The Royal Thames is the oldest royal yacht club in the United Kingdom and the oldest continuously operating yacht club in the world. It was established in 1775 when the Duke of Cumberland, brother of George III, put up a silver cup for a race on the River Thames and formed the Cumberland Fleet. This remains the alternative name of the Club today. The Royal Thames Yacht Club name originates from 1830 when William IV came to the throne.
The members originally met in coffee houses. From 1857, the Club owned various properties in London, moving to 60 Knightsbridge, overlooking Hyde Park, in 1923. The present Clubhouse is the result of a development of the site between 1961 and 1963.
Yachting originally took place on the Thames but the Solent became increasingly important in the 1850s as the steam train made access to the South Coast easy.
The Club has had many distinguished Flag Officers and traditionally the Commodore has been a member of the royal family. Earl Mountbatten was Commodore for 20 years and today the Club's Commodore is HRH Prince Andrew, the Duke of York. Unusually among leading yacht clubs, the senior elected member and chairman of the Club is the Vice Commodore.
The Patron of the Club is the HRH the Duke of Edinburgh and the Admiral is HRH Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales.
Early Yacht Racing History
There are two clubs whose history is closely linked with the early development of yacht racing and yachting manoeuvres under the patronage of royalty. These are the Royal Thames Yacht Club and the Royal Cork Yacht Club. Of these two, the Royal Thames can claim to be the only club that has been in continuous existence since 1775, although it may have been organising racing earlier on the River Thames.
The first recorded yacht race in England took place in 1662 on the Thames and although such racing was patronised by the royal court, there are few subsequent details available. In 1720 the Water Club of Cork was formed in Ireland and continued sailing and making maritime manoeuvres until 1756, when its activities ceased for almost fifty years. It was later reformed and subsequently became the Royal Cork Yacht Club.
In England it was not until 1775 that records were kept of a similar organisation formed by 'a group of very respectable gentlemen' to promote yachting and yacht racing on the River Thames, which was called the Cumberland Fleet. Their first recorded race was held in July 1775, for a silver cup - the first Cumberland Cup - put up by the Duke of Cumberland, younger brother of George III.
Over the next seven years annual races were held by the Cumberland Fleet for its members who competed for further Cumberland Cups. In those days, these trophies were won outright and became the property of their winners and, while the original 1775 Cup was destroyed in a fire, the Cups of 1776, 1777, 1780, 1781 and 1782 have over the years all been traced and recovered. They are now displayed in the entrance hall at 60 Knightsbridge, the present Clubhouse in London of the Cumberland Fleet, the Royal Thames Yacht Club.
In 1786 a new trophy - the Vauxhall Cup - was put up for a race 'for any previous winner of a Cumberland Cup, for any yacht owned by a member of the Cumberland Fleet, or for ‘any yacht owned by a gentleman'. This must surely be the world's first open meeting trophy.
The Cup was presented by one Jonathan Tyers, who had just bought and taken over the Vauxhall Gardens. These 'Gardens' were a pleasure park beside the Thames at Vauxhall and were by then being used as a starting and/or finishing venue for the various races by the Cumberland Fleet, of which the annual Cumberland Cup race was the most celebrated. Not only was this therefore the world's first open meeting, but the Vauxhall Cup was surely the world's first sponsored event, and Tyers the sport's first commercial sponsor.
The Cumberland Fleet continued to race regularly both above and below London Bridge, continuing to use that name despite the death of its eponymous patron in 1790. The Duke of Cumberland's nephew, Prince William, the Duke of Clarence, took over as Patron and with the hiatus in activities in Cork, the Cumberland Fleet became the only yacht racing body in Great Britain and Ireland - and thus probably in the world - that was active in 1805 when Nelson won his great victory at Trafalgar.
In 1806 the Water Club of Cork was reformed while the Cumberland Fleet continued racing as a regular and frequent activity with a variety of cups being presented - some annual, some occasional. This continued until 1821, when internal dissention appears briefly to have disrupted the programme. It resumed in 1823, still with royal patronage, and in that year changed its name to His Majesty's Coronation Sailing Society to honour the crowning of its Patron's brother, George IV.
The Coronation race of that year, however, became enmeshed in controversy, with the outcome not merely the subject of a protest and subsequent hearing but with the hearing itself the subject of further protest. Eight Cumberland Fleet owners elected to reject the committee of the Coronation Sailing Society and on 14th August 1823, in the White Horse Tavern, reformed the Cumberland Fleet as the Thames Yacht Club, holding their first race on September 19 over a course between Blackfriars and Wandsworth. Their Patron came with them and when he, in his turn, ascended the throne as William IV in 1830, he bestowed upon the Club the title the Royal Thames Yacht Club.
Ocean races officially organised by clubs were unknown until 1887. That was the year of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, and a race ‘the like of which had never been known in the annals of yacht racing' was announced by the Royal Thames Yacht Club over a course of 1,520 nautical miles round the British Isles. Later meetings at the Albemarle Street Clubhouse referred to this event as the Jubilee Yacht Race.
In its long career the Club has had many meeting places, starting with Coffee Houses and even the infamous Vauxhall Tea Gardens. In June 1857 the Club acquired its first true Clubhouse, in St. James Street, but moved almost immediately to 7 Albemarle Street, where it stayed for 50 years. In 1911 the Royal Thames moved to Piccadilly and 12 years later to the present site at 60 Knightsbridge. This splendid building had far more accommodation than previous Clubhouses but, by 1961, its very size and antiquity rendered it unmanageable and the site was redeveloped. The new building included the current purpose built Clubhouse for the Royal Thames Yacht Club.
While the Club initially organised yacht racing on the Thames, as many of the pictures and trophies in the Clubhouse show, from the 1840s the members became more interested in competing with the 'salt-water' yachts in the Solent, facilitated by the steam trains that gave easier access to the South Coast. Although the Royal Thames ran regattas throughout the South of England, from Brixham to Southend in the inter-war years, since the Second World War it has concentrated the majority of its racing in the Solent, for a time owning a shoreside Clubhouse at Warsash on the River Hamble.
Fleet ownership and a winter base at Queen Mary Reservoir, near Heathrow Airport, has broadened the Club's racing possibilities and the tradition of organising yachting in the best possible locations, not hindered by the restrictions of any one stretch of water, continues today.