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History of Rowing NSW

History of Rowing New South Wales

The New South Wales Rowing Association (NSWRA) was formed in 1878.

The lead up to the formation of the association in interesting.

The nature of Sydney Harbour and the Parramatta River, the Sydney economy and the size of the population, all led to a strong and popular professional rowing scene both prior to and after 1869. Sydney became the home of professional sculling in Australia, and at several times later, the world.

So much so, that by 1863, the local colonials sponsored Richard Green to challenge for the Championship of England in London. Sadly he lost.

The evolution of professional sculling is well known so is not pursued here other than to say that professional and amateur rowing co-existed happily in New South Wales, with both supporting the other. Further, the best scullers were the professionals until the retirement of Bobby Pearce prior to WWII.

The earliest boat race between the colonies of NSW and Victoria was held in 1863. It was rowed in gigs over a three-mile course on the Parramatta River. The local four won. The crew comprised some key personnel from a Sydney Rowing Club perspective, namely William Mason, Henry Freeman, Grantley and Arthur Fitzhardinge and cox C Fitzhardinge. Freeman was the person who called the meeting to establish your club, and Arthur and Grantley Fitzhardinge were key rowing members of Sydney Rowing Club. 

In this race the crews were of a representative character, and each crew bore the name of its colony.

1859 also stands out as an important date as that was the date of the establishment of the Australian Subscription Boat Club on the eastern side of Woolloomooloo Bay. This appears to be the first Club in Sydney to provide for rowing. Alan May in his history of the Club quotes the Herald advertisement as follows:

Gentlemen can, by the payment of a moderate subscription quarterly in advance, obtain at any time Pleasure of Fishing Boats, Skiffs, gigs, Eight oared Cutters, funnies, &c., &c.: also have the free use of the spacious Club Room, to which will be attached Coffee and Dressing Rooms.

The establishment of the Australian Subscription Boat Club drew the interest of George Thornton, who was to become a key figure in NSW rowing and also a certain Quarton Levitt Deloitte, who raced successfully with them and then went onto to be Sydney Rowing Club’s first Captain and later an esteemed President.

So why was there a need for the key members of the Australian Subscription Boat Club’s to leave and form Sydney Rowing Club in 1870 and why did the Australian Subscription Boat Club not meet the needs of amateur rowers in Sydney?

The key members of that Club wanted more than it provided. They saw that amateur rowing would be advanced by a different style of club. It appears that this Club was more of a business than a club. Boats were provided in return for the payment of a subscription. There was no coaching or development of rowers. It was a boat hire service.

Whilst amateur rowing continued in the 1860s with amateur races being regularly scheduled at regattas, the number of amateur rowers participating was very low and dominated by a few experience old hands. There was no incentive or desire for young rowers to try their hand. So not all was well with amateur rowing in Sydney. 

A sense of the need for Sydney Rowing Club can be found in a letter to the editor of Bell’s Life in Sydney on 16th Feb 1867, from a reader calling himself Amateur Aquatic.  

To the Editors of Bell's Life in Sydney.)

Gentlemen, The regatta season of 1866 is over with the exception of St. Patrick's Day Regatta. 

There has never been a season before since the foundation of the colony in which there has been so many new yachts brought out, and also in which there has been so little spirit shown by the gentlemen amateur rowers of this city. There have been four Regattas during the season - Balmain, Woolloomooloo Bay, Double Bay and Anniversary Regatta, and there was not a bona fide gentlemen amateurs' match in any one of them. This is not been the fault of the Committees; in each Regatta they have placed the usual gentlemen's races in their programme. The fault is entirely with the gentlemen rowers themselves. Whether our young gentlemen have degenerated within the last two years, and find the amount of labour and physical exertion required to make them rowers too severe for their delicate constitutions, or whether they have grown lazy and indolent, I know not, but the fact, that they do not take the spirit in aquatics that they did two years ago, speaks for itself. 

The author then goes on to allege the few amateur races held were rigged to gain the prize money. Obviously no fear of defamation laws back then. He then continues.

With all the advantages which nature has placed at the disposal of those who take on interest in aquatics in this harbour, the young gentlemen of Sydney (of whom there are plenty) ought to be ashamed to have it said that there is no one properly established Gentleman's Boat Club in the harbour. The gentlemen of Balmain a few years ago made a very good attempt, but allowed the attempt to die out. There does not appear to be any new blood among the few gentleman rowers that are known, the same names appearing now as rowers as appeared five or six years ago. The Messrs Deloitte, Crook, Fitzharding, still hold the first position as gentlemen rowers and did so five years ago. 

So this was the parlous state of amateur rowing in Sydney in 1869 and in the lead up to the creation of Sydney Rowing Club. It is perhaps worth going forward to 1870 to read the formation reports of the club to further understand the lead up.

I will again use Bell’s Life and their report on the establishment of Sydney Rowing Club on 12 March 1870 due to the detail provided.

The writer reports that Sydney Rowing Club was formed to reverse the parlous state of amateur rowing in New South Wales for the purpose of defeating the Victorians. I quote from the article. 


From time to time the subject has often been mooted in rowing circles that some steps ought to be taken to revive amateur rowing as well as to restore the Intercolonial Amateur contest with Victoria. Although the depression has often been lamented, and various remedies proposed, none have been more than talked about more lately, when Mr H. Freeman and other gentlemen arrived at the conclusion that the only thing to be done under the circumstance was to form a rowing association as well as a boat club. The success of the Subscription Regatta encouraged them in the belief that the idea have only to be mooted, when it would be supported in a right hearty manner. We may remark that it seems so strange that Sydney, with so many natural advantages cannot support a boat club. We feel sure that if a club was formed upon something like the same principles as in London and other rowing clubs on the Thames that it would meet with every support at the hands of our amateur rowers. There are any amount of promising amateurs who only want a little "coaching" to make them into high rank as oarsmen; and if a rowing association was formed, every opportunity would be afforded them to practice, as well as pitting themselves against the other members of the club in annual matches. The only question naturally arises will the association be properly supported; and on this point we confess we have some doubts. 

However, we have no intention to discount the promoters of the scheme, as surely amongst all these gentlemen who take an interest in rowing, a sufficient number can be found who will join the club. The promotors believe that if they can get 150 members they will be able to establish a first-class club, and I think they ought to be able to get that number. And according, to advertisement, a number of gentlemen assembled at the Oxford Hotel, on Monday night to consider the advisability of taking steps to establish a Club. Unless amateur rowing was encouraged, our Victorian rivals would beat us at rowing as well as at cricket. 

The report then goes into the detail of the meeting but one sentence caught my eye.

A committee was then formed to ….. select a site upon which to erect the shed. The land between the Government boatshed and Fort Macquarie appeared to all present to be the only space suitable for the purpose, and Mr Freeman was requested to make inquiries of the Government, and ascertain whether the club might have the use of it. 

It appears that getting prime land in Circular Quay was as simple as asking the question.

Alan May in Sydney Rows - A Centennial History of the Sydney Rowing Club published in 1970, describes the lead up to the commencement of the NDSW Rowing Assocation.

A rowing association in NSW itself was soon formed. Although such a body was obviously desirable to decide the measurements of boats, the rules of racing and so on, it was the receipt of a challenge from Victoria for an 1879 race which led finally to its establishment. A public meeting in October, 1878 to consider the challenge decided to form an association and a further meeting soon after considered rules for the new body. Sydney and Mercantile clubs held meetings in December, 1878 to elect three delegates each to the organisation, while Glebe joined up soon afterwards. Sydney nominated Jim Clark, Charles Deloitte and Patrick Anderson (an older member, committeeman and staunch supporter of the Association scheme who died little more than twelve months later). F.H. Dangar, of Mercantile, was elected the Association's first president, while the Governor, His Excellency Lord Augustus Loftus, accepted the patronage of the Association.

The committee also included six individual members, not necessarily members of rowing clubs. The definition of a bona fide amateur decided on by the new body was as follows: "Amateur, to mean any person who has never entered into an open competition either for a stake, public money, or admission money, or entrance fees, at or since the Anniversary Regatta of 1875, or competed with or against any professionals in any way, or who has never taught, pursued or assisted in the pursuit of athletic exercises as a means of livelihood, or who has not been employed in or about boats, or in manual labour".

The Association's first business was, of course, the successful staging of the intercolonial challenge. The race was set down for Sydney on 31 May, 1879 and Jim Clark was appointed coach. The crew was selected early in February and included five Sydney men - William Cope, Bill Anslow, John Arthur, Alex Finlayson and David Lord (stroke), together with three Mercantile members all of whom had rowed in the 1878 crew. Average weight was around 11 stone 4 lbs. The crew rowed in the last weeks from Sydney's Branch quarters, training taking place daily on both land and water. Again, great interest was aroused by the intercolonial event. Though Victoria started favourites, NSW, which was clearly a better crew than the year before, had an Intercolonial oarsman William Cope. easy win. Over the championship course, they finished at 42 strokes to the minute to win by 6 lengths in the time of 20 minutes 6 seconds.

The new Association soon produced other results. Following its dispute with the Balmain Regatta Committee, Mercantile remained out of the 1878 Balmain Regatta. The following year, the Balmain Committee, while still involved in plans for international participation which never eventuated, decided to conduct the regatta under the rules of the new Association. As this meant the judge's decision would henceforth be final, Mercantile buried the hatchet and competed once more. By the time of its first annual meeting in December, 1879, the Association had also introduced a set of rules of racing.

Agreement had also been reached with Victoria that an intercolonial race would be rowed in April of each year in alternate locations, the exact date (other than Easter) being fixed by the committee of the colony in which the regatta was being held. There was one regret: it had not been possible to commence the series of annual regattas the Association had planned. At the meeting, Dangar was succeeded as president of the Association by George Thornton, a position the latter was to hold until his death 22 years later.

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