By Robert Treharne Jones
This year marks the 75th Anniversary of a singular event in the history of Henley Royal Regatta – the special event that was held to mark the end of the Second World War.
Of course it had been done before, but the 1919 Peace Regatta, in which crews raced for seven events over four days, had taken six months of preparation.
1945 was an altogether different affair – the war was still being fought in the Far East, but it was decided to hold a one-day event on 7 July, just two months after VE Day.
The official records suggest that preparations can’t have been easy. The entire regatta land had been used as a timber depot during the war, and stacks of wood were only just removed in time!
Just three events were on the card, for open eights, school eights and single sculls, and three of the senior Stewards stepped forward to present the trophies for this one-off competition.
Credit: Australian War Memorial
Because of the short time scale the 42 entries in the three events were entirely home-grown, with just two overseas entries – the Australian Air Force in the eights, and EF Woods, an American who had raced for Tabor Academy in the Thames before the war and came back to contest the single sculls.
The trophies included the Danesfield Cup for open eights, presented by Stanley Garton and named after his house, which had been requisitioned during the war and is now a hotel. Sir Harcourt Gold presented the Hedsor Cup for the school eights, named after the village in which he grew up, while HA Steward presented the Barrier Sculls trophy for the singles event.
Credit: Henley Royal Regatta
The last time the three trophies were known to be in the same place was at Henley Royal Regatta’s 150th celebrations in 1989 when an exhibition was mounted at Stonor Park, home of another Henley Steward, Lord Camoys.
Both the Hedsor and Danesfield Cups had been placed on permanent loan to the National Schools Regatta some years previously, but winner Wally Horwood of Quintin BC took his Barrier Sculls trophy to South Africa when he emigrated in 1975. Accordingly he was contacted 14 years later and ask to return the trophy so that the Stonor display would be complete. “I believe he allowed its retention ‘on permanent loan’ and was given a lifelong honorary membership of the Leander Club as an acknowledgement of their gratitude” recalled Graham Horwood, Wally’s son, but, for whatever reason, the trophy now seems to have disappeared.
The course was laid out from a start at the Barrier to a point near the usual Finish, which allowed three crews to race abreast, but piles and booms were only in place over the last 250 yards. Although one of the schools races had been contested the previous evening, the first race got under way at 11 am in ‘brilliantly fine’ weather, with the final of the open eights at 6.30pm.
The racing was quite tight, with no ‘easily’ verdicts, but despite three crews racing the competition was even more cutthroat than usual, as there were no repechages, and many crews featuring well-known rowing names were put out in the first round.
Credit: Illustrated London News
The Australians had been keen to emulate their compatriots who had won the Kings Cup at the Peace Regatta 26 years earlier, and although one of the crew reached the final it was Imperial’s day. In the absence of booms IC hugged the Bucks bank to give them shelter from the breeze and took a one length win over the Australians.
Credit: Julian Burgess
The ten crews who contested the schools event were making history as it was the first time that Henley had offered a junior event, and many of those competing would go on to race in the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup, which was inaugurated the following year. Eton, Radley and Bedford School progressed to the final where Radley took the line one length up on a tight battle for second, with Eton holding on three feet.
Just six scullers contested the Hedsor Cup, where the American, EF Woods was no match for HP Henry of Staines, who himself went down by three lengths to Wally Horwood of Quintin in the final.
The passage of time has meant that few of the competitors are still alive but one notable exception is Bill Windham, for whom his appearance for Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1945 was the start of a Henley connection that has continued to this day.
“I was captain at Bedford School in 1941/42 and then went up to Cambridge to read engineering – if the war had lasted a bit longer I would have gone into the Sappers or the Navy” he reports.
“We suddenly heard the good news that the war was over, at least in Europe – I was walking along the banks of the Cam at the time, and there was much excitement – a lot of hugging and kissing!” he recalled.
Credit: John Dearlove
(Bill Windham is third from right)
The following year Windham was selected for the Cambridge crew which won the Boat Race, and a year later he rowed for Leander in the Grand, but he had to wait until 1949 for his first Henley win, and the Grand became his regular stamping ground for the next five years. Internationally he presented GB in the eight which took the bronze medal at the Empire Games in 1950, and won the European title at Macon a year later.
Following his retirement from top-level competition he was selected as a Henley Steward in 1954 and is now, at 94 years of age, the senior Steward of the Regatta!
Sir Steven Redgrave CBE DL says: “It was amazing that only a few weeks after VE Day, with the country still rationing and with widespread devastation across the country, that there was huge enthusiasm to get back to some sort of normality and we were able to stage a Peace Regatta at Henley on the similar lines to the Peace Regatta in 1919. There is no surprise that it was a small event staged over one day, the emphasis being on trying to get lives back to normal as soon as possible. In the UK lives were greatly affected by the second world war, however, with our British spirit the volunteers of the day would have pulled this Regatta together and for one day it would have raised spirits at a very hard time in our country’s history.”
Content courtesy of Robert Treharne Jones.