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World Professional Sculling Championships

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Brief History of Australians in World Professional Sculling

Professional sculling grew from its base in England where it was a popular sport in the mid 1800s. Scott Bennett in his book The Clarence Comet states that the sport went into decline in England during the 1870's largely because of shady practices and also because it just could not match the money available to sponsor races in Australia. The money for the sport was either in Australia or in North America at that time. Hence the championship was held largely by Australians, Canadians and Americans. Also, Hylton Cleaver in his book A History of Rowing (Herbert Jenkins Ltd 1957) mentioned that the decline in professional sculling in England was also mirrored by a decline in British amateur rowing.

Professional sculling was the biggest sport in Australia for most of the 60 years prior to World War I, particularly up to about 1907. Due to the need for water transport and hence professional watermen, the sport was centred in Sydney and the Northern Rivers of New South Wales. Rowing in general was also of great interest as it was reported that the Victorian Football League always made sure that football matches were not played on the same days as regattas because the regattas would always draw the crowds.

1903 scullers

Australian Scullers at a Lord Mayoral reception in 1903

Back row l-r: Elias Laycock, James Stanbury, Harry Pearce Jnr, Harry Pearce, Chris Nielson, Peter Kemp
Centre row l-r: William Beach, Michael Rush, Edward Trickett, George Towns
Front row l-r: Charles Towns, C A Messenger, A Towns

The peak of this enthusiasm was in the period up to about 1907. A B "Banjo" Patterson wrote:

"On the death of Searle, the championship was claimed by Maclean and Stanbury of Australia and O'Connor of America; but after the renaissance came the decline; apart from the general decline to bet on anything that could speak, the expenses killed the business. The only gate-money that could be got was a percentage from the steamers, and it cost five hundred pounds to boat and train a man properly in a match for two hundred pounds a side. So the glamour of professional rowing passed away from the old river, a few enthusiasts only keeping the sport alive."

Henry Ernest Searle

In Memoriam
Henry Ernest Searle

Champion Sculler of the World

An example of the decline in interest was that Jim Stanbury was not challenged from 1892 to 1896 when he went to England to defend the title.

Professional sculling drew huge crowds which would stop whole cities. The race between Edward Harlan (CAN) and Bill Beach (AUS) in 1884 drew crowds of over 100,000. This equated to half of the Sydney population at that time. It is reported that special trains were put on to get the crowds to the event from as far away as Goulburn and Bathurst.

When the great Henry Searle died in 1889 even Melbourne, where professional sculling did not exist to any material degree, drew a crowd of 40,000 to witness the cortege pass. The crowds in his home town Sydney were estimated at 170,000. Rowing was the major sport of those times.

The sport drew huge cash purses, probably higher than the equivalent prizes at grand slam tennis matches of today. Betting was also huge, and betting between competitors was the standard procedure. A challenge to become World Champion was accompanied by a side bet between the competitors, usually in the order of £500-1,000.

When Trickett arrived in London for his challenge, he carried both funds for his bet with Sadler and also £10,000 from a Sydney betting syndicate. He placed the money on himself at odds of mostly 2:1.

When the cable of his victory reached Sydney at 4am, the cheers of syndicate members awoke all within several blocks. To put the figures in perspective, £1,000 would equate to roughly 10 years wages without tax.

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