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The Castletown Metropolitan Regatta

Posted on 09.05.2019

One of the newest items to be added to the Manx National Heritage collections is a circular cream cardboard badge, with Castletown (I.O.M.) Metropolitan Regatta Official embossed in gold on it.

The Castletown Metropolitan Regatta was an annual event from c.1858-9 onwards with a series of sailing races around the Castletown bay. These sailing races together with athletic sports races and other amusements, such as music and refreshments, are well documented in the Manx newspapers (from July to August) and were seen as part of Manx tourist season. The event was also an ‘advert’ for the various Manx built boats – depending on how well they did in the races.

Bay from Scarlett, by John Miller Nicholson. 30 August 1877. Object ref: 1993-0251/1

A Mr C.E. Watterson of Old Castletown recalls his experience in the Manx Folk Life Survey:

“Castletown Regatta was another grand day for us children. Sailing and rowing boats came from Ramsey and Douglas to compete. A smack or schooner dressed with bunting, would be anchored outside the Pier Head as a Commodore ship, with plenty of liquid and other refreshment about. I can well remember the firing of a cannon to commence the proceedings, and to give the yachtsmen the time so as to correct their watches. The powder was poured in out of a bag, and a sod well pounded in after it. After a great deal of preparation, it was eventually fired by the Town Bellman Davie McGill.

The sport in the harbour that most held my interest was the greasy pole projected over the quayside, with a young pig in a basket. The basket had to be opened, and the pig released and captured in the water. This sport was stopped, as it was considered cruel. The following year, a pair of ducks were placed in the basket instead of the pig and these likewise had to be released and captured in the water. The promoters of the event forgot to clip the wings of the ducks, and I don’t think they were ever captured! This sport was likewise considered as cruelty and had to stop.

Castletown Bay, Castletown. Frith F & Co. Ltd. Late 19th century-early 20th century. Image ref: PG/4027/76.

The Athletic Sports were held on the Racecourse, now part of the Golf Links. For one of the vents a pole was erected, and coated with soft soap. Attached to the top was a ham to be climbed for as a prize. This was great fun for the spectators but not for the unsuccessful competitors.”

‘Mount Strange’, the Derby’s crenallated banqueting house erected on Hango Hill, as shown on a parchment plan of 1768, ref: P.1996. The sketch map shows the position of ‘Mount Strange’ in relation to the Derby residence at Castle Rushen and the Derby Haven Racecourse on Langness peninsular.

Handwritten notes by Sir J.D. Qualtrough, available on The Manx Notebook website, provide further insight:

“Castletown also had quite a reputation for building smart racing yachts and the regattas here have been a great feature for a long period. I suppose the most famous of all these yachts was “Gretchen I”, built by Cubbon Bros, which won many races. In the old days the regattas were a lively occasion. The day was always declared a general holiday in the town and the liveliness was intensified by the presence in the town by soldiers in the Barracks. It was not unusual for arguments about the merits of the respective boats and the handling of them to continue late into the night and sometimes at least to be settled by fisticuffs when all other methods had failed. The method of handicapping by an elected committee of elders, it is understood, together with the state of the sea, wind direction and strength, added to the general atmosphere of animosity and excitement.

The battles between the “Gretchen” and “Lorna Doone” were the talk of the South of the Island – a real Castletown versus Port St Mary fight. The story is told how Dr Rowley Jones in the “Echo” lured a Douglas yacht with a deeper draught than the “Echo’s” over the Seal Rock when the tide was ebbing, and how the Douglas boat got stuck on the rock while Rowley went on to win the race.”

Gretchen, built at Qualtrough’s, late 19th century. Image ref: PG/6214

Yvonne Cresswell (MNH Curator of Social History)

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