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History of Begonia City Ladies Rowing Club in Victoria Australia

History of Begonia City Ladies Rowing Club

Background, the 1860's to the 1970's

Although it took 100 years for women to take to the water in boats on Lake Wendouree, they made a significant contribution to rowing in Ballarat right from the very beginning of the sport in the 1860’s. Much of this is largely forgotten, and the work done for the rowing clubs by women, has been unrecognised and unrecorded formally. Just because the contribution wasn’t actually on the water, doesn’t make their contribution any less significant. The social expectations of the time were that women worked primarily in the home and sport was something that they perhaps watched but did not participate. The medical belief up until the 1930’s, that women could not cope with the intense physical exertion needed for rowing, and this prevailing view would this have prevented many from taking part. All rowing clubs were very much a male domain. Although some women’s clubs did form in Melbourne in the early 1900’s, it wasn’t until the 1960’s and 70’s that this began to change and women became involved in non-traditional sports like rowing. This was happening not just in Ballarat but Australia wide and worldwide as the female liberation movement took hold.

From the beginning of Ballarat City Rowing Club in 1870, women have made a significant contribution to the club. However, it was only in 1971, one hundred years after Ballarat City Rowing Club started, that women actually took up their oars and began rowing for Begonia City Ladies Rowing Club from the same boatshed. It took another seven years before they achieved full and equal membership with the men and the two divisions united under the one flag. However, if it had not been for the efforts of the women in previous generations, who comprised the many social and fundraising committees organizing and running a myriad of fundraising activities, the BCRC would have struggled to survive financially. Indeed, had the club not decided to host the new women’s club in 1971 there would possibly be no club today, as the female membership at Ballarat City Rowing Club throughout the 1980’s far exceeded the membership of the men.

It was thanks to the foresight of the older men on the committee at the time, Norm Angow and Ted Edwards especially, that the committee had the foresight to let women join the ranks of rowers. Both Ballarat Rowing Club and Wendouree Rowing Club decided against it at that time. Perhaps if Ballarat RC had admitted women, it may have saved their club from folding in 1973 and we would still have three clubs operating today. Ballarat City was the first Ballarat club to give women the opportunity to row on an equal footing to men and one of the first in Victoria to give women equal membership rights and the right to be on the committee. This lead to the membership of Ballarat City RC starting to grow again after stagnating in the 1960’s and new members with fresh enthusiasm reinvigorated the club.

Back in the 1870’s the primary role for women was to be the elegant spectator invited to attend regattas to be awed by the skill and physical prowess of their male counterparts. They would be occasionally allowed in a boat to be rowed around the lake for a picnic but the rowing itself was a male domain. Wives obviously had the minor, but very important role of supporting a husband or son in his training endeavours and enabling them to attend club meetings-sometimes as many as twenty meetings a year! On club Open Days the ladies would be again invited to watch the proceedings. In later years, Ladies Nomination races were held where the ladies would nominate an oarsman to compete on her behalf in a race! In 1877 the club held its first concert to raise funds and several ladies volunteered their talents to contribute to the evening. Miss Ellis and Miss Davies were listed as singing several songs and would have graced the stage relieving the mainly male cast. In 1880 noted Ballarat soprano,Miss Marian Willis featured in the club’s Annual Concert. Miss Willis was recognised in the Annual Report as a patroness of the club. 

flyer for fund raising concert

There were contributions also from Miss Alice Rees and also Miss Emilie Sutton, a debutante of whom all spoke highly. She was the sister of noted inventor Henry Sutton. Both Henry and his brother rowed at the Ballarat City Rowing Club and so probably prevailed on their younger sister to sing at the concert. The Concert was a huge success raising 300 pounds towards building a new shed. This is the equivalent of $60 000 today.

The same year a Grand Bazar was held to which wives, mothers and lady friends made a great contribution to raising another 250 pounds. This made the total of 550 pounds raised! In one year the women associated with Ballarat City Rowing Club raised over $100 000 in today’s terms! This amazing amount of money could not have been raised without the hard work and efforts of the women. 

Rowing as a sport began in Ballarat in 1862 when Robinson McLaren and several like-minded gentlemen formed a Regatta Committee and organised the first Ballarat and District Regatta on Lake Burrumbeet. In 1864, the Regatta Club, later Ballarat Rowing Club, moved operations to the shores of Lake Wendouree, as the clearing of the reeds on the Swamp made aquatic pursuits, particularly rowing, possible. In early 1864 many boatsheds were built around the lake and everyone, including women enjoyed “boating” on her picturesque waters. In 1865 the Star newspaper reported that rowing was very popular among the ladies of the city and the formation of a Ladies Club was mooted. However, the fairer sex restricted their endeavours to recreational paddling and family picnics, as no formal club was begun. 

In the 1870’s to the early 1900’s, ladies would also attend in force, the annual Ballarat Regatta which was the highlight of the social and sporting scene each year in Ballarat and attracted rowers and spectators from all over Victoria.

Lady supporters in a boat

Lady supporters in a boat at Ballarat Regatta 1908. From the Australasian 7/3/1908.

In 1912, probably inspired by the Interstate Ladies’ Rowing Championships held on Albert Park Lake on January 29th, a women’s rowing club was formed in the February of that year called the Wendouree Ladies Rowing Club. It was reported in the Courier newspaper, February 15th that the ladies met and elected office bearers and were planning a fundraising effort (Appendix 1). However it would appear they never actually did much rowing. Perhaps the intervention of the World War 1 interrupted and then ended the club. The question was also raised at this time, as to why Ballarat Regatta Committee did not have a race for women.


Why shouldn’t the Ballarat girls pull an oar as well as their sisters of Warrnambool and Albert Park? “ And why shouldn’t we?” was the answer in effect of 30 odd strapping young women in a meeting assembled at Barge’s refectory, Wendouree, last evening. Consequently Ballarat is to have its ladies rowing club. The meeting was composed of sturdy young women, who should “make good” in the world of rowing, and the so-called maidens of the three Ballarat clubs may be assured that a crew can be chosen from among the ladies assembled last night that would give them a good shaking up on the water. Experts who saw the Victorian and Queensland crews in action on Albert Park Lake a week or so ago considered that the oarswomen could hold their own with some maiden crews of the ordinary rowing clubs.

Perhaps the lament that was given expression by “Adela” recently because the Ballarat Regatta Committee did not provide a race for the ladies crews when compiling their programme has had something to do with the present movement. At any rate, it became very popular, and many of the girls present have pulled a strong oar in weighty pleasure boats that may be hired day by day.

(Excerpt from Courier article, February 15th, 1912)

In 1923, the question of women competing at Ballarat Regatta was again raised. Amid much controversy, there was a request to add a women’s race to the 1924 Ballarat Regatta, a move vehemently opposed by the leading lights of the Ballarat Regatta Association who organised and ran the Regatta. In the Star newspaper it was reported that “ a request from Preston Women’s Club …. to include a fours race for women on the programme” was received. It was discussed at length over several meetings of the Regatta Association and was “strongly opposed” by Mr. J.B.Suffren, an old interstate oarsman, who said “that rowing was too violent a sport for women and to see them pulling their hearts out in a race was degrading and inhuman.” It was, he considered, a disgrace for the Association to have such a race on the programme.” As Ballarat Regatta was run under the auspices of the Victorian Rowing Association and all clubs competing at the regatta had to be affiliated with the VRA, the women would not be permitted to race.

Sense prevailed and the outraged rhetoric was largely ignored and the Ballarat Regatta Association changed their mind, deciding to include the women’s race in the program after having initially voted against it. Then on January 9th,1924, in the Argus newspaper, the Victorian Rowing Association announced that it “did not approve of or sanction women’s races at regattas under its patronage.”! So that was that and once again women in Ballarat lost another opportunity to participate in the sport.

newspaper report of ladies rowing races

Later in 1924, the Victorian Ladies Rowing Association was formed, led by the very active Albert Park Ladies Rowing Club. Again there is no evidence of Ballarat ladies taking up the oar, even though other ladies clubs formed in country towns like Bendigo, Dimboola and Warrnambool and did so with gusto. The Ballarat Regatta of 1928 was the first time that women appeared in a regatta on Lake Wendouree. It was not to race however, but to give an exhibition of rowing. At that time there was still the feeling that racing was too strenuous for females and so “style rowing” was introduced. Style rowing was where the ladies could display their talents with an oar without exerting themselves too much. Two crews from Essendon Ladies Rowing Club and Preston Ladies Rowing Club attended and their display was universally admired! The four clubs that were inaugural members of the VLRA, were Albert Park Ladies, Essendon Ladies, Preston Ladies and St.Paul’s (Bendigo).Clubs also formed at Dimboola, Warrnambool and Eaglehawk (Bendigo) later in 1924.Shepparton and YWCA also formed in the 1920’s. 

cover of regatta program

list of ladies crews

Cover of Ballarat Regatta Program 1928 and the list of crews who rowed in the Ladies’ Exhibition. (Kate Elliott collection of Ballarat Regatta Programs.)

newspaper clipping of Preston Ladies RC rowers

Preston Ladies Rowing Club from the Argus, February 6th, 1928. This is probably the same crews that gave an exhibition of style rowing at Ballarat Regatta on March 3rd.

DISPLAY BY LADY ROWERS   Canoe Races and Displays

While rowing of course was the main attraction at the Lake on Saturday, there were numbers of other features that were interesting, attractive and amusing. For two regattas the Regatta Association tried very hard to popularise a section for decorated boats, on each occasion the response was encouraging. This year it was decide not to arrange a competition for fancy craft, and two new features were introduced.

One of these was an exhibition of rowing by five crews of ladies. The ladies boats were beached near the Yacht Club and from the time they launched their boats until they were again beached keen interest was manifested in the ladies efforts. Unexpectedly, the five crews put up an excellent exhibition of rowing and the critics on View Point cordially agreed that each of the twenty young ladies comprising the five crews had been well coached in her work. The five crews rowed out from the Yacht Club house some 400 yards and from there rowed to the point and formed a circle and in this formation the crews gave the spectators on View Point a splendid exhibition of their skill.

The crews were:
Essendon Ladies Rowing Club No:1 crew Misses A. Brass (bow), M. Wilson (2), E. Doolan (3) and I. Graham (stroke)
Essendon Ladies Rowing Club No:2 crew Misses R. Robinson (bow), E. Barlow (2), M. Anderson (3) and R. Gideon (stroke)
Preston Ladies Club No:1 crew Misses E. Hunt (bow), H. Freeman (2), V. Radcliff (3) and S. Pridham (stroke)
Preston Ladies Club No:2 crew Misses M. Marlow (bow), D. Cumming (2), D. Freeman (3) and T. Gumm (stroke)
Albert Park Ladies Rowing Club Misses V. Sampson (bow), J. de Zoate (2), E. (Edith) Connor (3) and D. Brooks (stroke)

This report was taken from the Ballarat Courier on Monday, March 5, 1928 and reprinted in the “History of Ballarat Regatta-Australia’s Inland Henley 1862-2002” written by Kate Elliott.

Albert Park Ladies Rowing Club four

Albert Park Ladies Rowing Club, 1923, Miss E. (Edith) Connors in stroke seat. She rowed in 3 seat in the 1928 exhibition row at Ballarat Regatta. V. Samson is 2 seat and she was bow in the 1928 crew. (Herald 26/4/1923)

In 1932 the Ballarat City had a very strong social club and many young women took part in the social and fundraising side of the club. They would also have attended some regattas as spectators. This photograph shows the Ballarat City Rowing Club Social Club who achieved the incredible feat of raising the money to build a new two storey Federation style boatshed. The boathouse when finished was to be the finest of its kind in the state and indeed the southern hemisphere with a large boat area, extensive locker room and change facilities, a dance floor of 2140 square feet, committee room, ladies cloak room, kitchen and all other modern conveniences. The total cost of the project was 2800 pounds, with 2000 pounds of that already raised by the dynamic and hardworking Social Committee. This would be the equivalent of $200 000 today!

1923 Ballarat City Rowing club members

Interestingly for this time, it was the only boatshed in Ballarat that included a women’s cloak room and toilets, to cater for the women who attended functions at the club. They raised the money and built the shed at the height of the Great Depression and it is again testament to the hard work and determination of all the members, male and female, who made it happen. At least half of the Social Committee were women and a lot of the organising and fundraising would have been done by them. Sadly not all their names were recorded. Mention was made in the 1929-30 Annual report that the fundraising committee headed by Mesdames Morris, Beattie, Browne and Bates work hard to double the building fund to almost 500 pounds. The individual efforts of Miss Jean Murray and Mr. Ray Browne were acknowledged. In 1931-32 the Social Committee raised another 450 pounds through running the Ballarat City Dance Palais at the Town Hall. This group of wives, girlfriends and daughters raised over a quarter of a million dollars in the early 1930’s and allowed the Ballarat City Rowing club to fulfil the dream of having a two storey boatshed to match those of the Wendouree and Ballarat Rowing Clubs. Their efforts were nothing short of amazing.

In the 1940’s the Ballarat City Rowing Club had several badminton teams entered in the Ballarat Badminton competition. Badminton was played at many church halls and also at Ballarat City, Wendouree and Ballarat Rowing Club boatshed. This meant that in winter many oarsmen from all three clubs played badminton. The courts were not always regulation size but they managed even if the court finished half way up the back wall as it did in Wendouree’s shed! In 1942 the Ballarat City Rowing Club badminton team won the overall pennant for Ballarat.

1942 badminton team

1942 Badminton team, winners of Ballarat badminton pennant, pictured on the jetty of Ballarat City Rowing Club. Mavis Rapkins, Warwick Ehms, Edna (Teddy) Hanrahan, Jack Hughes, Joyce ( ), Jack Long, Em Coad and Ted Allen. All the men were members of Ballarat City Rowing Club and the ladies belonged to the Social Club. They played at the shed and competed as Ballarat City Rowing Club.

By the 1940’s especially after the war, social and sporting mores were changing again. When the rowing club went away to a regatta, a bus would be hired and wives and girlfriends would be invited along. Various social outings were organized like the one in 1947 to the Dandenong’s and members and partners would go along for the weekend. Women were becoming more visible and more involved around the club and in club activities but still only those of a social nature. There was still no suggestion though of women actually rowing. 

1947 rowing club trip to the Dandenongs

Ballarat City Rowing Club trip to the Dandenong’s 1947.Photograph from pg. 187, “Boys from the Rushbeds, The History of Ballarat City Rowing Club 1870-2004”.

During the early 1940’s rowing in Ballarat once again “shut down” because of the Second World War. There were very few sporting or social activities for anyone during this period and many women enlisted and served in the army. They took on many roles and this altered the way that women were viewed. Women started to participate in a much wider range of sports and activities. In 1956 when the Olympic Games rowing was held on Lake Wendouree there were no rowing events for women, however there were women racing in kayaks. 

In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s there were women’s races held at some regattas in Victoria, most notably Dimboola Regatta. From the Dimboola program of 1951 there were races for both a Ladies Maiden four and also the Victorian Women’s Country Championship fours. Crews from Albert Park Ladies Rowing Club and Dimboola Rowing Club competed.

Interestingly, the trophies for the main race on the program, the Victorian 4-oared Sprint Championship and the women’s Country Championship as well as the Ideal Regatta Girl competition, were presented in the evening at the Night Concert. It would seem both Championships were given equal importance and warranted a special presentation.

regatta program cover

program page 1

program page 2

program page 3

Cover and Ladies races from 1951, 67th Annual Dimboola Regatta. (Ron Douglas collection.)

In 1950,when the Ballarat City boatshed burnt down to the waterline it was the women supporters of the club who came forward again and a massive fundraising effort was made. As part of this it was decided to stage a “Gold Centenary Revue”. Many ladies donated their talents to the program. In fact the number of ladies was far greater than the male contributors to the occasion. Mrs. Lew Zillies, wife of former club Captain and champion rower Lew Zillies, organized the Highland dancers who performed the Hopetoun Reel. The names of forty six ladies who contributed to the Revue are listed on the program below.

program page

Program from pg. 195 “Boys from the Rushbeds, The History of Ballarat City Rowing Club 1870-2004”.

In 1958 when the new boatshed had been built and the fleet replaced, the club held a special occasion where all the new boats were named and blessed. The honour of christening the boats went to the wives of the various members for whom the boats were named. Mrs. Stan Wilton, Mrs. Beatrice Findlay and Mrs. Ida Hauser, who alongside their husbands had worked tirelessly for the club, got some small recognition for their efforts and support of the club through performing this task.

1958 Christening of the new fleet

Mrs Stan Wilton

Mrs Stan Wilton christens the four in honor of her husband

Mrs Beatrice Findlay

Mrs. “Billy” Beatrice Findlay christening the eight, THE FRANK FINDLAY at the Blessing of the boats in the new shed 1958.
Photographs from pg.207 and 208 “Boys from the Rushbeds, The History of Ballarat City Rowing Club 1870-2004.

The 1960’s was the decade where women in all walks of life began to challenge the male status quo in many areas of employment, sport and family life. This was the decade of Women’s Liberation movement and opened up opportunities for so many women in areas where they had little or no involvement previously. In 1960 the first women’s crew was organised by Captain of Wendouree Rowing Club, Eric Waller. He coached a crew of schoolgirls, who rowed for a couple of weeks from the Wendouree Rowing Club. They participated in a short race against Essendon Ladies Rowing Club on the Lake over 200 metres, from the jetty at McArthur Street back to the boatsheds. However they did not continue after their brief rowing experience.

1960 Women’s crew Wendouree Rowing Club

From the Ballarat Courier March 9th, 2021. Women’s crew Wendouree Rowing Club, 1960.

At Ballarat City Rowing Club, the women supporters reformed the Ladies Auxiliary and on Tuesday November 21st 1961, at a meeting chaired by club president Francis E. Findlay, fourteen ladies again took on the endless task of fundraising and also organizing social activities for the club. The members of this Auxiliary were Mrs. Beatrice Findlay, Mrs. Hickey, Mrs. Wilma McKee, Mrs. Harden, Mrs. Coutts, Mrs. Edwards, Mrs. June Dixon, Mrs. Lister, Mrs. Matthews, Mrs. Crawford, Mrs. Kit Quick, Mrs. Peg Saddler, Mrs. Vanberger, Mrs. Moon, Mrs. Jones, Mrs. Hay and Mrs. Di Cesare. Mrs. Harden moved the motion that a committee be formed and that it be known as the Ladies Auxiliary. The purpose of the Auxiliary was to support the club socially and financially. 

minutes from the first committee meeting

The first president was Mrs. Beatrice Findlay with vice-president Mrs. Hickey, Mrs. Moon as secretary and Mrs. Wilma McKee the treasurer. The second meeting of the Auxiliary was held on December 5th and they began organizing to run a stall at the Ballarat Regatta that was to be held on the Lake in March 1962 and also at the King’s Cup Regatta Australia’s premier rowing event. This was the start of the tradition of Ballarat City Rowing Club catering at regattas to raise money which was the main form of income when I joined the club and continued right up until the 1990’s. The Ladies Auxiliary went on to run many fundraising efforts until 1965 and provided much needed finance for equipment including raising money to pay for a brand new racing pair. They formally disbanded on the 1st of November 1966.

There is today hanging downstairs at the Ballarat City Rowing Club boatshed the bow of a boat. It was christened the “LADIES AUXILARY 1966” as a reminder of the achievements of this group of ladies who had contributed so substantially to the finances of the club The wives, mothers and girlfriends of the club members, since their menfolk seemed to spend inordinate amounts of time at the club, seem to have adopted the creed “If you can’t beat them- join them” and over the years became a significant part of the club contributing both socially and financially to the club. A minute book of their operation survives and documents the very significant contribution they made. It seems ironic to me, that they never even thought to have a row in the boat they paid for!

bow of the racing pair

The bow of the racing pair that the Ladies Auxiliary raised over 300 pounds for. Daryl Brown and Alan Dixon raced at the first Australian Championships on Lake Wendouree in 1966 winning the club’s first Australian Championship in the Lightweight coxed pair.

In 1968 the first women’s four oared event was held at the Intervarsity Regatta in Sydney. It wasn’t until 1970 that Melbourne University ladies had a crew training and racing for Intervarsity. They were the only women training out of a boatshed on the Yarra. All other women’s crews rowed on Albert Park Lake or at Essendon Ladies Rowing Club on the Maribyrnong. 

1968 was also the year the first National Championships for women were held. There were six championship events and most were first and finals. As this was rowed on the Yarra River, in Melbourne, it meant that there were only two or three entrants per race. Senior pairs were rowed over 500 metres in tub boats. Women were finally on the water albeit in limited numbers.

A squad of six members was selected from Victoria for these Championships, including Caroline Judd and Kath (Suhr) Bennett who were to become the driving force of the Victorian Ladies Rowing Association during the 1970’s, facilitating the unprecedented growth of women’s rowing in Victoria.

1968 newspaper article

Article from the Weekly Times 1968, listing the Victorian Champion fours and crew selected for Australian Championships. Interestingly it notes that the “re-formed Essendon club” raced in Novice pairs at the 1968 Victorian Championship.

In 1970, the intervarsity women, assisted by Kath Suhr, officially formed the Melbourne University Ladies Rowing Club. This was the first of 10 or more women’s clubs constituted in the early seventies. On the 17th of April 1971, a MULRC crew won the Junior four Championship of Australia, on the Nepean River at Penrith. This was the first time men and women had combined for the National Championships. The crew were Denise Widmer, Sandy Ronsat, Betty Gawthorne and stroked by Pat Oddie. 

Pat and Denise were Ballarat girls having completed their secondary education in Ballarat and had gone on to further education Melbourne University and started their rowing careers at Melbourne University. Pat Oddie’s rowing career would continue off and on for the next 50 years until she put down her oars for good in 2022.

Later in 1971, Pat and Denise would play a part in assisting the formation of the first rowing club for women in Ballarat, the Begonia City Ladies Rowing Club. They ran “Come and try” days and introduced the women’s rowing to Ballarat. Begonia City was named and took it’s emblem from the famous begonia emblem of the City of Ballarat. As several early members of the club worked at the Ballarat Town Hall, and received support and assistance from the Mayor and Mayoress of the time, the name also acknowledged this connection. The formation of a women’s club in Ballarat would also provide the catalyst for Ballarat schools to also introduce rowing for schoolgirls. This did not happen for another eight years, then in 1979 Ballarat Grammar School had the first schoolgirl four training and they competed at Ballarat Regatta that year. Nine years later, in 1980, the Ballarat Public Schools Head of the Lake Regatta held the first races for schoolgirls on their program. 

women's eight

In 1973 the Interstate Championships for women was held on the Barwon River for the ULVA interstate four Championship, the Nell Slatter interstate scull and the Victoria Cup interstate Lightweight four. This was the catalyst for the formation of both Corio Bay Ladies Rowing Club and Barwon Ladies Rowing Club and later in 1976, Artemis Ladies Rowing Club. In the mid 1970’s women’s rowing still had to break the old stereotypes and work really hard to be taken seriously. In an article in the Sun newspaper in September 1974, Kath (Suhr) Bennett who was publicity officer for the Victorian Ladies Rowing Association and Captain of YWCA Rowing Club disabused the idea that women who rowed were “muscle-bound Amazons.” 

1974 newspaper article

Article by Christina Buckridge, Sun newspaper, September 1974.

By the end of the 1970’s decade women’s rowing was firmly established and moving forward with great confidence. The 1980’s would see Australian women’s crews at Olympic Games and World Championships. The introduction of rowing for girls in many public and private schools, would see the unprecedented growth in schoolgirl rowing. The Victorian Ladies Rowing Association would amalgamate with the men’s Association, as would the national women’s body, the Australian Women’s Rowing Council. State and national championships would be combined to have just one regatta for men and women. 

In Ballarat, the legacy of the Begonia City Ladies was consolidated and they also finally amalgamated with Ballarat City Rowing Club. This led to the Ballarat City Ladies and men having their most successful decade in the club’s history. This was to be the golden era for rowing at the club, with unprecedented success in regatta wins, Victorian championships Victorian premierships and Australian championships.

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