Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Our first English regatta


It is August,—Parliament is up,—battles, murders, and sudden deaths do not suit the dog-days,—it takes all the graphic powers of a Russell to excite an interest in the mad doings of our cousins across the Atlantic, and we turn with pleasure from the columns in which the word “America” appears in large letters associated with all the horrors of a fratricidal war, to where we see the same four syllables in humbler guise under the heading of “Intelligence from Cowes,” and learn that the far-famed schooner of that name has sailed, and lost, a match with the Alarm. There is something refreshing in the very thought of a regatta at this hot season, and though the unequal distribution of Fortune’s favours may not allow us to sail our own yachts, we can at least derive enjoyment from inhaling the invigorating breezes of old Ocean, as seated upon the shore we watch with dreamy interest the sport which is made for us by those who do.

An ocean separates us from anarchy and bloodshed; in the face of this glorious summer sun sea-girt old England, clad in her golden robes of harvest, looks up and smiles. Let us too look up with thankfulness and joy, for many and great are the blessings which surround us, and, in the midst of peace and plenty, gratitude is due to Him who is the giver of all good gifts.

Such were our thoughts a few days since, as seated upon the shores of the Solent, a signal gun from the yacht club battery at Cowes announced to those deeply interested in the race that the Arrow had gained a victory over her rivals, the Osprey and Brunette. The scene was one of surpassing loveliness at the moment; sea, land, and sky seemed to borrow beauty from each other; the waters of the Solent teemed with life, and as yacht followed yacht, with white sails standing out in bold relief against the shores, it required but a slight stretch of fancy to imagine how naturally such a sight, seen for the first time, would inspire the spectator with feelings of indescribable awe; such as was felt by the natives of the new world when they saw the “winged monsters” of Columbus gliding mysteriously towards them, over their, till then, lonely seas, and bearing, as they fondly believed, beings belonging to a heaven-born race. Ah! could they but have foreseen the degradation, bitterness, and woe which was to follow in the train of those they thus welcomed—the bearers of that sacred cross which was to typify the sacrifice of One who came down from on high to proclaim peace on earth and good will towards men, how changed had been the scene depicted by the poet!

Youths graceful as t“Nymphs of romance,
Youths graceful as the faun, with eager glance,
Spring from the glades, and down the alleys peep,
Then headlong rush, bounding from steep to steep,
And clasp their hands, exclaiming as they run,
“Come and behold the children of the sun!”

But whilst ocean remains the same, how great the change in all she bears upon her bosom. Man no longer fears her darkest frown; science has bid him conquer, and through her aid nor storm nor calm can turn him from his course. Where it will end we know not. We marvel at the present, but what marvels may there not be in store for those who follow after?

But what has all this to do with a regatta?—more than would at first appear; for what we have just written is nothing less than the excavation of the dock in which the keel of the structure we are about to build is to be laid, and it is thy ignorance, O reader, or thy impatience which thus perverts thy judgment, and prevents thy being cognizant of so grave a fact.

Be thankful that in these preliminary remarks, we have not, as some writers do, made the beginning of the world our starting point. We have but gone back to Columbus, and how were it possible for us to omit a reference to the great Genoese navigator, when the ocean and America were in our thoughts. Subjects, these, which naturally associate themselves with the matter we have in hand, for on the 19th April, 1775, there was fighting in America. At Lexington the first blood was spilt in the great contest which was to deprive Great Britain of the largest portion of her Empire in the Western world; and on the 23rd of June in the same year, whilst Great Britain’s soldiers, in tight spatterdashes and cocked hats, with hair powdered and “albemarled” in accordance with the regulations of the military martinets, were struggling under Gage against the undisciplined, unpowdered levies of the “Confederate States,” all the good citizens of London, headed by the “beau ton” of those formal corrupt old days, were swarming the banks of Father Thames to see the first regatta.

“The first entertainment of the kind in England,” says the Annual Register of that date; and from the same authority we learn that it “was borrowed from the Venetians, and exhibited partly on the Thames, and partly at Ranelagh.”

Novelties in the year 1775 did not succeed each other quite so quickly as in these more favoured times; the want of something new was consequently more deeply felt. The appetite for amusement was not one whit less sharp, but though it could be satisfied with simpler fare, the palate of the public sometimes required to be stimulated; and so it was that some ingenious caterer for the public wants bethought himself of this new sport from Venice, and in proof of his discernment, on the 23rd June, 1775, all the sight-seeing world of London were to be found standing on the very tip-toe of expectation to see this great regatta.

The 23rd was on a Friday. The bells of St. Mark ushered in the morning of the long-looked-for show with a merry peal, whilst later in the day St. Margaret’s rang out her happiest chimes. On the river all was bustle and confusion. Barges belonging to the different companies and pleasure-boats were moving to and fro. Flags and gay streamers fluttered in the breeze. From London bridge to Millbank was one moving mass of boats and barges; the splendour of the scene increasing as we moved towards Westminster, where prominent amongst other striking objects was a river barge, “filled with the finest ballast in the world—above 100 elegant ladies.”

“Above 1200 flags were flying before four o’clock, and such was the impatience of the public, that scores of barges were filled at that time,” though half-a-guinea was asked for a seat in one of them. Scaffolds were erected in the barges, on the banks of the river, and even on the top of Westminster Hall; all of which were crowded with spectators. The bridges were covered with crowds in carriages and on foot, men even placing themselves in the bodies of the lamp irons. Before six o’clock it was a perfect fair on both sides of the water, and—we are told—bad liquor with short measure was plentifully retailed, whilst in order that there should be no lack of additional excitement for those who might require it, the avenues leading to Westminster bridge were covered with gaming tables.

Six o’clock and no regatta! The impatient public must have pricked their ears when from under the arches of the bridge at Westminster, they heard the sound of “drums, fifes, horns, trumpets, &c.” This was followed by a round of cannon from a platform before the Duke of Richmond, “who, with his Grace of Montague, and the Earl of Pembroke, had splendid companies on the occasion.”

At half-past seven there is a stir upon the river; and my Lord Mayor’s barge sweeping down in great state, twenty-one cannon are fired as a salute; and then, just before my Lord Mayor’s barge reached the bridge, to which it had made a circle, “the wager-boats started, on the signal of firing a single piece of cannon.” They are said to have been absent some fifty minutes, and “on their return the whole procession moved with a picturesque irregularity towards Ranelagh.” We hear no more of these “wager-boats;” it is evident that the interest of those who came to see the show was not centred in them, and we can but exclaim with all true lovers of aquatics, “O monstrous! but one halfpennyworth of bread to this intolerable deal of sack!”

But all the world has moved up the river, the Thames has become a floating town, everything—from “a dung-barge to a wherry”—is in motion; let us on to Ranelagh!

We land with the company on the stairs at nine o’clock, and share their disappointment when, on proceeding to join the assembly which has come by land in the Temple of Neptune, we find that the Ocean God, wrathful perhaps at his musicians having been attired in “sylvan suits,” has thrown obstacles in the way of our amusement—for his temple is not yet swept out or even ready—so that we have to defer our intended cotillons till after supper. This takes place at half-past ten, in the Rotunda, where, whilst we refresh ourselves at one of three circular tables of different elevations, “elegantly set out though not profusely covered,”—an imitation of which style may be seen in the diners à la Russe of the present day, our ears are regaled by an orchestra of 240 performers, “in which are included some of the first masters,” led by Giardini. But though a spell of enchantment is cast around us by the bewitching singing of “Messrs. Vernon, Reinhold, &c. &c.,” the appearance of the orchestra has in itself a lugubrious effect, “for its illumination has been unfortunately overlooked.”

Supper being over, we withdraw to the Temple of Neptune, and though we have very great personages amongst us, for there are their Royal Highnesses the Dukes of Gloucester and Cumberland, the Duke of Northumberland, Lords North, Harrington, Stanley, Tyrconnel and Lincoln, with their respective ladies; also Lords Lyttelton, Coleraine, Carlisle, March, Melbourne, Cholmondeley, Petersham, &c., and the French, Spanish, Russian and Prussian Ambassadors,—we dance minuets and cotillons, without regard to precedence, till a late hour.

The weather is not favourable to out-door amusements, so that the bridges and palm-trees which were erected in the gardens are lost upon us, and the illuminations with which they were to have been accompanied are not exhibited; so we dance on till we are thoroughly tired, and then home, well pleased, though somewhat puzzled, with our first regatta.

As we walk homeward we hear a lusty voice chaunting one of the eleven verses of the ballad composed in honour of the occasion, and which had brought down thunders of applause in the Rotunda:

Enough of festinos, champêtres enough,
Bal-parés, and frescos, and such worn-out stuff,
But how to amuse ye? Ay, there was the question.
A regatta was thought of—oh, lucky suggestion!”
A regatta was thought of—oh,Derry down.

The refrain is taken up by numberless voices in a variety of keys, and, if there be a want of harmony, it is not because our own voices remain silent.

G. G. A.