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History of Begonia City Ladies Rowing Club in Victoria Australia

History of Begonia City Ladies Rowing Club

cover image of History of Begonia City Ladies Rowing Club


Celebrating 50 years of women’s rowing in Ballarat

Established August, 1971

Researched and written by Kate Elliott 2022


When I completed researching and writing the history of Ballarat City Rowing Club in 2004 followed up by the history of Ballarat Regatta in 2009, I felt at that I had covered in reasonable detail the history relating to Ballarat City Rowing Club. I had, of course, covered the formation of the Begonia City Ladies Rowing Club in August 1971, the only dedicated women’s rowing club to operate in Ballarat. The ladies subsequently amalgamated with Ballarat City Rowing Club in September, 1978. Most of the information in the two histories was in the context of the broader history of the club but it didn’t include a lot of detail on Begonia City’s seven years of operation before amalgamation. This was mainly due to a lack of records and documentation.

As the rowing season 2021- 2022 marked the 50th anniversary of the first women’s club in Ballarat and also significantly, the first women’s regatta held on Lake Wendouree in January 1972, it seemed an appropriate time to research further into the Begonia City Ladies Rowing Club history, particularly their struggles to establish women’s rowing in a very male dominated sport. Organised rowing started in Ballarat district in November 1861 when the first regatta was held on Lake Burrumbeet. Many ladies attended this momentous event but not one of them did so to row! With the Regatta Club then established as the first rowing club in 1862, again it was the men of the district who made up the whole of the membership. When rowing activities moved to Lake Wendouree in January 1864, there was considerable “feminine interest” initially, with talk of a women’s club forming. However a club did not eventuate and women had to be content with rowing or being rowed around the Lake in the gigs that were hired out for picnic parties and the like. The formation of a women’s club was reported in the Star newspaper in early 1912, but although a committee was elected, the women did not seem to have actually made it onto the water. There was no serious challenge to the status quo for over 100 years. 

In 1970 the Ballarat City Rowing Club had been in operation for 100 years and celebrated its centenary with a dinner for members and their wives. Women had been supporters of the club socially and in fund-raising roles from the beginning but never as rowers! It took two remarkably determined schoolgirls in early 1971, to ask the question “Why can’t we row?” They started the conversation which gathered together a small group of like-minded women. These women, who faced objections at every turn, answered with “We can and we will!” This history tries to account in greater detail, the beginning of women’s rowing in Ballarat and the club’s beginnings. It especially focuses on the first two or three years when the Begonia City Ladies Rowing Club was very much a stand-alone women’s club forging a distinct identity from the future host club Ballarat City Rowing Club.

No minute books exist of the first years four years of Begonia City Ladies activities. There only two meetings on record, in February and March 1975. It was only later in 1975 that the two clubs came together for meetings and the minutes of the men’s club record the members and some of the activities of the women’s club. Although Begonia City was an Associate they operated separately from the men and there was little interaction on a day to day basis.

In late 2019, I was very fortunate to discover amongst piles of boxes and papers shoved in a storage area at the shed and forgotten, in a dusty, old cardboard folder a file of old correspondence and club papers for Begonia City Ladies. Amongst these were copies of programs for the first four regattas hosted by Begonia City Ladies Rowing Club and also the first and second Annual Reports. To my knowledge these are the only papers that exist and I was extremely lucky to find them and be able to use them along with newspaper articles and personal reminiscences to reconstruct the club history.

Many of the other details of events were only recorded in a collection of old press cuttings, copies of which were made when I became secretary. This collection was in a photo album put together by Kim Butler. Kim was one of the foundation members of Begonia City even though she was a school girl at the time. Many of the articles included the only photographs of the women involved in starting the club in those early days. Because of the poor quality of the photocopies from the 1970’s, where possible I have tried to obtain original pictures from the Courier archives. With no dates on the photocopies it was sometimes like trying to find a needle in a haystack! However with perseverance, most of the photographs and larger articles that were published in the Ballarat Courier were found and clearer copies made.

Other information about the club’s early activities came from Jan (Madin) Falla, who was the first Captain of Begonia City. She responded to a questionnaire sent out in 2003 and added valuable details to the research. Her letter was included in “Boys From the Rush Beds-The History of Ballarat City Rowing Club” and gives a real insight into what it was like to be a pioneer of women’s rowing in Ballarat. It is also reproduced later in this history.

In recording the activities and racing of Begonia City from 1974 onward, I have relied on my own personal archive of recollections, photographs, diaries and regatta programs. I first started rowing as a sixteen year old in about September 1974, a little over three years after Begonia City started. I loved everything about rowing and saved and collected nearly everything related to my rowing, including the programs from every regatta I attended. Some of these programs have notations about placings, times and names of crews and coaches providing an excellent record of the women’s regattas held at the time and of the clubs and the people competing at that time. 

At the Ballarat City Rowing Club Annual Meeting of 1975, I became secretary of Begonia City Ladies Club and attended the joint committee meetings from this time until 2018, a period of 43 years with only a year or two off when our son was born in 1997. I was an active member and committee member of Begonia City Ladies Rowing Club until September 1978 when the two clubs formally amalgamated. I became assistant secretary of Ballarat City Rowing Club in 1978 and then in 1979 became the first female secretary of the united Ballarat City Rowing Club, the first female to hold office in the 108 years of the club’s operation.

I am forever grateful to the women listed in the history as they established the sport that I personally have been involved in for nearly 50 years. Rowing became and still is my passion and my way of life. I cannot image an existence without it. When, as a schoolgirl I first ventured out on to the beautiful waters of Lake Wendouree, it felt so adventurous and wonderful. That feeling of launching your scull and taking off to the tranquillity that awaits in the middle of the lake, far from everyone and everything, can be magical. These pioneering women gave me and many more women the opportunity to be a rower over the last fifty years.

Kate (Wise) Elliott, 2022

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