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History of Barwon Rowing Club

Chapter 3 - The Love of the River 1870-1979

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The Geelong Advertiser jubilantly reported the victory by saying that the club "took the lead, kept it and won by a good five lengths, amidst great cheering and a boat full of water". The reporter recovered a measure of impartiality when he added that "it is only fair to add that No. 2 in the Ballarat crew got his oar underneath the boat at starting, and this caused his boat to lose a length or two".

Up until this time there had been only occasional four-oared gig races between the colonies. In 1863 Victoria and New South Wales had raced over a three mile course on the Parramatta River, the New South Wales crew winning in 19min 25sec. In 1870 a four-oared race took place at the Balmain Regatta which was won by the host colony of New South Wales over crews from Tasmania. Two years later, interest in rowing had caught the public's imagination, so much so that the 1872 Intercolonial Four-oared Race to be held in Tasmania was a prestigious event with large public interest. A cash purse of £100 and the title of Champion Crew of Australia for bona-fide amateurs was at stake. The Hobart Town Mercury summed up the crews a few days prior to the race, describing the two Tasmanian crews "Fireflash" and "Satanella", the NSW crews from Sydney Rowing Club and Parramatta, and then the crew generally favoured to win:

Last, but by no means least, is the Barwon Rowing Club's crew - Messrs Cullin [stroke], Strachan [JF], Shannon and Nicolls. They are as fine a lot of men as one would wish to see step into a boat. The fact that Mr Strachan is rowing with this crew is sufficient guarantee that they are all good men, as he is one of the Cambridge eight who beat Oxford the year before last, and the gentlemen competing in these races are acknowledged to be the most perfect oarsmen. Anyone that can admire good rowing ought to see these men at their work. The worst fault is in the bow, who turns out his elbows too square. If the morning on which the race is rowed be calm, I am certain from what I saw of their rowing in Cornelian Bay on Tuesday, that there is not a boat out that will come near them; but if there is a bit of a lump on, their boat is too low to carry them well.

On 30 January the race was held on a magnificent day with a moderate breeze, witnessed by 20,000 spectators. The Sydney Rowing Club won in 36min 20sec over the five mile course with Barwon last by 500 yards. At the end of the race, James Strachan took the opportunity to say that the papers had expressed opinions which had not been the opinion of the crew themselves "as would be admitted by anybody who knew anything about it". It was later revealed that one of the crew had been "ill" and unable to row to form.

Geelong took the loss bravely but there were others who harbored resentment at the Barwon crew being chosen to represent Victoria in the race. Within a few days a furious debate was raging between Geelong and her rival, Ballarat, in the pages of the local press. Shortly after the race a Ballarat paper had hinted that Victoria's stroke, J. Cullin, had lost the race by exhibiting his "well-known propensity" to "cave-in" or "shut-off steam" when challenged. Cullin replied indignantly in a letter to the Geelong paper, emphatically denying the charges, calling them a "gross fabrication made without the slightest foundation" and attributing the comments to parochial jealousy. He blamed the club's defeat on "the force of circumstances" which he could not reveal as they might be to the financial disadvantage of certain parties who had a "peculiar interest in our pulling off the race". He then challenged the Ballarat correspondent to specify the charges against him. This was not the wisest of moves as the Ballarat Mail promptly did so.

A Hobarton gentleman lately arrived in Victoria asserts that our Victorian crew, evidently elated at their prestige and reception by the Hobartoners, were anything but asleep during the witching hours of the night, or rather morning, and they paid more devoirs to Bacchus than to the muscular deity. Now, when we consider that this Geelong crew led for the first mile or so, we cannot help coming to the conclusion that they had both the power and pace, if only they had the condition, fit for a race of four and a half miles. This coupled with our previous statement which has driven Mr. Cullin into such an antagonistic rage, will account, no doubt for the position of the much vaunted Geelong crew in this Intercolonial race.

Mr. Cullin challenges us to name any race in which he showed "the well-known propensity". Want of time and space will prevent us mentioning more than two instances at present - but, if Mr. Cullin puts us to the task, we can point out others where he certainly did not immortalise himself. When Mr. Cullin rowed stroke to Mr. Nicholls, in the pair-oared race with Ballarat, on the Saltwater River, in the regatta of 1866, he "caved-in" to Messrs Cazaly and Williams, after rowing half-way up the straight reach, from the Junction home. In the four-oared gig race, in the same regatta, after leading the Ballarat crew two clear lengths for three-quarters of a mile, Ballarat came up, challenged for the lead, took it, and his own crew averred that Mr. Cullin shut off steam at the critical juncture, thereby losing the race.

Certainly to quote instances six years old seems to smack of jealousy and Cullin rowed for Barwon for many years with no further aspersions cast upon his character.

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