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History of Newcastle Rowing Club

Part 1 - Rowing in Colonial Australia (continued)

Part 1 pages: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Amateurism and Professionalism

A full understanding of the complex issue of amateurism in rowing is beyond the scope of this story. Indeed, it is so convoluted and contradictory that it may well be beyond human understanding. Nevertheless, to assist readers to understand the structure of colonial rowing it is necessary to briefly outline the place of amateurism in rowing during NRC's first two eras. 

Early rowing in Australia was run, pretty much, the same as it was in England. There, prior to the adoption of rowing by the general population, contests were between either professionals (for whom rowing was a livelihood), or between gentlemen (who rowed for recreation and as a pastime). So there was no need for any definition of the word "amateur" or "professional". The terms gentleman and professional suited every purpose as there could be no mistake as to which class anyone belonged. A gentleman could choose to race a professional for money or a trophy without any diminution of standing. For instance, the winner of the amateur Championship of the Thames (virtually the national championship), won the Wingfield Sculls trophy and prize money even though the race was open to "gentlemen scullers". Then (the first half of the 19th century) the term 'amateur' was hardly ever used and probably not understood. Consequently, for many years, all the amateur champions of the Thames, having competed for money, were not amateurs at all according to the adopted definition of the term. 

A similar practice applied in Newcastle until 1866 when the organizing committee of the Annual Regatta decided to award a trophy (a silver cup) as the prize for the Gentlemen Amateur race instead of money as had been the case at previous regattas. 

Entry to the burgeoning sport by people who were clearly not professionals and who were not regarded as gentlemen either, necessitated definition of a new category for competition purposes -amateur - to delineate the new class of rower. Derived from Victorian England, the philosophy of amateurism was based upon doing an activity merely for the love of it rather than for monetary reward. 

Prior to the emergence of boating clubs, there were no central organizations to govern rowing. Then, and until well into the 20th century, non-association regattas throughout NSW were organized by a local committee that placed rowers within one of three categories:

  • First, professionals, comprising watermen and those who gained their living rowing on the water.
  • Secondly, amateurs, such as shipwrights, boilermakers, quarrymen, blacksmiths, boat-builders or any other trade in which manual labour was required.
  • Thirdly, bona fide amateurs, applicable to those not involved in manual labour such as the professional occupations, clerks, shop workers, etc. As gentleman amateurs fitted easily within this group, the term 'gentlemen' gradually became redundant. Members of NRC and MRC fell within this category.

Bona fide amateurs did not compete against the other two classes of rower who were considered to have an advantage over people who worked indoors or in sedentary occupations. Prior to the advent of amateur rowing clubs, 'amateur' did not mean that they did not compete for money. As can be seen, the terms 'professional' and 'amateur' had more to do with the individual's occupation. Both professionals and amateurs competed for prize money. Bona fide amateurs were normally awarded trophies although cash prizes were not uncommon and, as one columnist wrote when commenting on the issue in 1873, they "will not decline a money prize". This dichotomy is evident in NRC's first ever race (1871), an internal one in which stake money was £5 a side. 

If one was to rely on newspapers of the day (some historians don't, believing that they reflect conservative, middle class opinion), this system appears to have operated for many years (in Newcastle anyway) without obvious problems. The public and, more importantly, the rowers themselves, appear to have accepted the need to separate professional rowers from manual worker amateurs and both of these from bona fide amateurs. 

However, in the 1870s, rowing clubs such as Newcastle began to emerge. Although referred to as "amateur" clubs, they were, in the above context, restricted to people who were bona fide amateurs. Clubs adopted a more stringent strict definition of 'amateur' (see below) in which competing for prize money was banned. Any member who won prize money lost their amateur status until 'cleansed' by the governing association.

As with other colonies, NSWRA adopted its own definition of "amateur" (1881) that applied to affiliated clubs and was also intended to apply to inter-colonial rowing contests. It read: 

"Amateur, to mean any person who has never entered into competition for a stake, public money, or admission money, or entrance fees, at, or since the Annual Regatta of 1875, or competed with or against any professionals in any way, or who has never taught, pursued, or assisted in the pursuit of athletic exercises as a means of livelihood, or who has not been employed in or about boats or in manual labour."

Unfortunately, this definition differed from that adopted in Victoria. The VRA accepted as amateurs anyone who did not directly or indirectly earn a living by building, letting or attending to boats or who had not rowed for a prize money and "no matter whether he be a hardworking tradesman or a university student". Clearly this was different to the NSWRA rule that excluded anyone who earned their living by manual labour. Other colonies sided with one or the other of these two positions although not all clubs within each state necessarily agreed with their own association's position. 

The NSWRA and its supporters (which included the [English] Amateur Rowing Association) argued that competition on even terms was not possible when the (theoretically) fitter manual workers competed against bona fide amateurs. They also claimed that acceptance of manual workers would introduce a mercenary spirit into rowing and that their exclusion was necessary to avoid the taint of scandal that surrounded professional rowing. 

The VRA's stance was both moral, in that exclusion of people involved in manual labour was unfair, and practical, since inclusion of manual workers would significantly increase the number of potential rowers able to join the club system. There is no doubt that class and social standing considerations strongly influenced many of those involved in the issue. Ironically, this was an age in which physical labour was widely lauded as honourable. What was considered manual labour, a major hurdle in the amateur debate, remained a matter of dispute between the various colonies and indeed countries for many years. 

Today's rowers should contemplate the impact the restriction had on rowing. It limited membership of rowing clubs to office workers, shop employees and people in the professions thus excluding many proficient rowers including some of the very best. At a higher level the amateur debate also had a deleterious impact on inter-colonial as well as international rowing. 

It was bad enough that the NSW and Victorian Rowing Associations fought like cat-and dog for decades about the application and interpretation of the rule regarding the amateur status of rowers involved in inter-colonial racing. But it was not uncommon for protests to be entered at local regattas against one or more members of a crew on the basis of their "amateurness". This had to be a nightmare for administrators who would have no way of knowing or have any record of what each individual had won or whom they might have competed with or against. Even if competitors knew their own status they would not necessarily know that of an opponent or even fellow crew members or if they had won prize money in any sport. To do so would cause them to lose their amateur status and become ineligible to compete for their club. One suspects that regatta officials, particularly in country centres, didn't quibble too much about strict interpretation or enforcement of the various categories unless forced to. 

By 1895 the impasse in the amateur issue as it related to intercolonial events was papered over with a ruling that rowers only had to conform to the definition of an amateur that was in force in their own colony at the time. The issue of manual labourers as amateurs was further eased somewhat by the NSWRA in the 1890s when they were allowed to compete for trophies and honour but not prize money. Pressure for manual workers to be regarded as amateurs continued, both from within NSW rowing circles and externally from other colonies/states seeking uniformity for the benefit of inter-colonial contests. By 1902 the tide was changing but not without lengthy debate within the Association with strong opinions on both sides. 

The restriction was removed in 1903 by which time there was acceptance within the influential Sydney clubs that the arguments against accepting manual labourers as amateurs had largely been discredited. However the exclusion remained effective in other places. For instance, Australia's 1928 Olympic gold medallist Bobby Pearce (rowing a George Towns-built boat) won the 1930 Diamond Sculls at the Henley Royal Regatta only to be disqualified because he was a carpenter by trade. His win was allowed the following year when he was a whisky salesman. 

Given the community's reliance on boats, the banning as an amateur of people who had been employed in or about boats seems these days to be very harsh. But at the time the separation was widely accepted. One of the last matters on record involving NRC in its second era was a request for a ruling from the NSWRA on whether a person employed with the water police could row with the club as an amateur. The answer was no! 

Damage caused by professional rowers to the integrity of their sport is exemplified by a few examples. In 1888 World Champion Ernest Searle, previous champion Bill Beach and Neil Matterson contested a race where the first two place getters progressed to a final. Seale and Matterson, seemingly in collusion, deliberately fouled Beach then Searle allowed Matterson to win thereby ensuring Beach did not qualify. Both later admitted they had backed Matterson to win. Disqualified by the umpire, each was controversially reinstated by the committee and qualified for the final through repecharge heats. Beach withdrew, vowing never to race either rower again. 

Newcastle's William Hickey raced against Michael Rush in 1873 with Hickey the strongly backed favourite having beaten Rush easily on a number of occasions. Hickey lost with such an obvious lack of effort that spectators and supporters were outraged. The anger was so widespread that people in Newcastle who bet on Hickey had their money returned by the stakeholder who believed the "the race was not won on its merits". The Sydney Punch newspaper said the same. Hickey sued Punch's proprietor Harold Stephen for libel but lost the case. Rush (who after all had won the race and the money) stated his belief in Hickey's integrity. Support also came from Richard Green, a champion Sydney rower, who said that when he .was beaten by Hickey, he was called a swindler. 

Another example of the effect a poor public perception had on professional scullers occurred in 1866 when Martin Jordan, a very successful Newcastle rower, accepted a challenge from J W Harde. Soon after winning the contest, as was expected, he felt compelled to place a notice in the Newcastle Chronicle refuting a rumour that he had intended to sell the race. 

For a variety of reasons the early popularity of professional rowing did not last. As a big win in side bets easily exceeded the amount of stake money involved, betting both by the public and the backers of the various rowers, if not the rowers themselves, led to allegations of contrived results. It was not unusual for punters who lost money betting on a professional sculling race to believe that the loser had "sold" the race. Whether true or not, the perception was there, so that almost inevitably, newspaper reports began to reflect public opinion that amateur rowing was more honest. Many historians believe that the public disillusionment about the honesty of professional rowing contributed in part to its eventual decline. 

Part 1 pages: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

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