At a public meeting in Henley town hall on 26 March 1839, Captain Edmund Gardiner proposed that from the lively interest which had been manifested at the various boat races which have taken place on the Henley reach during the last few years, and the great influx of visitors on such occasions, this meeting is of the opinion that the establishing of an annual regatta, under judicious and respectable management, would not only be productive of the most beneficial results to the town of Henley, but from its peculiar attractions would also be a source of amusement and gratification to the neighbourhood, and the public in general.
The regatta was first staged in 1839 and proved so successful that it was expanded the next year from one day to two the next year. As the regatta’s popularity has grown it has further expanded: to three days in 1886, 4 days in 1906 and five days in 1986. The regatta has been known as Henley Royal Regatta since 1851, when Prince Albert became the first royal patron.
At the regatta’s inception it was intended for amateur oarsmen rather than those who rowed professionally. In 1879 Henley produced its first formal definition of an amateur:
“No person shall be considered an amateur oarsman or sculler, or coxswain:
1. Who has ever competed in any open competition for a stake, money, or entrance fee. (Not to apply to foreign crews.)
2. Who has ever competed with or against a professional for any prize.
3. Who has ever taught, pursued or assisted in the practice of athletic exercises of any kind as a means of gaining a livelihood.
4. Who has been employed in or about boats for money or wages.
5. Who is or has been by trade or employment for wages a mechanic, artisan or labourer.
In 1884, amateur status for overseas oarsmen was put on the same basis as for home oarsmen, thus ending the concession on racing for money prizes.
By 1886 a phrase had also been added debarring any person ‘engaged in any menial activity’.
These rules would become the cause of growing controversy as international entries to Henley increased; most foreign countries having a different definition of amateur. The adoption of Henley’s definition of amateur by the Amateur Rowing Association of Great Britain would also cause a 66-year schism in British rowing, when in 1890 a rival National Amateur Rowing Association was set up, with a much more inclusive definition of amateurism.
One well-known incident was the exclusion of future Olympic champion John B. Kelly, Sr., who had served an apprenticeship as a bricklayer, from the 1920 regatta. According to the minutes of the regatta’s Committee of Management, Kelly was excluded both because he was not eligible under the manual labour rules and because he was a member of Vesper Boat Club, which was banned in 1906 because members of its 1905 Henley crew had raised money to pay for their trip through public donations - making them professionals in the eyes of the Henley Stewards.
Kelly’s exclusion was widely reported in newspapers in both the UK and USA, with many seeing it as an attempt to prevent an American from winning the Diamonds. (Kelly's son John B. Kelly, Jr. would dramatically win the 1947 Diamond Sculls, and his daughter would become the famous Academy Award winning actress turned Princess of Monaco Grace Kelly, keeping the incident in the public eye for years afterwards). In 1936, there was a further controversy when the Australian national eight, preparing for the Berlin Olympics, was excluded from the Grand Challenge Cup because the crew was composed of policemen, deemed to be 'manual workers'. The resulting embarrassment persuaded the Amateur Rowing Association and the Stewards of Henley Royal Regatta of the need for change. On 9 June 1937, the offending references to manual labourers, mechanics, artisans and menial duties were deleted from the ARA rules; Henley's rules were changed the following day, coming into effect from the 1938 regatta. In September 1997, FISA removed all references to amateurism in its rules and in December 1998 Henley followed suit. The regatta is therefore now entirely open.