The History of Eton's 4th June Celebrations

Origins of 4th June - Eton History
Illustration by Lachlan Campbell

The origins of the 4th of June date back to the late part of the 18th Century to celebrate the birthday of George III, one of the School’s greatest patrons.

The first water pageants were very informal indeed, run entirely by the boys, who would amuse themselves by rowing up and down the river in fancy dress, with flags and bunting adorning the boats, all of which was done without the Headmaster’s permission.

The first procession took place in 1793 on the King’s birthday and continued in a relaxed manner for a number of years until matters came to a rather embarrasing head, when King William IV asked if he may watch the procession which, the Headmaster Dr. Keate had to decline on the grounds that he:
“Did not know there was such a thing”.

Rowing was not formally accepted by the School until 1840 and only actively encouraged after 1860.

The actual procession is lead by the Monarch, a unique boat with ten oarsmen including; the Captain of the Boats (Capt. of the VIII), the Ninth Man in the Monarch (organiser policing and matters to do with the river), the Captain of the School (Colleger), the Captain of the Oppidans and for a time, the Captain of the XI amongst others, down to the most junior VIII, Defiance.

4th June - Eton History - Hats
Photo by New & Lingwood

At a certain point in the procession, the crews of each boat stand and raise their flower adorned boaters to cheer the Queen, the School and the memory of George III whilst shaking the flowers from their boaters into the river. They then resume their seats and row on for the next VIII to do the same.

The three most senior boats stand with their oars fixed resting on the water whilst the remaining boats raise their oars to the vertical and then salute with their boaters, a tricky thing to do. Sometimes, the consequences are obvious, and early baths result.

All the boys are dressed in naval uniforms of the mid 19th century, the coxes as those of Officer’s and the oarsmen in those of Ratings (Able Seamen).

Up until WWII the procession took place by the Brocas facing Windsor Castle, a very public event with large crowds on both banks and many other onlookers in small boats. Beginning at 6.30 it concluded with a firework display. It was moved after the war to its current position surrounded by private land, an altogether quieter affair.

The Boats themselves are wooden ‘clinkers’ with fixed seats and ‘pin’ rowlocks and the oars are of ‘needle spoon’ design. The last boat made was in 2005.

4th June - Eton History - Boats
Photo by New & Lingwood

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