History of Newcastle Rowing Club
Part 2 - Newcastle Rowing Club in Colonial Newcastle (continued)
Women in Newcastle Rowing
Ladies, who form a large proportion of the current membership of NRC, may by now be wondering just how many women were active competitors with the club during the colonial era. Actually, the number is, well - er - none.
(Happily and quite rightly, that situation has been rectified so that in the modern era ladies not only make up a majority of the club's competitive rowers but contribute significantly to the organisation of the club holding, at one time or another, all committee positions.)
The absence of women from club membership in colonial times, a period that included NRC's first two eras, was not just a NRC or rowing thing. Participation by women in outdoor exercise anywhere, not just Australia, was rare. While the reasons for this and the wider issue of women in sport generally are too broad to be covered here, a brief summary of some of the reasons is warranted.
At that time, women suffered from social restrictions placed on them in regard to participation in active sports. Physical sports were regarded as too strenuous and unlady-like so that any involvement by women was generally regarded as recreational.
Suitable clothing also presented a problem for women rowers in the late 1800s. Photographs at the time invariably show lady rowers wearing long dresses, boots and large hats. At a guess, a hat was the fashion, not for the sun. One source explained that "a women's crew consisted of six members, one girl being required to gather the long black skirts which covered great bloomers as each girl sat down into the boat, and then to be ready to quickly hand the skirts back before they stepped ashore". Long, loose, voluminous clothing was a serious drawback until well into the 20th century as it restricted ladies to wide, open, fixed seat boats rather than lighter, narrow racing sculls with sliding seats. Even if suitable apparel had been available, it would have been rejected by society as immodest and unlikely to have been worn by the rowers anyway. Even men were not immune from criticism that their rowing apparel was improper.
There were also a number of other factors that may have affected the extent and pace of women's participation in rowing such as the fact that regatta organisers were men who would have resisted the change. It was also a fact that any race for women in a regatta inevitably replaced one previously available to men. From today's perspective it also seems that the public regarded women's races as a novelty rather than a serious contest so that even championship races for women drew poor crowds.
Growth in participation in sports increasingly being adopted by women such as tennis, walking, bicycling, swimming, croquet, riding and of course, rowing was due to their being thought of as healthy exercise or as recreation rather than for the competition. Times however were changing.
For the first time in NSW, probably Australia, a race for ladies was incorporated into the program of the NRC-organized 1873 Newcastle Annual Regatta. A double scull race between Misses M & J Dempsey and Miss E Tongue & Mrs Brown, demonstrated that women did want to compete and had the ability to do so.
Occasional opportunities for Newcastle women to row competitively were offered at regattas in the 1880s. At the Stockton Regatta on 18 April 1881 (Easter Monday) a double sculls in watermens boats with cox was held for lady residents of Stockton. First prize was a trophy presented by Mr Green, an ironmonger, and the committee; second prize was a trophy valued at one guinea presented by the Riley Brothers. Mrs Rinker & Mrs Warland (cox L Rinker) in 'Daisy' were clearly the most skilful and muscular crew defeating Mrs Stratten & Miss S A Poile (cox Spider) in 'Violet' by six lengths. Miss Emily Poile & Miss Ellen Poile in 'Maitland' having given up almost immediately were last.
At the Belmont and Pelican Flat Regatta on the same date there was a race for ladies in watermens boats with cox. First prize: £3; second, 25/-. Advertised as a double scull event it somehow turned out to be a single scull contest as Miss Eliza Newett was first with Miss Sarah Newett, second.
The Wallsend and Plattsburg Regatta on Lake Macquarie on Australia Day 1885 included a race for ladies in skiffs with a pair of sculls. The first prize was a ladies hat valued at one guinea with second prize a hat to the value of 12/6.
Opportunities for ladies such as these continued to be few and far between however. In response to a question on the subject, the aquatics writer for the Town & Country Journal wrote in 1886 that "lady scullers are beginning to put in an appearance and they show a great deal of science in their work. It must be a product of good health if not carried to extremes". Overall, participation by ladies in normal competitions throughout the 19th century was rare. Women's rowing clubs did not appear until the 20th century.
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