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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


The summer of ‘67 was very dry and again the lake was unusable by rowers and sailors. Rain did fall in the winter sufficient to allow some boating.

November 13th the Star News and Notes reported that the owners of the steamer Victoria had hit upon a method of cutting the reeds which would enable them to clear a channel 100 foot wide and right across the lake in just eight hours. At a meeting of the Western Council the owners offered their services for 5 pound per day and the Council accepted the offer deciding to expend 10 pounds on getting a 200 foot wide channel cut. This new channel would add greatly to the attraction of the lake and open up another passage from the boathouses to the Botanical Gardens relieving the monotony of voyaging to and fro in the one track.

Due to the extreme dryness of the 1867, a regatta was not able to be held on the Lake due to insufficient water, so Ballarat Regatta returned again to Lake Learmonth. It was held on November 22nd and was patronised by no less a personage than HRH the Duke of Edinburgh. It was a grand occasion for the district with publican booths, two arches, marquees and a jetty erected especially for the occasion. Unfortunately the day itself was overcast and rain fell for most of the day. The sport was sufficient without being spectacular although the rowing races didn’t proceed at all.

“ The drive to Learmonth and the witnessing of the regatta and the view of the beautiful agricultural country surrounding the lake, had by most people been expected to be one of the most interesting events of the visit of his Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh to this district. However, his Royal highness and suite, the good people of Learmonth, the regatta committee and the competitors for those liberal prizes offered, and, lastly, the thousands of people who had travelled all sorts of distances to see the Prince, were doomed to disappointment. the morning was ushered in with a threatening sky, and the clouds betokened a sharp squall as his Royal highness drove off…The sun had mastery until the upper portion of Sturt street had been reached, but one of those severe and cutting hailstorms …swept across the country and made travelling far from comfortable.
…..As to the regatta only two races were contested, the crews of the rowing boats having wisely determined not to run the risk attendant on launching the frail craft in such stormy water!”

(Excerpt from the Star report, December 12th, 1867)

In December there was sufficient water in the lake for training purposes. Ballarat Rowing Club were training for the Geelong Regatta to be held on the 3rd of December in a new string test gig built for them by Edwards of Melbourne. The new boat was to be used by the Senior four of Ned Williams, John Cazaly, James Cazaly and Pascoe. In the newspaper report it was mentioned that the “old Alabama Club” would also be represented at the approaching regattas.


Cartoon from the Ballarat Punch, highlights the absurdity of attempting to boat on the Swamp in 1867 when it was so dry.

Courtesy Mechanics Institute


On Wednesday evening last, a meeting was held at the Wendouree Hotel for the purpose of making arrangements for a regatta to take place on the Lake next Saturday afternoon. The chairman Mr. Murray in opening proceeding, expressed his regret at the absence of the Captain of the Ballarat Club, who was in Melbourne and, although he could not speak with any certainty as to whether the club would take part in the day’s sport, there was every reason to believe they would do so. Mr. Murray then proceeded to refer to the proposition recently carried out by the water Commission to turn the Swamp into a town common. He said that if the municipal authorities could only realise the benefit to a densely populated town like Ballarat the project of converting the swamp to a lake would have been carried out long since.

He regarded the proposition of Cr.McDowall as being likely to eventuate in the formation of this lake, which was so generally desired; although no doubt quite another result was intended.

The following entries were made which will doubtless be considerably increased on Friday evening prior…. First and second-class sailing matches……………………….. Pair-oared race-YOUNG CLASPER, B.Oxlade and F.Gill (blue); MONITER, C.Wade, J.Williams (white); DART-R.Ward, E.Steed (white) and ALABAMA, G.Robinson, W.Gillet.

Senior four-oared race: ATLANTA, R.Ward, T.Gill, E.Steele, J.Williams (red and white)
ALABAMA-B.Oxlade, W.Gillett, C.Wade, F.Atkinson (blue and white).

(Excerpt from the Star Friday January 24th 1865.)

As can be gathered from this report it would seem that the Alabama Club were still operating. The lack of water in the Swamp had certainly not deterrred the rowing men but obviously the Councils were in two minds about the advisability of proceeding with the development of a lake.Especially as the spending to develop the Botanic Gardens was already fairly significant.

In this year around 1300 pounds was spent on improvements to the Botanic Gardens and lake margin. There was sufficient water to row on at the end of January and on February 5th another race - a sculling match was held between Wallace of Melbourne and R. D. Ward of Ballarat starting at 3 o’clock for a prize of 10 pounds. Two other races were also conducted - another sculling match between Cowage and E. Shand, the latter being a new arrival in the colony. A four oared gig race between the junior members of the Ballarat Rowing Club was also held.

May 7th the annual day’s shooting was held. About sixty guns took part and inflicted carnage on the native bird population. About 10 pounds was raised and donated to the Benevolent Asylum. After the shooting all adjourned to the Wheatsheaf Hotel where one publican mourned the probable demise of his tame ducks in the morning’s activities. Coot shoots and duck hunts were regularly held in the early days to rid the lake of what where erroneously perceived to be pests.

In June Mr. Andrew Anderson, chairman of the Water Supply committee, along with Councillors Hunt and McDowall visited the lake to meet with several mining managers to see if water from the Swamp could be diverted for mining purposes thus saving the water in the reservoirs for the general population. The last few years had been very dry and mining took a huge amount of water for the purpose of washing the dirt from the mines. It was estimated that the work to make swamp water available would take more than a month and cost 1000 pounds and as one engineer calculated the Swamp would be dry in a week such was the volume of water required. Even though it meant that men from the mines had to be laid off due to the lack of water it was resolved not to pump water from the Swamp. It was hoped that heavy rain would arrive within the month and enable the Commission to reconnect the supply.

The Ballarat Star reported on June 23rd that Lake Wendouree “presented a dreary and deserted aspect with the low level of the water preventing any boating at all. The boats and the boathouses had a very neglected untidy appearance unlike their neat and trim appearance during the season. The boatmen despairing of seeing any increase in the water level had not even started to make their usual preparations for the season. All the smaller boats were drawn up under cover and the sailing boats dismantled. Edwards and Gill had ordered a new boat from Melbourne similar to last year’s favourite clipper - The Flying Scud”.

Mr. Williams also made the observation that during the last week he thought the level had risen a little and that the increase might be attributed to water coming from the Lady of the Lake shaft, which the manager estimated at 2,000,000 gallons per week. This supply was to be diverted to the mines however and would not continue to fill the lake. Rain did fall on the day prior to this report - torrential rain that filled every gutter and ditch leading to the lake and the writer was hopeful of a large amount of water flowing into the lake since Saturday.

The rain did start to fill the lake and by September spring had come to the Swamp and the Botanic Gardens. Many flowers were in bloom and golden wattle was garlanding trees here and there filling the air with the sweet perfume. A fence was erected to enclose the southern end of the gardens. The acacia walk was opened up from one end of the reserve to the other and all other paths trimmed and tidied. On the lake margin the formation of willow banks and islands had progressed and nice clear water spaces now existed around them. The volume of water in the lake was still much lower than last year and a wide margin of dry reedy ground appeared where in ordinary seasons there had been a fair depth of water.

Spring saw the impetus for more works to be undertaken around the lake and so on September 18th the Works Committee of the Western Council visited the lake for the purpose of deciding which improvements would be undertaken. Mr. G. Smith had donated 500 blue gums which prisoners from the gaol had already commenced planting. It was proposed that starting at the Botanic Gardens shore and working left and right to plant a belt of trees right around the lake margin. The planting would follow the current outline out about 50 feet from the shore leaving space for a drive and a footpath. Clumps of trees and shrubs were to be planted at intervals inside this belt.

Around the edge of the lake a channel 200 feet wide was to be excavated and the material taken from the excavation to be used to form the drive and fill in any areas where the water approached closer than 50 feet of the fence. The fence around the lake was to be immediately repaired.

The Western Council met to discuss these proposals along with several gentlemen who had also suggested improvements to the lake. They agreed almost unanimously to the planting and embanking of the lake and the formation of the islands and drives. In addition to this, an embankment 5 feet high was to be raised from the boathouses across the lake to the Botanic Gardens. The work was to be done by contract and the embankment to be formed in a wavy line so that islands could be formed at certain spots at a later date. Three or four large hydraulic syphons were to be placed to pump water from the northern half of the basin to help maintain water level in the southern half. The planting of blue gums had already commenced and would be continued.

The Ballarat Star applauded the work: -

“It is gratifying to know that there is at last some probability of the Western Council taking steps to initiate a plan of permanent improvement of the Wendouree Swamp. By courtesy the ugly place has of late been called a lake, but the baptism has been a sign of hope rather than a realisation. The place is still a swamp and not a lake, but lake it ought to be, or an ornamental water, belted and fringed by trees, dotted with islands and made so attractive that out of this city and suburbs of 40 000 people there should be always a goodly crowd of pleasure seekers taking advantage of so pleasant a place of public resort.” It looked as though after five long years the long cherished hopes for a “proper” lake were about to finally be achieved.

However nature again intervened and on October 14th the Lake ranger reported to the Water Commission that the water level, already low had dropped another 3/4 of an inch in the last fortnight thus ending all hope of anything like a successful boating season this year. By the end of December the lake was completely dry and many letters to the editor urged the “simple application of barrow and shovel to deepen the lake and to undertake as many other improvements as could be achieved while there was no water to contend with”:

“Wendouree is now neither a lake or a swamp, but a dry dusty desert, not only arid but even charred by the fires that have been playing here and there upon its weedy and waterless surface. Few colonists ever saw it like its present condition, but we believe Messrs. Learmonth saw it dry between 20 and 30 years ago. Never since the discovery of gold, certainly has the Wendouree basin been dry until this year, but the occurrence is an impressive commentary on the foresight of those public men here who initiated our magnificent scheme of water supply from the forest reservoirs. The imagination cannot easily picture what state Ballarat would now be in had we still been dependent upon Wendouree for our supply.............(But) what has become of all the little fishes and big fat eels that used to be in the lake? Lots of dead and dried crayfish lie about the surface and one of the contractor’s men told us eels had lain about the basin dry and burnt. Let us hope that the others have migrated to the beds of ooze that still remain on the western margin of the basin. Wendouree is now traversed not only by pedestrians but equestrians and vehicles and this quite independently of the curious zigzag embankment thrown up by Neil McNeil, contractor for the Western Borough Council. The embankment is about eight feet above the level of the basin, about eight feet wide at the top, and slopes down to a width of about sixteen feet at the base. The material of which the bank is composed has been excavated from the ground alongside-ugly, ragged trenches varying from three to six feet in depth, having been dug on both sides of the bank, the total length of the bank being given at 2350 yards. This has been done at a cost of 760 pounds, the bank starting from the northern margin north of Macarthur Street and proceeding in zigzags to the western margin where it curves around northward, making a water wall for islands and excavations lately constructed by prison labour there.”
(Extract from the Star ,Wednesday December 30th,1868)

Objections were made to the embankment - it was too long, it was too remote a starting point from town and the material that formed the embankment would become unstable when wet. The borough engineer‘s response to these concerns was that it was not intended as a footpath but simply a temporary dam to keep the water on the south side and was therefore constructed in the cheapest manner possible.

With the lack of water sporting men obviously looked for other ways to enjoy themselves. The following amusing piece appeared in News and Notes, Star newspaper, November 2nd, 1868.

The wheelbarrow race spoken of to come between Messrs A McLaren and J Downing on Tuesday morning was a brilliant affair. One of the competitors was too sharp for the other, and so the crowd had the pleasure of seeing a sell instead of a race. It had been agreed that the barrows should not be "larger" than a mine barrow, and Mr McLaren produced a toy about six inches long. Mr Downing had not expected such an interpretation of the "articles" and paid his money with the best grace he could.


On Friday, February 5th, Ballarat Regatta was again held at Lake Learmonth because of the low level of Lake Wendouree - and a fairly lacklustre affair it was:
“The instances in which regattas have been what are called successes either in the point of attendance or in the interest taken in them by those who attended are very few as far as this colony is concerned, and we cannot say that the regatta which took place on Friday at Learmonth was more lively that the generality of such affairs. Indeed the attendance on the bank was limited as might be expected when the uninteresting character of events announced is taken into consideration and the distance of the scene from the nearest centre of large population.”
(Excerpt from the Star, Saturday, February 6th, 1869.)

There were only six events on the program with racing commencing at about half past twelve and the last event starting when the afternoon was almost over. Most races had only two entries. One race had five entries but only two boats started and one of those broke an oarlock after the start and took no further part in the race. The pair-oared race was between Ned Williams and John Cazaly and B. Oxlade and R. Ward. Williams and Cazaly crossed the line first but the other pair protested that their boat was not regulation so they were demoted to second place and had to make do with the 3 pound prize. With no outside entries and only members from the Ballarat Club competing it certainly was far cry from the triumph of the first regatta held at Learmonth.

Lake Wendouree remained unusable by the rowing fraternity and in May the Star reported that the improvements were going along at a steady pace. Several of the islands had assumed large dimensions and a bridge was erected at the Botanic Gardens end of the basin connecting the ‘zigzag embankment with the bank by the little willow island’. It was mentioned that this would be a great place to watch the boating if ever the lake filled again. The basin was now completely dry and every Sunday footmen, horsemen, ladies and gentlemen, children and perambulators could be seen traversing the ‘lake’.

At the end of May and in early June some rain fell-enough to saturate the ground and with “another wet week.... Wendouree will look like a lake again.” The rain only caused the work on the improvements to be held up. The anticipated downpour did not eventuate so that by the end of September it was considered that there would be no boating this season on Wendouree. The lake looked dreary and dry with a few pools of shallow water breaking the dull, brown monotony. Less than a month after this dire prediction the heavens opened and Ballarat was drenched with torrential downpour that caused the worst flooding since the town had been settled.

The Ballarat Star produced a supplement that chronicled the devastation of the floods. The following is a brief report of when the drought broke.

“In a supplement to this issue will be found an account of heavy floods in Ballarat and surrounding districts attended by the destruction of much valuable property and loss of human life. The extraordinarily fine and sunny weather which prevailed up to Friday night was then bought to a close. At two o’clock on Saturday morning one very loud clap of thunder occurred, and was immediately followed by warm drizzling rain. At six o’clock the rain had increased considerably in quantity, and the weather was still very mild. By eight o’clock the wind had veered round from the north-west to the south, bringing from the southward a cold heavy rain, attended by heavy squalls. this downpour continued more or less during the rest of the day, but was heaviest for the space of five hours.”

A copy of a small part of the report of the floods from, the Star, October 18th, 1869, is below. Towards the end of the page it mentions the pipe from Kirk’s reservoir being turned on and allowed to run all day. It mentioned that at least now boating could again resume to “the contentment of many and the profit of some”. Boats were also taken from the swamp at the height of the floods to rescue people in Bridge Street who had been trapped by the raging floodwaters. It took a month or so to clean up and get back on track after the floods so, at long last, by December 1869 the rowing men were again organising races on the Swamp.

flood report 1Flood report 2

Report of the 1869 Floods

1870 A Lake at Last!

In mid 1870’s the long awaited rains came and started to fill the lake so that by August the Lake had never looked better. Finally the clear, majestic sheet of water envisaged as far back as 1858 was achieved, divided only by the embankment. If it were not for the embankment sailing boats would have for the first time been able to sail all over the lake and not just in the cleared channel. The embankment though began to show signs of its poor construction and with the increased height of water and the combined onslaught of wind and waves large chunks were falling into the water. Serious flooding again occurred in October with Ballarat receiving 13/4 inches during one tremendous storm. The floodwaters rose even higher than the devastating floods of October, 1869. This caused the lake to rise another 3-4 inches and with bad weather causing lots of waves. The embankment was invisible in many places and so much damage was done that it was decided to give the boatmen permission to make two openings to allow boats to pass to the north side of the lake-provided they filled them up again when the lake level went down.

Finally the lake was a real lake. The water level the highest it had been for many years and with all the improvements-the burning of the rushes, the forming of paths the lake was looking magnificent. After several years of it being too dry to hold Ballarat Regatta in Ballarat, at last on November 3rd 1870 a third regatta was staged on Lake Wendouree. Except for 1873,1874 and 1968 and for some years during the first and second World Wars, Ballarat Regatta has been held on the Lake every year since.

It was such a novelty that 4000-5000 people flocked to the margins around the boathouses. Even though the rushes had grown again both the old and the new channel were quite clear. There was a good clear course of about two an half miles, being from the boathouses up the new channel across from the bridge to Brace’s Hotel and then down the old channel to the starting point. In shorter races the starting point was opposite Brace’s Oriental Hotel.

On September 9th, 1870, Ballarat was proclaimed a city and the Lake could truly be called a lake. The people of Ballarat have had the benefit of its beauty and recreational facilities almost without interruption ever since. The refilling of the lake gave renewed impetus boating men and boating popularity surged. By October the scene was set and everything in readiness for a new beginning - the formation of the Ballarat City Rowing Club.

Botanic Gardens

Lake Wendouree from the Botanic Gardens

Part of a Niven lithograph that shows the “serpentine embankment” that traversed the Lake from Macarthur Street to the Botanical Gardens. It is often dated circa 1860, but it could only have been done in late 1869 and early 1870 when the embankment was formed,the basin filled again and before wind,wave and water action caused it to disappear as quickly as it had been ‘thrown up.’ It was only in 1870 that the reeds were sufficently cleared to allow yachts to sail freely.

Also visible on the left hand side is the bridge that was built joining the embankment to the Botanic Gardens.I have marked on the map on the following page where I think the bridge was.I also believe that the reed bank that curves around towards Ballarat High School’s boatshed today is a remnant of this embankment.


Hotels of Wendouree Parade

  1. DURHAM-next to Brown’s Flour Mill near Mill Street.Est.1866.Closed 1866.
  2. LAKE VIEW - Corner of Mill Street. Est.1875. Still in operation. T.Gill,licensee.
  3. LUBENTIA CLUB - one of a group of four public houses between Webster and Mill Street. Est.1864. Closed 1866. J.C.Shepherd, licensee.
  4. ORIENTAL - nearly opposite the start of the rowing course corner of Carlton Street (1864 course). Est.1864. Closed 1866. J.W.Brace licensee. Later Jenkins Hydropathic Establishment. Burnt down February,1877.
  5. PARADE - N.E.corner of Webster Street. Est.1864. Closed 1915. J.Vowles, licensee.
  6. REGATTA - N.E.corner of McArthur Street. Est.1864. Closed 1864
    J.Cummings, licensee.
  7. THE FRIEND - between Mill and McArthur Street. Est.1865. Closed 1865 T.Friend,Licensee.
  8. UNION - est.1858. Closed 1861. J.Wormald, licensee.
  9. Waterman’s Arms - N.E. corner Dowling Street. Est.1864. Closed,1886. M.Hassell,licensee.
  10. WENDOUREE - S.E.corner Mill Street on site of the Lake View. Est.1862. Closed 1876. G.Birch, licensee. Ned Williams was also licensee for several years.
  11. BOTANICAL GARDENS - possibly near the Gardens, actual site not known. Est.1865. Closed,1865. E.Cooper,licensee.
  12. SWAMP - exact site not known. Probably at the end of Webster Street. est.1856. Burnt down 1859.
  13. Wheatsheaf - S.E.corner Exeter Street. Mr.Grant, licensee. Est.1863. Closed 1915.

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