During most summers, various organisations are involved in putting on the Dover Regatta. Run by the community for the community its history goes back to 1826 making the event one of the oldest of its type in Britain.
The years following the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) took their toll on the national economy. In Dover, industries that had prospered during the wars were in decline and there was little work. Traditionally Dover boatmen, who rowed people to and from cross-Channel ships that usually anchored in the bay, looked after their own. Particularly those boatmen who, due to old age or sickness, could no longer work. There was also the widows and children of deceased or sick boatmen. In the 1820s, there was little work so younger, fitter, men were no longer joining the trade and this meant that existing boatmen were forced to look for other ways to raise money. One way was the nefarious practice of forcing passengers to pay extra when they were midway between the ship and the shore – something that had earned them the reputation of Dover Sharks. However, on this occasion they decided to raise money by organising a series of races and invite soldiers from the garrison, the town’s gentry and affluent businessmen to take part.
The various factions in the town obliged and the event was to take place in 1826 but bad weather precluded it going ahead. Albeit, publicity brought many people into the town and the following year the elite of Dover organised the regatta to raise money for the boatmen. This was patronised by His Royal Highness, the Lord High Admiral, William, Duke of Clarence (later William IV 1830-1837) and society folk from far and wide attended.
The date chosen was 27 August 1827 and although it had been stormy, the weather on the day was perfect and four races were held. The main event was for yachts and started from a point off North Pier Head, the west side of the entrance then harbour. The yachts sailed around a buoy placed off Castle Jetty and back, repeating the circuit to make the course 12 nautical miles. Dolphin owned and skippered by Captain Brown won the race. The first of the rowing races was for six-oared galleys and this was fiercely contested by boats from Sandgate and Folkestone with Comet from Folkestone winning. Fly of Dover won the second race and Mary, from Deal, won the third race. That evening a grand ball was held and it was reported that ‘an immense assemblage of beauty and fashion came from all parts of the coast and interior, balls and concerts were held at the Assembly Rooms, and at Batcheller’s spacious rooms at the King’s Library.’ (Times 30.08.1827) The Dover Regatta was born.
By 1833 fishing vessels were taking part in the Regatta and the match between the Dover boats was won by Albion, second was Arthur and third Isabella. However, the whole event was plagued with bad weather with Blue-Eyed Maid running ashore and wrecked. The Dover Amateur Rowing Club, now the oldest in Britain, was founded in 1846. To accommodate them and to attract more tourists to the town the Regatta committee introduced pleasure boating as a race. The Dover Rowing Club (DRC) took part and did so well that they dropped, ‘Amateur’ from their name!
In the years that followed, under the chairmanship of William H Payn (Mayor 1854 and Town Coroner 1860-1882), the Regatta went from strength to strength and was nationally considered a ‘first class’ event. This attracted James Godson, the Commodore of the Royal London Yacht Club, in 1855, to arrange for his club members to participate in the yacht races. That year, according to the write-up, there was also skiff races, a ‘duck’ hunt and in the evening, a grand ball attended by the rank and fashionable of the town and neighbourhood.
It was arranged that the 1861 the Regatta would be the same weekend as the installation of Lord Palmerston as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. That year, ship owner Joseph Churchward and cross-Channel ferry captain Luke Smithett, headed the Committee. Yachts from all around the kingdom were entered into the various races and there were races between four-oared regatta-built galleys. The overall winner of those races was Aerial from Dover. Skiffs, pleasure boats and fishing vessels raced and not only was there a grand ball in the evening but a magnificent firework display.
In 1870, the Chairman of the Regatta Committee, Sir Richard Dickeson, (Mayor 1871, 1879, 1880, and 1882) and owner of a large emporium in Market Lane. He also joined the DRC and always ambitious, he was determined that the club would produce nationally competitive racing teams. Over the next 26-years he presented a new racing galley to the club every year as well as financially helping and encouraging Dover’s rowing crews. Besides buying the club’s first purpose-built regatta racing galley he had a new clubhouse at East Cliff. With this help, the club’s Senior Four were merited as being the most outstanding crew in Britain, a success that continued after Sir Richard’s death in 1900. However, tragedy struck in May 1888, when Alfred Took and Harry Finnis, both 19-years old and members of the DRC, lost their lives off the South Foreland in a light breeze. They were out practising for the Regatta and it was supposed that the boat had capsized.
At the time the Town Cup Yacht Race, presented by the Royal Thames Yacht Club with the winner receiving 50 guineas (£52.50p) was keenly contested. The race was to Boulogne and back and for the week around the Regatta weekend, Dover Harbour Board (DHB) wavered harbour dues. Following pressure by Sir Richard Dickeson, a meeting chaired by Percy Simpson Court, (Mayor 1875 and 1878) was held on 12 April 1872 to form a Dover yacht club. This was agreed and on 1 May, Prince Arthur, later Duke of Connaught, agreed to be the first Commodore. On 6 May, a Royal Warrant was granted allowing the club to be called the Royal Cinque Ports Yacht Club (RCPYC). The club took over what had been Warren’s Reading Rooms on Marine Parade, (now the site of Gateway Flats), and on 19 June 1875, the RCPYC ran its first race.
The Regatta that year was held on August Bank Holiday Monday and the town was crowded with visitors especially as the two railway companies that served Dover, South Eastern Railway and the London, Chatham and Dover Railway, ran special excursion trains. To make the most of this Captain T W Dicey took the twin-hulled iron steamer the Castilia to Calais and back offering a special day excursion. Launched in 1874 for the Dover passage, the ship had two paddles between the hulls that were worked by two pairs of diagonal compound engines, one pair on each hull. However, she was slow – average speed 11-knots – so was withdrawn from service in October 1876.
It was not for another thirteen years that RCPYC joined the Dover Regatta on a regular basis, by which time Prince Arthur had gained from his mother, Queen Victoria (1837-1901), an Admiralty Warrant. This enabled members of the RCPYC, who registered their yachts, to apply for the privilege of flying the undefaced Blue Ensign. In 1907, George, Prince of Wales – later George V (1910-1936) presented the ‘Prince of Wales Cup’, for the Dover Regatta yacht race that eventually became part of the international ocean racing calendar. However, the Club distanced itself from town’s Regatta running their own separate regatta.
Regardless, the town’s Regatta was still enjoying success and the committee introduced more events including swimming and water polo. The 1899 Regatta was attended by thousands of spectators who arrived in special excursion trains from London and cross Channel ships from France and Belgium. The entries to all races were excellent and the competition within the rowing events was particularly keen. The DRC captain was solicitor Arthur Harby of Stilwell and Harby, who along with his brother, Travers Harby, took the club’s Senior 4 to national acclaim. Arthur was tragically killed the following year by a fall from his horse and his brother Travers, who had been working in London, took over the Dover firm. Travers was elected captain of the DRC and under his direction, the club was a founding member of the Coast Amateur Rowing Association contributing, in 1913, towards the Duke of Westminster’s Olympic Fund.
The Regatta was abandoned in 1914 due to the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918). In 1919, the RCPYC announced that they would revive their regatta that year. However, as the harbour was still under the rule of the Admiralty they had to make do with a ‘blank day ‘ in the Royal Temple Yacht Club, Ramsgate, calendar. The following two years the RCPYC regatta was abandoned due to heavy winds but the Town Regatta went ahead and was a success. In 1922, the weather was kind and the harbour events again were well patronised and supported by crowds including many from out of town. It was hoped by RCPYC that there would be a good turn out of offshore yachts, but they were disappointed. Over the next few years the Town Regatta went ahead even though the economy was in decline and although there was a fall in the number of stall holders the crowds turned out.
In 1928 interest started to pick up with the introduction of an ‘Old English Water Pageant and Concert on Sea’. This was organised by the Mayor’s Social and Sports Committee, the president of which was the Mayor, Richard Barwick. In 1932, the manager of the Granville Restaurant, on the seafront, Fuller Hazelden, applied for extensions in the afternoon and the evening for 31 August – Regatta Day. It appears that he was involved in the organisation of the Regatta and as the decade progressed the number of participants and events increased and it lasted the whole weekend.
Although the RCPYC ran their own regatta earlier in the summer season, members participated in the Town Regatta, which the Dover Sailing Club (DSC) organised. The DRC ran and participated in the different types of rowing races. The annual breakwater swim became the centre of attention for ‘flutters’, as bets would be laid as to which swimmer would reach the shore first. There were also competitive aquatic sports and the Water Carnival. The Dover Sea Angling Club ran national fishing competitions. All the seafront buildings were festooned with flags and there were funfairs, spectator competitions and stalls packed with goodies from ice cream to toffee apples. Military bands played while walking up and down the seafront or in Granville Gardens. Crowds came to Dover on special excursion trains organised by Southern Railway and on the Saturday, there was a firework display from the Prince of Wales Pier.
The run up to World War II (1939-1945) cast a shadow over the Dover Regatta and the war itself put an end to it. Following the War, the DRC, DSC and the RCPYC had to start again with no premises and few resources. The RCPYC’s clubhouse was a bombsite and in 1947, a fire gutted what was left. Nonetheless, that year they ran their own regatta although only a few entered and the weather was ‘boisterous.’ In 1949, Dover Harbour Board offered the club their present quarters on Waterloo Crescent and Dover Corporation gave them £50 towards running a three-day Town Regatta held on 22-24 August that year. The events were organised by the RCPYC, the DRC and the DSC.
The Regatta was a great success especially as Bluebottle, belonging to the then Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, came to Dover. The destroyer H.M.S. Bicester visited the port and was open to the public inspection on two afternoons In 1953 the DSC, with 100 members, decided to wind-up and the majority voted to join the RCPYC. This was reciprocated by the RCPYC who were determined to distance themselves from their pre-war stuffy image. Many eager young men who wanted to learn to sail ocean going yachts as well as dinghies joined (women were admitted later). In 1969, Dick Davidson and Alan Sencicle, of the RCPYC, were selected to represent England in the Southern Cross Yachting Series, Australia. Alan Sencicle went on to crew for the future Prime Minister, Edward Heath on Morning Cloud. In 1982 Nick and Tony Smither, who belonged to the dingy section of the RCPYC, became the World Hornet champions.
Although large yachts ceased to be part of the Town Regatta the dinghy racers were there and competitiveness increased. DRC went on to win all three County championships in 1956. In 1959, Roger Cuff joined the Club and with his enthusiasm and expertise, 122 crews entered the Dover Rowing Club’s 1976 annual regatta. The DRC built on their success and in 1981 won the Senior Fours Championship. In 1986, Roger was appointed Chairman of the DRC until his premature death in 1990. However, by that time the Town Regatta had ceased.
In 1998, the combined Dover Town Regatta was re-launched based on the successful pre-war formula. Supported by both the DRC and RCPYC as well as the Dover Lifeboat, Dover Water Sports Centre, Sea Cadets, Dover Model Motor Boat Club, Swimming Clubs and local firms such as George Hammond and pubs such as the Boar’s Head, Eaton Road. It quickly caught people’s imagination and on that weekend, the harbour was the venue for dinghies, rowing boats and swimmers all eager to participate in the various watersports. Dover Harbour Board, Dover District Council and Dover Town Council – in particular the Deputy Town Clerk, James Summerville – were actively involved. The following year DHB said that they were to invest £565,000 in developing the boat lift and pontoons in Granville Dock and it was hoped that yachts would race in future Dover Regattas.
From 2006, the two-day Regatta was overseen by the Dover Sea Sports Development Trust, which included representatives from the DHB, DRC, RCPYC and other organisations and interested parties. This was under the chairmanship of Nick Bailey, Gill Gough – Vice Chair, Andy Cooper – secretary and Stuart Bishop of the Sea Sports Centre. A considerable number of people from various organisations put in hours of time on a voluntary basis and the numbers of and types of races increased along with ancillary and promenade attractions. The Seafront was reminiscent of the days of yore, festooned especially for the occasion and everything for the annual event’s future augured well.
Tragically, in 2009 Alex Edmonds, age 41, and who was participating in a power boat race, was killed when two vessels, Sleepwalker and Harwich 2011 collided. The Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) concluded that the organisation had been insufficiently focused on safety and had not made adequate attempts to control the race or educate the crews about the risks involved. The Royal Yachting Association Council reaffirmed its ownership of safety so the MAIB therefore made no further safety recommendations. Following the accident and subsequent reports , the Dover Regatta committee decided not to include power boat racing in future Regattas.
At the time the country’s economy was in decline and this took its toll on the funding of the Regatta. Income came from two sources, donations/grants and stallholders. The latter fell into two categories, the ‘professionals’ who paid for the privilege of being there and the ‘charities’ that relied on grants. Due to the recession, income from both categories fell away. Regardless of the number of events and participants, fixed costs such as insurance, road closures, toilet facilities, first aiders etc. had to be paid for, and on 3 July 2012, the Dover Sea Sports Development Trust folded. The Town Regatta was cancelled and the various clubs involved ran their own individual events.
In 2013, DHB together with the Dover District Community Safety Partnership launched the Port of Dover Community Regatta incorporating the already popular DDC Community Safety Day. The Sea Sports Centre took charge of the marine-based events with the emphasis on family participation. The major sea sports event, sponsored by DHB was the Dover Port Dash, an eight-oar rowing challenge. The day was very successful and augured well for the future.
The 2014 Port of Dover Community Regatta was held on Saturday 30 July and the weather was warm, sunny with just a light breeze. Thousands of people came and it was opened by the Admiral of the Fleet and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, Admiral the Lord Boyce. There were sea races including a 16 adult and four junior Port Dash, over 100 stalls selling both food, crafts, ceramics and plants.
The Greeters were on hand to tell folk about Dover and advising on places to visit in the town. There was continual live music staged by wide range of groups. The different Kent emergency services demonstrated their skills that included lifeboats from Dover and Walmer staging dramatic sea rescues.
Over 300 classic cars were on show with the Dover Transport Museum raffling a Ford Model Y at a £1 a ticket and a fifteen-minute air display by the celebrated Blades aerobatic display team. It was a fantastic day of celebration and a great success.