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Racing on the Thames in 1880

Back in 1880, the sculling races on the Thames between professional oarsmen were the source of much interest. They took the form of formal challenges, much in the way that boxing does now, and huge sums of money changed hands on the river-bank both before and during the race, as the spectators laid extravagant bets on the outcome.

In 1880 a number of private and public challenges were issued, and the presence of Canadian world-beater Ned Hanlan in England made it a good year for rowing enthusiasts, as he not only defeated all who sculled against him, but did so with considerable grand-standing and playing to the crowd. The following excerpts are taken from the "London Illustrated News" of that year.


Except on the occasion of an Inter-University Boat-race, or of the famous contests between Oxford and Harvard Universities, and the London and Atalanta Rowing Clubs, we never saw so many people between Putney and Mortlake as were assembled there on Monday morning. The weather was singularly uninviting, as it was decidedly raw and cold, and a drizzling rain fell at intervals; but the towing-path was well patronised for the whole distance, whilst at Hammersmith, Barnes, and one or two other favourite places, the crowds were very dense. Popular feeling seemed to have completely changed again, and was all in favour of Hanlan, though two days before slight odds were laid on Trickett. The previous achievements of the two men are so well known that we need only touch upon them slightly. Edward Hanlan, of Toronto, is twenty-five years of age, stands just under 5 ft. 9 in., and weights 10 st. 12 lb. After a career of almost unbroken success in America, he came to England last year, and defeated Elliott and Hawdon in much style that it appeared hopeless for him to get any more matches in this country. He has carried off other prizes in America since then, but cut up very badly in the Hop Bitters Regatta (1879), his explanation being that he was taken ill during the race. Edward Trickett, of Sydney, New South Wales, is four years older than his late opponent, is not less than 6 ft. 3 and a half in. in height, but, being of spare frame, only weighs 12 st. 5 lb. in strict training. He has beaten all the best men in his own country, and, in 1876, he came to England, and made a sad example of Joseph Sadler, who, though champion of England at the time, had undoubtedly seen his best day. Both men have been located on the banks of the Thames - Trickett at Putney and his rival at Barnes - for some weeks past, and their practice has been watched with very great interest. The race was fixed for twelve o'clock, but it was past that time before the competitors put off from the shore. Harry Kelley piloted the Australian, and Bright performed the same office for Hanlan, who looked wonderfully well and full of spirits and confidence, while his opponent, whose face is naturally rather haggard and careworn, seemed very anxious. There was little or no tide, but the river was perfectly smooth, and Trickett gained scarcely any advantage from winning the toss and selecting the Middlesex station. There is little to say relative to the race itself, as it was really all over before they reached Hammersmith Bridge. Trickett began with a faster stroke than Hanlan, but he was sliding very short, and seemed to trust mainly to his immense strength to drive his boat along. The Canadian, whose style is simply perfect, and has never been approached by that of any other sculler, at once took a slight lead, and appeared to wait in front until nearing Hammersmith Bridge, when he began to open out a gap between himself and Trickett, and the latter being in evident trouble, though persevering as gamely as possible, the contest was virtually at an end. Hanlan was not long in finding out the state of affairs, and consequently could not resist from indulging in a series of wild antics, similar to those he went through on his previous visit here, during his matches with Elliott and Hawdon; and, had he lost the race in consequence, he would have had but a few sympathisers. Just below the Doves, he put in "half-a-dozen" to show the spectators how much he had in hand, and then, clumsily dropping his sculls into the water, threw himself flat on his back in the bottom of the boat, and lay there for a second or two, the act occasioning great excitement amongst the large number of spectators who witness it, for they naturally imagined that something terrible had befallen him; however, he was soon up and at work again, laughing heartily. The Canadian made at least half a dozen further stoppages before Barnes Bridge was reached, on each occasion going through a little performance, such as washing his face, kissing his hand, and cheerfully waving his handkerchief to different friends on the bank, and he eventually won at his leisure by three lengths, which he could have made a quarter of a mile had he so chosen, the time being 26 min. 12 sec. It is a pity the winner indulged in the clowning business to the extent he did, for though possibly he was only giving vent to his satisfaction at finding himself master of the situation, still consideration for the feelings of his plucky opponent ought to have kept him from showing anything but respect for a beaten man. Apart from this, Hanlan's exhibition was splendid, and his superiority established beyond doubt. It is poor consolation for the second to know that in a match some one must lose, but let us hope that Trickett's next engagement may help to make amends for his recent defeat.

The Sculling MatchFrom the London Illustrated News of November 20th, 1880, "The Sculling Match". Illustration from the ILN, 1880From the London Illustrated News of November 27th, 1880
From top to bottom, a) The Start, b) Hammersmith Bridge and "mind your heads", c) The Finish and d) Hanlan and Trickett shaking hands after the Race. From left to right, a) The Return of the Steamers "Who's won?", b) Off Chiswick, c) "Pro bono publico" and d) Spurting.
Click on a small picture to see it full-size


"The "HopBitters" regatta, promoted by an American company who gave the very handsome sum of 1000 in prizes, did not promise very well at first, as there was a very needless delay in the arrangement of all the preliminaries; indeed, nothing was definitely settled until about three weeks ago. Then, however, a thoroughly representative committee was formed, and the members of it worked so well that not a single hitch occurred from start to finish. It was a series of sculling races, for prizes of 500, 300, 160, and 40, between professional oarsmen of all countries. So much care was exercised in the arrangement of the heats that the element of chance was quite eliminated; and when Laycock, Ross, Hosmer, and Warren Smith came together in the final heat on Saturday last, they afforded a complete example of the "survival of the fittest". The withdrawal of Hanlan from the contest was a general matter of regret. Still, we can quite understand that the champion did not wish to run the least risk of defeat through any accident that may so easily occur when four men scull together in a comparatively narrow river; and if he only accepts Laycock's plucky challenge, the question of supremacy will be satisfactorily settled. There is not much to note with respect to the trial heats, which took place on Thursday and Friday. England, as was generally felt must be the case, cut a very poor figure. Boyd is the only man we posses who is anything like a champion, and he did not compete. Elliott, who was not half fit, made a wretched show; and, though Hawdon and Nicholson sculled fairly well, and got into the second round, they have never ranked as first-class men. The great surprise of Friday's racing was the easy defeat of Trickett by Laycock and Warren Smith. It is now quite evident that the ex-champion is utterly out of form; and this makes it more than ever desirable that Hanlan should waive his right to a longer notice, and consent to meet Laycock. The final heat produced one of the grandest struggles in the history of boat-racing. Smith was out of it when they had gone a little more than a mile, but the other three kept close together right up to Chiswick Church. For the greater part of this distance Ross showed the way, and odds of 2 and 3 to 1 were betted on his winning. Shortly after passing the church, however, he was fairly worn down by Laycock, and a slight foul occurred as the indomitable Australian rowed up to him. This, however, did not affect the result in any way, and Ross's claim was very properly disallowed by Mr. Ireland, the umpire. At Barnes-terrace Laycock had taken a decided lead, and going right away, won cleverly by nearly ten lengths, in 26 min 44 sec, while Ross was about half that distance in advance of Hosmer, who had shown wonderful pluck throughout. The victory of the Australian was popular, and he met with a great reception as he journeyed back to Putney on the umpire's boat."

....(and on the same page, under National Sports). "An account of the "Hop Bitters" World's Regatta appears elsewhere; so we need only note that the gallant victory of Laycock has made everyone most anxious to see a match between him and Hanlan. The Australian is eager for the fray, and, as he has met the champion with regard to date, we hope that a meeting will be arranged, as the race would excite immense interest, public opinion being so much divided as to the respective merits of the pair."

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