“Youth and Beauty meet at River Festival”

By Dr Cheryl Griffin – Royal Historical Society of Victoria

So ran the headline in The Herald newspaper, reporting on a day when the Yarra River was “aglow with colour and life”. 

It was Derby Day, Saturday, October 30, 1920. The world had begun to emerge from the sombre years of World War One followed by a devastating influenza pandemic. Melburnians were ready to party. And what a party this was!

Postponed from the weekend before due to grey skies and rain, this “great aquatic festival”, as The Age described it, played out in fine weather and attracted a huge crowd of more than 100,000 people. 

The Henley Regatta, styled after the Royal Regatta at Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, was a day for the young. The older generation, it seemed, was at the Derby Day horse races at Flemington Racecourse. Along the Yarra, sights were firmly set on the spectacle, the sight and sounds, the decorated boats and fashionable young people, dubbed Henley boys and Henley girls by the Press, sailing past the crowds on their decorated boats or promenading along the banks of the river.

For many, the rowing races themselves paled into insignificance in the face of the excitement of the spectacle. In this photograph, the scene is dominated by crowds of boats and people and the atmosphere of celebration is palpable. The Yarra, proclaimed
The Herald, was transformed into a “broad ribbon of flashing colours, a garden of bright flowers, a delight to the eye”. The decorated boats, “picturesque pleasure galleons” were festooned with garlands of flowers, flags, pennants, lanterns and streamers. One boat, a large swan created using cottonwool, floated gracefully along on the current, surrounded by motor launches, canoes and other small boats, all with multi-coloured and lavish decorations.

The day belonged to the young, hordes of young men in blazers and boaters, the Henley boys, seeking to attract the attention of Henley girls. Yet there were reminders of Australia’s traumatic recent past in the attendance of wounded servicemen from the Caulfield Military Hospital and the Anzac Hotel, brought to join the festivities by Red Cross volunteers. Their presence reminded everyone that the war years had exacted a toll that could not be overlooked easily.

In a quintessentially Melbourne way, the crowds were divided along class lines. Melbourne’s north-south social divide was evident even here with those of the working class (The Herald called them “the thrifty and needy”) making the north bank their base and those with social aspirations, (The Herald’s “more expensive brothers and sisters who strolled and talked and flirted beneath the benedictions of green leaves”) on the south bank. Despite these differences, everyone enjoyed their day out.

The party atmosphere continued long after the races ended. Bands played, people danced, and fireworks lit up the skyline. As the Ballarat Star told it, “boats ablaze with Japanese lanterns crept like fireflies up the river, mirroring their beauties in the waters”. The Star’s reporter wrote that at night “the Derby Crowd, with their pockets full of notes or sorrows, joined in the throng, making the night one of the most memorable and crowded in Henley’s history”.

Melburnians were moving into a period of hope for a better future, a more settled future where peace, prosperity and fun would shape their lives, the sort of future epitomised in the celebratory mood you see here in this image from the Royal Historical Society’s images collection •

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