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history of the city of warrnambool rowing club

City of Warrnambool Rowing Club – 140 years on the Hopkins River

By Susan Finnigan


Chapter One: Inception to shed

The City of Warrnambool Rowing Club is located on the Hopkins River Warrnambool, in South West Victoria, at the western end of the Great Ocean Road. The river has sustained people for over 35,000 years with magnificent scenery and fishing, making boating a necessary and popular activity. The town has seen five rowing clubs operate on the Hopkins River namely the Faugh-a-ballagh Club, Hopkins Boating Club, Warrnambool Ladies Rowing Club, Gordon Rowing Club and the Warrnambool Rowing Club (now the City of Warrnambool Rowing Club) - previously believed to be established in 1873. These clubs were all located from the present Hopkins Bridge to E J King Reserve and could access the river’s 9km navigable length, from the mouth to the lava flow at Tooram Stones. Since the earliest days of settlement, before formal clubs were formed, rowing races had been held on the river between fishermen and boating enthusiasts, using dinghies and skiffs.

In Victoria there are nine older rowing clubs still active. They include the Melbourne University Boat Club founded in 1859, Ballarat Rowing Club (now merged with Wendouree to be Wendouree Ballarat Rowing Club) and Melbourne Rowing Club both founded in 1862, Richmond and Corowa Rowing Clubs in 1863, Banks Rowing Club 1866 2, Ballarat City Rowing Club in 1868, Barwon Rowing Club in 1870 and Bairnsdale Rowing Club formed in 1872. Warrnambool also has local clubs with long histories including the Warrnambool Gentlemen’s Club founded in 1873 3 and the Warrnambool Football Netball Club formed in 1861 4.

A boathouse, ‘Faugh-a-ballagh’ was cited on the Hopkins River, below the cemetery, in an article about the Hopkins published in 1851. ‘Faugh-a-ballagh’ is an Irish battle cry meaning “clear the way”. The driving force behind the Club was John Macdonald who had built a two-story house near the present Hopkins River Bridge. When he died from a horse fall in 1858, the Faugh-a-ballagh Club also died. His house was taken over by a local watch-maker James Tucker, converted into a hotel and became known as the Hopkins Ferry Hotel. The hotel regularly sponsored water sport events, including rowing races. 6  In 1861 the bridge over the Hopkins was opened, replacing the punt.

A new boat club was formed in 1868, the ‘Hopkins Boating Club’ which had 16 members and two boats by January the following year. The main sponsor of this club was Henry Kemmis (B.A.), formerly of Tasmania and Dublin, and Principal of the Warrnambool Grammar School. 7

Warrnambool had come a long way in the 20 years since the first land sales took place in the town in 1847. It had a number of social and sporting clubs but a rowing club struggled to become established, implausible considering it is situated on some of the best rowing water in Australia. Two boat-hire businesses were operating in the lower Hopkins, run by Joseph Aberline and Andrew Abernethy Nelson. Joseph operated his boat-building and boat-hire business on the river near the cemetery and in November 1871 was granted extra land for building boats. The Examiner cited the many ordinary boats on the river but better [racing] boats were needed. 8

On October 17 1871, the Examiner again called for efforts to establish a rowing club. Meetings were held and finally, at a meeting held at the Western Hotel on October 20th the Warrnambool Rowing Club was formed and office-bearers elected. It was also resolved to hold a regatta on Boxing Day. 9 10 The Club applied for land to erect a boathouse and government surveyor, Alexander Skene, visited the river in late November 1871 to mark off a site to be appropriated for the Rowing Club. 11 12 13 In early November there were 50 members and regatta planning was under way. 14 However on November 21 1871 Charles H. Lay, publican of the Western Hotel, wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper lamenting the committee’s apathy and asking for support for the proposed regatta. 15 The regatta date was changed to May race week then abandoned altogether. The Club is not reported again until March 1873.

In October 1872, Charles Everett, former hotelkeeper of The Steam Packet Hotel South Warrnambool, had taken over the boat building and hire business owned by Joseph Aberline. He purchased a portion of crown land (Allotment 21A) near the cemetery (on Simpson Street) and was granted a colonial wine licence for his house located there. It became known as the Hopkins Hotel. Everett bought a 35 foot four-oared gig with the intention of establishing a rowing club. 16 In January 1873 there was a race between two rowers from Alberline’s boathouse to the (Hopkins) bridge and back again.

A committee was elected at a meeting held at Everett’s Hotel on March 8 1873 and the Warrnambool Rowing Club was revived. Mr Peter J. McGennan, one of the 1871 Club members, chaired the meeting and Captain Alfred Selby J. P., of ‘Clifton’ was elected President. Vice President was Mr Peter J. McGennan, Treasurer Mr C. Everett and Captain Mr F. Burley. The committee was Messrs J. Taylor, E. Roache, F. Burley, Gray, Snow, Southcombe and Shakespeare. The rules of the Melbourne Rowing Club were adopted, with some local alterations. It was resolved to erect a boatshed and purchase two four oared rigger gigs. The Club had upwards of 80 members however had to wait until 1889 for its own rowing shed to be built. 17 The Club’s two new boats costing 50 pounds were built by Mr Edwards of Melbourne, to enable juniors to practise and were delivered on the ‘Edna’ in May.18 In August 1873 the first gig race was rowed in the Western District. The course was from a point about three quarters of a mile above Mr Hood’s bathing house to a boat moored opposite the cemetery.

The Club’s Treasurer, Charles Everett, sold his land and the Hopkins Boating business to the Club’s Vice President Peter J. McGennan who was granted the wine licence transfer in September 1873. Mr McGennan built a large boatshed in October that year and the rowing Club had use of it for boat storage. At the Club’s annual meeting in November 1873 it was resolved to apply for a land grant, as the previous grant had not been taken up. 19

On March 12 1874 a half-holiday was observed for the Warrnambool Rowing Club’s Regatta - the first regatta ever held on the Hopkins River. 20 The weather was fine, and the attendance ‘very large’. The Rowing Club Cup, for four oared gigs, was won by W.S. Davidson, W.G. Fairfax, C. Hider and J. Proudfoot. The race for Pair Oars was won by J. Milne and R. Carey and the sculling match by P.J. McGennan. The ‘all comers’ gig race was won by E. Roache, W. Davidson, C. Grey, and J. McGennan. A novel race and duck hunt concluded the sports. Future Club President Mr Rowley acted as starter and Captain Selby as judge. 21 22

In Victoria the sport of rowing was also flourishing with some 27 rowing clubs having been formed before 1876. The win by Edward (“Ned”) Trickett at the World Sculling Championship in London in 1876 would have made the sport yet more popular. This was the first World Championship won by an Australian in any sport. It was also a professional sculling match on which huge sums of money were waged.

Disaster hit the Club in early October 1876 when McGennan’s boatshed burnt down. The boatshed was quickly rebuilt but it is not known what happened to the boats of the Warrnambool Rowing Club. The fire caused severe financial problems for McGennan and he went into bankruptcy.

The Hopkins was renowned for fishing however in 1878 a Mr Proudfoot was surprised when floating on his back in the river, a shark bit him. It was reported as 10 feet long. He made a safe return to the bank to have his wound tended and a later search failed to locate the intruder. 23 There are also reports during this time of rowers being swept out to sea.

The 1880’s was a boom time for Warrnambool - new architect designed buildings were appearing, with bay windows and protective iron lace adorned verandas. The Ozone Coffee Palace and railway were coming and so too was the breakwater. The Club did appear to lose its momentum about this time and it was not reported in the newspapers until the April 17 1880. The journal reported a public meeting called to address the Rowing Club and Alfred Smallbrook Brown proposed that the Club be reformed. His efforts unfortunately failed. 24

In 1884 Mrs (Fanny) Nelson who already had a sculling boat in her shed, added four new clinker-built pair-oared boats. Two of these were outriggers with sliding seats. 25 The Moyne Rowing Club held a regatta in February and a representative sculling race in November 1884 on the Moyne River, between Belfast (Port Fairy) and Warrnambool. The competitors were G. R. Fawcett for Belfast and Thomas Proudfoot for Warrnambool. Proudfoot was the firm favourite over the three mile course however in an upset, Fawcett won by six lengths. A follow-up race was planned on the Hopkins River. The Club continues to have a link with Thomas, having regular social ‘meetings’ in ‘Tom’s Tavern’, upstairs at Proudfoot’s Boathouse. Belfast Rowing Club was formed in 1880 and its meetings were held at the Caledonian Inn. 26 27 It was reported that a regatta was planned on the Hopkins River in December 1884. 28

In 1885 two new boathouses were built on the Hopkins. The Nelson boathouse, completed in October 1885 had space leased to the Warrnambool Rowing Club for boat storage. It was built for eights and had a ‘dressing room and a bath for the accommodation of rowers’.

The other boathouse was for Thomas Proudfoot, son of sexton George Proudfoot, with boats built by Mr James Edwards stored there for the Gordon Rowing Club. 29 The sons of the owners of Nelson and Proudfoot’s boathouses were both rowers.

In October 1885 five new boats were ordered for the Gordon Rowing Club and in December, Mrs T. F. Rutledge christened them, the ‘Standard’, ‘Gordon’, ‘Hanlan’ and the ‘Warrnambool’. 30 The Club’s name came from General Gordon, a British General who was killed at the battle of Khartoum in January 1885. Such was the public mourning over his death that monuments were erected in his honour and many clubs, events and organisations were named after him. A large monument 25m high was erected at Cannon Hill in his memory. It became unstable after the 1903 earthquakes and was disassembled, but the inscribed plinth is still there embedded in the ground. The Gordon rowers were described as ‘big powerful men’ although their style was ‘somewhat scratchy’. 31

Commencing late in the 1880’s the Victorian Rowing Association held three annual Championship events: sculls, fours, and eights rowed on the Lower Yarra, and the annual Melbourne Regatta held variously on the Upper and Lower Yarra and on the Albert Park Lake. Despite the transport issues to country regattas it was reported that important meetings were also held at Warrnambool, Ballarat, Geelong, Bairnsdale, Colac, Nagambie and Lake Moodemere. 32 Clubs attending regattas on the Hopkins envied the Club’s water, describing it as affording the finest reaches of water in the colony however the rowers said the journey by coastal steamer was ‘the worst’ and there was ‘not much room on board for eights’. 33

The Victoria Rowing Association was contacted by enterprising men from Warrnambool regarding a novel contest. Mr T. Osborne of the Steam Navigation Company Warrnambool together with Mr A. Brown, proprietor of the Princess Alexandra Hotel and Mr Helpman of the Colonial Bank, proposed arranging an amateur sculling contest, to take place over a two and a half or three mile course, on the Hopkins River. 34 Competing rowers had to be amateurs and the prize a bona fide trophy. It was hoped this would induce a large number of scullers to the ‘proverbially hospitable neighbourhood of Warrnambool’. 35 By November 1885 the committee of the Hopkins Grand Challenge Sculling Race changed the title and terms to that of a ‘maiden’ sculling race, open to all maiden amateurs in clinker boats. Entries were received from Melbourne, Geelong and Colac. At this time the Warrnambool Rowing Club was reported to have 100 members. It was reported that with ‘generous patrons to assist and experienced men to lead, and a most excellent river, with a straightaway course of a mile and a half to row upon, we may soon expect to hear of the Warrnambool oarsmen making their mark’. 36 37 38

In a prelude to the Warrnambool Ladies Rowing Club being formed The Warrnambool Standard, on November 11 1885, reported on a Ladies’ Fours race on the Hopkins River. This is extraordinary as rowing clubs were for men only and no regattas had ladies’ events at this time.

The Club’s December 1885 Regatta drew over 3000 spectators. The weather was ‘fine and the water smooth’. The seven event programme included a Maiden Sculling Race for a trophy of £25 ($50) and was won by Charles A. Champion of the Melbourne Club. Not long after the start of the race Phillip Bradley of the Albert Park Club went to the front and kept a good lead however in the straight, Champion gained a narrow lead. When at a post Bradley seemed to suddenly cease rowing. Champion then shot between the flags, and was awarded the race. Bradley states that he thought he was at the winning post when he stopped sculling. The other competitors were well behind. They included Narcisse Deguine of Colac who rowed a boat 10 lb (4.5 kg) heavier than the leading competitor and blamed this for his easy defeat. Other events included a Trial Pair Oar, between local clubs, won by Warrnambool. The crew was Proudfoot and Anson with Faulkner cox. The two other competition crews included the Gordon Club and another Warrnambool crew of F. Peacock, A. Nelson and Jas. Ross as cox. The Trial Sculls, between local clubs, was won by James Nelson, Warrnambool Rowing Club. The other competitors were A. Anson and George Proudfoot. The Trial Fours, between local clubs, was also won by Warrnambool. There were three competitors, the other two crews being from the Gordon Rowing Club. 39 40 Robert Edwards, of Melbourne, and Arthur H. Fittes, the champion amateur, gave an exhibition of sculling during the afternoon, the former performing various feats in his outrigger. 41 42

The Warrnambool Standard reported on July 2 1886 that a fours boat had been vandalised. A £10 ($20) reward was offered for information to apprehend the offender. James Nelson won a £9 tender in August to overhaul the boats of the Warrnambool Rowing Club. 43 In October 1886 it was reported that the Warrnambool Rowing Club ‘was getting on very well indeed’. Office bearers re-elected included President Hon. John (Jack) Murray M.L.A., a grazier and premier of Victoria from 1909-1912. Murray was a colourful person, a republican who supported Irish Home Rule, gave support to Aboriginals and considered himself a liberal. He was renowned for being a drinker, often intoxicated in Parliament whilst able to maintain his wit, but he was ‘cured’ of alcohol in the late 1890’s. His sister, Miss Murray who lived at “Waikato” was a Vice President of the Warrnambool Ladies Rowing Club and cared for him until his death in 1916. 44 The rowing season opened on October 21, with a half day holiday declared. There was a procession of 23 boats on the river and the Warrnamboolians made ‘great rejoicing’ of the holiday and perhaps the regatta. 45 46 47

Influential men were motivating patrons, supporters and committee members of local clubs. Mr Alfred Smallbrook Brown (Alf), the Captain of the Warrnambool Rowing Club in 1886, was also a land speculator and hotelier. He was a successful rower who had rowed for the Kingston Rowing Club, England. His crew won the Grand Challenge Cup at the Royal Yorkshire Regatta. In 1874, returning to Ballarat, he was in the winning crew at the first Barwon Grand Challenge Cup and the senior race in gigs. In 1880 Alf went to Warrnambool to assume the management of the Coffee Palace. Eventually he leased the Princess Alexandra Hotel. Alf purchased ‘Oakley Park’, close to the Hopkins River, and by 1893 had erected a substantial sandstone villa, known as ‘Goldicott’ (12 Flaxman Street), and stables on the property. In 1886 he ‘organised’ the Warrnambool Rowing Club, which proved successful, for ‘the course afforded by the River Hopkins is eminently adapted for sculling and rowing competitions’. 48 49 50

A meeting of 90 members of the Warrnambool Rowing Club was held at Alf’s Hotel in December 1886. The Vice-Captain C. M. Plues was presented a ‘handsome diamond’ ring by members with Alfred expressing his regret at the departure from town of the gentleman, ‘one of the Club’s founders’. 51 At the meeting crews were selected for the trial fours to be held the following afternoon. The prize for the winning crew was a silver cup for the stroke and medals for the others, presented by McLean Bros and Rigg. There was a ‘large crowd’ at the Hopkins River to witness these events. 52

In February 1887 the Warrnambool Rowing Club competed at the Victorian Rowing Association Annual Regatta, coming second in the second heat in a pair and being handicapped by having very little experience in the ‘racing’ boat they used. C. O’Donnell and A.C. Nelson rowed with Jas. Ross (cox). 53 Another Warrnambool crew made their debut at the Melbourne Annual Regatta winning the Maiden Clinker Four against seven other crews. 54 They won again at the Barwon Regatta against three other crews - the crew was E. Carpenter, E. H. Price, C. O’Donnell, A. Wilson and J. Ross (cox). 55 Rowing on the Hopkins was growing and it was reported that the ‘rowing Club is better supported than any other sporting organization in the town’. 56

The Club also entered a Maiden Eight at the Colac Regatta in 1887 and won against two other crews.

The Warrnambool crew consisted of W. Rogers, E. Carpenter, E. H. Price, B. Laing, G. Lumsden, H. Saltau,

C. O’Donnell and Andrew Nelson. Controversy ensued when it was claimed Andrew, the stroke of the Warrnambool crew that won the Maiden Eight, was not eligible to row as an amateur oarsman, as he was employed in the hiring and letting of boats. The matter was brought before the VRA Committee. If the case was proven, it would have nullified the wins in the Maiden Clinker Fours at Melbourne and Geelong as well as Colac. 57 Warrnambool and Hopkins Rowing Clubs entered crews in the Victorian Rowing Association (VRA) Regatta again in February 1888, on the Albert Park Lake.58  Warrnambool won the junior fours with the crew of E. Carpenter, E. H. Price, C. O’Donnell, A. Anson and J. Ross (cox). Warrnambool elected not to enter the stroke, Andrew Nelson, whose qualification as amateur had been called into question. The Victorian Rowing Association had to adjudicate his status as he was listed as a ‘baker’ however he also assisted letting boats at his mother’s hotel, Nelson’s Boathouse on the Hopkins River. Further information was sought to determine the outcome. 59 The Victorian Rowing Association reminded the Warrnambool Club of regatta regulation No. 19, debarring anyone from rowing as an amateur who was engaged in the hiring or letting of boats. 60 Finally it was resolved that Mr A. Nelson could not be regarded as an amateur as he was involved in the letting of boats. 61 In 1889 Mr R. B. Nicolson moved for the rescinding of a resolution as the Club stated that Nelson was by trade a baker, and while temporarily employed at his mother's hotel on the Hopkins, his only connection with boat letting was to hand a pair of oars to a boating party or a fishing-rod to anglers. On this statement the Association decided that they were unable to say that Nelson had forfeited his amateur status. The chairman then read a letter he had received ‘from Warrnambool’, stating that Nelson was now regularly employed on the river in connection with boats and a small steamer. The rescinding motion was withdrawn, and members were requested to provide all information before the next meeting. 62 Finally in 1890 Mr Nelson attended the VRA meeting, by request of the committee. He explained that he was not engaged in attending to the boats and had only let them out on a few occasions, in the absence of his brother who was regularly employed in looking after the boats. He had now left Warrnambool, and was following his trade as a confectioner in Melbourne. After nearly three years it was finally decided, under the circumstances, to remove the restriction placed on Mr Nelson from competing at regattas as an amateur oarsman. 63

On January 26 1888 the town celebrated the centenary of settlement of the Australian colonies and the anniversary of Warrnambool being proclaimed a town with a ‘close holiday’. Many boats were rowed up the Hopkins to Jubilee Park, for picnics and to avoid the heat. 64

Warrnambool had a visit from the North Melbourne Football team in July 1888. Players were expected at 10am however arrived in the evening, after a rough trip on the ‘Julia Percy’. They were met at the jetty by the local Club’s committee including Mr T. Kavanagh, the secretary and about 300 spectators. Over the weekend football was played at Crossley and Tower Hill. The players also had the use of the Warrnambool Rowing Club’s boatshed and training room and some of the boys rowed the single sculls, fours etc. There was an impromptu race and some of the boys wound up with a swim. 65 66

Warrnambool Rowing Club wanted its own boatshed. Debentures had been discussed in October 1888 and finally in March 1889 a new boathouse was opened by Hon John Murray, M.L A. It was an impressive two storey timber building, built on the river’s edge, near the cemetery, north of Scoborio Reserve, beside the present Ski Club. The Club’s future looked bright - it had a ‘capital fleet’ of boats, comprising a new eight oared clinker, a best four and a clinker four. Mr Murray made a speech and a number of toasts in ‘bumpers of champagne’. The boats were christened by his sisters Miss Murray and Mrs Helpman. 67

The Warrnambool Rowing Club shed

The 2 storey building in the foreground it was opened in 1889 - Proudfoots Boathouse is in the background.


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2 History of Melbourne Rowing Club, chapter 1, Australian Rowing History, Andrew Guerin – 2004-2014 2/11/2014.

3 2/11/2014

4 2/11/2014

‘Rambles by Rivers- the Hopkins’, no author. Naturalist, London Forgotten Books. Volume 7, 1851, reprinted 2013. pp 250-1.

The Warrnambool Examiner, 24th July 1855, 19th February, 10 June 1856, 1st January, 13th July, 10th September, 19th October, 31st December 1858, 4th January, 22nd April 1859, 11th December 1860, 26th February 1861. No page numbers.

The Warrnambool Examiner, 31st December 1867, 10th January, 10th November 1868, 29th January, 26th February 1869, 3rd November, 10th November, 14th November 1871. No page numbers.

8 The Warrnambool Examiner, 3rd November, 10th November, 14th November 1871. No page number.

The Warrnambool Examiner 17th October, 27th October, 31st October, 17th November, 21st Nov 1871. No page number.

10 The Warrnambool Examiner, 1st February, 1870. Page 3, (column 1).

11 The Warrnambool Examiner, 24th November, 1871. No page number.

12 The Warrnambool Examiner, 24th October, 1871. Page 2.

13 The Warrnambool Examiner, 31st October, 1871. Page 2.

14 The Warrnambool Examiner, 7th November, 1871. Page 2.

15 The Warrnambool Examiner, 21st November, 1871. Page 2.

16 ‘Civility to Customers’, Elizabeth O’Callaghan. No date. Page 25.

17 ‘A little history of the City of Warrnambool Rowing Club’, Nancy Crosbie. 24th September, 1994 (copy at warrnambool rowing club).

18 ‘100 years ago’, no author. The Warrnambool Standard, 19th May, 1973.

19 The Warrnambool Examiner, 13th May, 1873 no page number; The Warrnambool Standard, 5th & 8th August, 4th November, 1873. No page number.

20 The Argus, 10th March, 1874.

21 The Argus, 12th March, 1874. Page 5.

22 The Australasian, Saturday 9th August, 1873. Page 15.

23 The Age, 7th March, 1878. Page 2.

24 ‘Warrnambool Hotels’, booklet 6, Elizabeth O’Callaghan (Warrnambool Historical Society), Page 25. The Warrnambool Standard, 29th October & 17th April, 1880. No page number.

25 Warrnambool Independent, 9th December, 1884. No author. No page.

26 Moyne Shire Council Heritage Citations 2014, December 2014. Page 61.27 Portland Guardian, 13th April, 1880. Page 2 28 Ballarat Star, 5th December, 1884. Page 3.

29 ‘Civility to Customers’, Elizabeth O’Callaghan. No date. pp 26-27

30 The Australasian, 12 December, 1885. Page 22.

31 The Leader, 19th December, 1885. Page 21.

32 ‘Australian Rowing’, E. G. Blackmore. Chapter Xv. Page 258.

33 The Leader, 19th December, 1885. Page 21.

34 The Argus (Melbourne), 7th July, 1885. Page 7.

35 The Australasian (Melbourne), 11th July, 1885. Page 22.

36 The Australasian, 12th September, 1885. Page 22. rowing 1886&searchLimits=

37 The Australasian (Melbourne), Saturday 14th. No date / page.

38 The Leader, 24th December, 1887. page 21

39 The Argus (Melbourne), 11th December, 1885. Page 7.

40 The Australasian, 12th December, 1885. Page 22.

41 The Warrnambool Standard, 8th December, 1885. No page number.

42 The Leader (Melbourne), 24th December, 1887. Page 21.

43 The Warrnambool Standard, 2nd July, 5th August, 12th August, 1886. No page numbers.

44 ‘Australian Dictionary of Biography’, Geoffrey Searle. Volume 10 (MUP) 1986.

45 The Australasian, 16th October, 1886. Page 22.

46 The Australasian, 30th October, 1886. Page 19.

47 Australian Town and Country Journal, 6th November, 1886. Page 41.

48 Australian Town and Country Journal, 20th October, 1888. Page 40

49 Warrnambool City Council, Heritage Citation Report, Goldicott Hermes No 85221 22-Oct-2014

51 The Australasian, 30th October, 1886. Page19.

52 Warrnambool Standard, Thursday December, 1886. 28 column supplement, no page number.

53 Leader (Melbourne) 26th February, 1887. Page 21.

54 The Argus, 21st February, 1887. Page 10.

55 Geelong Advertiser, 24th February, 1887. Page 4.

56 Portland Guardian, 2nd December, 1887. Page 3.

57 The Warrnambool Standard, 12th December, 29th December 1887. No page; The Leader, 24th December, 1887. Page 21.58 The Australasian, 11th February, 1888. Page 40 59 The Argus, 14th May, 1889. Page 7.

60 The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.: 1848 - 1957), 11th January, 1888. Page 9.


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