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australian rowers profiles and history

Alfred Jonsson

Footscray City Rowing Club (VIC)

The following is an extract of a speech given to the members of the Footscray City Rowing Club on the occasion of the 125th anniversary dinner in 1st September 2018.

As you will all recall, the First World War finished with the cessation of hostilities on 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. Soldiers had to remain in position until the leaders settled the terms of the peace with the Treaty of Versailles of 28 June 1919. It then took two years to repatriate several hundred thousand home hungry soldiers back home. There were simply were not sufficient ships to do this work. Many activities were arranged to keep soldiers busy and the AIF Sports Control Board was established to create inter platoon to inter Army sporting events – even hand grenade throwing! 

One of the targeted rowing events was the Henley Peace Regatta, the first Henley Royal Regatta after WWI.

A trophy was presented by King George V to the winning crew of the inter-allied army eight oared race, a race in substitution for the Grand Challenge Cup in that year. The race was won by the Number 1 AIF crew and the King’s Cup was presented to them. After a struggle with the War Authorities who wanted to keep the cup as a war trophy, the King kindly stepped in and accepted the request of the crew that it becomes the perpetual trophy for the interstate Championship.

The Footscray connection was Alfred ‘Chops’ Jonsson, who for a time was the six man of the crew before he was sent back home early against his wishes. His story provides an insight into the Club at the turn of the century, and also your King’s Cup connection.

Jonsson was one of Footscray City Rowing Club’s notable oarsmen. He was a blacksmith by trade, a profession later termed engineer, and served in the Veterinary Corps. He obviously suffered from some ailment because it was only late in the war, and on his third attempt, did he succeed in becoming a soldier. And later, he was ill in hospital during his time overseas for influenza and separately blood poisoning . 

Jonsson’s early years of rowing were quite interesting and I use a 1921 Herald article on him as the base of his story . 

When he was a boy, Jonsson used to say that when he was old enough he would join the Footscray City Rowing Club. At every available opportunity he would go down to the Footscray boathouse and hire a boat from "Billy" Fawcett's father at 1/ an hour. He was so fond of the sport that the time limit was often exceeded by as much as five or six hours.

Jonsson joined Footscray at the age of 19 and so fulfilled that wish. Success did not come his way early, for he had 20 starts before winning his maiden eight at Colac in 1913. In the same year he also won his maiden four and a double pair at Albert Park and Upper Yarra. In 1915 he won a maiden eight and junior pair on the same day at Colac. These two events were decided within 20 minutes, the rowers stepping out of one boat into another. Success in a junior four followed these events, and he narrowly missed his junior eight at Barwon Heads.

The following year saw the Footscray oarsman win his first senior pair, the scene being once again at Colac. After this victory he did not row in regatta races again until 1920, when he returned from active service. Jonsson then won in quick succession senior pairs at Colac and Albert Park, and he was second to Nagambie in the champion pairs.

If he had been successful in the champion pairs event, Jonsson stated that he would have retired from rowing, as he had already joined the local bowling club with the intention of dropping the oar for the less strenuous exercise. However, at the beginning at the 1921 season he was elected a vice-president of the rowing club: he could not resist having another season, as it was his ambition to win a champion pair and secure a seat in the Interstate crew. That ambition was realised, for he won his champion pair with "Billy" Fawcett after also being successful in senior pairs at Upper Yarra, Ballarat, and Barwon Heads.

Jonsson had numerous starts with senior eights and fours, but without any appreciable success. He stated that the Footscray Club is at great disadvantage in these events owing to the lack of senior men to select from.

He has won numerous combination and club races and in all of which he was in the stroke seat. In open events he has rowed behind Fawcett, whom he considers the most vigorous stroke of Melbourne crews— a man who does not know when he is defeated until the judge's gun goes off.

Jonsson was also a cricketer, basketballer, footballer and tug of war puller. Specifically on the latter, he was a member of Kinnear's rope works team, which was successful at a Footscray carnival in 1916. Abroad he pulled with the Veterinary Corps and won 18 out of 21 matches.

His family were also heavily involved in the Footscray Football Club with brother Len playing for the Club and his niece marrying 1954 premiership player Angus Abbey. Their son, Ross Abbey also played over 100 games. 

Now back to ‘Chops’ Jonsson’s experiences abroad.

While in France with the A.I.F. Jonsson became a member of the Calais Rowing Club. The subscription to that club was five francs, or 4/2 in English money, which he regarded as probably the cheapest club in the world. 

Then came his greatest disappointment. He was ordered home to Australia by the Medical Board, after having trained with the A.I.F. No. 1 crew at Putney. His medical category was downgraded to B and only those with an A rating could participate in representative AIF Sports.  

He was rowing in the 6 seat and was in great form. He considered that the crew was the best he had ever had the pleasure to row in. It represented the cream of Australia's oarsmen, so that the members had to row up to the top of their form to keep their seats. That Jonsson was highly thought of is apparent from the fact that when the embarkation order came, a deputation of officers of high military standing, who included General Howse. V.C., Major Tulloch, and Major Middleton, could not make the authorities alter their decision.  

This was his second disappointment. The selectors had originally sought to gain the services of his club mate and pair partner, Billy Fawcett, and race them as the pair. Unfortunately Lieut. Fawcett had already embarked for Australia having been sent home on account of severe wounds. 

The rest is history, so to speak. The A.I.F. crew won the King's Cup and it is now the perpetual trophy for the Men’s Interstate Eight Oared Championship of Australia.

AIF No 1 crew with Alfred Jonsson in the six seat in April 1919 on the Thames in London

Andrew Guerin
September 2018


  1. LT G H Goodard, Soldiers and Sportsmen, AIF Sports Control Board 1919
  2. WWI service records National archives NAA: B2455, JONSSON JOHN ALFRED
  3. [Footscray] Independent, 2 August 1919, p. 3
  4. Herald, Sat 23 April 1921 page 4
  5.  As above
  6. Footscray Rowing Club history booklet 2018 by Kevin Bourke
  7. Weekly Times 17 May 1919 p 20

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