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History

11 Apr 2018

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Henley-on-Yarra

The people of Melbourne love hosting and participating in large-scale sporting events – racing, football, cricket and the grand prix.

For the first half of the 20th century, we could add in rowing, with the Henley-on-Yarra regatta, a race that concluded on the edge of what is now Southbank.

In 1903 some influential Melbourne residents met with the amateur rowing clubs and proposed the idea of a regatta. The major race would be an eight-oar race called the Grand Challenge Cup, with crews racing from the Botanic Gardens to the Henley stage, near Princes Bridge.

The picturesque river carnival kicked off in March 1904. Crews were invited from rowing clubs across Australia. The event soon moved to November and, by 1907, it attracted 45,000 onlookers and was being compared favourably with London’s famous Henley-on-Thames. Crowds kept growing until the WWI forced a break between 1914-18. The crowds flocked back in when the regatta resumed in 1919.

But this was more than just a series of races. It was THE outdoor social event of the year, drawing numerous prominent people who dressed in their finery and attended parties on four gaily-decorated houseboats moored at the Henley stage.

Hundreds of other boats and canoes crowded the river, hired for the day. During the 1930s it became an exhibition for the latest fashions of the day, with fashion contests. It was also popular with ordinary citizens who took their picnic lunches into the gardens and enjoyed the events (and frequented the many beer booths!).

In 1946, after an eight-year hiatus caused by WWII, the event attracted a record crowd of more than 100,000. But problems emerged in 1948 when planned construction of the new Swan St Bridge over the regatta course meant that the race was to be run higher up the river where there was not enough room to park boats for the usual carnival.

There would be no fireworks or fashion parades that year. Henley was now to be a purely sporting event for rowers. Reported as drab without its pre-war glamour, the event attracted a poor crowd and made a financial loss. Whilst it was expected that completion of the bridge would permit a return to the original course, this did not happen and the crowds continued to dwindle.

In 1955 the regatta moved from its traditional date in November to become the opening ceremony of the Moomba Festival. It was a sad end to one of the great events on Melbourne’s sporting calendar.

Robin Grow

President - Australian Art Deco and Modernism Society

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