Stroking up Weeroona
The Olympics continue, with the Paralympics still to come, and BRAC are taking the opportunity to explore some sports-related stories through the lens of BRAC, PROV and other public resources. It is a good way to see the sort of information available in various collections and how different series can support each other.
Letter to Council from Sandhurst Rowing Club
Public Record Office Victoria, VA 2389 City of Bendigo, VPRS 16936 Inward Correspondence, P1, 16-30 May 1873
It’s no surprise we’ve got gold in the women’s rowing events at Tokyo with a strong history of ladies’ rowing in Victoria. Bendigo used to regularly host the Henley-on-Weerona and Henley-on-Neangar, a two day carnival which comprised an opening ceremony, fireworks, the Miss Henley contest, movies shown on a screen constructed on a platform in the lake, decorated boat contests, stalls, jugglers, illuminated boat displays (including a ‘Tokio [sic] floating tea garden’ boat in 1925) and canoe events, and which attracted crowds of up 10,000 people.
Rowing Clubs operated in and around Sandhurst from at least the 1870s, and in the City of Bendigo Inward Correspondence collection, we can see many letters from groups about use of facilities, building of venues, requests for assistance and of course, complaints about the state of the Lake.
While the idea was first floated around 1890 [i], the Sandhurst Ladies Rowing Club was officially formed in August 1905, with the Club uniform described as ‘navy blue sailor blouse and skirt with white trimmings and a Panama straw hat’, and was believed to be the only Club of its kind outside of Melbourne [ii]. The inaugural appearance of the ladies’ team was at the Weeroona regatta in November of that year, where Club was officially declared open by Mayoress Rose Murphy. Her husband, Mayor Luke Murphy, declared in his regatta address, “Ladies have a wonderful influence in all things they undertake” [iii]. Membership figures were sufficiently high by 1908 that the Club built its own new boat shed on the western shore to accommodate all the boats required (see Minutes except below).
The headline prize on the card for women rowers at the later Henley regattas was the RO Henderson Championship Cup for a rowing four – local tournaments in squash and shooting, as well as Merino show ewes, also carried an RO Henderson Cup. Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Henderson had been killed while fighting in France in 1917 and posthumously awarded a Distinguished Service Order. Teams from across the state would compete, including groups from Eaglehawk, Preston, Dimboola, Nagambie, Wendouree, Albert Park and Essendon.
“When it is remembered that Lake Weeroona, on which Bendigo trains, does not allow more than a straight quarter mile,” reported the Weekly Times, “It is surprising to see this club turn out so many excellent crews, to win against opponents who have the advantage of full course to train on”[iv]. The effort of the ladies team in winning the Henderson Cup three years in a row was therefore even more impressive. Over that 1920s period, the team comprised variously of Jean Weigben, Ellen ‘Nell’ Oldfield, Irene Crocker, Doris Grohbruggs, A Bright, Doris Burge (whose younger brother Harold sat as cox), Jean Hesse and Ivy Walker.
Women rowers from Bendigo dominated the women’s scene in that decade. Weigben, Oldfield, Hesse and Walker were successful in 1923 and 1924 at the Henley-on-Maribyrnong in Melbourne and in 1926, Ada Green, Edna Goddard, Violet Clifton and Nell Dodd took over the mantle, claiming a third consecutive Maribyrnong Cup for Bendigo. Oldfield and Weigben organised a welcome for the crew upon their return to Bendigo with the six-jewelled Cup with long-time coach, Dave Wilson.
Excerpt from minutes of council meeting held 27 March 1908
Public Record Office Victoria, VA 2389 City of Bendigo, VPRS 16269 Council Minute Books, P1, Unit 8
Wilson had been a prominent competitor around the turn of the century, and then coach and captain of several men’s crews in Bendigo but when the ladies’ team was formed, he dedicated his time solely to its development. He was with the 1924 team when they returned by train to Bendigo, met by a peal of St Paul’s bells – to the tune of ‘For They Are Jolly Good Lassies’ and whisked away to Favaloro’s Café to celebrate with other club members and ‘admirers’ [v].
Wilson had been a prominent competitor around the turn of the century, and then coach and captain of several men’s crews in Bendigo but when the ladies’ team was formed, he dedicated his time solely to its development. He was with the 1924 team when they returned by train to Bendigo, met by a peal of St Paul’s bells – to the tune of ‘For They Are Jolly Good Lassies’ and whisked away to Favaloro’s Café to celebrate with other club members and ‘admirers’[v].
Nell Oldfield represented Victoria on the Australian Ladies’ Rowing Council and in 1924, the St Paul’s Club as the Bendigo team became to be known, was given affiliate status with each member team being declared of amateur status.
In 1929, the Club purchased a new boat, christened by President AG Palmer and named ‘Mrs Sarvass’ after their former president, Florence Sarvass, who had borne that office on twelve occasions. At the opening of the 1932 season, the St Paul’s Ladies Rowing Club had 30 members and continued to regularly represent at Melbourne meetings. Three years later, the Club’s initial patron and founding coach, Dave Wilson died, and the following year, in 1936, the Club officially disbanded.
St Paul's Lady Rowers, Bendigo Advertiser, February 1926
It was also in 1936 that the Council first flagged its intention to remove the fencing that surrounded Lake Weeroona in June of that year the Bendigo Rowing Club sent a deputation to Council to discuss the plan. The Club argued that as a major stock route to the city and saleyards, cattle would undoubtedly trespass to access the water and cause considerable damage and nuisance. Their main concern however was the effect that this would have on the Henley-on-Weeroona carnival. Without being able to control access, Club president Len Unmack argued, the event would likely become ‘extinct’ – they had lost a considerable sum in 1934 due to people climbing the fence, and without being able to charge any admission, Henley would be financially unviable[vi].
The Club outlined that they would also in the near future need to replace several of their older boats, particularly practice craft. This exercise would be expensive, with an eight-oared racing boat costing 100 guineas and a sculling boat costing £45, which existing membership subscriptions would not cover. They argued that rowing was one of the few sports which had ‘remained free from the contamination of commercialism’, yet the Henley carnival was a definite value to the business life of the city, including 90% of outlay made by the Club to put on the event [vii].
Discussions continued and papers reported on the Henley in that year, in ‘wintery conditions’, with the rowing events followed by a night program which included fireworks [viii]. Lake Weeroona was one of several parks and gardens to lose fenced surrounds in the Council’s efforts to beautify the city and in November 1936, the decision was finally taken on the ‘dilapidated’ Lake Weeroona fence [ix]. There were no local newspaper reports of a Bendigo Henley being held in the last quarter of 1937 as it had since 1879 – was that the year the 57-year old event was hosted? A report in 1942 indicates that Lake Weeroona had been ‘a mud swamp for two years’, with a wartime council reluctant to dedicate funds to maintaining the waterway [x], suggesting that fence or not, the Henley may have seen its last in 1936.
What were the circumstances around the demise of the ladies’ rowing team in Bendigo?
On first glance, there seems to be very different levels of reporting on the establishment of the Sandhurst Ladies Rowing Club between the Bendigo Advertiser and the Bendigo Independent; other articles suggest that there was some opposition to its development – are there any records that suggest politics at play?
Are there any records documenting the demise of the Henley-on-Weeroona?
What did the council’s policy of fence removal look like across the end of the 1930s? Did this policy impact other events or community groups?
What were the different approaches Councils took around amateur and professional sports and their teams and facilities? How has this changed for modern times?
What have been and are the differences in approaches to funding by Councils between sports and other cultural groups and pursuits?
What, if any, records are in the 20th century City of Bendigo Inward Correspondence collection (currently unindexed) relate to the early activities of the Bendigo Ladies Rowing Club?
[i] ‘Rowing meet’, Bendigo Independent, 16 Nov 1905, p3
[ii] ‘Ladies Club’, Bendigo Independent, 10 Aug 1905, p3
[iii] ‘Rowing meet’, Bendigo Independent, 16 Nov 1905, p3
[iv] ‘Country clubs successful at Henley’, Weekly Times, 6 Dec 1930, p72
[v] ‘Bendigo sport’, Sporting Globe, 9 Feb 1924, p5
[vi] ‘Bendigo’, The Age, 15 May 1936, p14
[vii] ‘Bendigo Henley future endangered’, Bendigo Advertiser, Nov 1936
[viii] ‘Henley regatta programme for today’, Bendigo Advertiser, 5 Dec 1936
[ix] ‘Bendigo and district’, The Argus, 28 Feb 1936, p3
[x] ‘Bendigo news’, The Argus, 9 Jul 1942, p4