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History of Newcastle Rowing Club

Part 2 - Newcastle Rowing Club in Colonial Newcastle (continued)

Part 2 pages: 1, 2, 3, 4

Between Times (1874 - 1880)

Even though NRC lapsed for a time, the interest of its members did not. Many continued to compete in both organised regattas and the occasional impromptu race. A minor though interesting detail is how they continued to use some of the club's former boats. 

In a race for coxed pairs in watermens skiffs at the 1876 NAR, J S Williams & F W Hughes (cox R Hughes) in 'Dart' won from W J Weatherill & J Mackenzie (cox Ahern) in 'IXL'. C F Cooke & R B Hogue (cox Hughes) in 'Curlew' gave up. In a race for double sculls in the J S Williams & R W Hughes (cox R Hughes) in 'Dart' won easily from C F Cooke & R B Hogue (cox Hughes) in 'Curlew'. W J Weatherill & J Mackenzie ( cox Ahern) in 'IXL' did not start. Both races offered identical prize money. First prize was £10; second £2, or trophies of equal value. 

A race of about 3 miles from Port Waratah to the Steamers Wharf [opposite Newcomen Street] was held on Saturday 21 October 1876 between the C F Cooke (s), W K Lockhead Jnr, S Brown and G Berwick Jnr, (0 Ahern (cox)) in 'Golden Spur' and R B Hogue (s), W Broughton, H W Finch, and J Broughton Jnr (J O'Brien (cox)) in 'Spy'. Stake money of £50 was won by Hague's crew. A similar race with many of the same rowers was held on Friday 12 January 1877. On this occasion the race, watched by 600 people and followed by five steamers, was run over the "usual" regatta course described as "Start at the steamers wharf, round the buoy, round a boat moored at Scotts Point [Stockton], round the buoy and home, twice around. The crew in 'Spy', coached by R Hickey, won. 

The interest in rowing is possibly best exemplified by a race for four pair sculls on Sat 13 January 1877. One would think that a simple, informal contest just between mates in two boats would be of little interest to the general public. That certainly wasn't the case. On the Wednesday prior to the race a crowd of spectators gathered to watch the crews in training. Then, on the eve of the event the Newcastle Morning Herald published a long article with an assessment of each crew. The technical assessments, if not necessarily the words used, may sound familiar to many of today's coaches. 

The crew of 'Spy', "pulled very well together and their coach R Hickey appeared well pleased with their performance". A Langwell (b) was "in very nice form. He pulls a very nice clean stroke and will be with No 3 to stick to the work". S Brown (3) "pulled splendidly and was considered 'the man in the boat'". "He scarcely rows his stroke out but under Hickey's coaching is remedying this fault. He will pull all the way and no doubt when a little determined effort is required will be the man to lend it". C Cook (2) is "pulling in much better style than in previous training though his head is allowed to drop rather closely to his knees towards the tail end of the game". John Ross (s) "did not pull so prettily as usual and his right hand scull had a tendency to "sky scraping" (this was attributed to an injured hand). "He appears to be very strong and will keep his men up to the work all through." 

The crew in 'Golden Spur' was coached by M O'Brien snr with his son (M jnr) as cox, W Weatherill (s) "gives his crew a longer stroke than his opponents. His style of pulling is very good and, as he is an old rower he will know how to treat his crew of colts". James Ross (2) "does not possess the strength or style of his brother (stroke in the 'Spy') but he pulls very well up to the stroke and he is in very good condition". George Hyde (3) "is by a long way the best man in his boat and will before very long make one of the best amateurs in the port. He possesses a great reach and rows his stroke well out. Because of his weight he has been placed forward in the boat as she requires to be trimmed down by the head. He should be in the stroke as his great strength will tell if the race is at all close". H H Gall, (b) "is the weak point in the boat. He does not reach at all forward but takes his oar very prettily out of the water as the stroke is finished. Nor does he swing with the other three who pull very well together. He is very wiry and will be more useful at the end of the race when staying power will be wanted." The reporter thought 'Golden Spur' the best boat unless there was a westerly or north-westerly wind in which case the 'Spy' would be slightly steadier. 

On the day of the race an article listed the crews, their positions in the boat and each man's weight. A race report then appeared in the paper on the following Monday. The weather was fine and cool with smooth water ideal for rowing. About 600 people lined the wharf, others were allowed to board the 'Coonanbarra' with the race officials. Five other steamers followed the race. Both crews were greeted with applause on their appearance before warming up. The race got underway at 4 o'clock but a foul occurred resulting in a restart. 'Golden Spur' got away quickest leading by three feet at the Steamer's Wharf. At the first turn 'Golden Spur', with the inside running, led by about one length. By then both crews had settled down to their work and were pulling well. Rounding the buoy at Scott's Point the 'Spy' lifted and drew to a lead of half a length that was extended to two lengths past the Steamer's Wharf for the first time. The crew in 'Golden Spur' pulled a plucky and determined race but the 'Spy' crew who were undoubtedly the best men deserved their three length win. Great excitement was said to prevail throughout the event. Those who lost money on the 'Golden Spur' -and a considerable amount changed hands - appeared well satisfied with the result. A comment that there were no mishaps of any kind and that the masters of the steamers behaved very well is an interesting reflection on rowing races at the time. 

At the 1878 NAR, a number of ex-NRC members took part in a race for Gentlemen Amateurs pulling 2 pair sculls with cox in licensed watermens boats for trophies valued at £6.6.0. J Lockhead & K Lockhead (in blue) with J O'Brien (cox) in 'Daisy' won from A M Richardson & G McKenzie (blue & white) with A Ahern (cox) in 'Viole'; G Chigney & D Flemming with Hickey (cox) in 'Florrie'; RR King & W H Gall (blue & white sash) with Jones (cox) in 'Nil Desperandum' and H Frost & Kilpatrick (white) with J Ahern (cox) in 'Little Nell', fifth. With boat names like these, the image of watermen as hard men of the sea has taken an awful battering. 

After a promising though short-lived beginning in the early 1870s, the drive for a permanent amateur rowing club in Newcastle remained strong. Momentum again began to build early in 1878. At a lunch-time speech Clarence Hannell, President of the organizing committee of NAR, called for the formation of a rowing club in Newcastle that could produce crews to compete in Sydney. 

Subsequently, an editorial in the Newcastle Morning Herald on 8 January 1878 reported on a proposed meeting that night to form a rowing club. It berated "old molly-coddlers" who posed as supporters so long as it did not affect their purses; called for fathers to support their sons and for wealthy men to support the sport. It stated "Such a club would supply the great want felt at the late regatta. It was painful in some cases to see men rowing pluckily and gamely, but all to no purpose, because their boat was incapable of getting way upon her. They had to lift a dead weight at each stroke. Others, perhaps inferior pullers, might get into a better boat and win easily. A rowing club would obviate this. There would be suitable boats for pulling. These would attract others. There would be trained skilful oarsmen, better contests, more public interest and above all, a manly, healthy, enjoyable recreation for our young men " ....... we hope to see the club started in earnest on a long career of prosperity and victory". 

A well attended meeting on Tuesday 8 January, chaired by H Trenchard considered progress to date. Also present were R B Wallace, W F Weatherill, F Gardner, R Hogue and the Honorary Secretary, pro tern, Dr A E O Walker. It was announced that £141.15.0 had been received or promised towards the establishment of what was to be known as Newcastle Rowing Club. A canvass for new members during the week would determine if the club would be viable. 

Prior to the next meeting on Tuesday 15 January the Newcastle Morning Herald bluntly questioned whether "the second port in the colony with every facility for the exercise of this noble sport will be content to remain a laggard behind other Australian ports and add one more reproach to the long roll of inertness, backwardness, want of public spirit and indolence with which she has so often been credited." The meeting, chaired by HJ Brown, drew a disappointingly small attendance particularly as it was well known that formation of a new club depended on strong public support. Those present were F Gardner, R Hogue, W J Weatherill, M J Dawson, H H Gall, S Brown, H Finch, H Trenchard, Captain Hacking, R R King, L Arnott, A Brown Jnr, Burnage, E Hannell and Dr A E O Walker. By this time, funds available totalled £163.16.0, made up of £107.2.0 with the treasurer, £34.13.0 with the committee and £22.1.0 promised. 

It is interesting to learn the projected cost of establishing a new club. Dr Walker estimated works and a shed would cost £75 - £90; fences and floating stage £45, a total of £120 -£137. It was suggested a starting amount of £300 would provide shed, custodian, and five boats comprising two light skiffs, one string test gig, one tub gig, and one watermens skiff leaving about £20 for sundries and incidental expenses. Because of the poor attendance a decision was postponed until the following week. 

A meeting intended for 22 January when a final decision would be made based on public demand was not advertised and does not appear to have eventuated. Undoubtedly, a decision was made to abandon the project for the time being as it was deemed inexpedient to attempt to start with less than £300, the minimum amount necessary to cover establishment costs. All money was returned to the contributers. 

Ironically, within just one year, two clubs were active in Newcastle. The first was the Enterprise Private Rowing Association. The second was Newcastle Mercantile RC. 

The Enterprise Private Rowing Association (EPRA) was established on 19 October 1878 by seven local "gentlemen". It was deliberately set up as a private association because of the lack of support shown for the establishment of a public club earlier in the year. Its first secretary was H H Gall, a former member of Sydney RC. 

The club's first boat, the 'Magic' was obtained from Sydney RC. A short time later, in response to rising membership, a second, the 'Alert', was acquired also from SRC. Both boats were of the class known as string-test gigs. 'Magic' was described as a "fine and fast boat" 42 ft long with deck covered from stem to stern with cedar. The 'Alert' was 44 ft long with canvas covered ends. It was not as fast as 'Magic'. Both had fixed seats. 

In February 1879, the club had 15 members plus some supporters as honorary members. By October, the club had added a third boat, the 'Enterprise' a string-test gig with sliding seats and "other improvements". Through influential friends, the EPRA acquired a site adjoining the life boat shed on which was constructed a 45 ft x12 ft x 13 ft high boat shed. 

The club conducted internal races and competed in occasional regattas where races were scheduled for bona fide amateurs using the type of boats the club had, i.e. 4-oared gigs. Club members also competed in races designated for amateurs but as individuals rather than with the club. 

For instance, EPRA conducted scratch races on the harbour in February and March 1879. Boats were drawn by lot. With 3 crews but only two boats, the event was run as two heats and a final that were held on successive Thursday afternoons. R D Williams was the starter and umpire. The first heat was held on Thursday 13 Feb 1879 at 5 O'clock. It was a lovely day for rowing and hundreds of spectators lined the foreshore while others followed on steamers and a yacht. 'Magic', being the fastest boat was handicapped 70 lbs. Competing crews were: 

No 1 (red & white): H H Gall (stroke); S Brown (3); J H Williams (2); M H Christoe (bow); J McVey (cox) in 'Magic' versus

No 3 (dark blue & white): E B Cotton (stroke - replacing RR King); F Fligg (2); A Langwell (2); E Graham (bow); A Rae (cox) in 'Alert'. 

The No 1 crew appeared in the peak of condition and, although handicapped, pulled well. No 2 were fit but pulled together very indifferently for the first quarter of a mile. As their pulling began to improve, their steering appeared defective. For the next half mile both crews pulled splendidly so that 'Alert' led by one length at the half-way mark. On the run home, the 'Magic' crew that appeared to have been conserving its strength increased its effort winning by 2 lengths. For a race of about 2 miles (3.3km) this was a close finish. It was described in the following days newspaper as "one of the best contested races ever seen on the harbour". 

Delays due to illness and then absent crew members meant that the second heat was not held until Thursday 13 March. On this occasion the No 1 crew, in 'Alert', rowed against the No 2 crew of RD Williams (stroke); H Trenchard (3); Dr A E O Walker (2); E B Cox (bow) in 'Magic' for a place in the final. 'Alert' pulled a steady stroke followed by 'Magic' with a quicker stroke. The boats collided rounding the first beacon then 'Alert' collided with the beacon but went on to win the race anyway. Both races took about 11 minutes. The result of the final, if it was ever held, is unknown. 

The EPRA entered two boats in the Stockton regatta on Easter Monday 14 April 1879. Crews were A Langwell; S Brown; EB Cotton; M H Christoe and A Rae (cox) in 'Magic' with RD Williams; E Graham; A E O Walker; H H Gall; J McVey (cox) rowing 'Alert'. 'Magic' won, after 'Alert' broke an oar at the start. 

An incident in late 1879 is testimony to the occasional difficulties of rowing in the open waters of Newcastle Harbour. An EPRA crew of Gall, Langwill, Graham, Donaldson & Farquar were training on the river in the 'Magic' in preparation for the club's forthcoming regatta. Because of the lumpy water the boat shipped water and was twice swamped . The first time the boat was righted without mishap to the rowers. Later proceeding along the wharf back to the boatshed she was swamped again near crane No 6. Two of the crew was able to reach the shore, Mr McDermott, a club member took a boat out and rescued one of the crew and the oars while two others were "pluckily" picked up from under the wharf by Mr J Wise in a fishing boat. 

The EPRA changed its name to Newcastle Rowing Club in 1880. 

The origin of Newcastle's Mercantile Rowing Club (NMRC) is unclear. According to the Newcastle Morning Herald, the success of the EPRA generated such interest that a number of rowing supporters, including some of Newcastle's best amateurs, formed the NMRC, possibly in 1878. Yet, several newspaper items suggest that it may have been earlier; possibly around 1875. On the other hand there had been regular public discussion from the mid 1870s pressing for the establishment of an amateur rowing club in Newcastle. If NMRC had existed at the time then it must have been inactive, virtually a shell [excuse the pun], as it appears to have been unknown to either the public or the Herald. 

In 1878, MRC club purchased two string-test gigs from Sydney Mercantile Rowing Club. The 'Victoria' was a very strong, 42 ft long boat with covered ends and fixed seats. The second was a much larger boat of the same style and class. It had sliding seats "on one of the older principles though to all appearances it is considered to be a much slower boat than the 'Victoria' though it appears to be better adapted to the rough and uncertain water of our harbour and river". A boat shed was constructed close to the EPRA and the life-boat sheds. 

A new string test gig acquired by NMRC at the end of 1878 was specially adapted and strengthened for rough water with a cedar top replacing the usual canvas covering and it was fitted with sliding washboards that could be taken off or put on depending on the conditions. Rowlocks were of the "new" style that were shorter than the ordinary ones with bars of twisted brass fastened by a pin instead of the usual lashings. 

Like the EPRA, Mercantile also conducted races internally and competed at occasional regattas in races for bona fide amateurs pulling 4-oared string-test gigs. 

MRC then disappeared from the rowing scene for a time because of low membership. It re-emerged in 1884 described as both "a flourishing club" and as a "new" club - the "youngest -in NSW" when it opened a large, new 80 ft x 45 ft boat shed (valued at £400) fitted with pontoon and landing stage at Stockton [near the present sailing club). 

For the next twelve years, MRC, like NRC, held internal races, conducted their own club regattas and competed in occasional Newcastle and Stockton regattas whenever the program included a race for rowing clubs. 

For some reason, MRC did not enjoy the success or status of NRC and on several occasions it struggled to survive. Nevertheless, during the period from 1884-1896 it was to be a strong, not to mention useful, local rival for NRC. In the mid 1880s for instance, the club had 150 members and a fleet comprising four, four-oared string test gigs, three cedar dinghys, three light skiffs, three first class wager boats, two heavy skiffs, a sailing skiff and a pair oared boat. 

MRC collapsed in 1896, unable to survive the ravages of the nationwide depression of the period. Following the club's demise, the boat shed was sold by auction for £76 to William James for conversion to a Seamen's Institute (Bethel). From 1914 it was used as a sailing club boat shed until, having fallen into a bad state of repair (as shown in the following photograph). It was demolished in 1970. 

The former Mercantile Rowing Club boat shed at Stockton in the 1970s. Although then derelict and soon to be demolished, the photo provides some indication of how the shed might have looked in its prime. When built, there was a ramp into the water from the large door on the long (western) wall and a balcony at the upper level door on the end gable. 


The two clubs made their competitive debut at the Morpeth Regatta on Sat 9 November 1878. Crews were selected and put into training in 4-oared string test gigs with cox. EPRA entered two crews, MRC one. Sydney Mercantile Rowing Club (SMRC) also entered a crew. The latter was the first Sydney club to compete in Newcastle, having entered the NAR the previous year. 

EPRA, believing it had a forlorn hope against the strong Sydney crew, withdrew. SMRC easily defeated the Newcastle MRC crew. Afterwards, the Newcastle Herald commented that it was a pity MRC hadn't done the same as EPRA as they stood no show, their rowing being desperately bad. EPRA's decision to withdraw from that race in the belief that it was futile competing against the strong Sydney club has to be regretted as it could only be detrimental to the club's development and likely to discourage visits by other metropolitan clubs. For those fascinated by logistics, SMRC would have traveled to Newcastle on a daily Sydney-Morpeth steamship service. (Morpeth was then the port for the rich Maitland agricultural district). Newcastle and Raymond Terrace were just stops on the route. 

A race specifically for members of EPRA and MRC in 4-oared string test gigs with cox was featured at the 1879 NAR. Each club was expected to enter two boats however MRC, then with just ten members, could only get one crew. The race was won by EPRA's 

Magic' with R R King; S Brown; R D Williams & B Cotton due to "superior style". 'Victoria' (MRC) R Hogue; J Broughton; A Dalton; & J Russell; J Petre (cox), was 20 lengths behind in second, with a second EPRA crew of H H Gall; F W Flegg; J H Williams; E Graham; Hickey (cox), in 'Alert', two lengths further back, third. 

Part 2 pages: 1, 2, 3, 4

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