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A Centenary of Rowing Regattas— Murray Rowing Association

1. A Hectic Birth

It is believed that the foundations of a rowing regatta in this district were laid by crew members of the paddle steamers which traded up and down the Murray River between Wahgunyah and Echuca in the mid-nineteenth century. These river sailors competed against one another to pass away the hours while their steamers were unloaded. It was along a section of the course used in those first recreational races that the first Regatta was rowed.

The idea of a Regatta originated when William Lapthorne, a boat builder, said that he could build two boats if given ample time. An order was placed with him and Saturday, February 4th, 1860 was chosen for the date of the first -Regatta. William Lapthorne built the first boat on the middle floor of John Foord's Mill at Wahgunyah. This boat was named the "Maid of the Mill", while the second boat built was named "The Annie" after John Foord's youngest daughter.

It was a very successful first Regatta although the main race was won by a Chiltern boat, "The White Squall" which defeated the two recently built Wahgunyah boats. Squatters and their families arrived at Wahgunyah from early in the morning and with the local inhabitants and the river boat crews, made a colourful day. The Regatta crews themselves were composed mostly of elderly sailors.

With the discovery of gold six miles from Wahgunyah in September, 1860, the township of Rutherglen came into being. Rapidly the population of the district greatly increased and a Committee of energetic Wahgunyah townspeople made the second Regatta on the Murray River a wonderful occasion. The Committee consisted of Messrs. R. Turner, C. G. Baldock, W. Worthington, W. Blair, C. Carr, W. Boyd and Wm. Butler. This successful Regatta had, as the main race, the Wahgunyah Annual Regatta Cup. The prize itself was valued at 50 guineas and 20 sovereigns were offered in addition.

As prize money was here advertised, it is obvious that this Regatta was run on a professional basis at the beginning. Most events, especially the annual Challenge race, were professional until the local rowing association affiliated with the Victorian Rowing Association, an amateur body, in 1891. This step was suggested at a Committee meeting of the local association on July 31st, 1891.

A sub-committee investigated the move and placed its recommendations before the annual meeting on October 2nd, 1891, the suggestions were adopted and the first Amateur race was held on Lake Moodemere, January, 1892.

With rowing a relatively new sport, popularised in England only in the 1820's and 1830's, amateur status in the sport in Australia was just getting on its feet in 1860. Prior to that date there had been some Regattas near Melbourne, but these were held chiefly between watermen - people who plied for hire on the Yarra, between Melbourne and the upper reaches beyond Richmond. The first amateur Regatta in Victoria was the beginning of the Melbourne Regatta on the 4th and 5th of May, 1860 - the Regatta with which the Murray Rowing Association Regatta shares the honour of being one of the oldest continuing rowing carnivals in Australia. Amateur status did not gather strength for years: the V.R.A. itself was not formed until 1876; the rowing association in N.S.W. did not come into being until 1878 and it was not until 1882 that the Amateur Rowing Association of England was formed. The amateur principle defined in 1861 in Melbourne stated that men who gained a livelihood on the water or who accepted a money prize in a rowing match were to be debarred from the Melbourne Regatta. The local regatta commencing before this definition and developing from rivalry among river-boatmen, it is natural that the Murray Rowing Association Regatta did commence as a professional competition.

The success of the second Regatta can be judged from a report in the "Ovens and Murray Advertiser" dated Saturday, January 5th, 1861.
"This long talked of event took place yesterday afternoon and if we may form an opinion from the number of people present, we should say the Regatta was, without exception, the most successful public gathering ever held in the Ovens district. Nearly 3,000 people were present. Visitors travelled by buggies, drays, dog carts, etc., from Albury and Chiltern districts and a few coaches from Beechworth were heavily laden.

The banks of the Murray on both sides were occupied by scores of refreshment tents and although the Albury police attempted to put down the Shanty on the N.S.W. side, it is believed that they were not successful. The publicans did their best to provide refreshments but only early customers stood a chance of obtaining a meal. However there was no lack of liquor - except for 'ginger pop' which was consumed by 2 o'clock that afternoon.

A prettily rigged schooner was moored in the centre of the river as a flagship and the course was properly marked with buoys. The race was over a distance of 1 1/2 miles."

Also in the programme was a swimming race with a prize of £10. The winner of this race was Mr. H. Shadforth, second was Mr. Kisby, Mr. Adam May was third with Mr. Norris fourth. The variety of the programme in these early years shows that the Regatta was almost a Gymkhana, with prizes being offered for swimming and foot races as well as the rowing events, and with other varied amusements such as duck hunts and competitions to climb a greasy pole being staged. (See Appendix 2, the programme for the 1873 Regatta).

1862 saw the Chiltern boat "Nardoo" the winner of the Challenge Cup over a course from the Wahgunyah Bridge to "Brocklesby" and back, a distance of about four miles. Brocklesby was the name of a settlement some two miles downstream from the bridge: this would be in the vicinity of the present day South Corowa School. However, this course was not considered suitable and the 1863 Regatta saw the advent of the annual rowing carnival on Lake Moodemere, where it has been held ever since with the exception of four Regattas, when, owing to insufficient water in the Lake, it was found necessary to revert to the River Murray for the venue.

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