Table of Contents
- Preliminaries: before 1870
- Foundations: 1870-1880
- New Clubs: 1880-1890
- The Amateur Question: 1890-1900
- Sydney on Top: 1900-1910
- Henley and War: 1910-1920
- Pearce and Mosman: 1920-1930
- Financial Problems: 1930-1940
- War and Wood: 1940-1950
- Strength and Stability: 1950-1960
- On Top Again: 1960-1970
2. Foundations: 1870-1880
Attempts to add international competition to the local scene now took place. The Balmain Regatta Committee was keen to excel its previous efforts and decided to offer trophies valued at ₤200 and expenses of £500 to any crew or crews coming to Australia from England or America to compete in the gig race for bona fide amateurs at the November, 1873 Balmain Regatta.
Specific invitations were transmitted to London Rowing Club and Atlanta Rowing Club and also to seven clubs in New Zealand. None was able to accept and even intercolonial representation fell through. The Melbourne champion crew indicated it would row if allowed to enter and the Regatta Committee, after careful consideration, decided to waive the objections to the fact that the crew was not composed of bona fide amateurs. However, Melbourne, too, ultimately failed to make the trip and only two crews - both from Sydney - rowed in the event.
A meeting of Sydney members now decided to challenge Victoria to row for the championship in Sydney in 1874 with amateurs who did not earn their living by manual labour and to row again in Melbourne a year later. In February, 1874, Sydney officials received an answer: "Victoria finds it impossible to send a crew to Sydney to row under their definition of an amateur". A further meeting decided that, in order to prevent intercolonial races from lapsing, Victoria should be challenged to row for the championship in Sydney with each colony rowing under its own definition.
This challenge was accepted and the race was set for the end of September. SRC officials, led by Deloitte, promptly set about organising a successful event. The Sydney crew selected was boated Grantley Fitzhardinge (bow), Jim Clark, Robert Clark, and Arthur Fitzhardinge (stroke). Charles Deloitte was emergency and McKay was coxswain. Some 15,000 people and more steamers than ever seen together before were at the Parramatta River for the event. Sydney were firm favourites and "they seemed in splendid condition-muscles well developed and facial expression indicative of a robust, thoroughly healthy course of training". Training of the Victorians was interrupted, however, when one of the crew members fell victim to scarlatina.
The three-mile-odd championship course, from Charity Point above Ryde to The Brothers at Gladesville (where Searle's monument was later to be erected) was the scene of the contest. Deloitte started them off and Sydney took the lead early in the race and was untroubled to win by some 20 lengths. The Frew rated 37 at the start, eased down in the middle stages but sprinted home at 40 to complete the course in 21 minutes 59 seconds. Newspaper interest in the event was very considerable, as was interest in Sydney itself: news of the result was despatched to the city immediately by carrier pigeon.
Sydney oarsmen were also seen in the country areas of NSW. Two weeks after the big race on the Parramatta, a champion gig race was held on the Clarence River in Grafton and a second Sydney crew - William Cope, Charles Oliver, George Clark and John Myers - was sent to compete. Sydney won easily, beating a Grafton crew by 5 lengths to win the £100 prize. The champion gig race at the Balmain Regatta only weeks later still was also won by a Sydney crew (Oliver and the three Clarks). No intercolonial entries appeared.
The year 1874, it is interesting to note, was the last in which bona fide amateurs in NSW competed for money prizes. A meeting of oarsmen decided that, from January, 1875, trophies would be the only acceptable form of prize. Nevertheless, problems continued. In August, 1875, a challenge was received from Victoria to row for the championship in Melbourne about the end of the year with Victoria rowing under its definition of an amateur and Sydney rowing under its own definition or under the Victorian at its option. In view of the establishment of Mercantile Rowing Club, the challenge was addressed to "the Sydney oarsmen" and was sent to both Sydney and Mercantile. Four-oared outriggers and six stone coxswains were the only other conditions placed on the race. Mercantile did not yet feel up to the challenge, but Sydney decided to proceed, only writing further to Melbourne to urge that coxswains of any weight should be permitted. They went so far as to order a new boat from Clasper for the event. The race, however, fell through - because Melbourne remained adamant about six stone coxswains and Sydney would not accept this restriction.
There was, meanwhile, an historic development on the local scene. In September, 1875, Sydney and the new club, Mercantile, held a combined regatta. There were six races, one of which was exclusively for Mercantile members and one exclusively for Sydney members. Sydney won the senior double sculls and the four-pair of sculls, while Mercantile won the maiden sculls when David Lord of Sydney, who finished first, was disqualified. The big shock came in the senior fours, the last race of the day. It had been thought that "the clerks" of Sydney were invincible, but the "scarlet and white" of the new club were first past the post. There was a clash at one stage, which the Sydney crew of Oliver and the three Clarks maintained was caused by their opponents, and Mercantile got away the better from it.
Competition with Mercantile continued to be difficult on occasions. For the 1875 Balmain Regatta, Samuel Gardiner donated a challenge cup for the race for bona-fide amateurs rowing in string-test gigs. The club winning the cup three times consecutively would keep it for good. Sydney beat Mercantile in the first contest for the trophy, with boat trouble causing Mercantile to give up after making a good contest of it. The race the following year was a very close one indeed, with Sydney staging a great finish and appearing certain to win. However, the judge's decision went to Mercantile with Sydney being placed only third behind a crew identified in the press as Osprey.
The Balmain Regatta Committee refused to accept the decision of the judge and awarded the race to the Sydney crew. Mercantile was dumbfounded. An extraordinary general meeting was called which authorized the club to test the Regatta Committee's action at law. Meanwhile the judge concerned wrote to the newspapers declaring that he had not bet on the race and that he was not biased in favour of either rowing club. A later meeting listened to counsel's opinion but decided against proceeding with legal action resolving instead that, "in consequence of the unmanly and unsportsmanlike conduct of the Balmain Regatta Committee", Mercantile would decline to compete in any future race held under the committee's supervision. They were, accordingly, conspicuously absent from the 1877 Balmain Regatta. Despite the presence in the field of a crew from Hobart Town, Sydney finished first and second in the gig race in question, thus securing the Gardiner Challenge Cup in perpetuity.
The first association of rowing clubs in Australia - and, indeed, in the world-now appeared. The Victorian Rowing Association was established in October, 1876 with no less than eighteen member clubs: Albert, Albert Park, Ballarat, Ballarat City, Banks, Barwon, Boroondara, Civil Service, Corio, Footscray, I. Zingari, Melbourne, Murray, Richmond, University, Warehousemen, Williamstown and Yarra Yarra.
One of the new Association's first actions was to despatch, in August, 1877, a challenge to both Sydney and Mercantile Rowing Clubs to arrange a representative crew of NSW oarsmen to meet Victoria in an eight-oared race for bona fide amateurs on the Yarra. Unfortunately, ill-feeling between Sydney and Mercantile over the Gardiner Cup affair was still fairly acute. Sydney answered that "as your challenge is to the oarsmen of Sydney, and we are under the disadvantage of not possessing a rowing association, this reply must be taken simply as that of the Sydney Rowing Club".
The club made two counter suggestions: a four-oared race in Melbourne to be followed a year later by an eight-oared race in Sydney or a change of the venue of the eight-oared race to Sydney. Mercantile, on the other hand, was keen to accept the challenge on the basis on which it was extended. They called a public meeting which resolved to do just that and a committee was appointed to implement the resolution. Two prominent Sydney members, Jim Clark and William Cope, accepted positions on the committee.
A further resolution was proposed by Henry Coles, captain of Mercantile, and seconded by Cope: that a rowing association be formed to deal with future challenges. Cooperation by Sydney in the first interstate eight-oared race remained far from whole-hearted. A special meeting was necessary before the committee agreed to lend the Alpha, by now only the club's second-best eight, to the organising committee. The club's leading oarsmen declined to make themselves available, with the result that only one Sydney member, John Arthur, rowed in the final crew. All others were from Mercantile, with a consequent reduction in interest in the crew and in the race. The crew itself was "not particularly sanguine of success". In Victoria, the efforts of Mercantile gained consistent praise while Sydney's actions earned the club only condemnation.
The first intercolonial eight-oared race took place on 6 March, 1878, over about four miles on the Lower Yarra from Stony Creek to the Gas Works. There was little between the crews at any stage, although Victoria won "easily" by 2 lengths. The race had one humorous sidelight: "owing to the steamer Rescue, with the umpire and Governor aboard, sticking on a mud bank just at the start, those aboard were unable to see anything of the race".
A rowing association in NSW itself was soon formed. Although such a body was obviously desirable to decide the measurements of boats, the rules of racing and so on, it was the receipt of a challenge from Victoria for an 1879 race which led finally to its establishment. A public meeting in October, 1878 to consider the challenge decided to form an association and a further meeting soon after considered rules for the new body. Sydney and Mercantile clubs held meetings in December, 1878 to elect three delegates each to the organisation, while Glebe joined up soon afterwards. Sydney nominated Jim Clark, Charles Deloitte and Patrick Anderson (an older member, committeeman and staunch supporter of the Association scheme who died little more than twelve months later). F.H. Dangar, of Mercantile, was elected the Association's first president, while the Governor, His Excellency Lord Augustus Loftus, accepted the patronage of the Association.
The committee also included six individual members, not necessarily members of rowing clubs. The definition of a bona fide amateur decided on by the new body was as follows: "Amateur, to mean any person who has never entered into an open competition either for a stake, public money, or admission money, or entrance fees, at or since the Anniversary Regatta of 1875, or competed with or against any professionals in any way, or who has never taught, pursued or assisted in the pursuit of athletic exercises as a means of livelihood, or who has not been employed in or about boats, or in manual labour".
The Association's first business was, of course, the successful staging of the intercolonial challenge. The race was set down for Sydney on 31 May, 1879 and Jim Clark was appointed coach. The crew was selected early in February and included five Sydney men - William Cope, Bill Anslow, John Arthur, Alex Finlayson and David Lord (stroke), together with three Mercantile members all of whom had rowed in the 1878 crew. Average weight was around 11 stone 4 lbs. The crew rowed in the last weeks from Sydney's Branch quarters, training taking place daily on both land and water. Again, great interest was aroused by the intercolonial event. Though Victoria started favourites, NSW, which was clearly a better crew than the year before, had an Intercolonial oarsman William Cope. easy win. Over the championship course, they finished at 42 strokes to the minute to win by 6 lengths in the time of 20 minutes 6 seconds.
The new Association soon produced other results. Following its dispute with the Balmain Regatta Committee, Mercantile remained out of the 1878 Balmain Regatta. The following year, the Balmain Committee, while still involved in plans for international participation which never eventuated, decided to conduct the regatta under the rules of the new Association. As this meant the judge's decision would henceforth be final, Mercantile buried the hatchet and competed once more. By the time of its first annual meeting in December, 1879, the Association had also introduced a set of rules of racing.
Agreement had also been reached with Victoria that an intercolonial race would be rowed in April of each year in alternate locations, the exact date (other than Easter) being fixed by the committee of the colony in which the regatta was being held. There was one regret: it had not been possible to commence the series of annual regattas the Association had planned. At the meeting, Dangar was succeeded as president of the Association by George Thornton, a position the latter was to hold until his death 22 years later.
The intercolonial race in 1880 was, in accordance with the agreement, rowed in Melbourne. Jim Clark again coached the NSW crew but, for reasons which are not clear, only Bill Anslow of the previous crew made himself available. A light and immature crew resulted, six members being from Sydney with one each from Mercantile and Glebe. In the result, the crew did well, going down by only 3 lengths to a heavier and stronger Victorian crew, stroked, for the first of four consecutive years, by George Upward. A crowd of 15,000 watched the race.
First Australian World Champion in any Sport
Professional sculling had been popular in NSW for many years before the formation of Sydney Rowing Club.
Dick Green was Australia's first champion and in 1863 he journey to England to challenge Robert Chambers,
the champion of the world, but he was unsuccessful in taking the title. William Hickey took the championship
of Australia from Green in 1866 and Hickey, in turn, was beaten by Michael Rush in 1870, also losing the
side wager of ₤400. By the middle of the decade, Edward Trickett, a quarryman, had emerged as the
best in Australia. In 1876, a committee on which Jim Clark served as secretary/treasurer raised funds to
send Trickett to England to race Saddler, the then champion. Trickett was successful and, on his return,
some ₤900 pounds was subscribed to a testimonial fund for him. He went on to defend his title successfully
against Rush in 1877 (in a race that was said to have excited more interest "than any event that has
ever happened in the sporting world of Australia") and again against Elias Laycock in 1879. During
the 1876/77 season, the services of Trickett as professional coach were secured by SRC and, at the ceremony
marking the opening of North Shore in 1879, Trickett stroked a Sydney eight in the procession of boats.