Scroll To Top
australian rowers profiles and history

Robert Johnstone

Footscray Rowing Club (VIC) and Footscray City Rowing Club (VIC)

Born circa 1850 and died aged 92 on 20 May 1942

The following is an extract from a speech given by Andrew Guerin to the Footscray City Rowing Club 125th anniversary dinner on 1st September 2018.

The first story is of one of the members of both the original Footscray Rowing Club and Footscray City Rowing Club, Robert Johnstone, and highlights the amateur rule issues of the 19th and 20th century and interestingly indicates that the original and the new Footscray City Rowing Club spanned both amateur and professional rowing.

Robert Johnstone hailed from Cowper Street. He was a member of the 1879, 1880 and 1881 Melbourne Regatta winning senior four for the Grand Challenge Cup and a member of the 1880-82 senior eights which won three times at the Melbourne Regatta, thus winning the W J T Clarke Challenge Cup outright.

The Argus in 1942 reported that he was also a member of the rowing eight which in 1883 established a world record for a 2 mile course which at the time of publication, had never been beaten.  

Johnstone was employed for 42 years as the librarian at the Footscray Mechanics Institute, the same place as the founding meeting of Footscray City Rowing Club. I suspect that he may have been the driving force behind the literary and debating society and the creation of a library at the old Clubhouse in the 1930s. He was born, bred, lived and died a Footscray man and lived for his Footscray community. 

But of interest to this discussion, he was selected to challenge the world professional sculling champion, Canadian Edward Hanlan, no doubt during 1880s . The match did not eventuate because Hanlan insisted that the race be held in England rather than in Australia. However the only way a person could have made such a plausible pitch was to have a betting syndicate backing and financing the rower. The citizens of Footscray must have put up their ‘hard earned’ to make such a bid. That is how the professional sporting environment worked. 

Such a match would have been legendary and the making of professional sculling in Victoria, a State which did not have a history of world class professional sculling. Rowing in Footscray may have taken a very different turn had Johnstone raced Hanlan.

At another level altogether, the amateur rules were a cause of friction at times between Footscray and other members of the Victorian Rowing Association. The amateur rules adopted by the VRA were only concerned with excluding those who raced for money in any sport or was a waterman, a person who was employed in or about boats. However the NSW and English amateur rules had the manual labour distinction, namely “has or is employed as a mechanic, artisan or labourer or engaged in any menial duty.”  This rule caused great grief to intercolonial racing for many years. 

But back here in Victoria, the lack of distinction between manual workers and others served the sport well given the nature of its member clubs. However when the manual labourers from Footscray started to win too much, pressure to follow the NSW and English definition grew. Fortunately such pressure was resisted and a motion moved by Mr Colville of the Civil Service Rowing Club to debar manual labourers from competing at regattas was soundly defeated.  Immediately after the three senior eight wins at the Melbourne Regatta in 1882, certain races were introduced for non-manual labourers. Civil Service Rowing Club lost the debate about the amateur rule but succeeded in splitting certain races. Fortunately this distinction was very short lived.

The successful Footscray eight were largely comprised of Harbour Trust employees and were known as the “mud punchers” as their work involved wheeling barrow loads of silt.  This derogatory term appears to have been worn with pride by at least one of them, Robert Johnstone. These were not the only names for those from this area. The Footscray Football Club website also records that terms such as “Bone-mill fellows”, “representatives of Stoneopolis” and the “men from the land of boulders” were also used and no doubt binding the community together yet further.

The success of the Footscray crew led to a challenge coming from a crew made up of Oxford and Cambridge blues. The challengers lost and the crew fell in with a proposal to send them to England. The money was raised again, but they could not find any English crew to compete with them under the English rule banning manual workers from amateur rowing.

Much has been written on this specific topic, and I draw your attention to one contemporary article by local historian Darren Arthur titled “A Dirty Moleskin Crowd: The Footscray Rowing Eight, Amateurism and the manual labour issue at the Melbourne Regatta, 1880-1886.”  Arthur states:

…The winning of the Clarke Cup in lasting perpetuity by the Footscray eight came to symbolize working-class triumph over upper and middle class domination. The win allowed the lower strata of society to thumb their collective noses at the ‘scions of society’ and middle class controllers of the sport, reversing the natural dichotomy of years past…. 

Arthur later refers to an article in the Sportsman which described the elation and vocal support of the Footscray crowd on the following steamers. I quote: “The reporter who boarded one of the steamers to witness the event had been told by a friend that not to say a word against Footscray this trip, or you may have to swim for it. In describing the behaviour of local Barrackers he observed that “if the [losing] Melbourne and City (later Hawthorn) crews had been Fenians, Chinamen, Russians or Boers, they could not have been treated to more abuse”.

Other newspaper articles, largely generated by interviews given by club member Robert Johnstone to reporter Hec de Lacy, are headed: “Epic Story of River Rivalry: Footscray Toilers Defeated Scions of Society”: Sporting Globe 1931 . A little later, another article was titled “Did Mudpunchers Inspire Fairbairnism? Bob Johnson on Noted Footscray Rowing Style”: Sporting Globe 1936 . And another articles headed “Mudpunchers were always very fit: Physical Jerks – Barrow pushing helped the crews” Sporting Globe 1936 . And finally, “How the Mudpunchers won Clarke Cup” Sporting Globe 1936. 

In his later life, Robert Johnstone obviously enjoyed having his story told, and it was a great story. He was a champion rower who overcame many difficulties to compete, and obviously captured the hearts and minds of his community.

Johnstone deserved his accolades. 

Andrew Guerin
October 2020


Footscray Rowing Club history booklet 2018 by Kevin Bourke
The Victorian Oarsman by John Lang 1919
The Argus 21 May 1942
Launceston Examiner, 27 July 1880 p3 as referenced in Darren Arthur - “A Dirty Moleskin Crowd: The Footscray Rowing Eight, Amateurism and the manual labour issue at the Melbourne Regatta, 1880-1886.” Sporting traditions, Vol 35 no. 1 (May 2018), p10
The Bulletin 7 Nov 1934 page 35
Sporting traditions, Vol 35 no. 1 (May 2018), pp1-21
Darren Arthur - “A Dirty Moleskin Crowd: The Footscray Rowing Eight, Amateurism and the manual labour issue at the Melbourne Regatta, 1880-1886.” Sporting traditions, Vol 35 no. 1 (May 2018), p3-4
Sporting Globe 23 May 1931 page 5
Sporting Globe 15 July 1936 page 11
Sporting Globe 22 July 1936 page 11
Sporting Globe 2 Sept 1936 page 12

Website by Hope Stewart—Website Design & Management