Philip Conway-Jones reports how this colourful annual event in the 1890s featured rowing and swimming races alongside canal capers, ‘Bovril Bombs’ and music from the Stonehouse brass band.
The event was the brainchild of former London waterman Robert Larkin, freeman of the Watermen’s Company and winner of the Doggett's Coat & Badge Race for apprentice Thames watermen in 1881. He had moved to Stonehouse and was then landlord of the Ship Inn, near Stonehouse Wharf. Flags and bunting were put up for the event, with a banner in Regent Street 'Success to Stonehouse Regatta'.
The cost for a front-row view at Stonehouse wharf was three pence, and in 1898 this was enjoyed by around 500 people with almost 1000 watching free on the towpath side. A box was passed along the towpath in an attempt to raise funds, but only 2s 3d was collected! In a neighbouring field there were entertainments including swings and shooting galleries. Ladies dressed up regatta style and some gentlemen might have been taken for sea-faring officers.
The chief race was sculling, with entry limited to Severn watermen, and there were also pair oar, canoe and swimming races, a water polo match, a duck hunt and long dive and greasy pole competitions. The winner of the sculling race in 1897, Framilode boatman Maurice Brocher, received a fishing boat with sail and gear. He was carried in this from the coach house of the Ship Inn to the canal, and the procession was accompanied by the band playing 'See the Conquering Hero Comes.' Dr. Maclean launched the boat with champagne before Brocher rowed off along the canal in it.
Other prizes to the value of £30 or more were on offer, with cash donated by members of the local gentry and prizes in kind provided by Stonehouse shopkeepers. Larkin also drew on his London connections to obtain a bottle of champagne from the Lord Mayor of London and an engraved cup from the publishers of the popular comic magazine Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday.
Newspaper reporters gave a light hearted view of the races. In the mile-long swimming race, the winner 'looked quite game for a second mile'. In the canoe race, one competitor was not looking where he was going, rounded a corner and ran into the bank! The water derby 'on tubs' attracted much amusement, as did the greasy pole winners, with the Gloucester Journal reporting that 'several got their courage cooled.' The last event to be competed for was the duck hunt, but this was rather a failure, as the ducks did not succeed in getting more than a few yards before they were recaptured by the swimmers.
In 1897, it was reported that 'Just previous to the canoe race, a spectator anxious to show the company how to enter a boat, found the water before he did the boat, and was fished out in rather a limp condition. Also, there were a few incidents of spectators slipping into the water, which earned each one the title 'Mayor of Stonehouse' for the day! Following one boat race 'a well-known gentleman of Stonehouse caused some amusement by jumping into the canal, swimming across, and cooling himself by sitting on the mud in the canal, until he must have been pretty nearly chilled.'
Finally the Stroud News reported that 'a large number of 'Bovril' bombs were discharged during the day, and they were considered a curiosity.' When fired, these distributed many small paper discs far and wide, one of which entitled the finder to 10 shillings worth of Bovril. Unfortunately, when a Committee member was lighting one, he burnt his arms and gashed his ear, and after being given first aid, he was sent home.
Sources: Gloucester Journal 10 Jul 1897, Stroud News 9 Jul 1897 and 8 Jul 1898.