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History of Rowing Victory Inc

History of Rowing Victoria Inc

2. Formation of the Association, 1860-1876

Amateur rowing commences in earnest

Chapter 2 page 1, 2, 3, 4

Page 1 - Amateur rowing commences in earnest

Page 2 - Rowing in country Victoria

Page 3 - Rowing around Australia


Amateur rowing began in earnest after the gold rush when greater wealth accelerated leisure, more service jobs and school and university sport. The first iteration of a Victorian rowing association was created in the form of the Melbourne Regatta Committee. This body organised the Melbourne Regatta, which was the de facto championship amateur regatta, and established rules of racing. It also became a body to which clubs discussed wider issues concerning rowing and promoted intercolonial competition.

Other regattas in regional areas also commenced including at Wahgunyah in 1860 on the Murray River between sailors of the river boat crews. This regatta evolved into the current Murray Rowing Association annual regatta on Lake Moodemere. During the decade rowing blossomed on Lake Wendouree in Ballarat as rowing took a firm footing in that city.

Victoria in 1860s

The State Library of Victoria accurately summarises this decade as follows1:

The 1860s were a time of great industrial change in Victoria. While the prosperity of the goldrush continued, tension over remaining fertile land built between landholders, goldminers, squatters and the colonial governments.

This demand for farmland ignited interest in exploring the regional and remote parts of Victoria, and the wider continent. One such expedition was that of Burke and Wills, who set off (with a crew of nineteen) from Melbourne's Royal Park in August, 1860. Their purpose was to cross the vast Australian continent.

With increased wealth and greater means of transport, the arts and sporting industries also flourished in the 1860s.

The growth of amateur rowing in the State, and in particular Melbourne, demonstrates the growing wealth and time now available for recreation.

To illustrate the nature of these times, pre the gold rush, it was a quiet town where it was unkindly said that the opening of a window would draw a crowd.

Some key milestones in this period -

  • A gas works established in 1856 to enable gas lighting to be introduced.
  • Transport was by horse and bullock teams. Small hansom cab rides were very expensive.
  • Roads were poor with huge amounts of money spent to macadamise (gravel) roads and remove stumps. Toll roads often paid for this work.
  • The first train from the city to Port Melbourne began in 1854.
  • Punts still had a good business crossing the Yarra River although a wooden Bridge was built at much the same point as the current Princes Bridge and in 1860 a bridge was built across the Yarra from Richmond to the Botanic Gardens. The growth of roads, bridges and trains killed water transport.
  • The port at Queens Street flourished with warehouses and bond stores built. The owners and workers from these businesses formed rowing clubs such the Warehousemens Rowing Club.
  • By 1860, the electric telegraph was beginning to make good progress with it becoming a major utility and again, it's employees formed their own Electric Telegraph Rowing Club.
  • The original brickworks were built in the area now occupied by the rowing Clubs on Boathouse Drive.

Melbourne Regatta

The Melbourne Regatta and its committee were fundamental to the development of rowing in Victoria. For 16 years from 1860 to the formation of the Victorian Rowing Association in 1876, the regatta committee organised the Melbourne Regatta, which was the de facto championship amateur regatta and established rules of racing. It also became a body to which clubs discussed wider issues concerning rowing and promoted intercolonial competition.

The following description of the formation of the regatta comes from John Lang's The Victorian Oarsman (details below) from page 252.

Rowing in Victoria has been popular from early days of the settlement. 

At the regatta held at Melbourne in 1841, and at Geelong in 1847, competitors were chiefly watermen, but some events for amateurs were included, particularly at the Geelong Regattas. In the 'fifties boats were of the gig type. On 10th March, 1857, the first regatta was held on the Upper Yarra, events being chiefly for watermen, many of whom plied for hire between Melbourne and the upper reaches of the Yarra about Richmond and beyond. The natural rivalry of these men resulted in the starting of this regatta, which, however, owing to want of funds did not carry on after 1859.

Some events for amateurs had been included in the programme, and an impetus was given to amateur boat racing. Several clubs were founded, and at the instance of Professor M. H. Irving the "Melbourne Regatta” was started in I860.

To Professor Irving is due the credit of starting amateur oarsmanship in Victoria and the Melbourne Regatta, the first regatta for amateurs in Australia. He stood out above others as an oarsman, and he was in all respects the head and front of Victorian rowing in its early years.

The Professor used to claim with pride that he was a member of the first winning crew in a race between amateurs on the Yarra. This happened on the 3rd September, 1859, when four members of the Melbourne University Boat Club, founded that day, raced a crew of men from the metropolitan Banks.

This is the best place to give some detail of so interesting an event. The course was from the Botanical Bridge to Princes Bridge. Professor Irving stroked the University Four in an outrigger "lent by Mr. Smith, of the tannery." This boat is probably Mr. Smith’s "Victory" that won the “ Coppin Sculls" at the old Upper Yarra Regatta. Irving’s experience and judgment in taking the "Baths Corner," and his powers as a stroke, resulted in the University winning by three lengths. The crews were:— University B.C.: C. Farewell (bow), V. E. Giblin (2), J. J. Bowman (3), M. H. Irving (stroke), C. Browning (cox), 1. Banks crew: T. W. Palmer (bow), W. Wood, (2), J. Long (3), R. W. Wilkinson (stroke), R. F. Hollick (cox), 2.

The first Melbourne Regatta was held on the 4th and 5th May, 1860, on the Upper Yarra over a course of about a mile and a quarter, starting at "Morgan's Ferry” (that would be a little upstream from "Henley finish”) and ending at the corner above the Richmond punt (Punt Road), near the present "Cremorne Corner." The 1861 regatta finished at the Botanical Gardens Bridge. The site of this old bridge, and a later one that took its place, has been obliterated in the River Improvement Scheme carried out in the later 'nineties of last century [1890s]. The same work has done away with the sharp turn known as the "Baths Corner” at or near the point where the long sweeping curve of New Cut Corner now carries the channel. Part of the old river bed at “ Baths Corner” is included in the lake in the Botanical Gardens where the "Danger” board marks deep water.

The Melbourne Regatta Committee for sixteen years managed the regatta, promoted several Intercolonial races, and became the arbiter in rowing matters in Victoria. In 1870, chiefly through the work of Mr. J. H. Hood (Mr. Justice Hood, Supreme Court of Victoria), the Victorian Rowing Association was started and took over management of the Melbourne Regatta and rowing affairs. In 1900 an amended set of rules gave the Association entire control of all amateur aquatic events in the State at which any of its members competed. The Association has been signally successful.

The importance of this regatta in the development on amateur rowing in Victoria 


Again we draw on John Lang's 1919 book for his description of the move from a largely professional sport to amateurism. Again we can thank Prof. Martin H Irving for the encouraging the development of amateur rowing in Victoria3.

Victoria was fortunate in having a strong-minded English amateur oarsman like Professor Irving as leader in the early days. In 1861 the Melbourne Regatta Committee adopted a definition the principle of which is on all fours with that to-day ruling throughout Australia. Men gaining their livelihood on the water, and anyone who competed for a money prize in a rowing match was debarred from amateur status. Some of the other Colonies for a long time allowed money prizes to be competed for by their oarsmen, but the principles of amateurism now adopted follow on much the same lines as in this State.

While putting the amateur status so soon on a sound basis, our early rowing legislators did not follow the English amateur oarsmen's practice and debar those gaining a livelihood by manual labour, or as the unfortunate debarring term in the English rules has it, “those engaged in any menial duty." For a very short period in the 'eighties Victorian rowing thought looked askance at oarsmen whose ordinary work in life was that of labour needing physical strength. The distinction lasted a very short time. Perhaps the English rule may soon be altered in favour of one (from an Australian point of view at least) having less mark of “class distinction." One has heard much during the Great War of a new condition of society, and the qualities of manhood counting as much as qualities of birth, education, and training. Should there be anything in all this, surely the field of sport is one of the first where influences of the artificial bounds of "class” might well disappear.

The amateur debate was not quite as simple as that described by John Lang. Sadly, some clubs favoured the barring of manual labourers from amateur rowing and for a short period, races were introduced for non-manual labourers. 

More significantly, the difference in the amateur rules between the colonies led to NSW not competing at all Inter-Colonial competitions and the Victorian Rowing Association delegating it's Inter-Colonial responsibilities to a committee run by George Upward to get around the problems that arose from Victorian amateurs racing non-amateurs from other States. There will be more on this topic in later chapters.



  1. Victoria through the decades | State Library Victoria ( extracted 10th February2024
  2. The Victorian Oarsman by John Land published by Messina & Co, Melbourne, 1919, page 25
  3. John Lang, page 27 and 28

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