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Rowing and Sculling

Popular sports in Melbourne since the city's inception, rowing and sculling developed from two distinct strands. On one hand, watermen who ferried goods and passages up and down and across Melbourne's waterways laid the foundation for professional sculling, while amateur rowing was introduced by old boys and graduates of English public schools and Oxbridge universities.

The University of Melbourne Boat Club was established in 1859, and the first regatta, restricted solely to amateurs, was held in 1860. Amateur rowing grew rapidly thereafter, partly because the Melbourne rowing community tended to adopt more inclusive policies than their English or Sydney counterparts, attracting a considerable working-class element and contributing to the demise of professional sculling in the 1870s and 1880s. It was, however, never able to match the interest generated by cricket and football. Spectator numbers at regular events rarely exceeded a few thousand, and the number of club oarsmen appears to have peaked around 1900 at something less than 1500.

Two events, however, maintained enormous public interest well into the 20th century. The Head of the River races between the elite independent schools drew such crowds in the interwar and post-World War II years (reportedly up to 90 000) that the event had to be shifted to Geelong to escape the excesses of public attention. Similarly, Henley-on-Yarra, established in 1904 and unashamedly modelled on the English 'Henley', drew crowds of up to 300 000 to what was more of a picnic and gala day than a rowing event. It remained one of the main events on the Melbourne social calendar until going into a sharp decline from the 1950s.

Rowing and sculling remain popular sports in Melbourne, as reflected in the numbers of rowers usually visible on the river during summer and the clusters of boatsheds between Princes Bridge and Dights Falls.

Martin Crotty