The first Melbourne Amateur Regatta was held on the Yarra River in 1860 when Professor Irving, founder of Melbourne University Boat Club, organised sweep-oared racing between amateur rowers. The Regatta was held annually for some 40 years when in 1903 The Melbourne Amateur Regatta Association Inc (MARA) was formally established.
The Australian Henley Regatta has been conducted by the Melbourne Amateur Regatta Association on the Yarra every year since 1904, save for a period during the two world wars during which all Regatta racing was suspended.
The concept of forming the Melbourne Amateur Regatta Association came from the distinguished Melbourne citizens, Messrs. A.A. Blackwood, George (later Sir George) Fairbairn and Captain W.C. Rivett. Their objective was to conduct on the Yarra, a Regatta on the same lines as the Henley Royal Regatta and, to that end, a series of Challenge Cups was established for various events with magnificent Silver trophies, all of which are still competed for today.
Between 1904-1907 the Regatta was rowed over a course of approximately 1 mile and 100 yards from the Botanic Gardens Bridge to Princes Bridge. In the year 1908 the Regatta course was changed to a measured mile from what was then the Punt Road Footbridge to the "Engineer's Corner" where the present Judges' Box is now situated. The Regatta has been rowed on this course ever since, save for adjustments to the starting position made necessary by the construction of the Punt Road Bridge, and for alterations to both start and finish while the Swan Street Bridge was being built.
In its early years and up to the period of the Second World War in 1939 the Regatta was, after the Kings Cup, the most important event in the Rowing calendar, attracting, as the records show, many entries from Interstate and occasionally from Overseas. It was also a great social event and enjoyed wide public support with adequate provision for the members of the Association and their guests on the Henley lawns.
To assist in the presentation of the event, the present staging and Judges' box were constructed by the Association. Decorated houseboats lined the river bank and countless small craft of all sorts were on the river. In order to preserve clear water for the competing crews, booms were laid along either side of the course for the last quarter mile. During this period the Regatta had strong support from the Melbourne retail traders and the annual "Miss Henley" contest was keenly contested and suitably rewarded.
In the first few years after the Second World War the Regatta continued with something of its earlier splendour. The Association, as in pre-war years, fenced off the area of the Alexandra Gardens and charged an entry for the Regatta. It also provided evening entertainment on the river bank culminating with the outstanding fireworks display. See the 1946 British Pathé feature film "Glamorous Henley-On-Yarra".
This continued until 1949 when the construction of the Swan Street Bridge started. It took the Public Works Department over 3 years to build the bridge and during that time the finishing post for all Regattas on the Yarra had to be moved above the bridge construction site and the start was moved up to the present 2000 metre start. During that period the Association was unable to stage its Carnival commensurate with earlier years and the Regatta lost much of its following.
Following the completion of the Swan Street Bridge, efforts were made to revive the Regatta but these ended in one disastrous year when heavy rain ruined the evening show and the fireworks with considerable financial loss to the Association.
In 1955 at the request of the Lord Mayor, Sir Maurice Nathan, Henley was asked to move the Regatta from its traditional date in November to become the opening ceremony of the Moomba Festival. In the earlier years of this arrangement the Melbourne Amateur Regatta Association conducted the Regatta, the Riverside carnival, the evening function and fireworks display with its own enclosures, completely separate from Moomba.
The Regatta was moved to the first Saturday of the Festival with little active or financial support from the Moomba committee. From 1958 the Association conducted only the Regatta and had no responsibility for the carnival, nor was it able to fence off the Henley lawns and charge for admission.
1980S - CURRENT
The Regatta languished for a number of years until the 1980s when the then Secretariat made strenuous efforts to raise the standing of the Regatta and to increase its public support.
Sponsorship enabled the Committee to provide encouragement to Interstate and Overseas crews. This had always been a great feature of the Regatta. Australian Henley was, prior to the introduction of the National Championships, regarded as the premier Regatta in Australia and it is the objective of the Committee of the Association to ensure that it regains and maintains that position.
In 1993, a round of the FISA World Cup in sculling was held at the Regatta, being the first time this race was held in the Southern Hemisphere. Peter Antonie from Australia won the Men's event and Brenda Lawson from New Zealand the Women's event.