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Dotted around Gravesend’s pubs are various painted boards, each decorated with the name of a winner of the Gravesend regatta.

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Lester BanksLester Banks

The remaining boards date back 166 years and remember a time when watermen would ferry passengers up and down the River Thames.

Each year apprentice watermen wanting to start up their own service would take part in the race.

To win would be to secure their livelihoods – the first prize was a new and fully-equipped waterman’s boat of their own.

Along with the boat, the winner would receive a backboard adorned with their name and the year they won.

The backboards were the mark of success for watermen. As the years went by and technology progressed, river transport transformed and the backboards were taken in by museums and pubs.

The Gravesend regatta is now officially in its 166th year as it was 1846 when the regatta committee was set up and a boat was given as the prize for the first time.

But it is believed that the regatta actually dates back much further, possibly to the Tudor times.

There have been professionals who have competed with the amateurs – a notable winner in 1938 was Eric Phelps who became the British sculling champion.

And the regatta has not been without its controversies. In 1836, the race caused riots and the army had to be called in to restore order using bayonets, while the break out of the First World War was followed by a 12-year hiatus until 1925.

Thousands will have taken part in the race, which has morphed in route and size over the years. Today it is a circular route about a mile and a quarter long, starting off in Gravesend and heading down to Denton.

The traditional wooden skiffs are now largely gone, replaced by fibreglass boats. And backboards are a thing of the past, with the winners receiving a trophy and a bottle of wine.

The Gravesend regatta played a prominent role in the riverside life of the town but its place in the 21st century is uncertain.

While its future is secure for the next three years – thanks to a £6,000 donation – committee chairman Ian Stevenson has seen interest dwindle in the 40 years he has been organising it.

“If it were to disappear it would be a crying shame,” he said. “If you can’t keep something going, you lose it for ever.”

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