The Head of the River Fours is a time trial for quads, coxless fours and coxed fours, run every November (or thereabouts depending on tide times) under the British Rowing Rules of Racing over the 6,800m Championship course from the University Stone at Mortlake to the University Stone at Putney on the ebb tide.
It is organised by a committee of volunteers who are assisted by many others on the race day.
The idea for a Tradesmen’s Tideway Head Race for fours, was first mooted in the early 1950s by the Thames Amateur Rowing Association. The TARA was the Thames branch of the National Amateur Rowing Association, the governing body who looked looked after manual workers who were not allowed to join the ARA as they didn’t recognise their Amateur status.
Despite picking a date for the new race, the TARA soon dropped their plans after learning that the Tradesmen’s Rowing Clubs’ Association (the body who looked after real professionals – i.e. those who worked with boats for a living) had also started to organise a similar open fours race.
And so it was that the fledging “Head of the River 4os” was first raced in 1955. In the following years the race was known as the Tradesmen’s Rowing Club’s Association Head of the River Fours, though even at this stage ARA clubs were entering along with NARA and TRAC clubs.
In the late 1950s the ARA and NARA finally merged into the Amateur Rowing assoication of Great Britain. in 1962 the event became known simply as “The Head of the River Fours”, and was handed over to a new Committee in 1963 after the TRCA’s eventual amalgamation.
Since that time many changes in the members of the Committee have taken place, as well as alterations and additions to the status and boat classifications. Of particular interest was the introduction of quadruple sculls in 1973 when there were three entries, and the inclusion of lightweight categories for the first time in 2008.
In the first race 34 crews rowed over a 3 mile course from Chiswick Steps to Putney Pier. The entry has grown steadily over the years and in 1988 the race was extended to the full four and a quarter mile Championship course from Mortlake to Putney (known to many as the Oxford/Cambridge boat race course in reverse).
For many years the entry exceeded the permitted maximum of 500 crews, but in 1997 the Port of London Authority agreed to a request for 50 more crews. Even with 550 places available (the largest number of crews entered in an one race in the UK) the race was still heavily oversubscribed, and a points minimum for sweep crews was instated for the 2007 race as a means of limiting entries, after entries for the 2006 race closed six weeks early. Later changes to the racing calendar led to the points minimum being removed from 2017.
Although there are many more crews who would like to race each year, unfortunately considerations of tide and stream; length of river closure; November weather; space restrictions at the host clubs; and the simple logistics of marshalling over 500 crews on the water at once mean further expansion is not possible, and the committee have recently reduced the total number of entries down to 520 due to problems encountered during marshalling.
Women’s crews first competed in the HOR4s in 1977 (when there were 20 entries across shell coxed, restricted coxed and junior coxed categories), after the event merged with the Women’s Rowing Committee Head of the River Fours. This had been founded as a separate event in 1959, but following the merger of the ARA with the Women’s ARA in 1963, the two events effectively became one as the women’s race was run straight after what was then the men’s race. Today women’s crews make up around 40% of the total entries.
Fuller Smith and Turner began their sponsorship of the Race in 1979 and their on-going support has enabled the Committee to maintain low entry fees as well as providing the winners with one of the most eagerly awaited and well attended prize giving events on the rowing circuit at the Hock Cellar at the Griffin Brewery in Chiswick.
In 1994 the ARA was pleased to present Fuller Smith & Turner PLC with a Medal of Honour for their support of rowing and the Head of the River Fours in particular; a further award was presented in 2005 to mark 25 years of support. We remain very grateful to Fuller’s for their continued sponsorship.