HAHG Lecture: Henley & the Olympic Games 1908

The first talk to the Henley Archaeological & Historical Group (HAHG) held live since the pandemic was given at the Kings Arms Barn on 12 October by Dr Michael Redley on Henley and the 1908 Olympic Games.

The Henley Royal Regatta, first held in 1839, has led to the name of the town being synonymous with rowing. That it was a small town of ordinary people who had their own opinions and interests about the regatta was often lost sight of.

As it developed over the nineteenth century, the regatta grew away from the town which had first introduced it as a way of drumming up trade. The event was initially highly exclusive, with manual-labourer crews barred, although later this ban was lifted and international crews also began to take part.

By the end of the century, the Town Council with a strong sense of social responsibility believed the town should attract industry and better rail connections. A contrary view was taken by William Anker Simmons (pictured above), the leading Conservative on the town council, pressing the view that Henley should focus on attracting ‘the pleasure seeker’ – both leisured people and urban commuters looking for recreation – to settle in the town.

The regatta was central to Simmons’ vision. A rower himself, he encouraged the Leander Club to establish its up-river headquarters at Henley in 1896. He also seized the opportunity to attract the rowing events of the 1908 Olympics to use the regatta course rather than the Putney to Mortlake university boat race course which was initially preferred. The sun shone and it was a successful event, with British finalists winning every gold medal. But the final party – a great water carnival which probably attracted more visitors than had come to the regatta – was paid for by an American champagne millionaire and held not at Henley but down the river at Bourne End.

The next talk will be given live on 2nd November 2021 at 7.45pm by Prof. Michael Fulford of Reading University on the latest excavations of the bathhouse in Calleva, Roman Silchester.