Only the sport of boxing claims an older Championship of the World. It is notable that Jack Broughton, the "Father of Boxing", trained scullers for prize contests which had their roots in wager races which had taken place from the middle of the 18th century on the Thames. These were even reported in Pepys' diary. Thames Rowing Club members including the British Champion George Vize set up the Amateur Boxing Association.
But for the moment sculling or wager racing was perhaps the greatest spectator sport in London at the time. Many tens of thousands of spectators attended each race, and betting was widespread. By the turn of the century prize money had become so great that some scullers made up to nearly £5,000 a year in prizes and side bets, and £2,000 for a race. One hundred years later this is still a princely sum for a rower.
Champions like Chambers, Trickett and Ned Hanlan became household names worldwide and to defend the World Championship, scullers often went abroad to Canada, Australia and other former colonies. It is hard to overstate their influence: these became the first sporting heroes.
Their golden era was however a decadent one. It was clear that gentleman amateurs of the universities and schools could not compete on equal terms with these professional manual watermen and a division was imposed in the sport. Henley Royal Regatta and the new Amateur Rowing Association imposed formalised rules such that most regattas excluded the professional man. As the popularity of the amateur regattas such as the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race and Henley Royal Regatta increased with the growing leisure time of the late Victorians and Edwardians, opportunities decreased for the excluded professionals and sponsorship declined.
At approximately the same time another sport was gaining in popularity: football. In 1888 Blackburn beat the Old Etonians and soon thereafter the Football Association was set up and this became the new spectator sport; the grandstands to watch wager races were moved to Stamford Bridge. Popularity boomed among Londoners who adopted team colours and attended religiously on Saturdays in spite of a modest entrance fee which had the effect of increasing investment in the sport and which could then afford to pay its players to play full time as professionals.
In effect, professional sculling and wager races were crushed both by the class-conscious amateur and by the greedy commercialism of the professional. However, a century after sport divided and went its separate ways, these paths are once again becoming intertwined.
On the one hand sports such as those which appear in the Olympics require athletes to devote their entire lives to their pursuit and this can only be done on a professional basis. On the other, professional sports rely on the history and traditions of earlier eras for their identity and to inspire support.
The Hackett Thames World Sculling Challenge has arrived at the dawn of this new era of openness. It was only 2 years ago that the then Amateur Rowing Association dropped its requirement for rowers not to row for money, making it an open sport. This year, at the turn of the Millennium, on account of the generosity of our sponsors Hackett Essential British Kit, we are able not only to stage at no charge an event of truly world class champions in the cradle of modern sport, but also to offer the first sculling cash prize or purse of the modern era. The winning scullers in both the men's and women's races will this year win £1,000, and richly deserve the reward. Four and a half miles of one to one combat remains one of the sternest tests in sport from one of its earliest disciplines.
After 1952 the race stopped due to waning interest in the long course event in favour of the standard international 2000m course. However, it was revived in 1993 by founders Peter Haining, Guy Rees and John Tierney, later joined by Rachel Haining, Jaap Oepkes and James Felt. 1997 saw the first women's race. Previous notable competitors have included Steve Redgrave, Giovanni Calabrese, Greg Searle, Jamie Koven, Iztok Cop, Ekaterina Karsten (Khodotovich), Derek Porter, Karsten Nielsen and Peter Haining himself.
The race is run in aid of the Sculling Development Fund, for which any donations are gratefully received.
The Guardian report of 1999 shows some photographs from earlier races, and the Past Results index also carries stories about the recent races.