘The Vamp’ who was born in Scotland where his Father was serving in the armed forces shortly after the War but his family arrived in Kingston with the boy Vamp in 1963. The Vamp’s family have penned this tribute to him and the Regatta:

“First joining Kingston RC in 1967and after representing England, Vamp then stroked Leander in 1970 to victory in the Thames Cup at Henley at just 19. The following year he returned to Kingston RC narrowly losing to Harvard in the final in the same event. Vamp then took Kingston crews behind the Iron Curtain to compete with the Soviet block. Once arrested in East Germany wearing a kilt he pointed to his birthplace on his passport claiming he was the Baron of Dumbarton. Fearing a diplomatic incident he was soon released.

After meeting Etuf Essen Ruder Club on his travels Vamp stroked them at Henley and when at the start the umpire asked if their opposition had any questions, loudly proclaimed “ve are ze Germans and ve ask ze questions”. Despite his travels and living in Holland for several years, Vamp was Kingston to the core. Sadly, in 1999, on his final adventure, Vamp died on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. As Vamp approached races he often played ‘The Ride of The Valkries’ to set the mood. His ashes were thus scattered on the river at Kingston to Wagner. Greatly missed but comforted that Vamp is embraced by the river and remembered in this special year.”

A peer of ‘The Vamp’ is Steve Chasey who first rowed at the Regatta for Kingston Grammar School and has been a lifelong member of Kingston RC where he still coaches and with the greatest of respect to Steve can safely be described as being a member of the ‘MAD’ crowd. Steve writes:

“Without rowing I really don’t know where I would be. It has been the constant that has held everything together. From schooldays in Kingston through the hedonistic 60s into the armed forces, special forces, whatever the world has brought, rowing and the river has always given me space to breathe again. To take those gasps of air after a heavy workout on the river as the mist rises to reveal a warming sun saying ‘good morning’, easing those aching muscles, giving fresh light on the world again. The river has been my life, so much so that I can’t imagine life without it. I now live on a boat on the river at Kingston, a part of its ebb and flow. From competing at the Regatta as a boy to coaching crews I have been coming to the Regatta for 50 years now and I wouldn’t miss this day for the world.”

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Vamp stroking KRC in JS8 at KAR 1969

But the river is not just for rowers, but is for all to enjoy, from fishermen, sailors, to pleasure craft users and as Ratty so eloquently put it to Mole “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. In or out of ‘em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do."

One of our regular attendees and former rower at St Edward’s School is A D Wall who is also sponsoring an event and his son pays tribute to his Father for showing him the joys of the river:

“From a young age I was aware of my Father’s love for the river. He used to tell me about his rowing at school, fishing and boating holidays as a boy. It was by Kingston’s old power station that he first took me angling. I don’t remember actually catching anything but I do remember him getting very animated when an eight glided past. When I was older we would often hire a cabin cruiser for the weekend. It was on these trips that I discovered that until you have been on the river you can’t really appreciate it - a parallel world, everything familiar but viewed from a different perspective. From hiring the occasional cruiser my Father went to owning one of the old hire boats but this year my Father and I are now partners in a new boat. It’s a new chapter in our river story, one that I know will continue for many years. I cannot think of anything better than to share my love of the river with the Regatta and the celebration of their 150th anniversary. Thank you Dad and thank you Kingston Regatta for bringing the river to life to so many people over the years.”

Kieran West at Sydney 2000

The Regatta moved to its current site opposite the town centre in 1991 and to bring us almost up to date we can’t let this opportunity go past without celebrating our other local Olympians. Firstly, Kieran West, who won Gold in Sydney in 2000, first plied his rowing skills as a young boy at Kingston Regatta in the early 1990s. Despite his commitments with the GB squad and Cambridge University with whom he won this year’s Boat Race, Kieran still found time to support the Guy Salmon Dry Rowing Challenge Cup last year by providing a coaching lesson at Kingston RC and sharing his Gold medal with youngsters from local schools.

Kieran has kindly provided his own river tribute:

"As a school boy I used to cycle to Kingston RC whenever I could to get out on the river and row. As my school didn’t have rowing as an option at that time the Club gave me a chance to give it a go and Kingston Regatta was one of my first chances to compete. Make no mistake, rowing is a tough sport – you need to be dedicated, determined and have a never-say-die attitude – but it teaches you a few things about yourself in the process and rowing has provided me and countless others with those qualities to take through life. If you really believe in yourself and prepared to work its amazing what you can achieve, and if you are lucky enough to test those qualities to the limit and come through, there is no feeling like it. Nothing can describe the sheer joy of winning gold at the Sydney Olympics in the GB eight.

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GB 8 at Sydney 2000

I hope that all of this year’s competitors, young and old, will step up to the challenge, to compete fairly, honestly, to give your best, to be gracious in defeat and modest in victory, and always enjoy it and remember to thank those that make this happen, the volunteers of Kingston Regatta – the true champions who have given me and others the chance to excel. Have a great day.”

Our final river story comes from one of the great Olympians of our time – James Cracknell who first started rowing at Kingston as a schoolboy at Kingston Grammar School. James fondly recalls his days rowing at Kingston:

“I remember standing near the boundary rope kicking my heels during another cricket match when I heard a strange noise coming from the river behind me. A rhythmical thudding and the sound of something slicing through the water, I turned round to see a men’s eight pounding up river. I lost interest in the cricket match that second. I was lucky enough to go to Kingston Grammar School and rowing was an option, so I signed up. What a place to learn to row, I didn’t realise how lucky I was to spend the first five years of my rowing life on this stretch of water. The scenery is amazing, the beautiful backdrop of Hampton Court Palace at one end and the run through the town at the other – which was always more eventful in the summer when the riverside pubs were packed in the evening. I’ve been fortunate enough to row on lakes and rivers all over the world but very few have bettered the experience of Kingston, to have an uninterrupted 8km stretch of water is immense although one end to the other felt like the other side of the earth when I was 14 but as I got older not having to turn round all the time was a luxury. It wasn’t perfect, you have to deal with boats of tourists looking at Hampton Court whilst drowning you in their wash and kayakers who always go on the wrong side of the river – then again that was good practice for the Olympics as they go on the wrong side of the course there as well! – I would like to take this opportunity to wish everybody at the Regatta an enjoyable day.”

James Cracknell
James Cracknell

We hope that Kieran, James and all our contributors together with Kingston Regatta will provide inspiration to another generation of river users who will learn to appreciate the joy of an outdoor activity with a growing understanding and respect of their environment. The river at Kingston has and will continue to bring pleasure to the people of Kingston and those that visit the town whether they are taking a river boat cruise to Hampton Court, or come to the river to fish, sail, canoe or as in the case of our Regatta to row. What is clear though by the river stories, which is embodied by the picture of James and his son, is that we pass on our passion to the next generation who soon realise that the river is a great place to spend some time. This is how the Regatta has kept going from generation to generation and it is the people who have made the river at Kingston such a special place over the 150 years that we owe a debt to. We hope that every competitor and spectator will reflect for a moment their contribution and celebrate the occasion with us.

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Key Sponsors

Hampton Court
Royal Kingston Borough
Environment Agency