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Sunday 30th October marks the 100th anniversary of boat racing between the University of Sydney and the University of Melbourne.

The following extract is from Sydney University Sport 1852-2007: more than a club, by Geoffrey Sherington and Steve Georgakis.

The Boat Club
Rowing began in Sydney on the harbour in the early 1800s. Formal regattas commenced in 1827. Rowing soon became a popular sport and professional sculling championships were initiated by the 1850s.

It was the impact of the Oxbridge social class ideal of rowing, with its specific social class associations, and the Australian notion of the ‘club’ that provided much of the initial stimulus of the sport of rowing in Australian universities. Established on the coast near to water, the students of Sydney and Melbourne seemed to be attracted to rowing contests. The Melbourne University Boat Club was established in 1859, as the first sporting club in the University. Significantly, the first racing competition took place between a Melbourne University crew in an outrigger and a four from drawn from one of Melbourne’s banking houses, so beginning a tradition of a University club against a club from a place of employment.

The University of Sydney Boat Club appears to have been established not long after the University of Melbourne Boat Club. In 1922 the Union Recorder ran a series of articles which looked at the origins and early history of the Boat Club (22 & 29 June 1922, 20 July 1922, 3 August 1922, 14 & 21 September 1922). The first article on 22 June 1922 noted:

But I have discovered, greatly to my surprise, that there was a Sydney University Boat Club at a very much earlier date. The attendant who brought me “Hermes” brought me in addition a single foolscap sheet with a printed heading, “Sydney University Boat Club,” and beneath that a list of officers (also printed) beginning with “President: Sir Charles Nicholson (Provost),” and going on with a list of well known names as vice presidents, including James Martin, M.L.A., and William Charles Wentworth; and giving the following officers:- First Captain: Randolph C. Want. Second Captain: Hugh Kennedy. Hon. Secretary: Marshall Burdekin. Hon. Treasurer: J. W. Johnson. Committee: D. S. Mitchell, W. C. Windeyer, J. S. Paterson, John Kinloch, R. M. Fitzgerald. Now the Chancellor was at first called Provost: but this was altered by Statute in 1861: so that this document would appear to be of earlier date than 1861. (p2)

Those mentioned above included a number of the University ‘founders’ such as William Charles Wentworth and James Martin, as well as the provost Sir Charles Nicholson and early members of the Cricket Club and later intercolonial players such as John Kinloch.

What assisted the growth of the Boat Club was the formation of intervarsity competition. As in other sports, intercolonial competition had soon emerged in rowing. Intercolonial competition began with four-oared competition in 1863 and the amateur sculling championship of Australia commenced in 1868 (Vamplew & Stoddart 1994, p181). Intervarsity mirrored this intercolonial competition. The Boat Club was part of the 1870 intervarsity meeting between the universities of Sydney and Melbourne. The rules of this 1870 contest were noted. These provided that all “bone fide matriculated members of their respective universities” could compete, but that the “professional element” was excluded from the teams, with the aim that it would be a contest between “natives of the colonies” (Illustrated Australian News 30 January 1871). It was an obvious attempt to maintain the amateur nature of the contest while also insisting on a contest between Australian-born university matriculants.

The first intervarsity boat race was held in December 1870. The University sent down a crew to Melbourne to compete against Melbourne University on the Yarra River. The crew consisted of E.A. Iceton (bow), E. Barton (2), R. Teece (3), A. Yeomans (stroke), and T. Iceton (coxswain). Of this four the best known would become Edmund Barton later the first prime minister of Australia. The race, for four-oar, fixed seat, stringtest gigs (not outriggers), was rowed on the Humbug course over three and a half miles on the Yarra and the Melbourne crew won in 23 minutes and 4 seconds and by four lengths. Traffic on the river was stopped for the duration and 300 spectators crammed the steamers, the Sophia and the Resolute, engaged by the Melbourne University Boat Club committee to follow the race, and about 1200 people lined the banks. It was indeed a display after the model of “the wholesome rivalry that exists between the sister Universities of Oxford and Cambridge”. (Illustrated Australian News 30 January 1871; 1 May 1893)

Sydney University Sport 1852-2007: more than a club, by Geoffrey Sherington and Steve Georgakis, published by Sydney University Press, 2008.

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