Footscray’s Famous Awesome Oarsmen
Winners of the Clarke Challenge Cup 1880-1882
Footscray’s Famous Awesome Oarsmen winning the most prestigious race on the rowing calendar, the Clarke Challenge Cup for three years in succession, 1880, 1881 and 1882 unleashed a class war amongst Victoria’s oarsmen. The most valuable trophy in the rowing world was now in the permanent hands of a manual labour rowing club, Footscray. After their win, the eight rowing heroes, all manual labourers, were banned from rowing in other blue ribbon amateur regatta races. They were deemed NOT bona-fide amateurs. This is their story.
A Rowing Shame – The Horney Handed Toilers vs The Silver Spooners
When Footscray won their first two-mile Clarke Challenge Cup race in 1880 it sparked a shameful period in Victoria’s rowing history, dividing class against class. The “horney handed” working men or the “mud punchers” from the West weren’t meant to win the most valuable prize for rowing in the country donated by one of the wealthiest men in the colony.
This is a race by race story of how the manual labour crew of Footscray won the Clarke Challenge Cup and a round by round account of how the controversial manual labour question in amateur rowing was handled by the Victorian Rowing Association (VRA) in the 1880s. The story also tracks events that impacted the Club after the history making Clarke Challenge Cup victory which secured them the coveted trophy in perpetuity.
We Are the Champions! Footscray’s Famous Awesome Oarsmen
Footscray citizens had something to celebrate on 18 March 1882. It was the day Footscray’s senior ‘Eight’ rowed into sporting history by winning the prestigious two-mile Clarke Challenge Cup for the third successive year at Melbourne’s annual regatta. The Cup, the most valuable rowing trophy in Australia and the world, was now in the Footscray Rowing Club’s permanent possession.
The rowers were champions and the pride of the working-class area. Other sporting clubs, especially the cricket and football clubs drew inspiration from the win and the district youth had new sporting heroes to admire and aspire to. But the following year their local champions were banned from rowing in the major races because they were manual labourers. Most of them worked for the Melbourne Harbour Trust wheeling silt.[i]
The Victorian rowing establishment ruled that men who did physical work for a living like the Footscray rowers had an unfair advantage over those who had more sedentary occupations. ‘Open’ races were kept on future regatta programs, but the prestigious races were restricted to those ‘gentlemanly’ types not the “horny handed toilers” from over the river. Class warfare in the rowing world had pitted one side of the Yarra against the other.[ii]
The Clarke Challenge Cup
When the Hon. Sir William John Clarke MLC., became President of the VRA in 1878 he donated a silver cup for any crew of eight from any rowing club in Victoria who could win the two-mile race over three consecutive years. It created huge public interest and became a blue-ribbon event at the Melbourne Regatta held annually on the Saltwater River[iii], Footscray.
The Cup valued at 100 guineas was described as “magnificent”, and at the time, the most valuable trophy to be raced for in the world. It was manufactured by Messrs Walsh Bros., Silversmiths and Jewellers of Collins Street, Melbourne after a suitable design was selected by a sub-committee of the VRA, including Messrs Raleigh, Hood and Nichols in 1878. (Australasian, 21 Dec 1878)
The Hon. Sir William John Clarke (1831-1897)
William Clarke was a distinguished pastoralist and philanthropist in Victoria. Before he became President of the VRA in 1877 he had shown an interest in rowing as patron of both the Banks and Ballarat City clubs. Learmonth Lake where sailing and rowing regattas took place in the 1860s, adjoined his Dowling Forest Estate. He held the position of VRA President until 1881. (Clarke, 1995)
Born into one of Australia’s wealthy squattocracy families he was Victoria’s largest landholder after inheriting his father’s properties worth £1,500,000 in 1874.
His vast pastoral holdings included 100,000 acres, spreading from Melbourne’s north to Sunbury and into the Macedon Ranges. The magnificent ‘Rupertswood’ mansion he built in Sunbury in 1875 and ‘home’ of the ‘Ashes’ is today the administrative offices of Salesian College and a boutique hotel. Other properties were at Dowling Forest near Ballarat and Cobram where he had a famous merino stud. Coursing was one of his favourite pastimes and he also bred racehorses. His only success in horseracing, however, was the Victorian Oaks in 1879 with his filly Petrea.
Clarke was a benevolent landlord turning his Dowling Forest property into a model tenant farming estate charging tenants moderate rents for long leases. He believed in a scientific approach to farming and was a great supporter of ‘research and development’ in the agricultural sector. His leaseholders were encouraged to make improvements to their farms to ensure they made a viable living.
He held many prestigious positions in the Colony including president of the Australia Club, Commodore of the Royal Victorian Yacht Squadron, first president of the Victorian Football Association (1877) and president of the Melbourne Cricket Club (1880-86). Many charities and appeals in Australia and overseas benefited from his kindness and generosity.
Although he represented the Southern Province in the Legislative Council from 1878 to 1897, he wasn’t regarded as an active member. Rarely attending, he spoke only on subjects dear to his heart such as the livestock tax in 1879.[iv]
In the 1893 bank crash Clarke saved the Colonial Bank of Australia, where he was governor for twenty years, by meeting the calls with his own capital. This action demonstrated his business integrity and moral compass. However, the strain took its toll and Clarke died suddenly of a heart attack on 15 May 1897 after alighting from a tram in the city. His funeral was one of the largest ever seen in Victoria and a testament to his popularity. There is a statue commemorating him in the Treasury Gardens, Melbourne.
Early Days of the VRA
Clarke was considered a neutral candidate for President of the newly formed VRA which consisted of fourteen registered clubs. Melbourne Rowing Club at the time was the dominant club and most successful, however other clubs were envious of Melbourne’s position and didn’t want to see that Club’s dominance enhanced by handing over the reins of Presidency as well. The appointment of William Clarke was thought likely to bring “considerable prestige” to the VRA and the annual Regatta and also hold sway with NSW when it came to intercolonial races. (Clarke, 1995)
In 1878 an intercolonial eight-oared boat contest was instigated by Clarke involving NSW and Victoria over a four-mile course on the Yarra, which Victoria won. The victory gave rowing a “much-needed” publicity boost and even though Melbourne continued to dominate, which tended to discourage other clubs from entering races, more clubs were joining the VRA.
The antipathy towards manual labourers in rowing was growing as an issue of concern. According to a descendant, Michael Clarke, William Clarke believed that all rowing men should be allowed to enjoy the sport. Sir William himself had been a manual labourer when he had worked as a station hand and one of the conditions he specified for the Clarke Cup was “that all eight-oared crews were entitled to compete”. (Clarke, 1995)
In one swoop he had effectively repudiated the distinction between manual and non-manual labourers and “admitted the Footscray Rowing Club to the VRA”. (Clarke, 1995) Prior to that, the Footscray club was not allowed to enter the Melbourne Regattas. (Clarke, 1995)
The Clarke Challenge Cup – the Race that Stopped a City
While it might be an exaggeration to say that the Clarke Challenge Cup was a ‘race that stopped a City’ there can be no denying that once it became a fixture on the Melbourne annual regatta program it created huge public interest and excitement. Thousands of spectators were attracted to the rowing even if the regatta clashed with the Flemington races. In 1882 with Footscray racing to win the Cup outright, the crowd was estimated at around 20,000.[v]
The Saltwater river became the favoured VRA regatta course over the Upper Yarra because it was a straight stretch of river. By 1881 the regatta committee had made many improvements to the banks of the Saltwater including a demountable grandstand, a sand lawn area, a telegraph notice board and a system of publishing the time of each race. A band playing popular music and plenty of decorative bunting on the banks and moored ships always helped create a festive atmosphere.
Race One – February 1879
Footscray did not compete in the first race of the Clarke Challenge Cup. Crews from Banks, Civil Service, Melbourne and Corio Bay clubs fought it out. With days to go before the race, Banks was reported as putting in the most work, while Corio Bay anxiously waited for the local boat builder, Mr Fuller to finish building their new boat. Despite their anxious wait, Corio Bay won. (Herald, 20 Feb 1879)
The Hon. W. J. Clarke personally presented the winning crew with the trophy at the May meeting of the VRA attended by 200 rowing men. When presenting the trophy, Mr Clarke said he thought the race was, “one of the finest ever rowed in the colony.” And although fond of horseracing, he “would sooner have had a seat in the winning crew than he would own the winner of a Melbourne Cup.” (Geelong Advertiser, 1 May 1879)
Race Two – February 1880
There were many obstacles facing the Footscray Rowing Club when they decided to contest the second race, most notably finance. Club members were not a wealthy bunch and money had to be raised through a series of concerts to pay for the necessary equipment to mount a challenge. Footscray locals contributed generously and patronised the fundraising events until enough money was raised to purchase a boat which was made by Mr W. Greenland based on the Yarra
The 1880 Race Preview
‘Aquarius’, the ‘Aquatics’ writer for the Weekly Times speculated about the likely outcome:
“There can be no questioning the fact that the Clarke Challenge Cup has now fairly established its popularity with the general public, as almost the first question one is saluted with is whether ‘that’ “eight” is one of the competing crews for that trophy. To my thinking, the Melbourne crew are doing the best work.
“The Footscray senior eight are also in steady training for the Clarke Challenge Cup, but though they possess plenty of strength, their style will hardly pull them through.” (Weekly Times, 7 Feb 1880)
Aquarius was wrong. Despite getting the worst start Footscray “won in grand style” defeating the previous year’s champions and favourites, Corio Bay.
How the Geelong Advertiser Reported the 1880 Race
“This race started somewhat late, Corio Bay, as the holders of the Cup, being strong favourites. Corio went off with the lead, Footscray chopping a length behind, Melbourne and Banks evidently not able to maintain the pace. At the turn Corio came well out to the west bank; Melbourne steered wide and dropped behind the Banks; Footscray spurting strongly closed upon Corio.
At the junction, Corio still led, Footscray about a length behind in the centre of the stream. Banks about six lengths away hopelessly beaten, Melbourne last. At this point Corio stopped, owing to an unfortunate effort at crab catching. This gave the lead to the light crew, who weighed in the aggregate seven stone four less than their rivals.
Corio fought away pluckily, and reduced the distance between them and Footscray, now three lengths ahead, but the chance of victory had been missed, and the Footscray boys pulled in three lengths ahead, the same distance separating Corio from the Banks, Melbourne fifteen or twenty lengths behind.” (Geelong Advertiser, 23 Feb 1880)
Footscray Crew 1880
Footscray’s winning crew: J. Thomson, R. Thomson, W. Snadden, C. Britt, M. Logan, Rae Johnstone, Robt Johnstone, T. Woods (stroke), F Vernon (cox).
The win made the Footscray crew instant heroes. After the race the Williamstown Chronicle reported:
“Well ‘our boys’ have achieved the high honour of whipping all corners and taking away the big Clarke Cup Challenge, the blue ribbon of the river. They deserve every credit for the way in which they rowed, especially when it is remembered that until lately, they were perfect strangers to an eight-oared boat. They practised assiduously and the proficiency this acquired together with their own strong arms and sound lungs enabled them to whip the best crews the colony can bring against them. All honour to you boys and may you follow up your victories until you establish a permanent claim to the fine trophy you have won for the first time.” (Williamstown Chronicle, 28 Feb 1880)
In a later report the Williamstown Chronicle said Footscray won despite some of the crew labouring under illness and “despite the unfavourable criticism of the knowing ones”. (Williamstown Chronicle, 9 Oct 1880)
Melbourne Crew Lodge Protest
The Melbourne crew blamed their bad performance on the umpire’s boat, claiming the swell from the boat interfered with their progress. They lodged a protest and appealed that the race be rowed again. The protest was dismissed by the VRA committee who believed the blame lay more with bad steering by the Melbourne coxswain.
This didn’t stop ‘Melbourne’, the Aquatics writer for ‘The Leader’ raising the question of manual labourers:
“The winners are a light lot, but are all, I believe, manual labourers, thus showing that, at all events, manual labourers are decidedly dangerous against bona fide amateur oarsmen. They rowed an immensely fast stroke the whole of the journey, working up to 45 a minute at times, but had the Corio coxswain known the course better, they must have been returned the winners, as they were leading comfortably past the Sugar Works, and were very badly steered into the full strength of the stream and lumpy water; whilst the Footscray were carefully taken over to the Sandridge side of the river into calm water, and thus gained many lengths by the move.” (Australasian, 3 April 1880)
Manual Labourers Rule the Regatta
The Leader Challenge Cup the other blue-ribbon event on the program was won by Hawthorn, another crew of manual labourers causing sections of the media to say that the 1880 regatta program:
“was well-nigh romped through by working men, who appropriated all the prizes offered by the VRA Regatta.” (Australasian, 17 July 1880)
The Manual Labour Question Round One
Manual Labourers Have an Unfair Advantage
The Footscray win in 1880 obviously upset some of the more established clubs and ‘well-to-do’ members of the VRA. Footscray Rowing Club (FRC) was relatively new on the scene being formed at a public meeting at the Mechanics’ Institute in September 1873 and a recently admitted member of the VRA. The club was housed in a shed next to the Ship Inn which was on the corner of Bunbury and Maribrynong Streets, Footscray.
Soon after the 1880 Clarke Challenge Cup race and Footscray’s win, Mr Colville from the Civil Service Club gave notice he would move at the next VRA meeting that all persons employed in manual labour requiring physical strength be restricted to competing in only two races at the annual Melbourne Regatta. The thinking was that manual labour oarsmen were too strong and had an unfair advantage over non-manual labour oarsmen
Of course, this created a huge outcry amongst the clubs most affected; those clubs in the working-class areas of Melbourne, the suburban outskirts and some country areas. The move was seen as an act of discrimination against ordinary hard-working people.
Manual Labour Clubs Mobilise
Manual labour clubs were in an uproar. They began mobilising and a meeting was organised at Young and Jackson’s Hotel, Swanston Street on 3 June 1880 to consider Colville’s proposal. Representatives from the Footscray, Williamstown, Albert Park, Hawthorn, Yarra Yarra, Lake and Boroondara clubs were all represented.
As one would expect the atmosphere at the meeting was highly charged. Mr R. Heard chaired the meeting and was vocal about the unfairness of the proposal. He believed manual labourers should be encouraged in the sport because it would improve rowing. Mr Heard suggested that the group at the meeting:
“act amicably towards the VRA but if the proposed resolution was carried, they should form an association of their own.” (Weekly Times, 5 June 1880)
Footscray Rowers Unleash
The Footscray delegates would hear nothing of it. They believed a new association should be formed at once. One of the Footscray crew let fly and “sweepingly condemned” all newspapers on account of disparaging remarks which had appeared in a newspaper about the Footscray crew. ‘Aquarius’ later wrote that the remarks were “decidedly uncalled for” and “unjust”. In the end, the following resolution moved by Mr Boyd (Lake club) and seconded by Mr Warren was unanimously carried:
“That this meeting views with regret the present attempt of the Victorian Rowing Association to debar persons engaged in manual labour from competing at the annual regatta on the same footing as other members, and pledges itself to use every endeavour to prevent the same being carried at the general meeting, to be held shortly.” (Weekly Times, 5 June 1880)
Mr Boyd was authorised to write to the country clubs inviting their support and a committee was formed to help encourage a large attendance at the special general meeting in July. Before the meeting finished it was agreed on the motion of Mr Foster (Lake Club) and seconded by Mr Langvrill that:
“In the event of the Victorian Rowing Association deciding to exclude all manual-labour men from competing on the same footing as other members, this meeting binds itself to take steps for the formation of another association.” (Weekly Times, 5 June 1880)
Aquatic Writers Unleash
Two leading aquatic writers of the time slammed the proposal. One believed it was class-driven and not in the best interests of rowing. The other believed that non-manual labour rowers could overcome manual labour rowers with good training and their better style.
In his ‘Weekly Times’ column, ‘Aquarius’ was unrestrained with his message to the proposers of the manual labour ban:
“Mr Colville’s now celebrated proposition to be discussed on the 14th July, and which virtually debars all persons obtaining their livelihood by manual labour from competing for the valuable prizes at future Melbourne regattas, has had an effect which must be deplored by all who wish to see true amateur rowing in Victoria attain the highest possible pitch of perfection. Disguise it as we may, the real pith of his motion is that such rich prizes as the Clarke Challenge Cup, Leader Cup, and other rich prizes given by gentlemen who take an interest in the sport, should be confined to a select few, and that the “ ‘orny-‘anded sons of labour” should only be allowed to compete for two paltry prizes.
Possibly I may be wrong in my opinion, but I think that when gentlemen like Messrs. Clarke and Gardiner present prizes to a regatta committee, they anticipate that they will be contested for by the best men (exclusive, of course, of the professionals) available; but if they find such races are simply open to say, the members of three or four clubs, Clarke cups in the future will be few and far between.
There is no doubt but that if Mr Colville’s motion is carried on 14th July, a hostile association to that of the VRA will be formed, and I ask any reasonable person which of the two will enlist the general as well as the practical sympathy of the public. The rowing community in Victoria is not so large that we can afford to have it split up into hostile sections, and, writing purely and honestly in the interests of rowing, I earnestly hope that Mr. Colville’s motion will find very few supporters in the Athenaeum on the 14th prox.” (Weekly Times, 5 June 1880)
The Leader’s writer, ‘Melbourne’ was more circumspect and less heated than ‘Aquarius’, saying:
“I, on the whole, think it would be wiser to let things remain as they are. Of course there is no doubt that the manual labourers generally are stronger, and have a great advantage from their physical strength alone over the bona fide amateurs generally, but really good amateur crews, well trained, can, I believe, hold their own, and more, against the manual labour crews, for this reason – the good amateur crews are sure to row in much better style and finish. Science has always held its own against mere strength in almost all sports – the ring, pedestrianism, cricket, football and other sports; why should it not in rowing?” (Leader, 19 June 1880)
Special Meeting of the VRA – The Manual Labour Question Blow by Blow
On 22 July 1880, the special meeting of the VRA took place at the ‘Athenaeum’ in Melbourne. Mr Boyd and the manual labour clubs mustering had worked. The question considered so important and potentially life-changing for clubs and the competitions that around 300 rowing people from town and country attended the meeting to consider Mr Colville’s historic proposal. If passed it would be certain relegation for so-called manual labour clubs and create a class-based two-tiered competition.
With the Hon W.J. Clarke, President of the VRA presiding, Mr Colville moved:
“That the Challenge Pair-oared race (No. 3) be changed to a four-oared race for all boats with coxswains; this and the maiden four-oared race in gigs (No. 8) to be open to all amateurs. All other races to be open only to those amateurs who are not ordinarily engaged or employed in manual labour requiring physical strength. The committee to decide in case of doubt under these definitions. The present holders of challenge trophies shall not be debarred from competing for the respective races until won by others.” (Australasian, 24 July 1880)
Manual labourers according to Mr Colville and his supporters had an unfair advantage over non-manual labourers and competition between them was not executed on equal terms. He used NSW and England as examples where manual labourers were not regarded as amateurs. He also believed that the fall in entries at recent regattas was due to the belief by some clubs that it was useless to compete against manual labour crews.
Mr Colville’s motion meant that if Footscray lost their next race in the Clarke Challenge Cup, they would be out of the competition altogether. His motion was seconded by Mr Ridge (Victoria Rowing Club).
An amendment was then moved by Mr G. Henderson:
“That five races be open to men coming under the definition of manual labour men; such races to be determined by the committee of the Victorian Rowing Association. Any club at present holding a challenge cup to be allowed to compete for it until the cup be lost, or finally won by such club.” (Australasian, 24 July 1880)
He pointed out that in the previous five years 26 races had been won by manual labour clubs, while the other clubs had won 35 events, 11 of which were sculling races. This amendment at least, would allow Footscray to continue competing for the Clarke Challenge Cup if they lost the next race, until the cup was finally won after the required three consecutive victories.
Mr Ievers (Victoria Rowing Club) opposed both the motion and amendment. He thought:
“… that matters had hitherto gone along very smoothly, and that it was because a few races had been won by manual labour crews that the outcry had arisen. He regretted that any class distinctions should be raised, as he considered that it redounded all the more to the credit of the working men if they competed successfully against persons engaged in less laborious occupations. Amateurs should train more strictly, and the question would soon be settled.” (Australasian, 24 July 1880)
Mr Cazally, captain of the Ballarat City Rowing Club, said that if Mr Colville’s motion was carried it “would be the ruin of his club”. He urged bona-fide amateurs to “train more strictly, and to gain the laurels wrested from them.”
Mr George Upward from the Civil Service Club, a champion rower and himself a manual labourer but whose work as a saddler did not require physical strength, rose to oppose the change because it would not be good for rowing. He said that he was:
“… satisfied that a man not engaged in manual labour, with proper coaching and training, would be as good, if not better, than the working man, who gained his skill by greater application and attention to the principles of rowing enunciated by Woodgate.” He moved the following amendment:
“That no alteration be made to Rule 19, so far as it refers to senior races, but that the committee be requested to make such alterations to the rules of the regatta programmes as may be found necessary so as to provide two maiden races for amateurs who are not ordinarily engaged or employed in manual labour requiring physical strength.”
Mr Irvine (Banks Rowing Club) moved:
“That Mr Colville’s motion come into force at the Melbourne Annual Regatta of 1882, and that in addition to the races put in the programme for competition by manual labour men, they be allowed to compete for all challenge trophies by any manual labour crews.” Seconded by Mr Knox.
Mr Boyd on behalf of his Lake Club and other country clubs, Colac, Echuca and Ballarat protested the proposed change.
At the night’s end, manual labour clubs survived the first round only slightly scathed. Mr Irvine’s amendment was lost overwhelmingly and Mr Upward’s conciliatory amendment was carried by a large majority. Apparently, most of the committee members of the VRA supported Mr Colville’s amendment but stayed silent during the meeting. The issue simmered.
Race Three – February 1881
The 1881 Melbourne regatta was described as the finest yet held in the colony. Three teams competed in the Clarke Challenge Cup race this year; Footscray, Corio and Melbourne. Footscray and Corio were the favourites in an environment where controversy hung over the Melbourne crew which was now a combination of the late Banks crew and Melbourne’s own men. The Argus reported:
“This policy has not met with the entire approbation of rowing men. Combinations are always distasteful to bona-fide sportsmen, and efforts on the river in this direction meet with little favour.” (Argus, 15 Feb 1881)
In front of thousands of spectators, Footscray came away from their competitors “with ridiculous ease” and won easily in the very fast time of 8 minutes 57 seconds. Some think there may have been some tidal and/or wind assistance. Some hailed it a “world record”. (Lack, 1991) But the cup which many in the rowing establishment, had hoped would become a “permanent symbol of rowing supremacy” in the State was still firmly in the hands of Footscray.[vi]
How ‘The Argus’ reported the 1881 race
“The event, however, was never in doubt after the first 200 yards, as the Footscray, a purely manual labour crew were much too strong for their opponents. No time was lost after the crew got into position and at the starter’s signal the three crews dashed away at their best pace. Footscray soon obtained a lead; their rate of rowing being timed at 52 strokes per minute. Within 100 yards of the starting place the Footscray crew were leading by a length, which was made two as the boats drew past the umpire’s steamer. The race was then all over, bar accidents, and the chief interest was centred on the second and third boats. Corio was leading Melbourne, but at the Sugar Works Tunbridge, rowing a spectacular and splendid stroke got his boat in front. The crew, however, were not in such good form or condition as the Corio, who gradually repassed them. Meanwhile the Footscray crew were hammering away at 47 or 48 strokes per minute and at the Red Dolphin were about three lengths ahead of everything. No alteration took place as the boats crossed the junction, but the Footscray, in answer to the cheers of their supporters, when in the Saltwater River, put on more weight, and passed the judges four or five lengths ahead; Corio second; Melbourne a clear length astern of the latter boat. Time, 8m 57s.” (Argus, 28 Feb 1881)
Footscray Crew 1881
Footscray’s winning crew: Rae Johnstone 10st (63.5kgs); M. Logan 10st 10lb (68kgs); E. Marriner 10st 6lb (66.2kgs); C. Britt 10st 2lb (64.4kgs); H. Huxtable 11st 12lb (75kgs); P. Nash 11st 12lb (75kgs); Robt Johnstone 11st (69.8kgs); T. Wood 10st 8lb (67kgs); and cox, F. Vernon.
The Manual Labour Question Round Two
Who Really Are the Manual Labourers?
The Footscray ‘Eight’ could not shake off the “purely manual labour” tag and their win ensured that the ‘amateur’ question would not go away.
“The Footscray crew row a very sharp, short stroke. Their strength and condition, however, enable them to row what to a bona fide amateur crew would be a killing stroke.” (Argus 28 Feb 1881)
As manual labourers, they were said to be ‘in training’ all year round giving them an advantage over other crews with less physical jobs. The non-manual labour clubs also felt that there should be more than two races for bona-fide amateurs given that it was this class “by and for whom” the Rowing Association was first started. (Argus, 19 Sep 1881)
On 3 June 1881, the VRA decided to appoint a sub-committee to revise the program of the annual Melbourne Regatta to divide races as evenly as possible between the two classes and to finally decide “who are and who are not ‘manual labour’ oarsmen”.
The seven-member committee comprised Chairman, Mr J. A. Levey (Civil Service) and representatives from both sides. The non-manual labour side were represented by Mr Carlile (Civil Service club), Mr Irvine (Banks club) and Mr Ward (Melbourne club). The manual labour side had Mr Foster (Lake club), Mr Purse (Yarra Yarra club) and Mr Benjamin Rolls representing the Footscray Club.
The committee reported on 13 June 1881 and recommended that the following races be ‘Open to All’: Maiden Sculls (clinkers), Challenge Sculls (best boats), Maiden Four (gig), Maiden Four (clinkers), Grand Challenge Cup (best boats), Junior Eight (clinkers), and the Clarke Challenge Cup (best boats). The races open to ‘Amateurs’ who are not ordinarily engaged in manual labour requiring physical strength included: Junior Sculls (best boats), Maiden Four (clinkers), Junior Four (best boats), Maiden Eight (clinkers) and Junior Eight (clinkers).
The committee also decided there was no need to alter the present definition of ‘manual labour’ but it would help to divide the manual labour rowers into two classes. It was therefore recommended that an interpretation clause be added to the regatta regulations specifying which occupations constituted manual labour requiring physical strength and those occupations that didn’t. Two lists were drawn up and the following recommendations were made:
Manual labour occupations requiring physical strength
Bakers, blacksmiths, bookbinders, brickmakers, butchers, boatbuilders, carpenters, carriers, carters, draymen, dairymen, engineers (working), foundrymen, french polishers, housepainters, labourers, lumpers, masons, platelayers, packers, plasterers, paperhangers, porters, plumbers, quarrymen, sawyers, shipbuilders, tannerymen, woolwashers, weavers and other similar employments.
Manual labour occupations NOT requiring physical strength
Artists, barbers, barmen, bootmakers, clerks, compositers, drapers, professional men, publicans, saddlers, shopmen, students, tailors, watchmakers, warehousemen, and other similar employments.
In addition, it was decided that: “The usual employment of persons entering for the restricted races to be given at time of entry.” In cases of doubt the VRA committee to have the final say. (Weekly Times, 18 June 1881)
“… the manual-labour clubs will have no reason to complain of a scarcity of races, either in regards to number or variety, in which to compete.”
However, he did wonder if a bona-fide element would be found ready to compete against Footscray for the Clarke Challenge Cup and wrote of potential strife simmering on the rowing horizon.
“I consider the non-manual labouring clubs will have their hands full during next season – a fact no doubt, entirely due to the action of the five clubs who recently determined to have a meeting of their own on the Upper Yarra, from which the horny-handed were excluded.” (Australasian, 18 June 1881)
The amateur question was far from resolved.
After the definition of a manual labourer came into force, the VRA was asked to rule on three men who worked in different manual labour jobs. One man dressed the lighter skins at a tannery, another was a ship’s carpenter and the third was a bottle and spirit blender. It was decided the spirit blender was a bona-fide amateur, but the tanner and carpenter were manual labourers who used physical strength in their work.
Race Four – March 1882
Lead Up to the Race – Melbourne Imports and Name Calling
Melbourne was so desperate to stop Footscray winning the coveted cup that the club imported five Oxford and Cambridge Blues to combine with three of the best oarsmen in the colony. They also imported a new special racing boat from England at a cost of £120.[vii]
As race day approached Footscray’s Bob Johnstone recalled there was a “bad feeling” about, generated by a section of the press who agreed with the English Amateur Association that manual labourers should be banned from competing as amateurs.
“They called us the ‘Mud-punchers’ because a majority of the crew were employed wheeling silt from the dredge barges to fill up the low-lying portions of the riverbank. This rather annoyed the people of Footscray and I think that 75 per cent of the 20,000 present were cheering for us.”[viii]
Bob Johnstone Revealed Some Training Secrets
When he was interviewed many years later Johnstone revealed that while they were in training none of the crew drank beer and they restricted their diet to fruit and farinaceous or starchy foods. He also revealed that they “took plenty of cold water, inside and out.” (Sporting Globe, 23 May 1931)
One thing they did do that would be frowned upon today was that they still smoked while in training. In fact, they sometimes raced while smoking. When they beat the NSW intercolonial crew over four-mile hit out it was said that they were smoking clay pipes throughout. (Sporting Globe, 23 May 1931)
On Saturday 18 March 1882 the ‘do or die’ Clarke Challenge Cup race day had arrived for the Footscray crew. The weather was perfect, the sun shone, a southwesterly wind blew gently, and the sea was relatively calm. Despite ‘Cloanthus’ wondering the previous year if a bona-fide amateur team would be found to race Footscray in 1882, two clubs were up for the challenge, Melbourne and City (previously Hawthorn and a manual labour crew). The Civil Service withdrew.
The Saltwater was dressed up for the occasion, bunting fluttered on both sides of the river and a flotilla of boats and steamers, official and unofficial, packed the river following the rowers. Yet again thousands of people, many of them women, gathered along the Footscray banks and wharves. Bands played on board some of the spectator boats and on shore, Allen’s band played under the direction of Mr Warnecke. A grandstand with an excellent view had been erected on the enclosed reserve for visitors and refreshment booths were provided.
Footscray’s Racing Plan Comes Unstuck
The Footscray crew were always a confident lot and had never worried about a race until the crucial 1882 contest. One of the best oarsmen, Charley Britt, was struck down with an illness which meant he couldn’t row. Harry Saunders, who wasn’t in the same “hard condition” as the rest of the crew, came in as a late substitute and although heavier, wasn’t as strong, and he upset the balance of the crew.[ix]
How ‘The ‘Argus’ Reported the 1882 Race
“Footscray led off as usual, at 50 a minute, Melbourne and City following suit. The City held their own against the Melbourne up to the second black dolphin, Melbourne rowing 46 a minute, and overhauling Footscray. At the wharf Melbourne were abreast of Footscray, who put on a spurt, and obtained a lead of a quarter of a length, Melbourne rowing apparently well within themselves and splendidly, Footscray plugging and rowing in any fashion. Bow of the City broke his oar and left the race from the Sugar Works to Fairbairn and Johnstone. Fairbairn’s crew backed him up to the nines, and Johnstone had all his work to do to gain the half-length he had got at the dolphin. From this point the race was over.’’ (Argus, 22 April 1882)
Footscray increased their lead and went on to win by two lengths in a time of 9 minutes 35 seconds, slightly slower than the 1881 victory. Johnstone believed the slower time was due to the strong north wind and tide being against the oarsmen.[x] It was also the first time in any of the Challenge races that Footscray had been “pressed” by another crew.
How Bob Johnstone (7th Man) Remembers the Race
“Conditions were perfect. The banks were thronged with the crowd. Steamers were loaded. It was the biggest occasion Victorian rowing had presented.”
“We had determined to try to break Melbourne up at the start. Tom Woods set the pace at well over 45 and we expected to go away. At the end of the first half mile, however, Melbourne were still hanging on with inches only between us. Further they were fighting us for the lead.”
“Our plan had succeeded only in breaking up our emergency man who cried out: ‘I’m done.’”
“We told him to take all his weight off the oar but to keep swinging so that he would not spoil the swing of the crew. It was also good tactics to keep the knowledge of our plight from the opposition.”
“Carrying a heavy man and with the coxswains rudder against the stronger side of the crew, we made heavy work of it for the next mile. Swinging round the bend with a little more than 300 yards to go both crews had had enough. Melbourne was still exchanging the lead with us. Something had to be done.”
“From the seven seat I cried out loud enough for all, including Melbourne, to hear, ‘Sprint Tom. Now let them have it.’”
“The ruse succeeded. We started to go away and won comfortably. Did I say comfortably? Well that referred only to the distance separating the crews. No one was comfortable after such a race. We both paddled back to the shed ‘flat out.’
There the reception we received soon revived us. Whistles shrieked, sirens screamed, hysterical women and men kissed, strangers congratulated each other, and the crowd in their well-meant enthusiasm nearly dragged us limb from limb as they tried to ‘chair’ us into the shed. The day was won, but there was an aftermath.” (Sporting Globe, 5 Aug 1936)
Even though the Melbourne crew ‘pressed’ the manual labourers over the course it wasn’t something that appeased the bona fide amateur proponents. Their agitation about the unfairness of manual labour crews continued. And what Bob Johnstone meant by “an aftermath” was that four months later the crew for the intercolonial race against NSW was chosen. But no “Mud puncher” was selected.
Footscray Crew 1882
Footscray’s winning crew: Rae Johnstone 10st (63.5kgs); M. Logan 10st 6lb (66kgs); E. Marriner 10st 8lb (67kgs); H Saunders (N/A);* H. Huxtable 11st 6lb (72.5kgs); P. Nash 11st 6lb (72.5kgs); Robt Johnstone 11st (69.8kgs); T. Wood 10st 8lb (67kgs); and cox, F. Vernon.
*Saunders was a late substitution for Britt.
Presentations of the Clarke Challenge Cup Trophy
There were two presentations of the Clarke Challenge Cup. The presentation to the Footscray crew by the VRA and then the presentation from the Footscray crew to the Footscray Borough Council.
A large group of rowers turned up at Young and Jackson’s on the evening of 27 March 1882 for the presentation of the ‘Clarke’ Cup to Footscray and prizes to other regatta winners after the scheduled VRA meeting. The Hon. W. J. Clarke personally presented his ‘Cup’ to the Footscray crew.
Celebrations continued in Footscray where the victorious crew were the toast of the town. In April a special banquet was held in their honour at the Royal Hall in the presence of 100 guests. Mr W. M. Clark, M.L.A one of the vice-presidents of the FRC chaired the evening. He praised the success of the senior eight and their “honesty of purpose” in every race.
Thomas Wood, the crew captain and ‘Demon Stroke’, thanked everyone for their enthusiastic support and on behalf of the Footscray Rowing Club presented the Clarke Challenge Cup to the Footscray Borough Council, as a memento of the crew’s victory.
The FRC was offered 100 guineas for the Cup, its valuation at the time, but the crew preferred the Cup stay with the local community in recognition of its generosity and patronage and also as an inspiration to the youth of the district.
This gesture pleased the Australasian’s ‘Cloanthus’:
“I can hardly speak too highly of this action of the club, and it redounds to their credit all the more when it is remembered that they are all men upon who the smiles of fortune have not been bestowed.” (Australasian, 22 April 1822)
The Club officially handed over custody of their valuable trophy to the Council on the evening of 12 April 1882 at which point the Council decided to have a glass globe made to showcase the trophy along with an inscription of the winning team. A decision was then made to appoint each successive mayor custodian of the trophy. (Argus, 14 April 1882)
The Manual Labour Question Round Three – Another Blow by Blow
Bringing Eligibility Beyond Doubt
Mr Carlile (Civil Service Club) and Mr Ward (Melbourne Club) persisted with the campaign against manual labour crews. The old VRA race records might help with understanding their determination. Melbourne and the Civil Service clubs appeared frequently on the winners’ lists before 1879.[xi] Manual labour crews were a real threat to the non-manual rowers ‘rightful’ place as heads of the river and in some quarters were probably not regarded as worthy of the valuable and prestigious trophies donated by men of wealth.
Mr Carlile and his supporters seemed intent on driving manual labourers completely out of the sport of amateur rowing. There were already rowing clubs where manual labourers weren’t admitted and in England manual labourers were debarred from amateur rowing altogether. The unfortunate terminology used in the English rules was debarring “those engaged in menial duty”[xii]. (Lang, 1919). NSW Rowing Association barred manual labourers from competing in amateur rowing contests and enforced that rule on Victoria in intercolonial races.
The Weekly Times reported on the proceedings of the VRA meeting on 22 April 1882 where Mr Carlile moved:
“That any person who has, within two years from the date of entry for any regatta race, been engaged in any manual employment requiring physical strength, be considered as ordinarily so engaged within the meaning of the regatta regulations and program.”
Even though he felt the last regatta had worked well, and the races were more keenly contested with close finishes, he was still not satisfied. He felt that the Committee always favoured the rower in matters of protest when there were doubts about whether a man had worked as a manual labourer six months ago. Mr Carlile wanted the eligibility question put beyond doubt. His motion was supported by Mr Ward.
Mr Levey from the Civil Service club went further, he wanted to see the motion altered from “two” to “five” years. He said:
“that when the definition was drawn between manual labour and non-manual labour, the desire was to keep the non-manual labour races exclusive from the manual races. If they allowed the manual men to cease to be manual labour men for the time, it would not be giving a fair chance to the non-manual labour men.” Fortunately, he couldn’t find a seconder.
Mr Rolls from Footscray was not happy. He didn’t approve the two years moved by Mr Carlile, saying that the VRA was there to encourage rowing and thought one year was enough.
“It was like pitting class against class and that was what they should avoid.”
He moved that the word “one” be inserted in the motion.
Mr Carlile was intransigent:
“Two years were little enough, and the very least they could afford to have. They would be cutting their own throats if they reduced it to one year. The bona-fide class of rowers would not row, and their classes would be reduced at once. They ought to have their rules in such a way as to get as many entries for one class as the other.”
He opposed the amendment and Mr Rolls lost by seven to four in a show of hands. (Weekly Times, 27 May 1882)
The Aftermath of the Clarke Challenge Cup
Winning the Clarke Challenge Cup was the sweetest of victories for the Footscray crew, but it had a bitter aftertaste. The crew knew they were the best eight in the land if not the world, but also knew they were working-class boys competing in a silvertail sport that had gone into protective mode. They weren’t eligible for selection for intercolonial races and they couldn’t test their speed and skill on the world stage because they were manual labourers.
NSW Intercolonial Crew vs Footscray Mud Punchers
Four months after Footscray won the Clarke Challenge Cup in 1882, the NSW crew were in Melbourne for the intercolonial race against Victoria, a race confined to bona fide amateurs, but not the best amateurs.
The NSW stroke asked Tom Woods if the ‘mud punchers’ would be interested in a trial race over the four-mile course before they raced Victoria the following week. The Footscray crew hadn’t raced for over three months but after a few practice rows agreed to the contest despite not being as race ready as they usually were.
Footscray thrashed NSW by over a quarter of a mile. The following week Victoria beat NSW over the same distance but only by a meagre two lengths. You can only wonder about the winning distance of the Footscray crew if they had been in proper training. There was no doubt who the superior crew was.
The hit out between NSW and Footscray made headlines and the win spurred the Footscray community into trying to raise enough money to send their crew overseas to race the best crew in England. But that was never going to happen. English amateurs would not row against anyone who earned their living by manual labour. Bob Johnstone recalls:
“It was the arrogance of those in control at that time that led Footscray citizens to propose to send us abroad. We were blocked, however, by the laws governing amateur oarsmen in England.” (Sporting Globe, 23 May 1931)
According to Michael Clarke in his book about the life and times of his ancestor, William Clarke:
“Will secured them an invitation to compete at the Henley Regatta in England. Supporters raised £500 for the trip, but the invitation was suddenly withdrawn. Ill-wishers had sent word to the Henley Committee that the men of Footscray were not bona-fide amateurs. Will replied to the skulduggery by declining to present a second Championship Cup and by severing his connection with the VRA.” (Clarke, 1995)
The Briscoe Challenge Cup – A Prestigious Race for Bona Fide Amateurs Only
Later in the year, the VRA decided to change the annual regatta timetable from February each year to December. This meant that in 1882 there were two VRA regattas with the Saltwater still home to the rowing competition set for 16 December 1882.
Now that the Clarke Challenge Cup had been won outright by Footscray it opened the door for those in control of the VRA to put in its place a valuable race restricted to ‘real’ amateurs.
At the VRA meeting in September Mr Moore from the Williamstown Rowing Club asked whether the Clarke Challenge Cup remained on the list of events. He received an answer in the affirmative but at the same time told that:
“… the trophy presented by Mr Clarke having been won right out. There was no trophy at present in existence for it.” (Argus, 16 Sept 1882)
It didn’t take long however for a new donor to come forward. Messrs. Briscoe and Co. commercial Ironmongers approached the VRA wanting to donate a 100-guinea trophy for an eight-oared race of bona-fide amateur crews from all the colonies. The trophy was an:
“exceedingly handsome silver epergne, standing 3ft 6 in. in height, with four branches and centrepiece, the base being surmounted with four female figures, the whole forming a very tasteful and valuable prize.” (Australasian, 14 Oct 1882)
In today’s world, people would find it puzzling that a trophy for a male-dominated sport was dominated by female figures.
The VRA convinced the donors to change the race to a four-oared race for all bona-fide amateurs; open to all the colonies. Mr Rolls, jun., who had now replaced his father on the Committee, stood up for the manual labourers at the 16 October 1882 meeting. He moved an amendment to appoint a sub-committee comprising two manual labour representatives and two bona-fide amateur representatives to again consult with Messrs. Briscoe and Co., to open the contest to “all amateurs”. His amendment was lost, and the original motion carried unanimously. (Leader 21 Oct 1882)
There were 14 races at the December regatta and the competition was again evenly divided between ‘Amateur’ and ‘Open’ events with the manual labourers confined to the lesser prizes.
No Big Prize or Champagne for the Manual Labourers
In August 1883, the VRA decided that all races except the Krug Champagne Cup, the Briscoe Challenge Cup and the Krug junior sculls should be open to all amateurs. This meant more races for the manual labourers, but the prestigious events were the exclusive domain of the ‘gentlemen rowers’. Perhaps the majority view at the VRA was always that manual labourers preferred a beer instead.
Bone-fide Amateurs Want Their Own Regatta
In November 1884 the Melbourne Rowing Club in a provocative move wrote to the VRA requesting support for an amateur regatta on the Lower Yarra proposed for early December where Manual Labour races would NOT be included. In its wisdom, the VRA rejected the request on the grounds that it could not patronise a competition which excluded the involvement of some of the Association members.
It wasn’t long however, before the Yarra clubs started organising their own amateur competition on the Upper Yarra and by 1888 it was a permanent fixture on the aquatics calendar. The ‘Sons of Toil’ not wanted here!
The Saltwater vs Albert Park Lake
At the 26 October 1884 meeting of the VRA there was a “long and animated” discussion about moving the Association Regatta scheduled for 20 December from the Saltwater to the Albert Park Lake. Mr Upward and others were in favour of changing the venue but whether the change was in the best interests of rowing is questionable.
The VRA had been losing money on the annual regattas and Mr Upward, the current honorary Treasurer, thought changing the venue to Albert Park Lake would help improve the Association’s financial situation. However, Albert Park Lake was not a championship course like the Saltwater. The change was probably more about escaping the pollution, the smell of industry and a manual labour stronghold.
As it turned out the first regatta held on Albert Park Lake didn’t take place until 1887, three years later, to mixed reviews of the program and events. The new venue was a shorter course and lacked width necessitating heats being conducted for races that were popularly contested. Some oarsmen rowed themselves out.
In the meantime, the regattas stayed on the Saltwater.
1884 Annual Melbourne Regatta
The VRA was criticised for the all-around bad management of the 1884 Regatta where people were kept in suspense during the day waiting for official decisions on races.
“The management of the weighing scales was simply a farce, and the operations of the timekeeper a burlesque.” (Leader, 27 December 1884)
The Regatta Committee also allowed the Melbourne City crew, disqualified for being late, turn around and row towards the winning post in front of Williamstown. Although the manual labourers from Williamstown won the race officially, to spectators viewing the final stages it appeared that they had come in second.
The weather on the day created challenges for the rowers. Rough seas and a strong south-west wind blowing upstream caused major problems for crews heading for the starting post. Several boats were swamped, and crews were forced to empty boats on the muddy banks in waist-deep water.
Melbourne had a disastrous regatta not winning one race and leaving the competition empty-handed. According to the Australasian the poor performance of the Melbourne club was: “The principal feature of the day.” The report could have easily said the winning performance of the Footscray club was “the principal feature of the day”.
Footscray Continues to Win
Undeterred by the conditions Footscray had a successful day winning three races; the Maiden Sculls, Maiden Eight and Junior Eight. Incredibly, the same crew rowed in both the Maiden and Junior Eight races indicating a promising future for the Footscray Club.
According to a press report: “The Maiden Eight was expected to be the finest spectacle and best race of the day but was unfortunately a fiasco from beginning to end. At the time for starting this race the wind was blowing hard, and meeting the tide created a regular sea, compelling four of the crews to land and empty their boats, and the starter was fully half an hour getting the crews in line, the difficulty of his task being increased by the actions of several of the competitors, who made no attempt to get into position or range themselves, but backed and rowed all over the river in the most aimless manner. At the word “off” there was a general scamper, the University and Albert-park fouling, and when two-thirds of the course had been covered, the Williamstown, South Melbourne and the Melbourne got hopelessly entangled together, and the City at the same instant having to retreat to shore with their boat full of water. The Footscray were fortunate in securing the lead at the start, and, clear of all, ran away home followed at a large distance by the University and Albert-park.” (Australasian, 27 Dec 1884)
Manual Labourers Start a Fight Back
An Annual Inter-Colonial Race for Manual Labourers Proposed
In June 1885 Port Adelaide Rowing Club wrote to the VRA proposing an annual inter-colonial eight-oared race for manual labour crews. Manual labourers were currently banned from competing in intercolonial boat races. The Adelaide Rowing Association thought it reasonable, given the large number of oarsmen who “suffer under the disability of being tradesmen” in both colonies, that having two distinct competitions would forge closer bonds between their rowing communities.
A now struggling VRA forwarded the letter to the associated clubs saying it couldn’t afford to fund two contests. This propelled the manual labourers to again consider forming their own association. “Eagle” writing in the Sportsman said:
“If the manual labour clubs do leave the present association, and start one for themselves, I am confident they will make it not only a success as far as the interests of their individual clubs are concerned, but financially, which latter the present association never was. When this much talked of division does take place, the ‘sons of toil’ will work together in a determined manner and will receive support from a very large number of their own class.”
By the end of 1885 problems were aplenty at the VRA. Both the honorary secretary and treasurer handed in their resignations amid financial difficulties and general lack of interest in the VRA by members. Meetings were poorly attended, and the heavy-duty work of organising regattas and fundraisers was left in the hands of a few. “Visor” observed in the Australasian:
“… in a so-called representative body of 42 members the whole work is thrown upon the shoulders of four or five, whilst the others seldom help to make a quorum at a meeting, or when they do content themselves by sitting around and gaping, unless, perchance, something crops up fraught with advantage to their own particular club.” (Australasian, 5 Dec 1885)
By 1890 the VRA was on the brink of insolvency. (Australasian, 18 Jan 1890) Moving the Regatta to Albert Park Lake hadn’t improved the financial situation of the VRA after all.
Tragedy Strikes the Footscray Rowing Club
A Suspicious Fire at the Boatshed – October 1885
After their success at the 1884 regatta, it looked like nothing was going to stop the club achieving further greatness in the water as well as a healthy bank balance. Throughout the year however, the FRC had not performed well financially and on the night of 6 October 1885 tragedy struck.
A suspicious fire broke out at the club’s boatshed destroying two boats including the ‘eight-oar one streak’ boat that had been rowed to victory in the Clarke Challenge Cup. The Clinker four was also destroyed and other boats damaged.
The fire started in the roof of the shed and embers showered into the boats below causing them to burn. A passer-by alerted Mr Cowell of the ‘Ship Inn’ next door and he quickly swung into action to help save the property.
Taps at the horse trough were turned on and buckets brought out. His quick-thinking helped save a large portion of the building but not so the boats. It was said that the boats suffered as much by the rough handling of the rescuers as the fire as nearly all were damaged. (Independent, 10 Oct 1885)
The loss was around £120 which the club could recover from insurance, but more problematically with the loss and damage to boats, crews were going to lose valuable training time. It was a dreadful blow to the Club which had done so well on the water the year before.
The FRC reported that:
“No clue can be obtained as to the origin of the fire, which appears mysterious, but we trust if it has been the work of incendiary the party or parties will soon be brought to justice.” (Independent, 31 Oct 1885).
Help “Our Boys” – January 1886
The local ‘Independent’ newspaper made an emotional plea to the Footscray community asking them to open their pockets to help the now struggling FRC after the fire and also a declining membership.
“Our Rowing Club, which has been the pride of the borough, the admiration and envy of other clubs, and has occupied the premier position in the colony for years, appears to have fallen on evil times. So much so, indeed, that it is to be feared that, unless some kind encouragement is given, and strong efforts made to pull it through its difficulties, and cement its unity, “the place that knew it – the van in races – shall know it no more”.
For years “our boys” struggled manfully together, living down the sneers and contumely (meaning: “insolent or insulting language or treatment”) of those who, when beaten, eased their humiliation by calling names, but that did not affect their ardour. After one short month’s practice, the “eights” rowed down all competitors and finally carried off the “Clarke Cup”, the most valuable trophy ever won in the aquatic world by amateurs, winning it three seasons in succession. To the lasting credit of the crew, be it said, that they resisted tempting offers, and although poor men, handed the magnificent trophy to the borough, to be held in perpetuity as public property.” (Independent, 30 Jan 1886)
The Editorial reminded the Footscray community that the extraordinary achievements of the various crews had been a crucial factor in the progress of the borough by attracting people and revenue to the area and helping businesses prosper.
An Accident on the Yarra – February 1886
The Footscray club couldn’t take a trick. Unbelievably, within two weeks of the public call for financial help, another tragedy hit the ailing club in February 1886. A Footscray crew rowing from Melbourne to Footscray in an eight-oared boat, just hired from the Civil Service Rowing Club so they could compete in the upcoming regatta, was struck by the backwash of the ‘ss Excelsior’ travelling with excessive speed up the Yarra.
The steamer didn’t stop but continued to push through the water at full speed destroying the boat and endangering the life of the crew. Thomas Wood, the ‘Demon Stroke’ from the famous Footscray eight was acting as coxswain and saw the danger coming.
“When near the junction of the river at Humbug Reach, the coxswain observed the ‘Edina’ steamer coming up, and hailed her, when she slowed and allowed them to pass safely. A little lower down the ‘Excelsior’ followed, and as she was going at rapid speed, the whole of the boat’s crew called out to her to slow, but no notice was taken, nor were the engines eased. The great wave that followed the steamer struck the boat and broke it in halves, throwing the men out. The crew were struggling in the water for about twenty minutes before the ‘Excelsior’ could stop and send her lifeboat to the rescue. They were picked up and landed on the bank, but although they asked for the loan of the boat to recover their clothing that was floating about, their request was refused.” (Independent, 13 Feb 1886)
The men lost clothes and watches valued at £15, the boat hire was £10, and the value of the boat was £65. This was a dreadful blow and efforts got underway to try and recoup the losses. The matter was discussed at the next Borough Council meeting where it was decided to ask the Harbour Trust to act on the “Excelsior’s” breach of regulation. The FRC intended to sue the owners of the steamer to recoup the financial loss.
In April 1886 the Independent reiterated the contribution made by the Footscray rowers to the local community.
“Some may smile or ridicule the assertion, but nevertheless it is true, and we have no hesitation in asserting that the Rowing Club has been no mean factor in the progress of Footscray.” (Independent, 24 April 1886)
Nothing it Seems Can Save the Footscray Rowing Club
The FRC was in a grave position going into 1887 as a result of the two disasters within 12 months of each other. In fact, the club disappeared from the rowing scene. There are no records of AGM’s taking place from 1887 to 1890.
“Eagle” reported rather heartlessly in the ‘Sportsman’:
“During the last week two of the manual labour rowing clubs have quietly passed away, but luckily they leave nobody to mourn the loss. After several attempts to pull the clubs together, both separately and then by amalgamation, the Harbour Trust and Footscray Clubs decided to wind up.” (Sportsman, 31 Aug 1887)
Most of the Harbour Trust boys ended up joining Williamstown.
Rising from the Ashes 1888
A meeting to reorganise the FRC took place on 5 January 1888 at the Footscray Mechanics Institute. It was a well-attended meeting with fifty men taking up membership. Mr Neil Ferguson was elected Secretary and Mr W. Bligh Treasurer. A couple of names from the glory days of the Clarke Challenge Cup crew; Tom Wood and H. Saunders took up club and committee roles.
One of the most urgent tasks before the committee was raising funds through business subscriptions to wipe out the £40 in liabilities from the old club. (Independent, 7 Jan 1888)
A New Boathouse, a New President, a New Boat and a Win
The future started to look promising as the bank balance improved. In September 1888 work started on a new boathouse “splendidly” located opposite the junction of the Yarra and Saltwater rivers and by December the club was in a favourable financial position with up to 60 members. December also saw the new President, Mr John Stewart, christen a new racing eight, the “Emma Stewart”, after his wife.
There were encouraging signs with the club winning the Maiden Eight at Colac and coming a close second in the Senior Eight. Club support was on the rise and there was so much optimism the club wanted to initiate a regatta on the Saltwater early in the following year.
The Club again had representation on the VRA, its delegate being Mr J Fitzgerald, the champion amateur sculler of Victoria.
Re-thinking the Amateur Definition in Victoria and other Colonies
By the late 1880s, the question of whether a manual labourer amateur oarsman has any advantage over a ‘bona-fide’ amateur oarsman had occupied more attention than any other matter connected to rowing. The issue wouldn’t go away.
There were attempts in July 1888 at the VRA meeting to confine the races of the Amateur Championship of Victoria to bona-fide amateurs. The motion was rejected. (Sportsman, 11 July 1888)
Manual Labourers Demand the Right to Row in Intercolonial Races
Manual labour clubs were agitating for their members to be eligible for selection to represent their colony at inter-colonial meetings. Through their membership of the VRA, they believed that they were subsidising intercolonial teams, but their members were prevented from having the same honour of representing their colony. They believed that amateur clubs should be prepared to pay for their monopoly of the intercolonial contest.
In July 1888 the VRA received a letter from the NSW Rowing Association proposing a conference of delegates from various rowing associations, “… with the object of defining what should constitute an amateur oarsman throughout Australasia.” NSW were hard-line bona fide amateur enforcers. (Argus, 30 Oct 1888) Mr Upward and Mr House were appointed by the VRA to attend the meeting in Sydney.
Sometime before this meeting Victoria had rethought its definition of an ’Amateur’. Mr Upward pointed out at the conference that the term “amateur” in Victoria included:
“manual labourers and those who were engaged in lighter occupations, and that all races at their regattas were thrown open to both classes of oarsmen.”[xiii] (Argus, 3 Dec 1888)
Representatives from Tasmania and New Zealand agreed with Victoria that the future intercolonial races should be open to all “oarsmen”, including manual labourers.
NSW, however, stood defiant. Mr Blackman said:
“the manual labour clause should be retained, as manual labourers would crowd out others, and to make the present definition more open would be fraught with difficulty and would not do intercolonial rowing any good.” (Argus, 3 Dec 1888)
Class contempt still festered in colonial society and rowing as the Australasian correspondent observed:
“There is no doubt that throwing the race open would make it popular, but the great drawback to such a step would be the antipathy existing with amateurs in other colonies against the labouring classes, with whom, they are loath to fraternise and indisposed to travel. Such a prejudice would not be overcome very easily.” (Australasian 24 Nov 1888)
Manual Labour Oarsmen Break Through the Class Ceiling
The 1889 Amateur Rowing Conference in Sydney made a historic decision and agreed that future intercolonial association races should be open to all amateurs, including manual labourers. This decision was endorsed by the VRA in January 1889 where Mr G. Day argued:
“… in such a professedly democratic country as Australia class distinctions ought to be done away with. To distinguish manual labour oarsmen from bona fide amateurs was a miserable class distinction.” (Argus, 15 Jan 1889)
The End of Manual Labour Restrictions
Six years after the Briscoe Trophy was donated it was finally won outright at the Annual Regatta in 1889 by Albert Park. It was the only event still on the VRA rowing program restricted to non-manual labourers due to the conditions imposed by the donor. It was the last such trophy. A report in the Leader newspaper said:
“It is not likely that it will be replaced by a trophy with similar restrictive conditions. As a rule, it has been found that the crew who could win the Briscoe Trophy race could win the Challenge Four, open to all amateurs.” (Leader, 23 March 1889)
The definition of an amateur oarsman in Victoria appeared to have reverted to the original 1801 definition adopted by the old Melbourne Regatta Committee which drew a line between men who rowed for money prizes and men who rowed for trophies.[xiv]
John Lang wrote in the Victorian Oarsman that:
“For a very short period in the eighties Victorian rowing thought looked at the question of oarsmen whose ordinary work in life was that of labour needing strength. The distinction lasted a short time.” (Lang, 1919)
For the manual labour oarsman of the eighties, especially the Footscray crew who won the Clarke Challenge Cup, the distinction would have felt a lifetime.
What Happened to Footscray’s Awesome Oarsmen?
‘Charley’ Britt maintained his association with the Footscray Rowing Club because he was mentioned as a guest at a club function for Tom Woods in 1884 where he got up and sang. He was the oarsman who was struck down with illness and couldn’t row for Footscray in the final and successful Challenge race.
Harry Huxtable it seems was a colourful character. There was a story about him in the ‘Sportsman’ in 1891 when he returned home after “doing” England and the Continent. The report said that Huxtable, “looks particularly well and jolly”. He must have put on weight during his time away because he told the reporter he was “as heavy as when he rowed with the Footscray Eight for the Clarke Challenge Cup”.
One of the most noteworthy facts in the story was Huxtable being described as: “the first native of Footscray that has ever visited the old country”. Mr Huxtable, it was reported,
“combines a gentlemanly bearing and shrewdness of character with acute power of observation and discernment. He is one of the most popular of our Hill metallicians.” In other words, Harry was a notable bookmaker. (Sportsman, 20 October 1891)
He also owned racehorses. His horse ‘Maurice’ was the highest price winner at the Easter Monday race meeting at Williamstown in 1908.
Rae Johnstone must have left the Footscray Rowing Club because in 1886 he was described as the “energetic” Secretary of the Harbour Trust Rowing Club. (Independent, 25 Dec 1886) He was farewelled from his position at the Harbour Trust in September 1887 after eleven years as a foreman. His work colleagues presented him with a silver cigar case inscribed with the words: “Presented to Mr Rae Johnstone by the Melbourne Harbour Trust employees as a token of respect.” He was also presented with a silver-mounted pipe and cigar holder by the Harbour Trust’s tug of war team, current champions of Australia. Another sport he excelled in.
Mr Johnstone said that he was leaving the Harbour Trust for the purpose of bettering himself but felt that: “go where he would he would meet with no more genial men”. Brothers Frank and Robert entertained the gathering with their violin and harp playing. (Fitzroy City Press, 17 Sept 1887)
Sadly, 10 years later, Rae Johnstone died in Fitzroy aged 45 years after an illness of only three months. (Independent, 17 July 1897)
Robert (Bob) Johnstone
Bob Johnstone outlived all the oarsmen celebrating his 92nd Birthday on 25 September 1941 and claiming to be Australia’s oldest oarsman. (Argus, 23 Sept 1941)
He provided some fascinating insights about the Clarke Challenge Cup days and Footscray’s wins in a series of newspaper interviews in 1936 entitled ‘Toilers Defeated Scions of Society’ by Frank H. Hart. (Sporting Globe, 5 Aug 1936).
In his heart-warming introduction, Hart wrote:
“All the crew were not “mud punchers,” but the majority earned their living wheeling silt for the Melbourne Harbour Trust. The boat used was purchased with money raised locally and saw service for three years without repair or alteration. In a democratic community, the sporting triumph of working men under such conditions naturally occasioned jubilation. The whole series of events is a sacred page in Footscray history.”
In those memorable days Bob rowed with his brother Rae Johnstone and brother-in-law, Mick Logan (Bob married Annie Logan in 1871 and together they had 12 children).
Like his brother Rae, Bob went from wheeling silt to becoming a foreman of reclamation work on the Yarra for the Harbour Trust. His career took an about-face when he became Librarian at the Footscray Mechanics Institute describing himself initially as, “a square peg in a round hole”. He remained in that position for 45 years.
In 1908 ‘The Argus’ reported that Mr Robert Johnstone from Footscray had left Melbourne for London aboard the RMS Asturias. Footscray people going overseas was big news in those days.
Ted Marriner rowed in the Senior ‘Eight’ for the Williamstown club in December 1885. (The Age, 18 Dec 1885) He later moved from Footscray to Apollo Bay where he became a cattle breeder. When he celebrated his 50-year Golden Wedding Anniversary in 1935 he received a congratulatory letter from the Footscray Council. (Age, 9 May 1935)
Paddy Nash along with Ted Marriner rowed in the Senior ‘Eight’ for the Williamstown club in December 1885. (The Age,18 December 1885)
Mr H. Saunders, the late substitute for Charley Britt in the 1882 race, continued his involvement with the Footscray Rowing Club as an oarsman and an office bearer when the club was reconstituted in 1888.
Walter Snadden lived until he was 79 years. He died suddenly at his home in Cowper St, Footscray on Monday 13 August 1928. The mile and a half challenge four, won with Tom Woods in 6 mins 32 secs, was an Australian record that still stood at the time of his death. When he retired from competitive rowing, he coached at Williamstown before becoming a successful coach at the Footscray Rowing Club and later a leading member of the Footscray Bowling Club. (Argus, 16 Aug 1928)
Mr W.G Ogden (Williamstown Rowing Club) proclaimed Snadden a “champion coach”.
J. and R. Thomson
There doesn’t appear to be any further public information available on these two oarsmen who were probably brothers like the Johnstone boys. They rowed in Footscray’s first successful Challenge race in 1880.
Frank ‘Toohey’ Vernon
Frank Vernon, the coxswain for the famous ‘Eight’ died at his home, 65 Cowper St, Footscray on 22 April 1916 aged 51 years. Because of his unassuming nature, he wasn’t as well known by 1916 Footscray residents as he was to those in the 1880’s.
He was only 17 years when the Footscray crew won the CCC in 1882 and played a crucial role in the victories as coxswain due to his “ability and splendid judgement”. Memorably he steered the boat into calm water on the Sandridge side of the river in the 1880 race gaining many lengths while the Melbourne boat was steered into the full current and ‘lumpy’ water. He would have only been 15 years old when he steered the boat to victory in that race.
When he died his family still had in their possession six cups and several medals, a record of his successful rowing days.
Frank came to Footscray from Clunes as a young boy and for many years worked for Michaelis, Hallenstein & Co, but in later years was a cartage contractor for Cuming, Smith & Coys.
Sadly, when he died his son, Frank Vernon jnr, was overseas on active service. He was survived by his wife and eight children. (Advertiser, 29 April 1916 & Independent, 29 April 1916)
Tom Woods continued to contest championships as an amateur sculler for Footscray after the Clarke Challenge Cup. There were two memorable races. One on 29 September 1883 on the Lower Yarra against South Australian professional rower David Green which Woods won comfortably for a £10 trophy. The other intercolonial race also on the Lower Yarra was against Sydney sculler W.G. Brett who was the bookies favourite. Brett won by three lengths.
Woods was described in 1883 as, “a wiry looking man, rowing under 11 stone, about 5ft 8 in and 35 years. He cannot be said to have pretentions to good style.” He also had no pretentions as a person being described by Mr W. M. Clark, Chairman of the Footscray Rowing Club as “one of those men of modest innate worth that success could never spoil”.
The ‘Demon Stroke’, a carpenter by trade, ended up moving to South Africa where he became head of construction at a big mining company. In March 1896, the Footscray ‘Independent’ published a well-written letter sent by him to his family revealing his personal insights and observations after the botched ‘Jameson Raid’ (29 Dec 1895 -2 Jan 1896) which was a precursor to the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). (Independent, 14 March 1896)
Woods visit back to Footscray in February 1909 was a newsworthy item for the local paper which announced that Woods was over on a visit from South Africa “where he was doing well”. (Independent, 29 Feb 1909)
Tom Woods died in South Africa in 1931 at the age of 83 years. His death was announced in the ‘Herald’ with the headline, “Noted Stroke Dead”. The report reminded readers of his successful rowing years with the Footscray ‘Eight’ but also reminded them that: “All members of the crew were ‘mud punchers’, men who were employed in manual labour.” (Herald, 13 May 1931)
He’ll probably always be remembered as: “the stroke of the fastest crew that ever rowed in a boat carrying a coxswain”. (Herald, 15 May 1931).
What Happened to the Clarke Challenge Cup Trophy?
After the Clarke Trophy was donated to the Footscray Borough Council in 1882 by the Footscray Rowing Club, a decision was made by Council to have a glass dome made to showcase the trophy. It seems however, the glass dome was never made, instead, the Cup was hidden away in the Council vault.
In September 1893 The Argus wrote: “This valuable trophy has been lost to sight for some time in the strong-room of the Footscray City Council. In order however, that it may act as an object lesson for the rising athletic youth of that city the challenge cup is to be brought forth and placed on the council table each night of the meeting.” (Argus, 16 Sept 1893)
It appears this decision was short-lived because in 1899 Cr McDonald was on a mission to have the Cup brought out of hiding again. He told Council that he found it curious that one of the most valuable cups in Victoria was hidden away in a safe, which meant that two-thirds of Footscray people hadn’t seen it. The winning of the Cup had done more to advertise Footscray than anything he had seen in 40 years of living in the area. (Independent, 21 Oct 1899)
The Cup that “Made Old Footscray’s Name” was put on view in the window of M. Punshon & Co’s lead store on the corner of Nicholson and Paisley streets where it attracted a good deal of attention as predicted by Cr McDonald when he pushed for the Cup to be out on display. (Independent, 28 Oct 1899)
It was put back in the vault after being in Punshon & Co’s window and brought out again in 1906 for the Footscray Regatta. Here it was put on exhibition in the Reserve as an object of interest.
In 1908 Mr J.J. Mills, President of the Footscray City Rowing Club, said that: “the old club, after winning such a splendid trophy as the Clarke Cup, made a mistake in handing it over to the local council to be hidden in a vault or cellar.” (The Age, 28 Sept 1908)
In 1915, 33 years after the Cup was won the question was still being asked: “Why isn’t the Cup on view?” (Advertiser, 30 October 1915) The issue was raised again in Council, this time by Cr Bell who said he understood the Cup was kept in hiding but he agreed with the Footscray ‘Advertiser’ that it should be put in a glass case and affixed in the lower entrance of the municipal buildings in open view. (Advertiser, 6 Nov 1915)
The Australasian newspaper reported in 1933 that the Cup had been on exhibition at the Footscray Town Hall since it had been presented to the ratepayers of Footscray in recognition of their generosity. (Australasian, 5 Aug 1933). It was also mentioned in press reports in 1935 and 1941 that the Cup adorned the Mayor’s Room in the Town Hall. (The Age, 9 May 1935 and Argus, 23 Sept 1941).
Maybe the glass dome had finally been made.
The Clarke Challenge Cup Trophy Today
Today the trophy is in the permanent possession of the Footscray City Rowing Club. It is the most important historical item the Club possesses and brought out for display and inspiration on special occasions such as the Annual Presentation Night. For the remainder of the time, it is securely stored.
The Cup was valued at over $23,000 in 1982, but its historical value cannot be estimated.
Chapman, Heather & Stillman, Judith: ‘Melbourne Then and Now’, Pavilion, 2014
Clarke, Michael, ‘Clarke of Rupertswood 1831-1897 – The Life and Times of William John Clarke First Baronet of Rupertswood’, Melbourne, Vic., Australian Scholarly Publishing, 1995
Digitised newspapers www.trove.nla.gov.au : Argus (Melbourne), Age (Melbourne), Australasian (Melbourne), Independent (Footscray), Leader (Melbourne), Sportsman (Melbourne), Weekly Times (Melbourne);
Footscray City Rowing Club Committee members
Lack, John F: ‘A History of Footscray’, Hargreen Publishing, Footscray 1991
Lang, John: ‘The Victorian Oarsman with Rowing Register’, Melb: A.H. Massina 1919
Maribrynong City Council: ‘Maribrynong River Heritage Trail’ (Download available)
Thank you to the Footscray City Rowing Club committee members; Kevin Bourke, Bruce Paule, Ian Gomm and Ross Goodman (President) who provided me with a history of the FRC, happily answered my queries and invited me to the club’s Presentation Night on 14 June to view the ‘magnificent’ Cup.
Thank you also to Peter Haffenden from Melbourne’s Living Museum of the West Inc. who provided me with some valuable information that added to the story.
I’d also like to acknowledge the ‘Aquatic’ and ‘Rowing’ writers of the period whose ‘by-lines’ were always a source of amusement but whose stories were a feast of information: ‘Aquarius’ (Weekly Times); ‘Clinker’ (Leader); ‘Cloanthus’ (Australasian); ‘Coxswain’ (Leader); ‘Eagle’ (Sportsman) ‘Melbourne’(Leader); ‘Outrigger’ (Leader), ‘Remus’ (Weekly Times), ‘Rowlock’ (Sportsman); ’Stroke’ (Leader); ‘Tingle’ (Australasian) and ‘Visor’ (Australasian). They were never short of a rowing story in the 1880s.
I have made every effort to ensure this story is as accurate an account of the events and issues as possible. I have also made every effort to ensure that sources are properly acknowledged and cited. I apologise if there are any inaccuracies that may cause offence to any person or persons.
[i] The crew were often referred to as ‘mud-punchers’ but their jobs were varied. The Johnstone brothers originally wheeled silt but later worked as foremen for the Harbour Trust on reclamation works along the Yarra banks; Walter Snadden and Paddy Nash were quarrymen and Tom Woods worked for Johnstone Tyne Foundry as a carpenter. (Herald, 15 May 1931)
[ii] The term ‘from the other side of the Yarra’ was/is a colloquial phrase used by Melburnians as a means of class distinction. West of the Yarra River implies ‘working class’. East of the Yarra River implies ‘upper class’.
[iii] Now called the Maribrynong River
[iv] Sylvia Morrissey, ‘Clarke, Sir William John (1831-1897)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/clarke-sir-william-john-3229/text4867, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 21 May 2019.
[v] Maribrynong City Council: ‘Maribrynong River Heritage Trail’, 2008 (?) p20. Melbourne’s population in 1880 was 280,000 people
[vi] Bob Johnstone recalled in the Sporting Globe, 5 August 1936, p10
[xi] Glynn, M.S., ‘The Victorian Rowing Register and Oarsman’s Companion’, Melbourne, C.F Maxwell, 1878
[xii] This included people who worked in shops.
[xiii] I couldn’t find the exact date the ‘definition of amateur’ changed.
[xiv] Mr Upward’s words at the VRA meeting of 15 January 1889