It is always difficult to tease out the beginnings of events such as Burnham Week. It is certain that nobody involved in a simple challenge to sail against a newly arrived club would have foreseen the yearly regattas stretching so far into the future but that is how traditions start…
By 1892 the little village of Erith on the River Thames which had provided sailing and racing waters for the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club for the previous twenty years had lost its attraction. The development of coal wharves, the increase of traffic up and down the Thames and pollution of the river, suggested it was time to move on. In the spring of that year some enthusiastic racing men travelled to Burnham from Liverpool Street on the new steam railway line and liked what they saw, an unpolluted river which offered deepwater moorings at all states of the tide, a wide undeveloped estuary enjoying fresh breezes from across the marshes and a bustling little town that might offer the services they needed. Perhaps they lunched at the White Hart; at any event, the decision was taken and within a short time a room was hired at that very inn and the first boats sailed round from the Club at Erith on June 5th and settled in Burnham. Several years later the Thames devotees moved their headquarters from Erith to Port Victoria but the Burnham émigrés were content with the Crouch.
The following year, 1893, saw the arrival of the London Sailing Club, previously based in Hammersmith. By the September a regatta was arranged between the two clubs and in later years it was agreed that that particular event, being the first inter-club regatta, could fairly be described as the start of the Burnham Week Regatta. Care must be taken not to confuse Burnham Week with the Town Regatta which started in 1865. This was more of a ‘fun day’ for the town and included rowing, swimming events, the greasy pole, soot and flour fights and the band playing in the band stand outside ‘The Anchor’. The Town Regatta did not restart after WW2.
In the early years Burnham Week was regarded as the last event in the Sailing Calendar. In the days before marinas afforded year-round access, many yachts were laid up for the winter in mud-berths on the east coast rivers. The racing fleets worked their way along the south coast, enjoying various events and regattas, having a final fling at Burnham before laying up.
The Burnham Yacht Club (later the Royal Burnham Yacht Club) was established in 1895 and joined the Burnham Week Regatta immediately as did the Crouch Yacht Club after 1907. The London Sailing Club, which did so much to promote Burnham Week in the early years, was amalgamated with the Eastern Yacht Club, which was in turn swallowed up by the Royal Corinthian. Thus it was that in the years immediately preceding the First World War those three establishments, the RCYC, the RBYC and the CYC were responsible for the organisation and it continued in this way once peace enabled the racing to resume. It all seemed very informal and gentlemanly. The Week extended over seven days, Saturday to Saturday, leaving Sunday for Church and relaxation. The Royal Burnham and the Crouch were each responsible for two days racing and the Royal Corinthian covered the other three days. In order to make the organisation simpler the RCYC Secretary would receive the race entry forms until the start of the Week but late entries had to contact the responsible club concerned for a particular race.
It was the custom to give money prizes for the winning boats and there appeared to be no concerns about the compromise of amateur status. The Notice of Race for 1935, the earliest material currently available, laid out a table of prizes. The seven days racing, (never on Sundays!) was shared by the RCYC, the RBYC and the CYC and the individual club was responsible for paying out the prize money on their particular days. It is worth noting that the Cruisers entering Class A paid 15/- entrance fee irrespective of which club was running the race but the winner on the RBYC days could expect to receive £10 whereas winners on the days run by the RCYC and the CYC would only expect to receive £8. The ECODs paid an entrance fee of 2/6 for each race and the winner would receive £2 from the RCYC and the RBYC but only 30/- from the CYC. These anomalies may have caused some heartache and complaint for in the following year the differences had been ironed out and the three clubs shared a common approach, paying £8 to the winners in Class A and £2 to the winning ECODs. However, the entrance fee for the ECODs had risen to 4/-, perhaps retribution for complaining!
The early writers of the Sailing Instructions did not concern themselves with the collection of the Prize Money. In 1948 Mr Harold Warwick-Smith Esq. JP, enjoyed a particularly successful week. Sailing his yacht ‘Eloise’, (named after his wife) in class BQ, he gained a first place, two seconds and a third. Wing Commander AJ Briddon, then Secretary of the RCYC, sent him a cheque for £6.10s 0d representing his total prize money. How very civilised.
However it all changed in 1950 when somebody thought it would be a good idea to issue vouchers for the prizes. These were to be delivered on board each winning boat, “the same day, if possible”, to be redeemed for the cash from the Secretary of the RCYC at the owners’ convenience. This arrangement lasted for just two years; by 1952 the vouchers were delivered to the Clubs concerned and the onus was on the owner to collect them. It doesn’t take much imagination to work out the reason for the change in procedure….it was a dark and stormy night and the poor soul delegated to row around the winning boats in fading light and against a strong tide, only to discover the owner long gone ashore to carouse with no particular place to leave the voucher!
“On presentation of this voucher to the Secretary’s Office, RCYC, and subject to the Entrance Fees having been paid, the winners will receive the stipulated prize money. The voucher will be retained as a receipt.”
1973 was the last year in which winners received money prizes. Perhaps, as previously mentioned, there were now concerns about losing one’s eligibility as an amateur. Whatever the motive, the 1974 programme announced, “Prizes will be in the form of glassware decorated with the Joint Clubs’ insignia” and that remained for many years.