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History of Rowing Victory Inc

History of Rowing Victoria Inc

6. The War Years (1910-1919)

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The great social changes created by the war years did not abate in the 1920s, they accelerated. The Edwardian era differed markedly from the Victoria.

The changes were not just cultural, the economy boomed and housing grew. Governments improved infrastructure with significant expenditure in electricity production, roads and water. The "Roaring Twenties" were great, until late in 1929 when the Great Depression took hold.

From a rowing perspective, both the sport and women's rowing grew, the latter benefitting from the social changes of this era. Women took men's jobs during the war and now there was no turning back. Equality of the sexes took significant steps forward and women's rowing was no exception.


The big event for the sport nationally at that time was the recommencement of the men's Interstate Championships after the war. From a historical perspective, an even bigger event occurred, the first official Interstate Women's Championship, a four. 

This first official women's championship was conducted at the same time and place as the men's championships and provided good racing. NSW raced well and took the early lead. The South Australians then put on a great effort to row through the NSW crew and take the lead. The Queensland crew also rowed through the NSW crew to gain level terms with the South Australians. The crews used regulation fours, which were boats with a flat bottom and quite wide.

The South Australians were all from the Mannum Rowing Club with stroke and three seat being sisters. Edna Arnold lived and died in Mannum. Dorothy Arnold lived at Brighton Beach, Victoria and died in 1989 aged 93. As an aside, Dorothy Bertha Arnold, was born 1895 and Edna Alice Arnold born 1897. They were daughters of Johan Georg Arnold, probably the most famous of the paddle steamer builders, operators and repairers on the Murray River, based at Mannum. He was a Swede who skipped Sweden to escape detention after a workers’ strike of which he was a leader, coming to SA in 1899. 

Also historically important was the creation of the Australian Women's Rowing Council at this regatta on 13th May 1920. Furthermore, the Queensland United Licensed Victuallers' Association agreed to donate a splendid trophy made from 100 silver guineas to be known as the ULVA trophy but more commonly and affectionately known as "Bertha", presumably after the stroke Dorothy Arnold whose middle name was Bertha. It was a fitting trophy for such an important event.

This trophy is still proudly used today and bears the name the Queen's Cup.

Some extracts from the Victorian Rowing Association annual report.

Significantly, this season was the first for six years in which a full programme of regattas and championships, including the Interstate races, was held, and it was acknowledged that the standard of racing and competition matched, if not exceeded the record of pre-war rowing. The Nagambie Rowing Club won the coveted Senior Premiership, despite defeat in the champion eight, and the Banks Rowing Club would see success in the junior division.

The season was opened in splendour with combination eight-oared races in October. An impressive entry of 23 crews was received, and the winning crew comprised of athletes from the Banks, Yarra Yarra, Civil Service, Hawthorn, Mercantile and Footscray Rowing Clubs. The trophy for the coxswain winning the most heats was won by Master E Counihan of Mercantile Rowing Club.

After having been suspended for five seasons on account of the war, the class Australian Eight-Oared Championship race was revived, and rowed over the three mile course on the Brisbane River in May. Each of the six states were represented on a day were ideal weather conditions prevailed. South Australia were crowned the winners, with the state of Victoria finishing fifth. 

In connection with the revival of this great race, the Queensland Rowing Association permitted an interstate four-oared race to be rowed between ladies’ crews from South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales. The ladies met on the 13th of May and formed the Australian Ladies’ Rowing Council. A letter was written to the Association stating the desire of the Council that the ladies’ Interstate race be rowed annually in conjunction with the Australian Eight-Oared and Sculling Championships. This motion was not favoured by many of the state representative associations for rowing.

The integration of the men's and women's Interstate Championships did not occur regularly until 1976 and the two Associations did not merge until 1980. The eventual fully integration of the two Associations was forced upon the sport by government policy. By the time of integration, most clubs had men's and women's programs and the delay in the integration was due to a variety of reasons including fear of lack of autonomy by the women's Association of being lost in the far larger men's association, loss of some funding when funding had been granted to both the men's and women's arms of effectively the same organisation, and some residual men's clubs reticence of change.

In 1920, both the Victorian men's and women's associations wanted to maintain separate identities and there was no discussion of this possibility. Disappointingly when viewed through the lens of today, the Victorian Rowing Association voted against the women's interstate races being conducted with the men. 


Some extracts from the Victorian Rowing Association annual report.

Interest in the sport of rowing in Victoria this year surpassed the levels seen before the Great War, as membership and competitor numbers rose dramatically compared to the year previous. The newly formed Preston Rowing Club joined the Association, and the Shepparton and Eaglehawk Clubs became re-affiliated, having been closed down during the war.

The Association suffered a tremendous loss this year with the death of President Mr Henry Gyles Turner, who occupied the role with great esteem since the year 1885. During his long connection with the Association, Henry made a wonderful impression on many oarsmen and was always a keen presence at many regattas. Further tragedy was endured when the death of Vice-President John Lang was announced, in England where he was enjoying an extended holiday. Publisher of the book, “The Victorian Oarsmen”, which contained a complete record of Victorian Regattas, John’s presence and contribution to the sport of rowing in Victoria will be highly missed.

The Australian Eight-Oared Championship was rowed on a straight three mile course on the Tamar in April, and was won in a record time of 14 minutes 37 seconds by Tasmania. The Victorian crew rowed well and finished in third place. 

This year was of great significance for Interstate rowing, as His Majesty the King has approved the request of the 1920 Interstate Conference, and directed that the King’s Cup, won by the AIF crew at the Royal Henley Peace Regatta, be utilised as a perpetual trophy for the Interstate Eight-Oared Race. The King’s Cup is undoubtedly the finest trophy for any amateur sport in the Commonwealth.

The story of the gaining of the King's Cup as the perpetual trophy for the men's interstate eight oared championship of Australia is one of the great Australian sports stories and is covered elsewhere. 

Following the cessation of war in 1918, wartime authorities created diversions for war weary soldiers who needed activities as they waited for up to two years for transport home. The recovery from the ravages of war through sport became a significant benefit of these activities. The selection processes for the Henley Peace Regatta and the Inter Allied Games had the added difficulties of locating, gathering, maintaining and dealing with men recovering from the rigors of war. The role of sport in this time was aptly reported by the Daily Telegraph on 25th March 1919: "It is now the turn of sport to win the Peace."

To complicate matters more, war-hardened soldiers demanded coaches to coach them in the style they had been used to before the conflict. In the end, they enjoyed tough racing, and then success in winning the King’s Cup at the Henley Peace Regatta, the regatta at which they all sought to race. 

The story did not end there. War time authorities sought to keep the King’s Cup as a trophy of war. The rowers and astute administrators of the time had other ideas.

Given that there was no national rowing association, the Victorian Rowing Association, and in particular Edward Kenny, took the lead in the fight. When all avenues were lost, Kenny prepared a petition to the King signed by the stroke of the AIF No 1 crew who won the trophy at the Henley Peace Regatta in 1919, Clive Disher, asking the King to over ride his advice from his Ministers and give the Cup to the rowers. The petition politely stated that 5000 Australian rowers fought for him in WWI and implicit in this request was that this gesture was a minor request in return. 

Given the sacrifices, the request could not be denied, and eventually confirmed by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Winston Churchill. The story, and the recognition of rowers who served in WWI, will continue, in perpetuity, as the states battle to win this prized trophy each year. Some quotes from prominant rowers 100 years on in 2019 summarise the important of the King's Cup.

The King’s Cup holds a special place in the hearts of Australian rowers. The fierce rivalry, tribal elements and intensity of racing make it a most coveted trophy. It’s also an annual reminder of the 5,000 rowers who served in WW1, and the fighting spirit of the winning AIF crew in 1919 that is an inspiration not only to rowers but all Australians —Robert Scott, President Rowing Australia 

It’s hard to imagine being in the first King’s Cup; the horrors of the war still fresh, the sacrifice of so many soldiers—and then the joy of the Peace regatta. The King’s Cup creates a deep sense of history, rivalry and camaraderie. This elevates the racing and—in my view—is the match of any Olympic regatta. The King’s Cup simply inspires. —Drew Ginn, Triple Olympic Champion and Multiple King's Cup winner 

There is no greater celebration in Australian sport than to honour the bravery, camaraderie and spirit of our AIF and to compete resolutely for their King’s Cup with your crewmates —Michael McKay OAM, Dual Olympic Champion and 13 time King's Cup winner.


Some extracts from the Victorian Rowing Association annual report.

All members of the Victoria Rowing Association could happily agree that the sport of rowing in the state was firmly re-established on its pre-war basis, membership levels and regatta entries were the highest in the history of the Association.

The race for the Australian Eight-Oared Championship was held over three miles on the Parramatta River in May. All members of the crew were representatives of Mercantile Rowing Club, this was the first occasion that the state was fully represented by a club crew. The crew was coached by Mr A B Sloan, and in a superb performance finished second to the powerful South Australian crew. This second place finish was the best the state had seen since they were victorious in 1912. Through the courtesy of the authorities of the North Shore Church of England Grammar School the crew resided at the School’s fine boathouse at  Gladesville.

Interestingly, before the Victorian Eight left for Sydney the Ballarat Regatta Association, on behalf of the three Ballarat Rowing Clubs, issued a challenge to the crew with a view to the winners of the challenge race representing the state. This challenge was not entertained, as it did not admit the right of any club or combination to challenge the crew selected by the Selection Committee.


The Princes Bridge Boat Staging 1912-19271

All rowing clubs face the perpetual issue of a boat staging unless they are fortunate that their boating area is situation on a waterway with a sand covered, beach style, gradual embankment. Very few areas offer such a natural and pleasant access.

The Yarra River, with it's excessive silt, strong currents and flooding, has always required a sturdy staging.

The original stagings were private and built by the resident boat builders and no doubt required much repair after each flood. As most Princes Bridge clubs boated from the boatbuilders boatshed, and many suburban clubs rented rooms from the boatbuilders during the racing season, these private arrangements worked well.

Later in the nineteenth century, clubs were beginning to build their own sheds at Princes Bridge and elsewhere and this complicated the issue.

The following story provides an insight into these staging issues and also highlights the impacts of the twentieth century World Wars on civic infrastructure. The information is sourced from a voluminous Rowing Victoria file and is interesting.

On 22nd of August 1912, Ted Kenny, as Honorary Secretary of the Victorian Rowing Association, wrote to the Secretary of the Department of Works seeking their assistance with the rebuilding of the staging. "At the present time it is in a very dangerous condition and as the beams are not sound enough to hold a nail it is practically beyond repair." Interestingly, the clubs and boatbuilders offered to pay 8% of the cost pa to cover the interest on the cost of the construction and also ongoing maintenance of the staging. On 12th February 1913, the Secretary of the Department of Public Works disputed the assessment of the state of the staging, undertook to repair parts of the staging, and advised that the government did not have the 400 pounds required to rebuild it. John Lang, on behalf of the Association, lobbied the Minister (in 1913 called "interviewing" the Minister) without success.

The Melbourne City Council also agreed to undertake some temporary repairs but without taking any liability for the staging. Whilst all this was occurring, World War 1 commenced and all focus and money was devoted to the war.

By mid 1914, a committee titled The Alexandra Park Committee (controlled by the Melbourne City Council), which was responsible for the maintenance of the river banks above the high water mark, was asked to consider the future maintenance and control of the staging and met with Messrs. Kenny and Lang of the VRA. The Committee has no funds and was also reluctant to fund infrastructure which was used by only rowing clubs and boat builders. 

Realising that the clubs would have to lead the initiative, in the same manner as clubs in other areas of the State, the VRA proposed that the Clubs and the Henley Committee contribute but on the condition that the boatbuilders bore most of the cost. In a lengthy report back to the VRA Committee of October 1914, Kenny and Lang made this recommendation, which the VRA Committee accepted. However, neither the Henley Committee nor all Princes Bridge clubs agreed with this solution and matter was carried forward into 1915, then 1916. By September 1916, the VRA sought from The Alexandra Park Trust for their estimate of the annual maintenance cost of the staging and an amount for a sinking fund for replacing the staging in due course. The VRA proposed that they would then allocate the cost to the various parties. The Trust agreed to provide the information requested and in January 1917 advised that 50 pounds pa for both maintenance and a sinking fund would suffice.

Again this idea failed by May 1917 due to disputes about the allocation - with the clubs happy to pay 25 pounds pa but the boatbuilders refusing to pay their share, their businesses having come to a standstill due the war. The VRA concluded that the matter be held over until the end of the war. 

However yet another twist in the story arose with the Lands Department handing over responsibility of the boatshed area to The Alexandra Park Trust from 1st July 1917 and all rents would thence forward be paid to the Trust along with the new 50 pounds pa staging charge. The VRA was asked for their views on the allocation amongst the interested parties and responded that 25 pounds be allocated equally between University, Yarra Yarra, Banks, Richmond, Mercantile, Melbourne and Civil Service clubs, and the other 25 pounds allocated to boat builders be charged in proportion to the rent paid by them.  No Henley Committee contribution was considered. Furthermore the Alexandra Park Committee reduced the first year payment to 30 pounds but asked that the VRA collect the money on their behalf. The VRA declined their request but in the end attempted to do so. VRA Hon, Secretary Ted Kenny recorded in a private note to John Lang his complaint about the correspondence, telephone calls and discussions involved, "and I reckon they owe me a pair of boots for the running about I have had in collecting the money." He added that he had no luck in getting Greenlands to contribute. John Lang personally paid for the University contribution given the slow response from University.

The same fee was charged for the next few years and the VRA again was the collector. The Council gradually took over the collection of non-affiliated Clubs prompted by Melbourne Rowing Club disaffiliating from the VRA, Melbourne Grammar School building their own boatshed, and the boatbuilders losing their tenants.

By 1921, even the Melbourne City Council agreed that the staging was in a dangerous condition with the sub-structure failing, and needing to be replaced. Even though the sinking fund had grown to 111 pounds, contributions from the now eight clubs and two boat builders needed to be increased to 10 pounds pa. And further increases followed. As expected there was much debate around the nature of the staging.

It was still not until 1927 that the staging was replaced with concrete footings and jarrah wooden structure at a total cost of 2,157.5 pounds. The funding came from the sinking fund of 430 pounds, a contribution of 700 pounds from the Henley Committee and further contributions from the Clubs of 904 pounds. The staging was built. The balance of 123 pounds was eventually paid by the Clubs. Even during construction, complications of the extent of the staging changed with Richmond Rowing Club being granted a site west of Melbourne Rowing Club which required an extension of the staging westward to cover this new site.

So after an enormous amount of effort, the Princes Bridge Clubs had a new staging in 1927, some 15 years after the urgent matter was raised.

A similar story of delay arose in the building of the Swan Street Bridge across WWII - more on this later.


1. Sourced from the Rowing Victoria staging file read by the author in December 2023

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