From the Archives, 1921: Melbourne’s Henley-on-Yarra River Festival

First published in The Age, October 24, 1921.




Houseboats and pavilions line the banks of the Yarra for the regatta, the temporary structures elaborately decorated with flowers, flags, pennants and lights, were built on pontoons to accommodate in comfort spectators from the leading families and institutions.Credit:Argus Collection, The Age Archives

Many anxious eyes were directed skywards on Saturday morning to see what sort of weather Providence had in store for Henley. After the lachrymatory exhibition given by the upper regions on Friday and the pessimistic forecasts of those who ought to know, the general feeling was that Melbourne’s great water carnival would be held in decidedly unpleasant weather, if it were held at all, for, apart from Friday’s downpour, there were recollections of the fact that last year Henley was postponed for a week because the weather was bad. But the person who did not rise too early on Saturday morning was greeted with a pleasant prospect. Although a number of grey, threatening clouds hung about the firmament, the south winds compelled them to move on and vanish. So the sun shone and the sky put on a pale blue Henley dress, and all was well. If it were possible to order weather the regatta officials could hardly have obtained anything better. The temperature could, perhaps, have been a little higher without bringing discomfort, but why be fussy about it? The day was magnificent, and the degree of magnificence does not matter.

But if Henley cannot make weather, the weather makes Henley, and because the sun shone and the cold south wind being sufficiently impressed with the importance of the event, died down to a flutter, the numerous elements, human and otherwise, which go to make the day brilliantly successful, were not lacking. The crowd was immense. It packed itself along the banks of the river and shouted and gasped and waved and promenaded and was happy. A vast concourse of people patronised the reserve. A gathering no larger, but less comfortable, chose the opposite bank and stood enthusiastically through the afternoon. Henley is a day for young people, or it seems so. Carnivals are not for the old, at least the name does imply that they are, yet there were just as many middle-aged people as youngsters, with a proportionate sprinkling of the ancient.

The early arrivals commended their own foresight when they found they were able to drop into the comfortable deck chairs which lined the bank. The late ones had to promenade along the gravel walk or rest themselves on the lawns. Those whose chief interest was the boat racing clustered about the winning post and shouted instructions to the contestants—excellent advice no doubt, but useless, because it lacked unanimity. “Put your backs into it, Albert Park !” was mingled with, “Come on, South Melbourne,” and if the advice had been coherent above the general noise, South Melbourne might have put their backs into it instead of coming on, and goodness only knows what would have happened then. However, the coxswains with megaphones tied to their mouths had most of the say, and perhaps it is just as well.

Henley on Yarra, c.1914. Decorated boats, floating pavilions and row boats filled to the gunwales with spectators. Credit:State Library of Victoria

The river scene was fittingly gay. The racing craft provided the day’s excitement, but the other boats were ornamental. The great barges moored to the river bank were a mass of colored bunting, streamers and decorations. Between them and the barriers hundreds of boats of all kinds danced up and down on the river, some unadorned and others handsomely decorated. Some of the decorations were prettily wrought, generally in the shape of colored canopies decked with buds and colored ribbon. They carried happy parties of young people, the girls reclining with cushions at their backs, and the young men struggling with oars against the current. The river was high and flowing freely, and pulling up stream was no joke; but no young man minds that provided romance be at the helm or resting amidships. The many colored craft slipping easily by made a most delightful picture to those less fortunately placed on the banks, and they certainly gave the regatta just the touch of the exotic, without which the day might have appeared commonplace.

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