Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - A Looker-On in London, by Mary H. Krout, 1899 - Chapter 14 - Henley

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    A GREAT event like the Derby, Ascot or the Henley regatta, makes a very appreciable difference in the London streets. On the two great race days, there is scarcely a cab left on the accustomed stands, the parks are comparatively deserted, the sidewalks are empty and few buyers are to be seen in the shops.
    Henley, which is an hour and a half from London by rail, is less accessible and, consequently, the great mass of spectators is not so democratic as that which assembles at the Derby, while there is not even the fringe of "dossers" haunting the outskirts of the crowd, as at Ascot. But any one who makes the least pretension to fashion and social position, with the unclassified hundreds whose business calls them there, and foreigners always interested in studying the customs of the country, muster along the waterside at Henley.
    Our party, numbering twelve, took possession of a railway carriage in the window of which was posted the notice: "Reserved." It would have been uncomfortably crowded at any time but on that day of burning heat it was only the general amiability of the party determined to make the best of everything, that kept the situation from becoming unbearable. The crowd at the station was enormous, made up of bankers and brokers, guardsmen, members of Parliament, Oxford and Cambridge undergraduates, with school boys from Eton and Harrow, their gay hat bands designating the club, school or college to [-147-] which they belonged; there were young girls indifferently chaperoned-for the chaperones were too much diverted themselves to be very vigilant duennas, ladies of the beau monde, charming in costumes of white muslin with white sailor hats, white gloves, shoes and parasols. This seemed to be the prevailing fashion, while men properly dressed for the occasion were in spotless flannels, canvas shoes, straw hats with bright scarves and sashes. As Americans, our party were deeply interested in the Yale crew which, that year, made the famous race with the Leanders - the picked men of various Cambridge crews. As soon as we were settled for the journey, one patriotic dame produced several yards of dark blue ribbon, the Yale color, which was cut into lengths twisted into knots and distributed, to be worn upon the lapel of the coat or the bosom of the gown, according to the sex of the wearer. Several displayed knots of red, white and blue, with small American flags. The start was from Paddington and we soon left the smoky town behind and were steaming swiftly between hedgerows, fields and green paddocks, cheered by the lovely landscape, with its comfortable farmhouses and sleepy villages. The railway embankment upon either side of the line was carpeted with daisies and blue with cornflowers, while the yellow wheat fields were ablaze with scarlet poppies. When we crossed the Thames-miles from the end of our journey-the river was already alive with craft; boats of every description, canoes, launches, punts, all crowded with men in fresh flannels and women in pretty summer costumes, making their way up to Henley, many preferring this mode of transit to the train, and with little wonder. Here and there house-boats began to appear, a few at first, and then in greater numbers. They were anchored along the shore, the upper deck shaded by canvas awnings, while below were what, in a house-boat, corre-[-148-]sponds to dining and drawing-rooms and bed chambers. Each boat was a blooming garden bordered above and below with pink hydrangeas, marguerites, geraniums, heliotrope and trailing vines that made a thick fringe which swayed in the breeze. They quadrupled near the racing grounds where they were anchored so close together that one could almost step from one deck to another. Each boat was peopled with gay house-parties and graceful figures flitted to and fro, and from behind vines and flowers came the strum of the banjo, with the tinkle of the mandolin and piano.
    The country around Henley is very beautiful. It can be readily understood why the lucky owner of a houseboat on the Thames, or his fortunate guest, hies himself away so joyously for the "Saturday to Monday" visit which takes him away from the noise and smoke of London, to this region of softly-rounded hills and verdant meadows. The rich fields were planted in grain which was ripening in the summer sun, and others were fragrant with grass and clover. On what is called "the towpath side" were fine hills heavily wooded, with tall pines rising above the brighter greenery of elms and oaks. Through shady vistas were glimpses of hall and manor-house, with their stretches of velvet lawns, and luxuriant shrubbery. Beyond the starting point the slope was a mass of scarlet poppies bordered by close-clipped hedges.
    When we reached Henley innumerable vehicles were waiting at the station to be hired by the ordinary visitor; and coaches with their sleek thoroughbreds, glittering harness, smart grooms and coachmen, with huge hampers of luncheon, for the wearers of purple and fine linen. It was still a mile and a half further on, and scores of stalwart young men set out on foot to follow the paths across the fields. We had a big lumbering break, a groom whose nose reminded one of a painstakingly colored [-149-] meerschaum, with a difference in the hue, for the nose was a fine crimson deepening into purple. Our point of vantage was an enclosure adjacent to the Lion Meadow and here we alighted, tied on the oval white badges that entitled us to enter the reserved space, thence to a swaying raft carpeted with crimson, furnished with wicker chairs and where we were thoughtfully supplied with Japanese fans. Amongst our neighbors were scores of Americans all displaying national colors and the dark blue badge of Yale; a few had pennons of the latter hue bearing a large conspicuous "Y in white, and similar pennons, with American flags, decorated many of the punts and canoes. Nothing could have exceeded the brilliancy of the scene. Along the banks of the river were house-boats, as far as the eye could reach, while the surface was crowded with smaller craft and from most of them fluttered the colors of some club, school or college. The dress of the men and women produced a general effect of dazzling white, with dashes of pale blue, pink, and green. In the meadow at the back of our enclosure was a marquee under which tables were spread, as splendid in their display of damask, glass and silver as a dining- room at the Metropole or the Langham. There were smaller tents for those who preferred to sit in the shade, and, in the very center of the space, still another from which a good orchestra, with its harp, cellos and violins discoursed sweet music throughout the day.
    As one o'clock approached, the hour fixed for the contest between the English and American crews, the crowd suddenly and very perceptibly increased-great as it had been before. Among the moving boats appeared numerous craft containing minstrels in strange disguise; one was a masked company in Japanese costume playing upon mandolins which incongruously accompanied popular music-hall ditties. One boat contained a small, portable [-150-] piano, with a man playing upon a flute and two women upon guitars, under a large awning upon which was inscribed the legend "Drummond Castle Relief Fund" - the "Drummond Castle" having been wrecked a short time before. The women had concealed their faces with an ostentation of modesty which their rouged cheeks and bristling "fringes hardly bore out; nor did it require much imagination to understand to whose needs, really, the funds which they collected would be applied. During the race the awning of this boat obstructed the view and there were entreating cries of "Take down your awning;" "Do take down that awning," which the man with the flute, who was out of reach, heard unmoved. There was very outspoken lack of faith in the Drummond Castle philanthropists, and the obstructing awning intensified and confirmed this distrust.
    Among those who were rowing were many women who handled the oars extremely well; an eight-oared gig, which was probably the most remarked and which cast all the other boats quite in the shade, had an entire crew of women. A medley of conversation went on all around us, the reminiscences and observations of my own countrymen being especially audible. Among them was a man, connected with the South African diamond mines, who said that he had lived in California, had gone from there to Kimberly and had just arrived in England. At the time of the Transvaal difficulties, he had been arrested, tried and fined 200 for the part he had taken in supporting the cause of the Uitlanders. He said: "I paid my fine and then lit out," adding: "I wanted a vacation, anyhow."
    While this narrative was being related, bells were ringing violently along the course and presently the little boat of the Thames Conservancy came steaming down the river, smaller boats clearing the Way, right and left, leav-[-151-]ing the course unobstructed. After another short interval a gun was fired, and as the smoke rolled away among the hills, the first race of the day began-the diamond sculls. The single oar race did not create much excitement, the chief interest being centered in the college crews, especially those of New College, Oxford and Trinity Hall, Cambridge. The former was a famous crew, one of the best in either University, or in England. As they swept past a deafening shout greeted them, with cries of "Well rowed" from the occupants of the house-boats, and the punts and canoes, which had been cleared from the middle of the river and huddled together along the banks in front of the house-boats as tightly as they could be wedged. To these shouts of approval and encouragement were added the cries of men racing madly along the tow-path, trying to keep abreast of the contesting crews. At the end of this race in which New College won by a length and a quarter, our parity decided to forego the next race and have luncheon, before that between the Yale and Leander crews came off. We were seated alt two small tables in the marquee and feasted our eyes first, before helping ourselves to the food that had been provided with the customary English lavishness. There was a noble salmon in a bed of crisp lettuce adorned with sliced cucumbers, lobster salad, roast fowls, tongue and lamb with its attendant mint sauce, veal pate, meat pie, tarts, strawberries in baskets lined with their dark leaves, ices, coffee, claret and champagne. The coffee, as usual, was the only thing in this lengthy and elaborate menu that was not perfect of its kind, and an untoward accident had made it even worse than the ordinary British variety of the beverage. It had been prepared in the village and brought out to the luncheon tent, and at some stage of its preparation the contents of a vinegar cruet had been emptied into the pot. A little [-152-] altercation, most polite and subdued, occurred between our waiter and his rival at the adjacent table over a water jug, of which each endeavored to take forcible possession at the same time. The head waiter was called upon to arbitrate, but as there was some complication in the dispute that placed it beyond his jurisdiction, he refused to interfere. Finally, our waiter secured the coveted' utensil and triumphantly placed it in front of one of the ladies at table and earnestly besought her not to surrender it "on any account as he shouldn't be able to get it back again."
    When we returned to our places on the raft the crowd passed description and the heat had become almost intolerable. Every vestige of breeze had died away and the sky was covered with a dull haze that increased the burning temperature. The excitement, although it did not manifest itself in superfluous noise, was nevertheless intense, and Yale pennons and American flags were thicker than before. We were just opposite the half mile post and here, as the rival boats shot past us, the Yale crew were already a length behind. Their rapid, nervous stroke, like the quick movement of an automatic piston-rod contrasted strikingly with the long sweep of the oars, the steady deliberate rowing of the Englishmen. They were deeply flushed, perspiring and excited, while the Leander crew seemed cool and composed, both mentally and physically. Past the half mile post the Yale crew made a spurt and shot ahead again, but it was only a temporary advantage and was of no avail. At the end of the race one or two of the crew collapsed and were carried into the boat-house where they were cared for by their generous rivals, who forgot their triumph in ministering to the needs of the exhausted Americans. Had Yale won, it is difficult to guess what their enthusiastic country - people would have done; they were ready for any demonstration that could [-153-]  have been made an expression at personal and national pride. As it was, their disappointment was plainly apparent; the Yale pennons drooped and the result was received in silence or with disconsolate and sighing "Oh's !"
    When the umpire's boat, which had followed the racing crew's, returned with the Leander's time-seven minutes and fourteen seconds-the figures conspicuously displayed, were read by gloomy and dejected partisans of Yale, and there were passionate exclamations of "Too bad! too bad!"
    The English accepted the Leander's triumph with delightful modesty, and with very little display of feeling; there was nothing that approached guying or taunting the defeated crew who, it was acknowledged rowed gallantly, making a fine race, "giving the Leanders all that they could do," as the English themselves admitted.
    The Yale men and their friends, in turn, notwithstanding their keen disappointment, took their defeat in good spirit. They acknowledged that it was a fair and honorable defeat, and there was no whining and no inventing excuses for a result which, they frankly admitted, was wholly due to the skill and training of the victors. This straightforwardness not only won for them hundreds of friends, but did much to promote friendliness and good will between English and American sportsmen. It was stated that one cause which reacted disastrously with the Yale crew was a decision to change the stroke three days prior to the race-a statement which, however, was not corroborated. To the unenlightened observer, it seemed hardly possible, from the first, that there could be any hope of success with the rapid exhausting stroke which the Yale men employed, against the uniform and deliberate stroke of the English crew. The latter reminded one of the even, swinging tread of a horse that apparently does not get over the ground very rapidly and that yet [-154-] sets one down at the journey's end before it is dreamed that it is half accomplished. The order that had been observed throughout the day was admirable, apparently maintained by common consent and without a vestige of coercion. The race must have been witnessed by one hundred thousand people, or more, and yet there was not a policeman to be seen anywhere except on the boat flying the flag of the Thames Conservancy, and their office was simply to clear the course and order all obstructing craft behind the piles. There was no drunkenness, no ill temper, no brawling; everybody was good natured, and courtesy was universal.
    When our boat collided with other boats there were exclamations of "look out for your oar," and we were patiently helped to free ourselves from the entanglement - which caused not the slightest impatience. The only exception to the prevalent moderation was the inevitable cabman who wished to charge us "ten and six" ($2.62) each to drive us back to the railway station. This would have been extortionate in New York, and in England it was so excessive that it was absurd. But even here, fair play finally prevailed, and a fellow cabby gladly took the contract at "one and six" each, so that we went up to town with no consciousness that we had been defrauded, regretting only that we could not have assisted in the triumph of our countrymen, who though cast down, were by no means forsaken. For during the remainder of their sojourn in London they were made the special recipients of many social honors, the distinguished guests at dinners and garden parties and this, if it did not reconcile, did much to console them.