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australian rowers profiles and history

Richard (Dick) C Crebbin

Sydney Rowing Club (NSW)

The following is a profile written by Ian Stewart for the 50th anniversary of the 1959 Sydney High School win in the Head of the River. It is a superb story of a rower, coach, administrator and benefactor of the sport. Thank you Ian.

The success of the 1959 High Eight was due in no small measure to the new eight-oared boat that came their way early in the racing season. Prior to that the Eight had rowed in the ‘Frank Nichols’ in which High had won in 1957 and come third in 1958. The new boat was named the ‘R.C. Crebbin’ in honour of Old Boy Dick Crebbin, whose generosity was largely responsible for the boat’s being built. As was the School’s custom, the boat-building task was in the hands of Gus Green’s team upstairs in the Abbotsford shed. When the crew changed over from the ‘Nichols’ to the ‘Crebbin’ there was an immediate sense of the potential for increased speed. The psychological effect was pervasive and seemed to last until the Head of the River race on 18 April.

Dick Crebbin was born on 21 November 1913 at home at 88 Cascade Street Paddington, almost in the shadow of the Royal Hospital for Women which had been established in that suburb twelve years earlier. He was several weeks premature and was nursed at first in a shoe-box lined with cotton wool. In spite of this shaky start he progressed through childhood unscathed and entered Sydney High School while it was still at its Mary Anne Street address in Ultimo. Very soon he moved with the rest of the school to the brand new Moore Park location in 1928. In the following year he rowed in the bow seat of the High Second Four which came second in its final at the GPS Regatta. 

Dick left school early, enrolling at Sydney Technical College, Ultimo. He had begun working for his uncle, Albert Baldry Abel, at Marrickville Margarine and Eta Foods. The family had long held interests in the vegetable oils industry, his uncle and great-uncle having brought out from Belgium prior to World War I technology for processing vegetable oil products. At about this time he tried his hand at growing peanuts at Copmanhurst, about twenty kilometres upstream from Grafton on the Clarence River. There were two other sites involved in the venture, at Texas, in southern Queensland and Moonbi, near Tamworth. He went back  to Sydney and to work in the family company.

On his return to Sydney Dick took up rowing again. He joined Sydney Rowing Club and, in the 1933/34 season, was in the three-seat of the SRC Eight which won the State Senior Eights’ title over the three mile course on the Nepean by six lengths in a time that was not bettered for a further twenty three years. Following this success Dick gave up active rowing and became first a committee member and later a vice-president of Sydney Rowing Club, a position he held until the late 1960s. 

After giving up active rowing Dick began coaching. He and famed GPS Regatta race starter of the 1960s, Ossie Rosevear, looked after a number of maiden and junior crews at Sydney Rowng Club. Folowing the outbreak of war Dick joined the A.I.F. in 1940, transferring to the RAAF in 1942. He did pilot training at Rathmines, the flying boat base on Lake Macquarie, and at Narrandera and Uranquinty in the Riverina before joining squadrons in New Guinea where he saw service which included missions to rescue downed US airmen from areas heavily fortified by the Japanese.

After war’s end he returned to the family company. He had been appointed Assistant Secretary of Marrickville Margarine P/L in 1938. It was now time to gain a qualification so he studied accountancy and secretarial practice, successfully achieving certification in both fields. Rowing was not entirely abandoned, however. He joined the coaching staff of Scots College and coached the Scots Eight for the years 1950, ‘51 and ‘52. His best result was a second with a crew that rowed gamely in spite of some members suffering from food poisoning on the morning of the race.

By 1953 the family company had begun to concentrate on the production of table margarine, reducing the emphasis on other food and industrial oils such as cooking margarine. Upon his appointment as Managing Director and Chairman of Directors of Marrickville Margarine in 1953, he began a long campaign to have the quotas on the production of table margarine lifted. These quotas had been imposed ostensibly to protect the dairy industry. A High Court challenge failed as did an appeal to the Privy Council.  In the end—in 1973— a way around the impasse was found. Margarine in the ACT was exported to other states and territories under the protection of Section 92 of the Constitution which gives protection to free trade between states . The then Premier of South Australia, Don Dunstan,  abolished the quota system in his state. This broke the deadlock and margarine production went ahead in an unbridled way from that time. 

Sydney High associations with Marrickville Holdings were quite clear-cut in the early 1960s. Peter Shenstone joined the company in 1960 and worked in the Advertising Department. Here he laboured alongside Jim Woodcock of the 1953/54 SHS VIII and Kerry Rubie from the 1957 crew.

Dick Crebbin married Joan Adams in 1954 and had two sons and a daughter. He took a particular interest in Australian art and was appointed Founding Chairman of the National Gallery of Australia in 1974, holding that position until 1982. The then Minister for Home Affairs, Bob Ellicott, appointed him as the first Chairman of Artbank Australia. Dick also served on the board of the Power Institute which led to the creation of the Museum of Contemporary Art, housed in the former Maritime Services Board building on West Circular Quay, Sydney.

Dick Crebbin lived happily in retirement in Castlecrag, on Sydney’s Middle Harbour until his death from prostate cancer on 23 August 1989 at the age of seventy six. For the members of the 1959 High Eight his memory lives on not only in relation the boat in which the race was won but also in the fine replicas of the Major Rennie Trophy which he presented to each crew member.

Ian Stewart
April 2009

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