Friday, May 17, 2013

Astley's Annual Prize Wherry

The Thames River was, of course, always the heart of London life. The life of, and on, the river was inextricably entwined with the day to day activities of Londoners. Until the coming of the steamboats and the increase of bridges over the river, crossing the Thames was left in the hands of the river taxi of the time, the wherry.

The wherry was used to move cargo and passengers on the Thames; it was a row-boat with specially designed bows to aid passengers' embarkation. It is estimated that in 1820 there were some 3000 on the river.
Thames wherry built to 18th century design - Wikipedia
As the wherry, and the river's watermen, were central to London life, they became objects of attention, and in some cases, entertainment. Watermen often held impromptu, and more formalized, rowing competitions on the river. Inevitably, local businesses became involved, offering prizes to the winners. For some unknown reason, the theatre world were notably associated.

Vauxhall Gardens' involvement was understandable. It had its water-gate and the river crossing from Westminster was the best way to get to Vauxhall. The Vauxhall Cup and Cover race was rowed in July. But even the Inns of Court got involved in 1822, presenting a wherry to a competition of rowing by watermen belong to Temple Stairs. Doggett's Coat and Badge was rowed for every August, and that race still takes place today.

Astley's involvement is a little more obscure. It was the habit of Philip Astley to present a display of fireworks every year about the time of the King's birthday on June 4. One year, there was a serious accident, several people were killed, and the display was discontinued. Following this sad event, Mr. Astley took up the idea of presenting a prize wherry to the winner of a rowing competition. Perhaps it was a competition of his own, with his rival for entertainment dollars, Vauxhall Gardens. The race usually took place around the 15th of June, near Westminster Bridge.

In 1802, The Sporting Magazine covered the event, hampered by a strong wind, in detail:
The annual race for Astley's Prize Wherry continued until a year or two after Philip Astley's death in 1814.

The Thames was a working river, first and foremost. It was a dangerous environment, one well understood by the watermen.  But it was also an avenue for ceremonial and celebratory events, and for pure entertainment. Entertainment was something Philip Astley understood very well indeed.

'Til next time,


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