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History of Mercantile Rowing Club

10. Building for Success (1946-1950)

Chapter Ten page 12

The efforts of four years of building and perserverance were amply repaid in the following years. The club won its first senior eight oared race for 11 years at Albert Park Regatta in January 1950, and, with continued small boat successes, won the Senior Premiership in the season 1949-50.

In that season the club's main rival in senior rowing was Melbourne University who had for the first time since the war taken an active part in regatta racing. University, coached by Charles Saleh and Jim Ferguson, won the Champion Eights and most of the eight oared races. Mercantile achieved the premiership pennant with small boat wins, particularly in fours where Ian Holyman, Peter Macpherson, Lawrie Moll and Bob Aitken with Bill Bailey as cox won most of the senior fours for the season including the Championship. University naturally provided most of the King's Cup crew for the race on the lower Yarra, but Bill Wallace and Lawrie Moll earned a place and Bob Aitken was one of the emergencies.

1949-50 Champion Four

1949-50 Champion Four

Bow: G I Holyman, 2:P M Macpherson, 3:L L B Moll, Str: R R Aitken, Cox: W Bailey, Cch: C G Saleh

The club also won the Junior Premiership in the 1949-50 season and by a very large margin. Crews stroked by Jack Shears and coached by Norm Cairnes carried all before them and many members still active with the club such as John Rowe, Martin Keeley, Frank Noble, David Olliff, Jack Carr and Harold Burke contributed to the success. All this set the foundation for the succeeding five year period leading up to the 1956 Olympics, which was to prove among the most successful the club has ever enjoyed.

During this period the solidarity of Mercantile as a club was very evident. Members spent much of their leisure time involved in activities associated with the club - probably much more so than today. In most cases they did not have the facility to do otherwise. Motor vehicles were expensive and hard to get and it would be unusual to see more than half a dozen cars outside the club on a weeknight or at the weekend. Each evening 10 or more members might be expected to make the trip to South Yarra Station in, on or about Herbie Shears' jeep, a hazardous form of transport at any time.

Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings during the winter saw many more active and older oarsmen on the water in scratch crews. Most of the club's large practice fleet was in use on both days. As in pre war days it was not unusual to see three or more eights rowing to Burnley Park for a game of football on Saturday afternoon and then racing back for the not unwelcome reward that first home had an earlier and longer taste of the barrel. It was five bob in and unlimited consumption until the keg ran dry. On Sundays as many as 60 members past racing age might turn up for their regular recreation both on and off the water.

Time trials were an important feature of club life in the winter season during this period. The Sprigg time trial for eights, a pre-war event, was revived by the enthusiastic donor of the trophies in the immediate postwar season and each year drew a large entry. The course was from the old oak tree in front of the shed to the junction of the Yarra and the Maribyrnong and back, a distance of approximately seven miles. Crews were limited to two senior oarsmen and had to include two novices or lightweights. Success required careful selection of oarsmen and an accurate assessment of tide, wind and weather. Herb Shears proved a master of all relevant factors, which jealous rivals alleged included a choice of timekeeper as well. He won the event in every year but one from 1947 until 1954, generally assisted by one or both of his brothers, Jack and Bill. In the odd year it was claimed that the timekeeper Ken Boykett had been "nobbled".

In 1949 the Harlequin Rugby Football Club, which was then training from Mercantile during the winter, presented trophies for a four-oared time trial, an event which continued for 20 years. These trophies, given in appreciation of the club's hospitality, were initiated by Ron Bolton, a very successful oarsman and sculler with the club and overseas in the thirties. Crews were restricted to one senior oarsman and had to include one novice. The course was through Spencer Street Bridge and back to the clubhouse oak tree. With so many senior oarsmen in the club in the late forties and early fifties, it became a point of honour for each to organize his own crew with the result that competition for the Harlequin trophies became very keen. It would not be unusual for two or three fours to compete on a still winter evening when the tide was right and for members of rival crews to follow by bicycle to check progress by stop watch and shout discouragement.

The club in those days had a large number of practice oars (50 to 60 in all) and those were the only ones which the scratch crews were allowed to use. Certain members developed an attachment for particular oars which they hid in odd places in the shed for their exclusive use. When one distinguished pre-war veteran asked that the leather on the button of his oar be replaced it was found, to his embarrassment, that the shaft was cracked half way through under the button. His Sunday morning endeavours had not, over a period of several years been sufficient to complete the break.

Trips to country regattas were in Briens "so called" comfort coaches with the boats on top, and on more than one occasion, refreshments inside.

At Easter in 1946 and 1947 the Sale Bairnsdale double was still conducted and the club had considerable success at these regattas in both years. Nagambie and Rutherglen were, as now, extremely popular. Rowing then was strong enough to support regattas at Colac and Warrnambool over the Christmas period as well as Nagambie and Rutherglen and the Mildura double at Easter in conjunction with Sale and Bairnsdale. Country regattas have always been famed for incidents and activities not associated with rowing. Many conducted a carnival as part of the regatta with swimming, foot running and other events, side shows and variety stalls. It was not unusual for an oarsman to return with a trophy for tossing the sheaf and a maiden four from the one regatta. Then, of course, there was always the Regatta Girl contest. At Rutherglen one year a member, now staid and respectable, was invited to judge such a contest. After much deliberation he awarded the prize to a girl considered by many of his friends to be distinctly plain. When asked later the basis for his decision he stated simply that, when viewing the talent before him he had said to himself of the winner, "Well my dear you will never win another beauty contest as long as you live so you might as well win this one". No one has ever ascertained whether this benign approach was due to natural good nature or a visit to the vineyards in the morning.

Social functions such as dances at the "Dorchester" invariably attracted a large attendance of young and old members. The barbecues of today were not then in fashion, but on regatta nights, particularly on Henley night, it was the custom for crews to take their coaches out to dinner and then to return to the club where it was the tradition to provide hospitality, for the usual consideration, for all oarsmen, especially interstate visitors who wished to come in.

1949 Annual Dinner Menu Cover

1949 Annual Dinner Menu

There also were social functions beyond the precincts of the club. Alan Sloss revived the annual golf match between Mercantile and Banks for which a handsome silver trophy exists. Reports generally record the result as a draw, which probably only indicates a tendency of the organisers to inaccurate arithmetic late in the afternoon.

The twice yearly joint committee gatherings of Banks and Mercantile started many years previously by Frank Raven and Frank Morris of Banks were started again after lapsing during the war years.

After the war the old practice of rowing to Flemington to view the Melbourne Cup was revived but it did not last for more than a year or so. Perhaps the journey home through the rough waters of the Lower Yarra after the rigours of watching the Cup proved too great a discouragement.

Each Anzac Day morning there was a short service at the club and a wreath was laid on the Honour Boards in memory of those members who had died on active service. The ceremony was well attended in early post-war years when the March was in the afternoon. "Beef" Calder, Bill Gray, Jack Mitchell and others provided lunch for the marchers after the service. Some of the marchers, overcome by thirst, broke ranks at Princes Bridge; others found their way back when the Shrine Ceremony was concluded.

Wednesday night working bees throughout the winter drew a regular attendance of enthusiastic if inept members who applied paint, varnish and sand paper with appropriate liquid encouragement, trying to maintain the club's large fleet in reasonable working order. Lawrie Moll and Herb Shears were the driving spirits behind these gatherings and much good work was done with their guidance and persuasion. Ron Roberts, then the boatman from Scotch College, was also of great assistance.

Such successes as were achieved over this period did not come without guidance and effort from the club administration. Arch Dobbie was still the president, a quiet, wise and intensely interested Mercantilian who regularly appeared in a Sunday morning rowing four. Deane Morgan was, through much of the period, the captain and he in turn was ably supported by Herb Shears who was happy to hold the vice-captain's position for five consecutive years. Present day members such as Norm Cairnes, Bill Morrison and Bill White filled the secretarial position. They like to say that regatta entries were never late and scratchings always lodged in time, but human frailties existed then as now.

Once, the failure to lodge entries in time for a regatta resulted in a special and protracted meeting of the Victorian Rowing Association before the club's entries were accepted. The most embarrassed person at the meeting was the then club secretary, Bill White.

During this period the club's financial position became critical and it was decided at the annual meeting in 1949 to raise the subscription from £3.3.0 to £4.4.0. In those days a member's annual subscription was approximately the price of a new racing oar. How different today! At that annual meeting a certain member named Fairbairn, filled either with a feeling of generosity to the club or more than adequate refreshment, and heedless of his fellow members' pockets, kept urging in strident tones that the motion be put at Five guineas. He was thereafter known as "Five Guinea Fairbairn", and subsequent committees regretted that his advice was not taken.

Chapter Ten page 12

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