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Sydney Rows

A Centennial History of the Sydney Rowing Club, 1970, by A L May

3. New Clubs: 1880-1890

Chapter Three page 1 2 3 4

In 1880 there were four rowing clubs in Sydney - Sydney and Mercantile and the two striplings, Glebe and North Shore - while there were also one or two in the country areas of NSW. The next ten years were to see the formation, literally, of dozens of new clubs although few were destined to survive for very long. Rowing in Sydney remained dominated by Sydney and Mercantile. Of some 260 races rowed during the ten year period, Mercantile won 97 and Sydney 75. Glebe was next best with 24. Nevertheless, by the end of the decade, one or two of the new clubs, especially East Sydney and Leichhardt, were showing considerable strength and were starting to worry the "big two".

Problems relating to the headquarters shed worried the Sydney Rowing Club committees for much of the decade. Construction of a Government road necessitated the removal of portion of the shed early in 1881 and alterations costing £195 were needed to cope with the situation. Endeavours to obtain compensation from the Government proved fruitless. Worse was still to come.

By the end of 1887, the Government's intention to erect a new wharf on the eastern side of Circular Quay became freely known. Notice to quit the site was received by the club in the middle of 1888. Several possible alternative sites were viewed and application was made to the City Council for a lease on the western side of Woolloomooloo Bay between Mrs. Macquarie's Chair and the Domain Baths.

The New Shed at Woolloomooloo

The New Shed at Woolloomooloo

After some minor delays (it was suggested the site might have been required for a pumping station by the Council), permission was given. A special meeting approved plans for a new boathouse at the end of the year and tenders were called. Construction, which necessitated removal of a rock mass to provide a level area for the 70' by 60' building, proceeded slowly. Coupled with erection of piles by the Government at the old shed, considerable difficulties in boating were experienced for a time and some use of other clubs' hospitality was needed. The new shed was ready for use by August, 1889, and it was, the committee felt, "one of the best boating pavilions to be found in any part of Australia, and quite equal in appearance to the best to be found either on the Thames or on the Cam".

Conveniently located ("about fifteen minutes," walk from the G.P.O.), it contained "a lofty and well lighted boathouse", part of which extended on piles over water, while overhead was a clubroom together with lockers, baths, lavatories, dressing rooms, caretaker's room and workshop. Extensive balconies on three sides gave excellent views. The total cost was close on £1600. One disadvantage was also noted: the shed's exposure to the north-easterly wind was likely to cause troubles in boating. While plans for an official opening ceremony by the Governor-together with a procession of boats - were certainly made, none appears to have taken place.

There were few problems regarding the Branch at Abbotsford. In 1882, only eight years after its purchase for ₤460, a valuation of £1250 was placed upon it. The buildings were maintained in good order, while a new room was added in 1882. In 1884 a lawn tennis court was constructed on the grounds and this soon "added greatly to the amusement of the members". In 1885, the committee described the Branch as "a source of great attraction to the members" while it was fully carrying out its function as training quarters.

Lawn Tennis Court

The lawn tennis court opened in 1884

So popular did the Branch prove in this period that consideration was soon being given to the erection of larger premises to cope with the demand. Reclamation of part of the water frontage and the purchase of reservation land took place in 1888. With demolition of the old city shed, plans were made to use the materials involved in construction of a more commodious shed at the Branch.

Frequent purchases and sales of equipment kept the fleet in an up-to-date condition. The 1880/81 committee bought two new fours and sold eleven boats - four skiffs, four outrigger sculls, two gigs and the state barge. This cut the fleet from 38 to 29 craft, although four new skiffs were on order and were received the following year. No less than thirteen new boats were bought in the 1885/86 season, while eight boats were sold. A new racing eight and two clinker eights were among those bought, while a Clasper eight and a clinker eight were sold. A further new eight was added in 1889, built by Edwards. The committee was particularly proud of one other purchase that year: a single-streak four built by Donnelly which was very light and was equipped with tubular iron riggers, swivels, roller slides and the newest of fittings.

Vice-regal patronage returned to the club in 1883/84. His Excellency, Lord Augustus Loftus, Governor of the colony, accepted the post and he was succeeded as Governor in 1886/87 by Lord Carrington, who also honoured the club by his patronage.

President throughout the period was the redoubtable George Thornton, while Dibbs and Deloitte remained vice-presidents throughout the decade. In 1885/86, they were joined by James R. Fairfax, Jim Clark, Thomas Buckland and Sydney Burdekin, M.L.A. The latter two held their posts for one year only and were succeeded by William Cope and Edward Simpson, both former captains. In the 1889/90 season, Clark and Fairfax stepped down and the appointment of N. F. Giblin, A. W. Meeks and Dr. Alfred Burne took the number up to seven.

Five persons led the club as captain in the period. Jim Clark was captain for four years initially, 1878/79 to 1881/82, but he took on the post for another year in 1884/85 after his successor as captain, William Cope, left for the USA. At the annual meeting in May, 1885, Clark announced that, after being associated with the club since 1870, he was retiring altogether from any active part in its management - but with the very best of feelings towards every member. He paid a visit to England soon after and was given a big welcome back when he returned in July, 1887. He continued to take the chair at various SRC functions, but indications of a serious illness were soon apparent.

In 1885/86, Edward Simpson held the post of captain and, when he too left for England, he was succeeded by Charles Dobson. Dobson was, in turn, succeeded by Charles Bros, but took on the post again in 1889/ 90. The term of L. G. J. Bennett as treasurer lasted seven years - from 1879/80 to 1885/86 - and James Perry, G. G. Forster and T. Ferris saw out the decade. Charles Deloitte was secretary from 1878/79 to 1883/84, being succeeded by Perry, Bros, W. H. Cordeaux and finally John Warren. Among committee members to serve long terms in the period were Bill Anslow, W. P. and E. P. Simpson (father and son), J. A. Brodie, John Warren and Stewart Tiley,

Membership and finances appear to have been reasonably satisfactory. Active membership in 1883 stood at 180 while, in 1889, life membership was introduced, at a cost of 20 guineas, mainly to raise funds to assist the move to the new premises. Subscriptions and Branch receipts remained the club's two sources of revenue, with variations in the bank overdraft balancing the difference between income and expenditure. Subscriptions were £589 in 1880/81 but dropped to £426 in 1881/82 leading to employment of a collector by the club. This did not, not surprisingly, prove popular with members.

Assets at the end of 1881/82 were valued at £2735 and in 1884/85 at £3348 (of which latter figure the branch land and buildings comprised £2000). The overdraft at the Bank of New South Wales was paid off by raising a £500 mortgage for three years on the Branch in 1881/82, but a further overdraft with the Commercial Bank of Australia soon started to grow. An extra mortgage of £250 was raised in 1884/85, taking the total to ₤750, while the costs of the new Sydney shed were met by a further mortgaging of the freehold at Abbotsford, making the amount ₤1950. A special general meeting approved new club rules in August, 1884. Among the changes was the introduction of two general meetings of members a year (initially in April and October) in lieu of one in the past.

Social activities were rather restricted. The holding of an annual club dinner at the Branch seems to have commenced about 1885 and to have been quite successful. No special guest of honour was, however, in attendance. There were 50 to 60 present in 1885, with Mrs. Todd, the housekeeper, and her daughters turning on an excellent dinner.

When the speech-making concluded at the 1886 dinner, "the party spent an hour or two in harmony" before returning homeward. Mrs. Brown, the new housekeeper, supervised the 1887 dinner, with assistance from G. G. Forster, treasurer and providore. In 1890, 40 members travelled by steamer to be present. Presentations to popular club members continued-to Charles Deloitte, Clark, Bennett, Cope and the Simpsons - on either retirement from office or a trip out of the colony.

Other Clubs

Mercantile was certainly well established. By 1883 its property was valued at at least ₤2000, including a splendid boat house and some 30 boats. Consideration again turned to establishment of a branch on the Parramatta River. A water frontage was secured in 1883 near the finish of the championship course and the premises were opened with a procession of boats, of course — in June, 1884. There was a boatshed 60' by 20', and a club house containing a dining hall and two dormitories, with a wide verandah around the front and both sides. A kitchen was attached to the rear and close by was a cottage for the housekeeper. Liquor seems to have been served as branch receipts in the first half year totalled ₤200.

Membership stood at 215 in 1885 while the annual balls — often times in the Sydney Town Hall - continued to be great successes. The general depression in the colony at the end of the decade had some effect on the club and the branch was running at a loss by 1889. Mercantile continued to find difficulty in getting on with others. In 1883, it criticised a decision of the Woolloomooloo Bay Regatta committee affecting its own members and expressed the hope that only competent officers would be appointed by the committee as umpires in the future.

In the same year, the club withdrew for the first time from the NSWRA (of which more later on) and, in 1890, one of the club's crews was recorded as winning a race but being disqualified "by an error of judgment on the part of the umpire". One of the club's keenest officials deserves special mention. John Blackman was secretary for eight years, retiring from the post in 1889 to become captain of the club. He was a keen rowing historian and chronicler and, under the pseudonym "Trident", wrote regularly for the Sydney Mail.

The other two existing clubs had mixed fortunes. By 1881, Glebe, with 70 active members, four string-test gigs and six skiffs, was congratulating itself on being "the first rowing club in Sydney entirely free from debt". Extensions to the club were added in 1886 and the fleet had increased to 18 by 1887. Some thought was given in 1888 to the opening of a branch shed on Lane Cove River. North Shore had a large membership (nearly 120) in the early years of the decade but later fell on poorer times. The club withdrew from the NSWRA in 1886 and the ninth general meeting in 1888 debated whether or not to wind the club up. Something of a new start was then made, with the club rejoining the Association in 1889 and boatshed problems with the local council being overcome in 1890 by removal of the shed to a site adjoining the old spot.

The first of the new city clubs was Balmain, founded in June, 1882. The club differed significantly from the existing clubs in that it admitted manual labourers along with bona fide amateurs. The club gained admittance to the NSWRA, but only on the condition that manual labourers did not contest amateur races. The formal opening of the club, at White Horse Point, took place in November, 1882, with the four existing clubs participating in the now traditional procession of boats.

After one year the club had a total of 87 members and by mid -1885 the number was up to 112. Additions and improvements to the shed were completed early in 1887, including construction of a large supper room and "a novel underground bathing contrivance". Among their early honorary members was Bill Beach, the champion sculler, who rowed in Balmain's black and yellow colours in his championship races. Moves to establish a Woolloomooloo Bay Rowing Club commenced late in 1882 but failed to bear fruit until 1885.

Land was obtained on the western side of Woolloomooloo Bay and a shed was erected. At the opening ceremony in October, 1885, there were seven Sydney boats, six Mercantile, four North Shore, ten Glebe and seven Balmain in the opening procession.

In January, 1887, a special meeting approved a change of name to East Sydney Rowing Club and, under this name, the club continued until 1904. The club's captain and leading light for many years was John Myers, oarsman and member of the Sydney Rowing Club committee continuously from 1875 to 1886. By 1889 the club had 16 boats and 125 members, of whom 90 were active.

A significant newcomer was the University of Sydney. The first inter-university boat race was rowed in Melbourne in December, 1870, the Sydney University crew, all members of the then newly formed Sydney Rowing Club, being E. A. Iceton (bow), Edmund Barton, Dick Teece and Allan Yeomans (stroke).

Edmund Barton

Edmund Barton

Melbourne won the first-ever race and also took the return match in Sydney a year later when Grantley Fitzhardinge replaced Barton in the Sydney crew. In 1885 the Sydney University Boat Club was formed (Barton taking the chair at the inaugural meeting). A site was obtained near that of the Woolloomooloo Bay Rowing Club and the club opened in June, 1886.

One of its main objects was the foundation of an annual intercolonial eight race between University men and such a race was arranged for Melbourne in October, 1888. Adelaide University also joined in and the first "intervarsity" eight race resulted in Melbourne 1, Adelaide 2 and Sydney 3, the margins being 4 lengths and 6 lengths. Adelaide beat Melbourne in a return match at Port Adelaide in December, 1889 (with Sydney not present), but in June, 1890, Sydney took on Melbourne, again in Melbourne, and won by 5 lengths.

A second Sydney school - St. Ignatius' College - took to the water in 1883 under the direction of the legendary Father Thomas Gartlan, S.J., himself a keen oarsman. Jim Clark was among those prominent in assisting the college at every stage, including the inauguration, in June, 1885, of their series of famous regattas. The club was admitted to the NSWRA in 1889.

Further attempts were made to open the sport of rowing to other than bona fide amateurs. In March, 1886, the first of the "working men's rowing clubs" - at Balmain-opened for business. A shed was constructed at White Horse Point, a stone's throw only from Balmain Rowing Club itself, and the club's patron, the Governor of the colony, performed the opening ceremony.

Leichhardt Rowing Club, on Iron Cove, commenced in 1886, Sir Henry Parkes, Premier of the colony, performing the opening ceremony in September, 1887. The club was for "manual labourers" and "brain toilers" both, and Sir Henry, who described rowing as "a healthy, beautiful and manly exercise", approved of the club's democratic principle regarding membership.

North Shore Working Men's Rowing Club was established in May, 1888, commencing well with a block of land being donated to the club in Lavender Bay. A club house was erected and, by July, 1889, the club had 32 active members. Pink and blue were chosen as the working men's colours.

Penrith Rowing Club officially opened in March, 1888, and "with such a river as the Nepean at their very doors", it was written, "the people of Penrith ought to be able to keep this club going". The usual procession commenced proceedings, but their first regatta had races for "Indoor Amateurs" and for "Outdoor Amateurs".

Still more clubs appeared. A Manly Rowing and Sailing Club was underway by 1883 but it seems to have shown little activity. By 1884, Parramatta Rowing Club had also appeared on the scene, with a shed at Ryde. Shed extensions were necessary by 1886 but in 1889 tragedy struck: flood waters on the Parramatta severely damaged the shed and also the boats, although the roof of the boathouse was removed to get the boats out. A new shed was formally opened in April, 1890. Meetings also established Botany Boating Club in 1887; Lane Cove Boating Club, Kogarah Bay Rowing Club and Folly Point Boating Club (in Middle Harbour) in 1888; and Ryde Rowing Club in 1889.

In country areas of NSW, rowing also grew in popularity aided, perhaps, by the successes of the professional scullers. Keenest may have been Wagga Rowing Club: founded in 1887, it survived the collapsing of its boatshed twice in as many years, built a third time and rowed on. Rowing continued at Grafton, with the Grafton Rowing Club, apparently a new body, being established in 1882.

The Newcastle Mercantile Rowing Club held its first regatta in 1885. New clubs were initiated or formed at Lake Bathurst (about 1886), Nyngan (1887), Coraki, Eden, Moruya, Wilcannia and Lower Clarence (1888), Southampton, Tarramudi, Wellington, Bourke and Maclean (1889) and at Taree (1890).

Interest by employees of various establishments also continued. Department of Public Instruction officials formed a club in 1880 and conducted several regattas. An "electric telegraph" regatta took place in 1880, while printers held several regattas. A Young Men's Institute commenced rowing in 1886 and the Catholic Young Men's Club conducted regattas in 1888-1889.

The inaugural regatta of the NSW Naval Brigade Aquatics and Athletic Club took place in 1888 and Treasury officers had skiff races in 1889. Six newspapers participated in a press fours' race in 1890.

An ominous event also occurred in 1886: Miss Eadith Walker of Yaralla organised a regatta for women on the Parramatta River!

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