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History of Essendon Ladies' Rowing Club

7. Fire Ends an Era

On Sunday, September 6th,1987, the Essendon Ladies Rowing Club was destroyed by fire. Forsyth, who is actually a fireman himself, tried to save the club. He reflected on that day of devastation,

... (These) brothers burnt it down. There were four kids caught, running away from the club when the ELRC was burnt down. Brian Smith was ... walking to the club and saw them running past ... (he) told me, I told a friend and a member of the club, Mick ...who was a detective at the time. He went and investigated them and while they were smoking all their drugs ... they spilled their guts and told how they burnt the club down - how they burnt down the Strathmore Bowling club - and how they tried to burn down a number of houses in the streets. Really good boys! They used the five gallon drum of fuel in the speed boat ... and spread the fuel around the bottom of the rowing club and burnt it down. Me and Royce Adams tried to put the fire out, with the Ascot Vale Fire Station crew helping. We lost it. We saved the Anglers Club...(Bottrell & Forsyth 2000, p. 3)

The (brothers) ... they were coxswains of the Essendon Men’s rowing club, but had sort of left six months before. (They) tried to burn down the Essendon Men's Rowing Club, but couldn't break in. Tried to burn down the anglers club, but couldn't break in. So they found the ELRC. (Bottrell & Forsyth 2000, p. l)

 

Many boats were destroyed in the fire. Fortunately however, they were not the best boats in the possession of either club. Forsyth explained, ..we’d moved most of the good boats into the main shed (of ERC)" (Bottrell & Forsyth 2000, p. 15). The loss was of course still felt, not only in the hearts of the Essendon rowers and club people, but also in the practical sense which put strain on all the training resources for the development of the rowers. Forsyth said; "We lost all our beginner coaching boats which was pretty awkward at the time ... things got cramped for a while" (Bottrell & Forsyth 2000, p. 5) .

Forsyth listed from memory the boats lost in the fire,

.. an 'S&B' - a lightweight mould; the 'McAdams' -a four; the 'City of Essendon' - I don't know whether the Essendon Council bought it ... Charlie Charmichael's own single scull got burnt, but he never received insurance ... the 'Stuckey'; the 'Jones'; the 'Simmy'; the 'Freeman' -they were two tub pairs, and two tub fours ... a brand new Lowther Hall fibre-glass hull ... and two or three older single scull boats that Charlie Charmichael had built. (Bottrell & Forsyth 2000, p. 15)

Forsyth recalled the other valuable items lost,

... a good painting of the ELRC by 'Gray' ... a tribute picture to May Mudford who had clubbed feet and she died at the club ... they were two apparently important things for the ELRC ... (and) some pictures on the walls of some of their championship crews. (Bottrell & Forsyth 2000, p. 15)

If chance plays a part, the rowers of Essendon were unlucky. Bottrell explained,

.. the fire was really badly timed in that, because we had only joined together a year or so before ... the men's administration hadn't really come to grips with how they were going to do it, what they were going to use the building for, how they were going to pay for it, all that sort of thing ... Fixing it up, it was one of those things that was 'we're going to get around to it', or 'we'll have to do some maintenance' and all that sort of stuff, but the result was, the security in the building which wasn't very good, hadn't been improved, and we hadn't itemised all the items in it. If we had, all the trophies and that would have been brought over here (to the ERC). We would have had all the papers moved out, we just hadn't had enough time to really get into it and sort it all out. (Bottrell & Forsyth 2000, pp. 15-16)

Forsyth continues,

We didn't even know what was in their kitchen or under their seats, which were closed seats which the top comes down on. They had things like weights, pictures, trophies, and we didn't even know, because no-one ever bothered to go in there when we took it over. (Bottrell & Forsyth 2000, p. 16)

Bottrell clarified this comment,

It wasn't that we didn't bother, it was just that ... you've got to get an organised group to go over rather than just wander over and have a little look. You've got to take a proper inventory ... and that hadn't been organised ... I would say, given another twelve months, that would have been done. The loss of the building was ... we didn't probably appreciate it so much at the time, but since then we've realised it was a huge loss. This club (ERC) could have utilised that building really ... we could have made use of it. (Bottrell & Forsyth 2000, p. 16)

From the information presented, it is clearly evident that the 1987 fire destroyed more than boats, awards, material items and other historical documents of the ELRC. It also has eliminated further opportunities for developing the sheds for the future use of the ERC.

Although the ERC received some insurance from the fire, it was not enough to rebuild the sheds of the ELRC. Bottrell, the current treasurer, said, "We got insurance, but the insurance money wasn't very much at all ... something like $50,000 or even less." (Bottrell & Forsyth 2000, p. 5) Forsyth continued,

That was $50,000 for the two-storey building. You try building another building (with that amount), and the council said we could only put up a substantial building built out of brick. Now, $50,000 in those days ... we'd be lucky to pour the slab. (Bottrell & Forsyth 2000, p. 5)

The Annual Report confirms in its Balance Sheet that $49,905 insurance money for the building was received (ERC, Annual Report 1998/99, p. 18). The club received a considerably small sum for the contents of the ELRC. Bottrell remembered the figures closely, "I'm pretty certain the whole lot didn't come to more than seventy thousand dollars." (Bottrell & Forsyth 2000, p. 5) This amount is verified in the Annual Report of the previous year which states in its Balance Sheet that $22,430 was received as insurance money for the contents (ERC, Annual Report 1987/88, p. 13) resulting in a total of $72,335.

This insurance money was used to improve the state of the men's and women's ERC and to provide a means of generating income, as Forsyth explained,

... we thought it was an opportune time to replace the windows, and that cost us twenty-seven thousand. At the same time, we were looking at trying to improve the upstairs area ... The actual bar was too small. We thought if we improved it we'd be able to get more members and improved turnover ... and then we'd get the money back, eventually ... although it didn't work out straight away. I suppose it has had some benefits in that we now have functions ... and that's generating income ... It's actually started to pay off, because the old bar - the way it was - probably wouldn't have been very good for running functions. So even though there's some debate as to whether that bar was the best thing to spend the money on, it probably is starting to pay off in some way with what they originally intended. So the money was invested in a reasonable cause ... there just wasn't that much of it though. (Bottrell & Forsyth 2000, p. 6)

Although the refurbished ERC provided a new look and an atmosphere of a new beginning for the rowers of Essendon, it is evident that the two clubs had already developed a strong bond before the fire even occurred. The author asked Forsyth, "Do you think (the fire) brought the two clubs together ... or encouraged a better relationship?" He replied, ''No. They were already together." (Bottrell & Forsyth 2000, p. 12)

Bottrell reconfirmed the downhill status of the ELRC and the growth of women's activities at the ERC. "There were very few members left at the ELRC. Three or four. That was about it. And they came over (to ERC) and rowed. They might have been down to about two at one stage." (Bottrell & Forsyth 2000, p. 12)

It seems that if the ELRC had been a strong club standing on its own, without the amalgamation having taken place, the material loss would have had even more impact. The sub-culture of the Essendon lady rowers would have been ruined. In this sense, it is extremely fortunate that the two clubs had joined and developed a strong bond and therefore had already become one new sub-culture of the ERC.

 

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