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History of Rowing at Sydney Boys High School, 1947-1960

by Graham Pilger

Nomads of the Parramatta

High’s first shed wasn’t even on the Parramatta. Glebe Rowing Club was in Blackwattle Bay - near today’s Sydney Fish Markets - and the Club saw to the successful housing (and coaching) of the first crews. Unfortunately, it was also a very congested part of the inner harbour and miles from the Head of the River courses. The early eights found it more convenient rowing from and camping in Gus and Harry Green’s boatshed at Abbotsford in the weeks approaching the Regatta. The fours simply had to make the best of a difficult situation and location. 

There was general relief in the early ‘thirties when the Drummoyne Club in Iron Cove agreed to house all of the school’s fleet. These were the Depression years, the club was run down and the annual rental more or less kept it alive. Although all of the crews could be accommodated at Drummoyne, the eight continued the practice of camping for a few weeks in Green’s boatshed before the Head of the River. This was discontinued when the Regatta was transferred to the Nepean in 1936.  

After the war Drummoyne Club continued to house the High boats and crews. Meanwhile, the school ‘fleet” had begun to grow and there were increasing inroads into areas of the shed previously reserved for club use. In addition, all Penrith crews were given the chance to camp at the shed before the regatta - a local boarding house provided meals - and, in all but name, the Drummoyne club had gradually become High’s rowing shed. Pressure on the school to plan for accommodation of its own eased to the point of having little or no priority. After all, from 1947 to 1950, the old Drummoyne shed had seen High produce some of its best ever performances from all crews - so why worry? 

Such an attitude had failed to take into consideration the great changes then occurring in the club world. A new brewery, Millers, was offering many sporting clubs large sums to help in rebuilding run-down premises in return for selling their products. At the same time, pokies began to appear, attracting great numbers of social members and previously empty coffers began to fill. Inevitably, High’s tenancy was seen as standing in the way of progress and was terminated abruptly by Drummoyne in 1951.

With no plans in hand for permanent accommodation, the school fleet was literally put ‘out in the street’. Short term offers of help came from Greens, which took the eight, and from Leichhardt and Haberfield Clubs, which accommodated the fours. There were no camps and only makeshift training arrangements. Travel to and from school and home was difficult, and, overall, High rowing fell into a deep pit in terms of crew morale and performance. In 1951 not one High crew managed a place in any race at Penrith. The next year was slightly better but far below previous standards. 

Relief came late in 1952 when a small group of Old Boys and parents, led by Jim Budge (stroke of the eight in 1930/31), raised sufficient funds (ten pound share issue) to purchase the freehold and boat building business at Greens boatshed at Abbotsford - part-time home of the High eight in the early ‘thirties. The business may have been only just surviving and the old shed may have been very run down, but, to High rowers contemplating a third year ‘out in the cold’, it seemed like a palace. The crews moved in at the beginning of 1953 and, in April that year, rewarded their supporters by producing one of the school’s best-ever eights, plus two other victories at Penrith with the first and third fours. Clearly, there was ‘no place like home’ - be it ever so humble! 

No memory ramble such as this would be complete without reference to the extraordinary support provided to coaches and crews by an army of parents and Old Boys throughout the post-war period. There was a general groundswell of change across the country at this time- a wish to ‘start anew’ freed of the shackles of Depression and austere war years - and this feeling found expression for many connected with the school in generous financial and practical support for any rowing developments: 

In contrast to the previous twenty or more years of inertia, and in less than two years after High’s eviction, its fired-up supporters had succeeded late in 1952 in providing High rowing with a permanent home. Earlier, in the late ’forties, generous donations by the OBU and P&C had begun to steadily replace the school’s ageing fleet of largely pre-war boats. Made of moulded cedar, the old boats were often highly susceptible to damage, usually from a misplaced foot. Faster ply boats steadily supplanted the old - all built by Green’s Racing Boats in which, by 1952/3, most High supporters held at least one ten pound share. 

The purchase of the old boatshed and the adjoining block of vacant land opened up endless possibilities for High’s growing army of supporters in late 1952. Professional builders and tradesmen amongst the parents rubbed shoulders with weekend DIY fanatics as all prepared to ‘get stuck in’ to the venerable old pile in the hope of making it at least minimally usable by the 50 or so hopefuls due to move into it in the New Year.  

The task was daunting indeed. For starters, the pontoon sank frequently and needed constant pumping; the pontoon ramp was rotten; the roof did little to impede the rain; boat racks behaved like seesaws; one rower had already fallen through the front staircase; there was one shower(cold) - but only if you were prepared to balance on a slippery floor joist to get under it. In addition, there was only one toilet (circa: 1890); there was no sleeping accommodation worthy of the name and no means of providing meals. Visually, from the river, the old shed looked like a very large pile of weather-beaten driftwood covered by some rusty corrugated iron. 

Yet, in a very short space of time there was an amazing transformation. The pontoon was brought ashore and re-coppered; the ramp was replaced (four large timber support beams being floated down river from a breaker’s yard near Mortlake behind a tub pair); an upstairs unused workshop was cleaned out and, once its walls and ceiling were lined to keep out the sawdust from the main workshop, its conversion to a dormitory was complete. New stairs and verandah handrails graced the façade and, best of all, two new toilets and a new shower room with HOT water materialised in the former dark bowels of the old shed. The roof leaks were challenging but several coats with a special paint the consistency of porridge bought a few years respite. Finally, in the space of one weekend, the DIY army painted the entire shed white and the initial makeover was complete. Such was the level and spirit of the support given High rowing at that time. 

Nor did it end there. Season 1953 had all crews camping at the ’new’ shed but meals had to be prepared in the nearby Sydney RC. Anyone rowing that first year will recall Mick the cook and the meals he served up liberally garnished with ash from the ever-present dangling cigarette. The following year Claude Pilger, Graham and John’s dad, produced the kitchen/diner in the grounds and numerous devoted mums were then able to be rostered into preparing cigarette-free meals. Further improvements to the old shed followed but none to beat the extensive and impressive additions over the old slipway by Mick Kelly, John’s father, in 1959. 

No memories of High supporters during the mid -1950s seasons would be complete without reference to Bill Shenstone, Peter’s father. A retired estate agent, he became an exceptionally generous supporter of a school that, uniquely, both his father and his son attended (Bill himself was an old Grammarian). His generosity came not just from his pocket but from a great deal of his spare time as well. The latter was usually spent in support of coaches in need of a launch and driver, not to mention a sympathetic ear and a valued second opinion on a wide range of problems. Given the rare distinction by the OBU of honorary life membership, he is remembered from that period with great affection. 

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