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History of Mercantile Rowing Club

16. High Noon (1968-1970)

Chapter Sixteen page 1 2 3

This special period in the club's history ended with a partial rebuilding of the clubhouse, which was completed in November, 1970.

On May 13, 1969, Jim Sprigg, Bob Aitken and Hubert Frederico as trustees of the club, signed on the club's behalf a contract with Lawson and Laughlin Pty. Ltd. for this rebuilding for a figure of $39,676. This was to be the first step of a plan, some said a dream, of replacing the whole structure in time for the Centenary in 1980. And a bold step it was because the club did not have $39,676, nor did it have any assets which might be offered as security other than a decaying building, with a certain charm, sitting on a muddy foundation and held on an annual lease.

1969 Cock Robins

1969 - The Cock Robins

Bow: Bill Morrison, 2: Ron Richardson, 3: Bill White, 4: Ted Sorani, 5: David Yunghanns, 6: Ian Wilson, 7: Tony Cordell, Str: Jack Shears, Cox: Jim Harvey

Rebuilding had been talked about for years. In early post-war years Mick Williams would collect round the barrel on Sundays to take a ticket or so in Tatts, the proceeds of which would finance his "seven story" clubhouse - the building got grander as the hour grew later. Nothing practical was done, however, until 1966. One of the reasons for this was the tendency of the City Council every few years to revive the project of replacing the rowing clubs with rose gardens. This was no idle threat and several times intense lobbying was necessary to ensure that sufficient Councillors upheld the view that active recreation was better for their citizens than lazing on green lawns.

Various occurrences in the 1960's prompted the club to action. There was the construction of the underpass taking Alexandra Avenue below St. Kilda Road, thus reducing the risk that Jeffries Parade would have to be widened to cope with the city's traffic. Others were the worsening state of the old building and the more imminent approach of the Centenary.

In July, 1966, a sub-committee had been appointed to investigate the whole project. Its report contained first of all a review of all possible sites on the Yarra bank available for rebuilding of the club from Kew to Spencer Street. These sites were considered in the light of availability and cost of land, access to transport, availability of services, convenience to members present and potential, facilities for coaching and other like considerations. The recommendation was clear cut. From all points of view there was no better place to build than where the club had stood for 85 years. The committee thereupon authorized the sub-committee to "call in architects to produce plans for the development of the present site".

Over the following months the sub-committee obtained sketch plans and cost estimates from several architects based on a plan to replace the whole building. This was to be done over the existing four bays with an additional bay on the ground floor, and a first floor development over the whole site, either immediately or by several stages according to the availability of finance.

Initial cost estimates were completely beyond the club's resources. The sub-committee therefore approached Brighton Grammar School, which had been using part of the club facilities for some years, in the hope that a joint venture could be negotiated, under which the school would make a substantial capital contribution to the project in return for long term occupancy while the club retained the lease.

A number of meetings were held over the following months with senior representatives of the school. Plans were drawn and redrawn and alternatives discussed. Eventually Brighton Grammar School declined to participate in the proposals as then formulated.

1969 King's Cup Presentation to David Boykett

1969 King's Cup presentation to David Boykett

The sub-committee had with regret to report that the joint project for rebuilding the whole clubhouse could not proceed. In September, 1968, the sub-committee suggested as an alternative that the club build an extra bay onto the east side of the existing boathoue, pull down the front of the building and construct a new club room on the first floor over the whole five bays in place of the section demolished. The estimated cost was $30,000. The sub-committee hoped to race $10,000 from the members and finance the balance from funds borrowed from the bank guaranteed by a number of members. The interest and bank repayment were to be funded by leasing two bays to a club or school and by funds raised from hire of the new club room. The committee, at its September meeting in 1968, authorized the sub-committee to proceed along the lines recommended. Plans were to be prepared and more precise estimates obtained.

Over the next few months the sub-committee was reconstructed under the chairmanship of Bob Aitken and included Jim Sprigg, Norman Cairnes, Dean Morgan, Bill Bradshaw, Bill Morrison, David Boykett, Martin Tomanovits, Ian Wilson and Ron Griffiths. Negotiations with Brighton Grammar were recommenced with the result that the school agreed in principle to accept tenancy. The club's bankers, the Bank of New South Wales, agreed to provide an overdraft of up to $20,000 repayable over a long period. Two guarantors for that overdraft were found and an architect, V. Alekna, engaged to draw detailed plans. The funding of the project was developed in detail and included the amount by which subscriptions would have to be raised to cover the anticipated outgoings of the club in its reconstructed building. By May, 1969, the sub-committee was able to place before the general committee details of all these proposals and to recommend that the proposition be placed before the members in general meeting for ratification.

All these preliminary moves involved some expense and this was to some extent defrayed by a suggestion emanating from and happily concluded by several of the club's longstanding members Jim Harvey, Brian Dawes and Jack Carr. Mrs. Joan Carr (Jack's wife) executed a very fine etching of the facade of the old club, a copy of which hangs in the club room. One hundred copies were made and were offered to members
at $10 each. These etchings, a treasured reminder of the old premises, may be found in the homes of many of the club's older members.

As an encouragement to members to dip deeply into their pockets it was resolved that the new club room be designated the "War Memorial Club Room" and that application be made for donations to be allowed to be a tax deduction. This application was made under the guidance of club member Larry Fosdick who was a senior officer of the Taxation Department. It was in due course approved. This application required a number of changes to the constitution particularly to widen the basis of membership. From the inception of the club it had been a requirement that applicants for membership "be engaged in Mercantile or Professional pursuits", a reminder of the origins of the club in 1880. This restriction was removed at the annual meeting in 1970.

The whole proposal was submitted to members at an extra-ordinary general meeting. The formal parts of the proposals, the authority to proceed with the demolition, to borrow the necessary funds from the bank, to appoint trustees, to raise the subscriptions, alter the constitution and so on were duly and enthusiastically approved. However the vital part of the meeting was undoubtedly Jim Sprigg's concluding speech in his usual grand oratorical style urging, persuading, requiring his members to give practical support to the project in hard cash. Application forms, even cheque books, were available and by the time the second nine gallon keg had been partly consumed after the meeting $4,500 had been paid or promised over varying periods of years. Eighty five members attended the meeting.

The plans and working drawing were prepared by the architect Mr. Alekna, and submitted to the Melbourne City Council for approval in September, 1969. The final terms upon which Brighton Grammar School was to occupy part of the premises were settled in conferences between representatives of the school council and the sub-committee and confirmed by letter. These terms gave the school the option to construct its own locker and shower rooms in the old gymnasium provided that, at its own cost, it construct a roof over the new locker room to provide the club with a new gymnasium at first floor level. This option was taken up and work was incorporated in the plans.

Then followed a period of frustrating delay while the various departments at the Town Hall considered the plans. Although everyone appeared to be in favour of the project no particular officer was prepared to grant formal approval because, in certain particulars, the plans did not comply with the Uniform Building Regulations. Eventually the matter was placed before the Board of Referees with the blessing of the Council and finally approved subject to a number of conditions in February, 1970. The delay proved expensive as building costs were rising. It was also inconvenient because the front section of the club had been removed in anticipation of an early start to the work.

Tenders for the work were called closing in May, 1970. When these came in they were above the estimates previously given and as far as the club was concerned the cost was beyond the most generous estimate of the amount which the sub-committee thought could be obtained from donations plus the bank overdraft of $20,000. At that stage the president looked around the rather discouraged members of the sub-committee and expressed the simple view which has typified his encouragement of Mercantile crews over many years. "Well, we don't just give up do we?" The contract was let to Lawson & Laughlin Pty. Ltd. for $39,676, of which Brighton Grammar were to contribute $8,850, and the sub-committee set about raising the additional funds required by a vigorous personal canvas of the members. This was no mean task as the amount actually in hand at the time the contract was left was only about $5,000 and architects fees and other minor expenses had to be found as well as the contract price.

The building work continued through the winter of 1970 and the building was ultimately handed over to the club only days before the scheduled opening ceremony on November 7, 1970.

A number of members either directly or through friends had assisted in keeping the contract figure down by nominating as sub-contractors at cost. These included Warwick Granowski, who undertook to fabricate the steel work and Noel Searle and Jack Mitchell who helped to provide the plate glass windows.

While building was in progress space had to be found for part of the club's fleet and alternative changing and showering facilities provided. Melbourne Grammar School very generously made its boathouse available. Scotch College and other river clubs assisted in housing the fleet and Banks made its premises available for the 1970 annual meeting. To many members the return of the old Mercantile locker and shower room after completion of the building was rather an unwelcome change from the polished floor and tiled splendour of the Melbourne Grammar facilities. The rear part of the old premises was partly available for use during rebuilding. Some of the fleet was left there and that vital adjunct, the South-West Corner continued to flourish though in rather cold and draughty conditions.

The opening ceremony was performed by Sir Bernard Evans, a former Lord Mayor of Melbourne who in that capacity had been a stalwart supporter of rowing and in particular of the Henley Regatta. The dedication of the club room as a memorial to members who had lost their lives in the two world wars was carried out by the Rt. Reverend Donald Macrae, who and whose family had been Mercantilians of long standing. The ceremony was attended by many members and friends of the club, representatives of the V.R.A. and other clubs.

Members looking now at the work accomplished in that first rebuilding project can easily see shortcomings. They may well ask why was this done or some other seemingly essential thing left undone. The fundamental question was money. This inhibited the planning at all stages. It was a major decision to commit the club to meet an overdraft of $20,000 repayable over 12 years. It was no mean achievement to persuade the club's bank to lend the money on the guarantee of 20 members and to find 20 members willing to sign a joint and several guarantee for this amount. The total cost of the venture including extras such as the fire alarm system was $44,912.91 of which Brighton Grammar contributed $9,177.22. To finance this members contributed donations of $14,544.14. An amount of $3,500 was contributed from club funds so that in the end it was not necessary to draw 'fully on the overdraft accommodation arranged.

The design of the new construction was part of an overall plan to replace the balance of the clubhouse by 1980. However, the need to tie the new building in with the old structure caused many problems, particularly in the matter of levels. The first floor level of the new structure had to coincide to some extent with the old building behind it and this prevented the rebuilding sub-committee achieving the height for rack space on the ground floor which it would have liked. Fire regulations required the front stairway to be placed in its present unattractive and inconvenient position. Council requirements prevented an external entrance.

No provision was made for furnishing apart from the purchase of a few tables and chairs. However, items of kitchen equipment appeared mysteriously, curtains for the front windows were donated by Paul Harding and lockers either lost in the renovation or gradually demolished by borers were replaced by 70 or 80 very fine timber lockers which came to the club by courtesy of the Royal Melbourne Golf Club, where they had become surplus to requirements as a result of rebuilding.

The demolition of the old front section of the club was not to be without loss. Mercantile had previously boasted a spacious, open and sunny verandah looking out over the river, filled with old and dilapidated but comfortable chairs. This was a place where crewmen always congregated before rows to observe the busy traffic up and down the bank and on the river. Here, members could cast friendly insults down upon other men as they marched their craft out of the boat bays, view the method of competitors on the water, and feel physically and mentally "in touch" with the commerce of the rowing world. This part of the club life has disappeared. Those who now try to communicate with the river atmosphere through high plate glass windows may sometimes feel the loss.

Another great club tradition was changed - some would say lost altogether - when the venue of the weekly Sunday morning barrel was moved from the downstairs "south west corner" of the old clubhouse to the new bar area in the remodelled front section of the shed. The "south west corner" experience seemed to distill the essence of good will and comradeship for which the club was famous. It was difficult to see how any social activity could have taken place in it at all - "the corner" consisted of no more than 200 square feet of poorly lit floor space at the furthest corner of the shed hemmed in by oars, boat sterns, and spare equipment. But Sunday in and Sunday out, 40, 50 or more members had packed in, shoulder to shoulder, to discuss rowing, events of the week, and a thousand other things. The noise in this confined space was deafening; in winter you froze, in summer you boiled; at times it was nearly impossible to get to the beer tap, and all you could see were arms clutching frothing beer glasses, held aloft threading their way slowly through the mob. The gathering would often spill out among boat racks where conversations would take place among knots of members leaning on oars and boats. It was conspiratorial and intimate. The move of bar facilities upstairs allowed for more comfort and convenience. But the atmosphere, all members agree, has never been quite the same.

When the whole job was done those responsible heaved a sigh of relief and anticipated a year or so of respite before the next stage of the planned project would be undertaken. Little did they know that a disastrous fire in May, 1973, would destroy part though not all of their labours and necessitate an immediate start on an entirely new and much grander project.

And so in November, 1970, the club looked forward with great anticipation to the return of its senior oarsmen from the World Rowing Championships in Canada and to the beginning of a new season. It seemed impossible that with a renovated shed, a strong group of oarsmen and older members and the racing success of the past four seasons, there could be any faltering in the club's progress. A small but skilful group of oarsmen at Monash University Boat Club felt otherwise and, during, the succeeding seasons, proved themselves correct. A great period in the club's history had closed.

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