Scroll To Top
Ballarat City Rowing Club History

The Boys from the Rush Beds

The History of the Ballarat City Rowing Club 1870-2004 and Incorporating the Early Development of Lake Wendouree 1860-70, By Kathryn M Elliott

1. Prelude

Chapter one page 1 2 3 4


Out of respect for the late Mr. Pringle, the second regatta that was to have been held on November 28th was postponed until January 16th 1863. For this second regatta boats were again borrowed from Melbourne. The regatta day was fine and clear with a stiff breeze blowing that caused the lake to be fairly rough. The following is an excerpt from the Star’s report: -

“The second annual regatta in connection with the Ballarat and Burrumbeet Regatta Club came off on Friday, on Burrumbeet, when lovers of aquatic sports and healthy recreation were afforded a capital treat and richly enjoyed themselves during the day. Picnic parties appeared all the rage, and the whole extent of the ground from the Picnic Hotel away to Picnic Point, and on the Fiery Creek side as far as the Promontory was entirely in the possession of snug pleasure parties. A stiff breeze swept across the lake, and caused such a ripple on the water as prevented the light or wager boats being launched, so that the races were contested in the pair-oared gigs. The lake presented a very lively appearance during the day, as small craft displayed a variety of bunting. A small vessel, belonging to a Clunes gentleman, the paddlewheels of which are worked by hand, made several trips, and every idle boat was eagerly sought after by pleasure seekers who were bent on enjoying themselves on the lake…. The attendance was computed at 1500 persons, which no doubt would have been much larger except for the untoward circumstance of the municipal contest in Ballarat West which deprived some hundreds of the means of conveyance to the lake.”
( Excerpt from the Star, January 17th 1863.)

There were also other entertainments provided such as a Punch and Judy Show, roulette wheel and an exhibition for which sixpence was charged to see “Napoleon crossing the Alps”! Naturally booths for the thirsty were also in plentiful supply.

Financially this second regatta was not as successful as the first and it was decided to hold an extra day of racing on the 26th of February. However, later in January 1863, a local resident drowned on Burrumbeet and this second drowning, combined with the frequently rough water and the distance from town caused all further thoughts of rowing at Burrumbeet to be abandoned.

In August 1863 Alf McClaren was involved in a bare fisted boxing match against Mat Hardy. It was staged at his brother’s saloon in Main Road and went for 82 rounds. The McClaren brothers didn’t just confine their sporting activities to rowing.

Casting about for an alternative rowing venue, Lake Learmonth was mooted. The good residents of Learmonth were very eager to see a regatta staged on their lake and promised the regatta club a boathouse and financial support. So it was agreed to run a combined rowing and sailing regatta on November 30th 1863. Some 8,000 spectators lined the shores of Learmonth to witness proceedings and as with the Burrumbeet Regatta a steady stream of conveyances of all types filled the road to the lake.

Just prior to this regatta three members of the Regatta club had journeyed to Melbourne to compete in the Melbourne Regatta on Monday November 9th 1863. They were Messrs. E. Williams, Chas. Mc Claren and G. Wilson. This was the first occasion that Ballarat rowers represented the Regatta Club at a regatta outside of Ballarat. They finished well out of the placings in the three events they contested. Williams and Wilson raced in the Victorian Challenge Oars and McClaren in the Waterman’s Scull race. Interestingly they competed in the colours white and magenta. The Melbourne Clubs reciprocated by sending crews to the Learmonth Regatta-again the first time that metropolitan crews had graced a local regatta.

Again the impact of the regatta was enormous and all sorts of entertainment was provided for the public,quite apart from the rowing and sailing races.The lithograph of this first regatta captures the scene beautifully with tents,boats,dogs,horses and carts and spectators in profusion enjoying the whole spectacle.


Lithograph of the 1862 Learmonth Regatta, Australasian Sketcher.

Courtesy La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria.

Meanwhile the Swamp was being tamed and becoming more civilised. The main road through the Botanic Gardens was planted with ash trees and gate lodges,designed by H.R.Caselli, were built at the southern and northern ends of the reserve. These were later moved away and all that remains today are the massive bluestone gate pillars.

Col 1 Col 2

1864 Beginning the Transformation

While the first three regattas had created enormous interest and attracted huge crowds both Burrumbeet and Learmonth were a long way from the centre of the township of Ballarat. It made racing difficult and training nearly impossible.

Mr Robinson McClaren was inspired to look closer to home and was the first to contemplate turning the Swamp into a lake. In a letter to the Star on Tuesday, May 20th 1879, his brother, Alfred McClaren (the same Alfred who had survived the tragedy of Mr Pringle’s drowning) chronicles his brother’s quest that was considered not only impossible but also ridiculous at that time.

“Even the members of the Ballarat and Burrumbeet Rowing Club shared this opinion, in fact two meetings were called without being able to form a quorum at either. Therefore the idea lapsed until the late Mr. McClaren took matters entirely into his own hands, with what success, we who are left can answer for. I, with Mr.Gant of the Wheatsheaf (Hotel), pushed him off in an old punt then kept on the Swamp, to take soundings, and after doing so he started a small trial cutting of the rushes, which proved successful and there and then (in conjunction with Mr James Edwards of Melbourne and myself) floated the first boats on a density of rushes, now transformed into a beautiful lake.”

Wheatsheaf Hotel

The Wheatsheaf Hotel and Baird and McPhillimy’s Mill from an early Land Sale poster-circa 1863.

Courtesy Ian Atkins, Ballarat City Archives.

Following Mr Robinson (Bob) McClaren’s success at crossing the Swamp it was decided that, if the rushes could be cut down as he demonstrated, then here was the ideal venue for rowing - close to town and large enough in area to support all kinds of boating. So the members of the Regatta Club decided to approach the Water Commission to obtain permission to bring their boats in and place them on the Wendouree Swamp.

At the January 5th meeting of the Regatta Club it was decided to alter the name of the club to Ballarat Rowing Club and their colours to be red and white. It was also decided that the boats be brought in from Burrumbeet on the 15th of January in order to overhaul them. A few members of the club made several trips across the swamp from different directions in order to select the best position for a boathouse.

It was ascertained that there was deep water between the stand pump near Duncan’s Nursery and the Wheatsheaf Hotel. A request was made to the Water Commission and was granted but not without lengthy and sometimes stormy debate. It became very much an East versus West issue. While the development of a lake would benefit all, the Swamp was still the main water supply for the town.

On January 14th, 1864 a very heated debate was heard at the meeting of the Water Commission over the question of allowing boating on the Swamp. The engineer reported that the most suitable site for boatsheds was from the Wheatsheaf to Macarthur Street. Cr. Rowe and Cr. Smith moved that permission be granted to the regatta club to allow the placing of boats on the Swamp enclosure. Councillors Dunn, Doane, McDougall, Downes, Dodd and Young opposed this motion.

At the next meeting of the Water Commission on February 8th Cr. Doane and Downes who had opposed the original motion now moved that the Public Works Committee draw up a report setting forth the conditions on which boats would be allowed on the Swamp and the best site for boatsheds. Once this was presented the Water Commission would consider applications. Meanwhile on February 26th Mr Williams and Golightly selected the preferred site for the rowing club.

On March 5th Professor Irving, who is credited with starting rowing in Melbourne, came to Ballarat and raced Henry Golightly. Golightly won and no doubt the Professor came away with respect for the newest club in the colony.

On March 7th a code of fourteen rules covering the use of the lake by boats was adopted. The Public Works Committee recommended that a rent of 6d per foot be charged for frontages. The Water Commission resolved to charge double that. Permission was also granted for the first three boatsheds on the lake foreshore to the Rowing Club, Bob McClaren and Mr. Rodier.Application was also made for a portion of the Swamp to be reserved for the use of the Ballarat Acclimatisation Society. They were formed for the purpose of propagating wild fowl and waterbirds.

At the next meeting of the Rowing Club on March 11th it was reported that the clearing of the rushes commenced in earnest, being cut by hand with a large scythe and that some five acres had been cleared. By the end of March about half the distance across the lake had been cut. The plan was to cut channel three chains wide (the width of three cricket pitches end to end) directly from the boathouses across to the Botanical Gardens. The departure point being the stand pump between the Wheatsheaf and Baird and Brown’s Mill (Nazareth House). The channel about thirty feet wide was cut straight out for 40-50 metres and then a three chain wide course cut in a line to where the southern fence of the Botanical Reserve met the Lake shore. The total area to be cut was about thirty acres with a contract price of 30 shillings per acre. The cut rushes were to be piled in mounds and used as islands for the bird population. On March 29th, 1864 two boats of the rowing club were finally launched on the Swamp and with this small beginning the sport of rowing and the development of the lake were launched and forever changed the social, recreational and sporting culture of Ballarat.

By April 1st 1864 the engineer reported that all of the frontages on the Lake from Exeter to Mill Street had been taken up except for 99 feet opposite Mill Street. He recommended that this be reserved for public use. The Ballarat Rowing Club was fairly well established on the Swamp shore and most of the reeds had been cleared in the channel across the lake. It was the general opinion of the time that the work of converting the swamp to a Lake was of great importance to the whole town. Cr. Smith in moving that 30 pounds be expended on raising the bywash, mentioned that the lake was now a great source of attraction for inhabitants and Cr. Dodds supported the motion with pleasure as it would benefit all of Ballarat.

So far all of the impetus in time and money had come from the Regatta Club but now the two Councils were coming around to see that by working together they would indeed achieve a great deal more. In an effort to move development along more quickly there was a petition circulated to request the Western Council to put a sum of money towards completing the required work and signed by 400 ratepayers. Unfortunately, this petition went missing and by the time it was presented to the Water Commission in June much of what was requested had already been addressed.

At the Ballarat Rowing Club’s meeting of April 9th it was reported that the Water Commission had granted permission for the erection of a shed to be constructed under their supervision. Builders obviously worked quickly then because it was also reported that the shed would be finished by the following Friday and members would be able to use the boats on the presentation of their membership card. On April 16th Bob McClaren had four new light skiffs sent up by rail from Melbourne.

In May 1864 the Star newspaper reported that boating on Lake Wendouree had become a “perfect passion” and on Sundays, high days and holidays the boats were found to be “too few for the aquatic propensities of visitors to the lake”. Everybody wanted to row. The novelty of boating was an added excitement and residents had a new alternative for their recreation by the lake. The charges for boat hire were enormous and one writer wondered whether people would keep paying these prices once the initial novelty had worn off. Boating was also a fashionable pastime for the ladies of the town and they were seen partaking of this healthful exercise almost every day if the weather was fine enough to attract them from their homes. With the obvious feminine interest in rowing there was some discussion about the town about the possible formation of a Ladies Club. It only took another 110 years for this to actually happen.

May 3rd, 1864 was a momentous occasion in the development of Lake Wendouree when the very first boat races were held, starting the tradition that carries on to the present day.

Members of the Ballarat Rowing Club competed against one another in pair-oared boats and sculls. The following is the report of those races from the Star Newspaper, News and Notes, May 4th.

“The first boat races on Lake Wendouree took place yesterday afternoon, and though in themselves they presented but a few features of any real interest they were nevertheless, sufficient-being in all probability only the commencement of a series of regular rowing matches-to induce the attendance of about 150 persons. We cannot vouchsafe that those present were satisfied with what they saw, or that they saw anything at all, on account of the high reeds which cover the lake, save perhaps the start and finish of each race, but this drawback in no way to be attributed to the races or the efforts of the rowing club to render them successful. It must have convinced everyone present, if they were not satisfied before, of the necessity of adopting some measures to render the Swamp what it should be, a pleasure lake for use of the inhabitants. There were only two events-a pair oared race and a scullers ‘ race. Handicapped for the first event, Messrs. E. Williams and J. Cazaly, and Davidson and Golightly contested. The latter gentlemen had 200 yards start, notwithstanding this advantage; Messrs. Williams and Cazaly beat them by about half a length. The scullers race was in heats. The first, in which Messrs. Cazaly and White contested, was won by the former by about three lengths, although White had 150-yard start. The second heat was rowed by Messrs. Williams and Golightly. They both started level, and Williams came in the winner by about four lengths. The final heat between Cazaly and Williams did not take place owing to the lateness of the hour, but it will be settled early next week. The cleared course was about a mile and a half long. Both races were for silver trophies given by the club.”

At the May 30th 1864 at a meeting of the Water Commission, several more applications were received for the erection of boathouses on the shore of the Lake. The following applications were approved:

  • Thomas Ward-50 foot frontage north of Mr Grant’s boathouse
  • James Butler and others-similar application
  • A. McClaren-frontage to the lake of 60 foot adjoining the Rowing club
  • Henry Gates-permission to erect a boathouse
  • John Nobbs-permission to erect a boathouse.

Racing among the local businesses now became an almost weekly event. On June 14th, a pair-oared race for 5 pound a side was rowed between the men of the Black Hill Company (mine). One pair wore red and the other blue. Blue won by ten lengths in a time of 9 minutes. The distance was across and back-starting at the boatshed and rowing across to Brace’s Oriental Hotel, turning around a buoy and racing back.

By the middle of June there were three boathouses erected on the swamp enclosure being Ballarat Rowing Club, a large handsome boathouse belonging to Mr. Edwards and a smaller one on the south side of Edwards’. Mr. Edwards had a pier for the convenience of his patrons and Mr. A. McClaren built a pier on the north side of the clubhouse. Mr. Ward although he didn’t yet have a shed had a good fleet of boats that he leased from the shore just opposite the Wheatsheaf Hotel.

With the clearing of the Swamp and the increased opportunity for aquatic activities, the hospitality industry lost no time in catering for thirsty rowers with two new hotels being erected along Wendouree Parade.

“But the rushes-confound the rushes!” Once again they were growing and blocking the recently cut channel. From the very beginning right up until the present day, the clearance of the rushes remains the single greatest difficulty facing rowers, sailors and those responsible for clearing them. It was thought at about this time that a steam dredge might be employed to remove them, roots and all, but again this did not prove feasible.

Some other beautification of the lake reserve commenced with the bywash being filled in and trees planted along the Boathouse Row-oaks, blue-gums, lightwoods and mountain ash were planted along the shore and in the lower lying areas between the Ballarat Club house and Ward’s pier willows were planted. As soon as funds became available the unsightly quarry holes that would become View Point, were to be filled in. The formation of islands was also discussed. With excess water from Beale’s and Kirk’s now channelled into the Swamp by pipes at the filter basin there was now the very real prospect of achieving the transformation from Swamp to Lake.

Not everybody was enthusiastic about the transformation however and the following letter appeared in the Star newspaper on Tuesday, August 9th 1864 entitled:

“Another suggestion about the Swamp.”

“Sir, -With all due deference to the “knowing ones”, whose love of aquatics smacks too much of self to be genuine, and to the water Commission, who cannot afford 2000 pounds for clearing the swamp, I respectfully submit the following plan: -Drain the swamp! Avast there, ye jolly watermen! This is a utilitarian age. Harry Beale’s swamp and Kirk’s dam contain sufficient quantity of water for the supply of all Ballarat. The scheme of bringing surplus water from these two places to the swamp is an absurdity twelve inch pipe with water flowing through it for twelve months would only raise the swamp water surface one inch without taking into consideration the evaporation-which frequently renders the filter beds completely useless. A drain of sufficient width and depth cut from the hollow by Duncan’s garden to below the level of the bed of the Swamp would allow the water to find its way back into Gnarr Creek, and would take but a short time to drain the swamp completely.” The writer then goes on to say that the reeds could be burnt and the bed ploughed up with the subsequent crop sufficient to pay for the drainage!

“I imagine that few in Ballarat would hesitate on deciding which was best-a wide expanse of waving golden corn, or a dreary waste of reeds with a bogged steamer in the distance!” As for rowing he deplored the taking of this exercise on the Sabbath and if it was to be done let it be on the weekdays only. He concluded with “Drain the Swamp, bring under cultivation its rich soil and lighten the rates and “remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.”

In late August 1864, heavy rains further raised the level of the lake. The Oriental Hotel was completed and the idea of constructing islands-a large central one and several smaller ones was again suggested. The Oriental Hotel was on the corner of Carlton Street and Wendouree Parade just across the road from the Botanical Gardens southern fence where the Prisoner of War memorial is located today. The rushes needed to be cleared again.

On August the Tay Rowing Club was formed and racing was promptly organised with the Ballarat Club for Friday, September 21st. The formation of the Tay was quickly followed by the Alabama Rowing Club on September 26th with this club limiting its membership to just twenty persons! Mr James Allen was appointed chairman and treasurer and Mr James Walker, secretary. Messrs. Bell and Perry were to prepare a code of rules and the club was to boat from Ward’s with “one of the smartest crafts on the lake to be procured for the use of members.” The Ballarat Club also organised a four-oared competition to be held on the lake against the Prince of Wales Club from Melbourne. The racing was held on Saturday October 8th for silver cups. The Ballarat Rowing Club crew was E. (Ned) Williams, James Cazaly, Henry Golightly and John Cazaly. Ned Williams also contested a sculling match against T. Alexander.

Also, in October 1864, the recently formed Wendouree Improvement Committee accompanied by the engineer, secretary and several private individuals interested in clearing the lake made an inspection for the proposed boat channel to the Botanic Gardens from the present cutting and extending from the gardens in a curved line along the western and northern shores back to the boathouses. The course and the proposed site of the much-discussed islands were unanimously approved and tenders were accepted that same afternoon! Once completed the new course would provide a further three miles clear for navigation.

On October 14th 1864 the Tay Club, which had now changed its name to Lubentia, held a rowing match against the Alabama Club. The match was held in fours and raced up and down the channel. The Alabama crew were W. Bell, J. Perry, F. Allen and R. Gullen while the Lubentia crew were Orr, Clarke and the two Roper brothers. Alabama won by three lengths. It was also reported that a Juvenile Rowing Club had been established at Mr. Cummins boathouse.

The Ballarat Regatta was held at Lake Learmonth in November 1864. It was again a combined rowing and sailing regatta. The weather played havoc with the event and several boats came to grief capsizing in the rough conditions. The pair-oared race was cancelled as it was deemed too dangerous to row. The first four-oared gig race was held with the Alabama Club winning from Ariel and Ballarat. The maiden gig was won by the crew of R. Gullen, James Allan, Samuel Dempster, James Fife with T. Turnbull the coxswain. Alabama also won Senior four-oared gig with a crew of John Perry, William Bell, James Walker and Henry Golightly and T. Turnbull again the cox. These are about the only recorded wins for the Alabama Club.

By the end of the year the lake presented a pretty and animated picture with real estate around the foreshore suddenly becoming more appealing and exclusive. As early as 1858 one very forward thinking businessman, an auctioneer had stated in his advertisement in the Star:

“At some future day, when a strong wall is erected around the swamp, the Wendouree Parade widened and levelled, trees planted and all the accessories to luxury known to the French on their boulevards introduced, this will be one of the noblest retreats in the colony: The Swamp deepened to a uniform depth of 8-10 feet by water bought from a distance and flowing therein, the reeds cleared, fish introduced and marine plants of every variety and beauty flourishing there, we shall see this place wearing the aspect of a broad, extensive lake whitened with sails of boats and attracting the elite of the colony to survey its beauties.”

The Swamp had not been deepened nor the rushes wholly cleared by the end of 1864, but in one short year much of this early prophet’s vision had been realised. Thanks mainly to the efforts of the rowing men whose almost Herculean efforts in clearing the reeds, gave rise to the public impetus to transform the Swamp to a lake.

The drying up of the Swamp was still a real problem even with the water that had been diverted into it. 1865 was to be a very dry year and Kirk’s and Beale’s were so low there was no excess water to be had. Indeed the Swamp looked as if it may again have to be pressed into service to supply the voracious needs of the town. The low water levels over the next few years were to have disastrous effects on all boating activities and those fledgling clubs formed in 1864. The sport of rowing that had flourished so brillliantly was to be in danger of disappearing completely due to the lack of that very vital element-water!

Chapter one page 1 2 3 4

< previous Preface

> next Chapter 2

top of page

Website by Hope Stewart—Website Design & Management