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Adelaide Rowing Club - The First Hundred Years

A Narrative History 1882-1982 - Compiled by R W Richardson

23. Memoirs of my Association with the Adelaide Rowing Club and Rowing Men

By Ian Sabey

When asked if he would contribute a few of his reminiscences of his time in the Adelaide Rowing Club, Ian Sabey, who was on the staff of The Advertiser for most of the time he was in South Australia, had this to say:

"It is curious how stories are handed down generation after generation and seem to get better each decade.

My impression of myself was that I was a youth who enjoyed doing his poor best; broke, homeless and on the periphery only of Adelaide's society of young men, with few assets except the wit to keep his head above water.

When I was on the London Times a few years later, Dawson, my Editor, asked me what was the best thing I had done during my first few years in Australia. (Ian was an Englishman - Ed.) I recall replying - "keeping my head above water - just - and being constantly amazed by the kindness of Australians during the process".

I became a friend of Sir James Gosse in those days, and many other people ranging from Mitchell - Vice-Chancellor - and the Barr Smiths, who took me into their houses and hearths and showed me tremendous kindness. They taught me that wit, cheerfulness and friendship were the elements required from young men, and today, though I am a member of many clubs, both social, business and sporting, I find the above recipe is as constant now as it ever was!"

(Incidentally, Ian Sabey was also renowned as an incorrigible, but never obnoxious, practical joker and, as such, enjoyed a special notoriety, as his acquaintances never know where the phantom joker would strike next, or who would be the scapegoat - Ed.)

"The Adelaide Rowing Club in my time (1928-1931 inc. - Ed.) was a remarkable institution, affording young men a chance to keep fit, meet each other and learn to row in the Club's fleet of boats. It was a happy atmosphere, where older members set an example to others on how to behave themselves in other ways besides enduring the discipline of being in a crew.

When I came to South Australia in 1928, I had already been a member of the equally famous Sydney Rowing Club. In Adelaide I found the two clubs very similar, but coaching in New South Wales was not so easily available to a novice.

I found the sport of rowing was very popular in South Australia, and most country cities or towns had club crews which competed at regattas from as far away as Port Pirie.

The Adelaide Rowing Club was not the pre-eminent club in the State in regard to success at regattas. This honour belonged to its great rivals, Torrens Rowing Club and Port Adelaide Rowing Club, which drew their membership from artisans chiefly - strong, tough men who were endowed with the right size and strength for this sport. (A.R.C. was just about "rock bottom" in this era; see Glossary of Races Won - Ed.)

Adelaides drew from public schools such as Saints, Scotch and Princes, great breeding centres of rowing. The third element of rowing lay in those days in the Adelaide University Boat Club. So there was a constant feed in of young men to this sport.

Times were not very favourable for Australia at this period, and South Australia fared worse than most states. Low wages were paid, hours were long, working back without pay a regular feature, and Saturday was a work day.

Rowing provided an outlet for our energy, our demand for companionship, our interest in being physically fit and, most of all perhaps, it offered a club life for young men.

Jimmy Gosse, later Sir James Gosse, was our President, who understood young men and wielded an influence over us all which was quite extraordinary; several of his family became excellent oarsmen, following in their father's footsteps, and Jock Gosse rowed for Cambridge at the conclusion of his schooldays.

The Torrens Lake provided a very convenient venue for rowing, as it always had, and I hope always will. However, its waters lacked the depth and length for rowing which was offered at Port Adelaide, especially for that long, slow rowing, conditioning and coaching for races.

I had been well versed in Adelaide Rowing Club history in my youth in England for my uncle, the late Hugh M. Orr, with whom I lived, was a member in the late 1880's and 1890's, and his dressing room was filled with photographs of crews in which he had participated. He was a remarkably strong man. He had been an outstanding wrestler in his day. I once saw him pick up the front of the family motor car to place a packing case under the chassis, and in the early twentieth century these automobiles were rather heavy affairs, as I recall. He was Elder Smith's London Manager for nearly 40 years.

By 1928 then, Adelaide Rowing Club was a happy venue for many young men who could train, be coached, row and shower before going to their homes, and enjoy each other's company. Beer was cheap, friendship was freely available, wages were low, and we often dined together at the Exchange Hotel in Hindley Street for the sum of half a crown.

In my first year I stroked a four which won a double at Murray Bridge and Mannum on a long holiday weekend. This may not have earned us much kudos at the time, but it certainly resulted in a quantum of notoriety which spread further than the incident which took place in the main street of Mannum following the celebrations during our visit.

That year the Adelaide Rowing Club had booked out the Pretoria Hotel for this occasion, and its members sat down to dinner this evening in a state of exhilaration, which was natural after a few successes. Whilst they were waiting for the meal to be served, I observed a rather lively horse tethered outside the hotel, and I proceeded to ride it up and down the street at a sharp gallop. On returning to the hotel I rode the wretched equine on to the verandah, through the open front door of the hotel, down the passage off the hall and into the dining room itself.

All went well to this stage, until the proprietor's wife came into the dining room with a number of plates of food on her tray. Her screams at seeing the horse seemed to unsettle the steed at this moment in time to an embarrassing degree. I dismounted, and amid considerable hilarious and even ribald enthusiasm, attempted to lead my mount out of the room by the same door it had entered. It proved not to be house trained to this extent, and stuck its toes in.

I then backed it out towards the kitchen. All would have been well I believe, if the wretched woman had not performed a dervish dance in front of the stove, to which the horse responded by manuring on the kitchen floor. This action led to fresh outbursts of applause and cheers and, as there was a slight drop from the back door to mother earth which the horst did not appreciate, some rather forceful language from myself, the proprietor, his wife and his staff, was necessary to impress him. However, all was eventually solved and the horse tied up again to the front of the hotel.

I do truly believe that no further action would have been taken by the proprietor and his wife against the Adelaide Rowing Club had it not been that, during the rest of the evening, my crew and some others, including the ever-remembered Ivan Golovsky, dressed up as Arabs in the hotel's bedroom sheets, and towards midnight climbed into Ivan's 8-seater car (with the hood down) and set off for our return to Adelaide, still garbed in the hotel sheets.

I had never driven a car whilst in Adelaide and seldom, if I remember, during my life, but I found myself at the wheel on this long drive home, with six of our passengers asleep, and Jack Hardy only awake at my side to help me with his knowledge of the correct route to take to return to Adelaide. The roads were very rough in those days, and about 8 a.m. we hit the city of Adelaide after a very sedate but difficult drive down, and those awake were unaware of the impact caused by the appearance of a group of Arabs, mostly fast asleep in an open car, wending its way through the main thoroughfares at that time of day when people wended their way to work.

We then called in at each person's home and left the sleeping Arab on his front lawn or verandah as the case required; as the War Office reports in its accounts of such manoeuvres, "all parties returned safely to base".

As I recall, the letter the Club received from the hotel owners a few days later shed quite an amount of light on that particular night's enjoy­ment, as well as the demands made for the return of the missing sheets - or else!!

A year later I became a member of the Advertiser staff and I found it impossible to train in the evening. I eventually became the Rowing Correspondent for this newspaper for quite a number of years under the name "Ready all". I was thus able to keep in touch with the Club and rowing, and to do a lot to publicise the sport for the next ten years with the help of one of the great personalities, that great English coach, Stan Facy. I shared a house in North Adelaide with him and Ronald Orr. When Ronald got married Bill Morgan joined Stan and me in this venture. Both Bill and Stan had a great influence on rowing at this period. Stan coached Adelaide University as well as Adelaide Rowing Club crews, and Bill stroked the University 8.

They got together a great crew and laid the foundation for South Australia to win the Australian Universities Championship later on in 1934.

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