Table of Contents
- Preliminaries: before 1870
- Foundations: 1870-1880
- New Clubs: 1880-1890
- The Amateur Question: 1890-1900
- Sydney on Top: 1900-1910
- Henley and War: 1910-1920
- Pearce and Mosman: 1920-1930
- Financial Problems: 1930-1940
- War and Wood: 1940-1950
- Strength and Stability: 1950-1960
- On Top Again: 1960-1970
2. Foundations: 1870-1880
The annual Balmain Regatta - held every 9 November, a public holiday in honour of the Prince of Wales' birthday - was now fast approaching. Interest was particularly keen as there was talk of Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania sending crews to compete. Crews from the club competed in two preliminary regattas - at Snail's Bay and at Pyrmont - in preparation for the big day. When 9 November arrived, a sole crew from Tasmania was present to provide some intercolonial colour in the gig race for "bona fide amateurs" (those who did not gain their living by manual labour). Sydney's number 1 crew had Charles Deloitte bow, Grantley Fitzhardinge 2, Freeman 3 and the club captain stroke. The coxswain was L. McKay, a tiny lad weighing only 3 stone. The crew recorded an easy win from Tasmania with a second SRC crew third. The prize for the race was 100 sovereigns or trophies to that value at the option of the winner. Further club regattas were held at roughly quarterly intervals, while the club competed, too, at the Anniversary Day Regatta, already 34 years old by 26 January, 1871. At this regatta, Edmund Barton raced in a handicap sculling race and came second carrying 40 lb. to the winner's 10 lb. The third entrant's handicap was "a feather". Races for professional scullers and for "all-comers" were on the Australia Day programme, as in other regattas. Match races with high stakes were already prevalent in NSW by 1870.
The colours of the Sydney Rowing Club were initially blue and white. They were altered to light blue "after some years" - definitely before 1886. The club motto, "Mens sana in corpore sano" ("A healthy mind in a healthy body") was adopted at the very outset.
Members of the club received a rude shock early in 1871. A special general meeting was called and they discovered that "the rumours which have been current of late respecting some alleged misappropriation of club money by one of the officers of the Sydney Rowing Club turn out to be quite true". The "honorary" secretary had, on several occasions, obtained money from the treasurer to pay club accounts, one of which had been for the timber used in the erection of the shed. This account was, however, resubmitted for payment and, when further inquiries were made, it was discovered that over £100 had been appropriated by the secretary to his own use. Certain security held by the club, presumably Freeman's boat and blades, were to reduce the amount lost to about £ 60. "A letter from the secretary, resigning his position as a member of the club, was then read to the meeting, but it was not accepted, and it was resolved that his name be expunged from the list of members." Jim Clark took over the secretarial duties, a position he held for a further six years.
The club's first year was now almost over. In April, a meeting was held to elect two auditors to check the books before the forthcoming first annual meeting. On 3 May 1871, members gathered together to hear an annual report which referred with pride to the "large amount of success" that had attended the club's formation. Members were also congratulated "upon the great improvement in the style of rowing exhibited". Donors of prizes for regattas were duly thanked. Financially, the year had been very successful. Assets totalled ₤615, even after the value of boats had been reduced by 25 per cent and the building and other property by 10 per cent. The debit balance was ₤35, financed principally by a loan from the Bank of New South Wales of £300. After reviewing other developments, elections were conducted and all existing officials - including Henry Woolnough and Grantley Fitzhardinge who had replaced W. Smith and Jim Clark on the committee during the year - were re-elected.
In succeeding years, the club's office-bearers had few problems to worry about. The financial position was so sound that the bank overdraft was paid off before the second annual meeting in April, 1872. Membership was increasing so steadily that accommodation at the club house was being strained. A new wing was constructed on the northern side of the club house late in 1872 at a cost of £35. Water was permanently laid on to the club premises soon after. Within eighteen months, the southern wing had also been added, "thus completing the original plan". The fleet was maintained in first-class order and several new boats were purchased. Presentation of boats also added to the fleet. In the 1872/73 season, a four-oared outrigger built by Clasper of Oxford, England, was presented to the club by three members and, in February, 1874, an eight-oared gig, also Clasper-built, was presented by a group of nineteen citizens. Total cost of the first eight-oared boat in Sydney - imported from England - was £95/14/10. By the end of the club's 1873/74 season, the fleet comprised 21 boats: an eight, two four-oared outriggers, eight string-test gigs, seven skiffs, two four - pair of scull boats and one six-pair of scull boat. In the following year, a "state barge" was also presented to the club.
A major development, of lasting significance to the club, was soon under consideration. Construction of the Great North Road out of Sydney was completed in 1831, a ferry across the Parramatta River from Bedlam Point to Abbotsford becoming necessary. In 1837, a residence at Abbotsford, widely known as the "Red House", was converted to an inn and named "The King's Arms" to serve the travellers and to take advantage of the steamboat traffic plying the Parramatta River. In 1873, Deloitte and his colleagues conceived the idea of purchasing the site of the Red House (the new name had not taken at all) for the club. The land was "beautifully situated at a bold point of the river" only seven miles from Sydney. There was already "a comfortable dwelling-house and other conveniences, where members of the club can remain while training, or where they can stop for the night when desirous of a change from the hustle and bustle of town". And there was plenty for members to do up there: "if tired of pulling they can indulge in fishing, or if their inclinations tend in another direction, they can go shooting in the adjacent bush". The water was, of course, admirably suited for training, while there were already suggestions that Circular Quay wharfage was to be varied and would, sooner or later, affect the club's site. A special general meeting was held late in 1873 to consider "Branch Establishment on Parramatta River" and a further meeting in February, 1874 resolved to purchase the Red House property with an acre and a half of land and fourteen allotments. In April the transaction was finalised at a cost of ₤460 (financed by a further overdraft from the Bank of New South Wales). A boat house was erected at a cost of ₤183 and an additional sum of ₤62 was spent on furniture and fittings.
The Branch establishment was officially opened on 11 July, 1874, a further procession of boats being arranged by Deloitte for the occasion. Thirty-six oarsmen took part in the eight-boat parade while two steamers laden with members and friends accompanied them up the river. Led by the Alpha, the new eight, they proceeded from Circular Quay in single file to Ball's Head where they formed up in line and rowed abreast to Hunter's Hill. Then single file again to Gladesville and abreast again to the shed, "all these movements being executed with admirable precision". The line wheeled around to face the shore and, amid cheering, Deloitte formally declared the Branch open. All then landed, inspeced the new building and the other premises and enjoyed refreshment before starting the journey home. At the end of the 1874/75 year, the club reported to its members that "the purchase of this property has been in every way a good investment. Reasonable in price and admirable in situation the premises have proved a great additional attraction to the members."
Club tradition, stimulated originally by an incorrect newspaper article, came, in later years, to maintain that the original building on the land at Abbotsford had been known as the "Red Cow Inn". Unfortunately, this was never so, although there was a Red Cow Inn at Parramatta constructed as early as 1803 which came to be very well known and respected.
A strong club spirit was evidenced in the honouring of leading office-bearers by members on several occasions. When the Earl of Belmore left the colony early in 1872, several Sydney crews escorted the vice-regal barge to the boat. At the end of the year, George Thornton left Sydney on a visit to England and an illuminated address was presented to him immediately before his departure. Then the six-pair sculling boat, manned by the captain, the secretary and the club's four leading oarsmen, accompanied by several other boats, delivered him to his steamer. At the third annual meeting, the conscientious work of Jim Clark, the secretary, was honoured by a presentation. At that meeting, too, the rules were altered to allow the election of a vice-president and Thomas Dibbs, general manager of the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney and a wholehearted supporter of the club, was elected to the position.
Thornton remained president throughout the decade and, indeed, until his death in 1901. Deloitte was captain until 1878 when he stepped down and became the club's second vice-president, Jim Clark taking on the captaincy. Six persons held the position of treasurer during the club's first ten years, including Fletcher Dixon, Alex Soutar and L.G.J. Bennett. Other regular committee members included Grantley Fitzhardinge, J.J. Monro and John Myers. One rule change adopted in 1877 increased the number of ordinary committee members from the original six to nine. At the end of 1876/77, the club had 146 active members and, a year later, there were 180, together with "many" honorary members. By the end of 1878/79, the combined number was down to 170 but, twelve months later again, it was reported to be back up to 232.
The club's financial situation seems to have remained healthy although the bank overdraft, obtained at the time of purchase of the Red House, was still outstanding at the end of the 1879/80 season. Heavy expenditure on boat purchases, on repairs and on the buildings restricted the building up of surpluses. Subscriptions remained the main source of income, rising from around 500 pounds in 1874/75 to over 800 pounds in 1879/80. Branch receipts were 426 pounds in 1879/80, the first year they were quoted separately. Assets at the end of the decade were valued in excess of ₤2300, including about £ 400 for the city shed, £ 650 for the branch buildings and land, and over ₤1000 for boats and blades.
The fleet grew steadily. From 21 craft at the end of 1873/74 it was up to 38 at the end of the decade. A second Clasper eight was bought in 1876/77 and two clinker eights were added in 1878/79. Five outrigger sculls were bought in 1874/75 and the number increased to nine two years later. The number of skiffs varied between five in 1874/75 and ten at the end of. the decade. The club had nine string-test gigs in 1877/78 but sold four the following year. At the end of 1879/80 there were also three outrigger fours, three four-pair sculls, a pair oar, a six pair, a "ferry boat" and the state barge. Club boats were fitted with sliding seats during the 1877/78 season. Boats were purchased normally from Greenland or James Edwards of Melbourne or from Donnelly of Sydney. Naming of boats in honour of members was not practiced. The first Clasper eight, as noted, was named Alpha and the second was Omega. The names of fours in 1874 included Sabrina, Sydney, Magic, London, Pearl, Victoria and Ripple. The purchase of the second eight led to the first opportunity for the people of Sydney to witness an eight-oared race. This the club staged in June, 1877 and great interest was shown in it. The club engaged four steamers to follow the race over the championship course and all were well filled while several other steamers and a large flotilla of boats and skiffs were also present. The two crews trained for some weeks for the race and put on a close and well fought contest for the large crowd. Deloitte's love for evolutions was given further play with the celebration of the end of the club's seventh year by a procession of boats from the city shed to the Branch. Fifty-six oarsmen took part in twelve boats and the evolutions, which commenced, "by following in line, then forming line abreast, then forming into divisions, and next forming line abreast again", were, naturally, "well and neatly performed".
The original intention of conducting three club regattas a year survived only the first two years. In
1872/73 there was only one and this was also true of 1874/75. In some years, however, they were more frequent
and the regatta in September, 1878 was the club's seventeenth. All regattas seem to have been open to members
of Sydney only. Social functions, at this stage, do not seem to have been particularly prominent in the
club's life, although regatta trophies were often presented at club dinners at the Branch.