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History of the Victorian APS Head of the River rowing regatta

Victorian APS Head of the River

A Brief History

(The author acknowledges the many sources from which these comments arise. See below.)

The "Head of the River" is a classic event and stands as one of the premier events in Victorian rowing.

The first Public School boat race in Victoria was rowed on the Upper Yarra down stream on 18th June, 1868. The race was the outcome of negotiations between two Melbourne University Boat Club members, Mr. J. H. Thompson, on behalf of Melbourne Grammar School, and Mr. J. G. Johnstone, a member of the Scotch College staff. These gentlemen coached the respective crews. Crews had been rowing on the river for some time, but the challenge for the race issued by one of the Scotch College rowers was only made on 17th June. It was promptly accepted by Melbourne Grammar School, and even in those far-off days the contest aroused no little interest.

The challenge read as follows:
Eastern Hill, Melbourne. 17th June, 1868.

Dear Sir,

I am requested by the Scotch College Rowing Club to challenge you to a friendly four-oar gig race the race to be rowed on Thursday the 18th from the Botanical Bridge to Edwards' boat house, and subject to such conditions as the crews agree to.

I am, Yours truly,

John C Field

John C Field

The result was a victory for Scotch College by a length. The names of the crews were as follows :

Scotch College. Bow: A. C. Wilson, 2: A. Smith, 3: John C. Field, Str: J. Brady, Cox: F. G. White, Cch: J Johnstone.

Melbourne Grammar School. Bow: J. Sweeney, 2: G. T. Teague, 3: W. Barker, Str: H. Ryan, Cox: H. M. Strachan, Cch: J H Thompson.

(A correspondent in The Argus on 15th May 1918 maintained that there was an earlier race in 1859 but this claim was disputed same days later in the Argus 18th May 1918 by J Henning Thompson who was alleged to have been in that crew.)

The race for "Head-of-the-River" has been rowed every year since 1868. Wesley College wished to row the other two schools in 1871 in the annual race. However, it was decided, "as it was an old-established race, which it was a pity to disturb," that Scotch College and the Grammar School should row Wesley College in turn; the races were on 19th and 20th June, 1871. Wesley College proved their mettle by beating the Scotch boys on the 20th, after being beaten in a hard race by Melbourne Grammar the previous afternoon. Wesley College boys soon took part regularly in the race with the other two, and were "Head-of-the-River" in 1874.

The races were rowed from 1868-1897 in string-test gigs with fixed seats. In the period 1898-1900 the race was competed for in best boat outrigger fours with sliding seats. In 1899, race between Melbourne Grammar and Geeling Grammar was raced in eights, the first school eights race in Australia. This did not form part of the APS Head of the River regattas. In 1901 clinker outrigged eights with sliding seats were used. At various times later cedar boats, followed by plywood boats, then fibre glass and finally then composite construction boats have been used.

The race was first rowed on the Barwon in 1879 and then every fifth or sixth year until 1916. Between 1921-1943 the Barwon saw it every fourth year and since 1948 the only use of the Yarra was in 1957 when Geelong College won. During World War 2 the Geelong Schools rowed a heat on the Barwon and the four Melbourne Schools rowed heats on the Yarra. These races were held after school, the winners met on the Yarra to decide the title except in 1943 when restrictions on travel were in force.

Scotch College has been represented every year, gradually other schools have joined in, the most recent being Haileybury College who entered the Boys First Eight event for the first time in 1991.

The Sumner Challenge Cup was presented in 1875 by the Hon T J Sumner to become the property of the school who should first win it three times. Scotch won it in 1875, 1876 and 1879 and have retained it since that date.

At a meeting of Delegates held at Scotch College on lst April, 1911, it was unanimously decided to accept the Challenge Cup which was offered by Mr. C. Fairbairn, of " Banongil," Skipton, to be held from year to year by the School which is Head of the River.

The Sumner Cup and the Fairbairn Challenge Cup are now the two trophies connected with this great contest.

The Head of the River races have weathered such difficulties as flooded rivers, disputes over ages, dead heats, disqualifications, and even the inability of a school to round up enough rowers to boat a crew.

Introduction of other crews

Second four oared raced were conducted from 1878 but it is unlikely that they were ever conducted at the Head of the River regatta. They continued until 1901 when eight oared racing commenced. They were reintroduced in 1917, when a second eights crew race was conducted the week prior to the regatta. These second crew races were raced initially just amongst the Melbourne metropolitan crews. School first crews always had training partner crews who naturally wanted to also have a race.

In 1922, third crew were added to the junior regatta and in 1925, fourth crews. Other crews were introduced at a junior regatta raced the week prior to the Head of the River. The Head of the River regatta began to include other senior crews, and included first to third crews until 1959, when fourth and fifth crews were added to the regatta.

In more recent years when the regatta moved to Naganbie, junior crew returned to the Head of the River regatta with final only races.

In the early part of the century the race was held in October, but later it was moved to May and after World War 2 to April. When the race was in October it was possible for a boy to represent his school in Football, Cricket, Rowing and Athletics in the one year, as the latter was held in May after the Cricket season had ended.

Index to Results

Summary of past winners of the Fairbairn Cup for the Boys Head of the River

Summary of past winners of the Geelong Ladies Challenge Cup for the Girls Head of the River

Summary of boys and girls Heads of the River (below)

Years in which APS schools first competed in Boys First Crews
1868 Scotch College
Melbourne Grammar School
1871 Wesley College
1875 Geelong Grammar School
1906 Xavier College
1908 Geelong College
1961 Caulfield Grammar School
Brighton Grammar School
St. Kevin's College
1962 Carey Grammar School
1991 Haileybury College

The Introduction of the Girls Events

The first girl to row within the APS was a lone sculler from Geelong Grammar School in 1972.

By 1975 there were 32 girls rowing and talk of girls competing at the Senior Regatta which, in fact, happened in 1981 when Geelong Grammar and Geelong College competed with MCEGGS, Morongo and Lauriston in 1st and 2nd Fours over 800m on the Friday.

MLC and Carey joined the racing in 1982, with Carey boating a First Four in 1983. In 1984 there were seven girls' crews rowing in each of 1st, 2nd and 3rd Four events but in the next year the regatta reverted to an all APS affair with only GGS and GC boating a First Four. In 1986 Carey reappeared in the First Fours and Wesley boated a First Four for the first time, so finally, with Caulfield joining in 1987, all five co-educational schools were boating a first four over 1500m.

Many of those who have competed have gone on to National and International success. In 1995 fourth and fifth girls' crews were introduced, racing over 1000m in regulation fours and in 1999 Year 10 Fours competed. Girls first eights (1998), second eights (1999) and third eights (2002) have replaced the open fours in the last few years. The Girls third eights reverted back to Open Fours in 2006.

The schools take part in a number of RV Regattas, including those at Ballarat, Geelong, Footscray, Nagambie, Carrum and Melbourne while the Junior Crews compete in RV and APS School Regattas. The Girls regularly compete at the Head of Schoolgirls whilst many crews compete, when practical, for both State and National titles.

Years in which APS schools first competed in Girls' First Crews
1981 Geelong College
Geelong Grammar School
1983 Carey Grammar School
1986 Wesley College
1987 Caulfield Grammar School
2007 Haileybury College

Summary of Boys and Girls First Crew Winners

Year Course Boys Girls
1868 Upper Yarra Scotch College  
1869 Upper Yarra Scotch College  
1870 Upper Yarra Melbourne Grammar  
1871 Upper Yarra Melbourne Grammar  
1872 Upper Yarra Scotch College  
1873 Upper Yarra Scotch College  
1874 Upper Yarra Wesley College  
1875 Upper Yarra Scotch College  
1876 Upper Yarra Scotch College  
1877 Upper Yarra Melbourne Grammar  
1878 Upper Yarra Geelong Grammar  
1879 Barwon Scotch College  
1880 Upper Yarra Geelong Grammar  
1881 Upper Yarra Scotch College  
1882 Upper Yarra Geelong Grammar  
1883 Upper Yarra Melbourne Grammar  
1884 Upper Yarra Scotch College  
1885 Upper Yarra Geelong Grammar  
1886 Barwon Geelong Grammar  
1887 Albert Park Lake Geelong Grammar  
1888 Upper Yarra Geelong Grammar  
1889 Lower Yarra Geelong Grammar  
1890 Barwon Geelong Grammar  
1891 Lower Yarra Scotch College  
1892 Lower Yarra Scotch College  
1893 Lower Yarra Geelong Grammar  
1894 Barwon Geelong Grammar  
1895 Lower Yarra Geelong Grammar  
1896 Upper Yarra Wesley College  
1897 Albert Park Lake Melbourne Grammar  
1898 Barwon Geelong Grammar  
1899 Albert Park Lake Scotch College  
1900 Upper Yarra Scotch College  
1901 Lower Yarra Wesley College  
1902 Barwon - heats and Upper Yarra - final Wesley College  
1903 Upper Yarra Wesley College  
1904 Upper Yarra Wesley College  
1905 Upper Yarra Wesley College  
1906 Barwon Wesley College  
1907 Upper Yarra Scotch College  
1908 Upper Yarra Scotch College  
1909 Upper Yarra Wesley College  
1910 Upper Yarra Wesley College  
1911 Barwon Wesley College  
1912 Upper Yarra Wesley College  
1913 Upper Yarra Wesley College  
1914 Upper Yarra Geelong Grammar  
1915 Upper Yarra Wesley College  
1916 Barwon Melbourne Grammar  
1917 Upper Yarra Geelong Grammar  
1918 Upper Yarra Melbourne Grammar  
1919 Upper Yarra Scotch College  
1920 Upper Yarra Geelong Grammar  
1921 Barwon Scotch College  
1922 Upper Yarra Geelong Grammar  
1923 Upper Yarra Melbourne Grammar  
1924 Barwon Geelong Grammar  
1925 Upper Yarra Scotch College  
1926 Upper Yarra Scotch College  
1927 Barwon Scotch College  
1928 Upper Yarra Xavier College  
1929 Upper Yarra Xavier College  
1930 Barwon Melbourne Grammar  
1931 Upper Yarra Melbourne Grammar  
1932 Upper Yarra Melbourne Grammar  
1933 Barwon Wesley College  
1934 Upper Yarra Geelong Grammar  
1935 Upper Yarra Geelong Grammar  
1936 Barwon Geelong College  
1937 Upper Yarra Xavier College  
1938 Upper Yarra Melbourne Grammar  
1939 Barwon Melbourne Grammar  
1940   Melbourne Grammar  
1941 Upper Yarra Scotch College  
1942 Various races and venues Wesley College  
1943 Upper Yarra
Melbourne Grammar
Geelong Grammar
1944 Upper Yarra Geelong College  
1945 Barwon Melbourne Grammar  
1946 Upper Yarra Scotch College  
1947 Upper Yarra Wesley College  
1948 Barwon Xavier College  
1949 Barwon Melbourne Grammar  
1950 Barwon Geelong Grammar  
1951 Barwon Scotch College  
1952 Barwon Scotch College  
1953 Barwon Geelong Grammar  
1954 Barwon Geelong Grammar  
1955 Barwon Geelong College  
1956 Barwon Geelong College  
1957 Upper Yarra Geelong College  
1958 Upper Yarra Melbourne Grammar  
1959 Barwon Geelong College  
1960 Barwon Geelong College  
1961 Barwon Wesley College  
1962 Barwon Wesley College  
1963 Barwon Scotch College  
1964 Barwon Melbourne Grammar  
1965 Barwon Wesley College  
1966 Barwon Scotch College  
1967 Barwon Scotch College  
1968 Barwon Melbourne Grammar  
1969 Barwon Scotch College  
1970 Barwon Wesley College  
1971 Barwon Geelong Grammar  
1972 Barwon Wesley College  
1973 Barwon Scotch College  
1974 Barwon Geelong Grammar  
1975 Barwon Geelong Grammar  
1976 Barwon Geelong College  
1977 Barwon Wesley College  
1978 Barwon Scotch College  
1979 Barwon Melbourne Grammar  
1980 Barwon Melbourne Grammar  
1981 Barwon Melbourne Grammar Geelong College
1982 Barwon Melbourne Grammar Geelong College
1983 Barwon Brighton Grammar Geelong College
1984 Barwon Wesley College Methodist Ladies College
1985 Barwon Carey Grammar Geelong Grammar
1986 Barwon Geelong Grammar Geelong Grammar
1987 Barwon Geelong Grammar Wesley College
1988 Barwon Geelong Grammar Geelong Grammar
1989 Barwon Geelong Grammar Geelong College
1990 Barwon Geelong College Geelong Grammar
1991 Barwon Geelong Grammar Geelong Grammar
1992 Barwon Scotch College Geelong College
1993 Barwon Geelong College Geelong Grammar
1994 Barwon Geelong Grammar Geelong Grammar
1995 Barwon Carey Grammar Geelong Grammar
1996 Barwon Carey Grammar Geelong Grammar
1997 Barwon Melbourne Grammar Geelong Grammar
1998 Barwon Scotch College Geelong Grammar
1999 Barwon Xavier College Geelong College
2000 Barwon Geelong College Geelong Grammar
2001 Nagambie Lakes Geelong College Geelong Grammar
2002 Nagambie Lakes Melbourne Grammar Geelong College
2003 Nagambie Lakes Geelong College Geelong College
2004 Nagambie Lakes Scotch College Carey Grammar
2005 Nagambie Lakes Scotch College Carey Grammar
2006 Nagambie Lakes Scotch College Geelong College
2007 Nagambie Lakes Scotch College Geelong Grammar
2008 Nagambie Lakes Scotch College Geelong Grammar
2009 Nagambie Lakes Melbourne Grammar Geelong Grammar
2010 Nagambie Lakes Scotch College Geelong Grammar
2011 Nagambie Lakes Scotch College Geelong College
2012 Nagambie Lakes Scotch College Caulfield Grammar
2013 Nagambie Lakes Scotch College Caulfield Grammar
2014 Nagambie Lakes Scotch College Geelong Grammar
2015 Nagambie Lakes Scotch College Geelong Grammar
2016 Nagambie Lakes Melbourne Grammar Geelong Grammar
2017 Nagambie Lakes Scotch College Geelong Grammar
2018Nagambie LakesScotch CollegeGeelong Grammar
2019Nagambie LakesScotch CollegeGeelong Grammar
2020Regatta cancelled - COVID-19 pandemic


The author would like to acknowledge the many sources used for this chapter:

  • The Cardinal Club web site.
  • The Pincott Club Handbook.
  • The Victorian Oarsman by John Lang 1919 - A H Massina & Company
  • Regatta programmes
  • Lift her home to victory, lads! A centenary history of Xavier College 1906-2006 by Michael Lefebvre
  • Robert Wakefield's records of the races from 1977 to 2007
  • Records and pictures hanging on boat club walls
  • Geelong College and Scotch College records
  • A Deepening Roar Scotch College 1851-2001 by James Mitchell, Allen & Unwin 2001
  • Paul Mishura and Greg Baker from Scotch
  • Scotch College Archives
  • Robert Wakefield's result summaries from 1958

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