On the Clarence River, in the 1800s, roads were few and poor, the bush was thick, and the river wide and suitable for transportation. Because of this, most people became adept with an oar. Many lived on the host of islands that dotted the Clarence, and were especially conscious of the need to be able to row.

Children rowed themselves to and from school, while farmers made periodic visits to Grafton for provisions, trips that may have taken the best part of a week to complete. Deliveries of foodstuffs and other goods were often made by boat—the butcher boats that were so popular in rowing circles on the northern rivers in the early years of the twentieth century were direct descendants of the craft rowed by butchers on their delivery runs. Even funerals took place on the river with the leading boat carrying the coffin. With such an emphasis upon the river, rowing became a district pastime quite naturally. It was perhaps not surprising that the Clarence became famous for its rowers:

The famed river Clarence in Eastern Australia,
Has borne on its bosom, capacious and vast,
A few foremost scullers, in striking regalia,
Prize winners all, in days that are past.

Amidst this era of rowing popularity, the Grafton Rowing Club was established in 1882.

Regattas at the time were grand events, gathering huge crowds. Professional sculling was the major interest, with cash prizes ranging from £3 to £60 for local races on the Clarence up to £1000 for world championships. Much greater sums were laid in private wagers (even by the scullers themselves – the prize money and wagers won by champion scullers of the time would equate to millions of dollars today).

Regattas drew huge crowds and were such special events that holidays were sometimes declared to allow spectators to attend. In 1880, a holiday for businesses and schools was declared in Grafton to allow people to travel downriver to a regatta held at Maclean, with Michael Rush taking on all comers in the main event.

Rowing was obviously a major activity on the Clarence River. The photo above shows the Grafton Water Brigade Flood Boat Shed sometime in the 1800s. The boats in the water are flood boats, whilst the one on the ramp is a butcher boat. Many Grafton Rowing Club members also rowed in flood boats at Grafton and South Grafton right up until the 1970s when the pulling boats were replaced with power boats. (This photo is possibly a boat christening or the official opening of the shed).

The first public meeting of the Grafton Rowing Club was held in 1882 at the Freemason’s Hotel. This hotel was owned by former champion oarsman, Michael Rush, and was situated at the Western corner of Prince and Victoria Streets in Grafton.

Michael Rush

Mr Sam See, the mayor of Grafton, presided over this initial meeting, with well known rowing enthusiast E. L. Lehman as convenor. It was decided that a rowing club be formed if sufficient numbers were interested, with a joining fee of one Guinea and an annual membership fee of two Guineas (about three weeks wages at that time). A sub-committee of three members (S. B. Cameron, C. Lowenthall, and W. Stevenson) was formed to canvass for members. It was decided that the club would be strictly for amateurs.

Later, on June 20, 1882, at a meeting held at the Freemasons Hotel, sufficient prospective members applied for membership and paid their fees, so the Grafton Amateur Rowing Club was officially formed. A total of 28 members were enrolled at this meeting. Mr Wally Stevenson was appointed as the first president of the club, and December 16, 1882 was set aside as the date for the club’s first regatta.

This is a later photo of the Water Brigade Shed (probably 1892), showing a couple of crews on the water in flood boats. Beards were apparently popular amongst rowers at that time.

The sitting Member for Clarence, the Hon. Sir John See, was requested to apply to the Minister for Justice for the use of the Police Boat Shed, pending the construction of a suitable rowing club shed. The Police Magistrate agreed that the existing police shed be made available for the club until the new shed was constructed.

An interesting tale is attached to the construction of the new boat shed – due to the number of floods occurring during the early 1880s, an application was made by Grafton Council to the Government of the day to build a shed on the river bank to house flood boats and rescue craft – Grafton Rowing club members were encouraged to become involved in such rescue work as well. A cheque for £500 was forthcoming, but was inadvertently made out to Grafton Rowing Club. The Rowing Club naturally thought this was a wonderful windfall, and used the money to pay for the construction of a new boat shed – by the time the government department discovered their error, all the money had been spent and the building was nearing completion, so it was too late to correct the mistake.

An excellent two storey rowing club was constructed with provision for boats on the ground floor and “a gymnasium, dressing space, lockers, showers and a meeting room of first class standard” on the first floor.

The photo above shows the original Grafton Rowing Club shed. Note that the verandah and awning were not originally on the building – they were a later addition. A single scull (wager boat), some double skiffs, and a coxed four (believed to be of carvel construction, but possibly clinker) can be seen on the water.

A fine fleet of boats including outriggers, Gladestone skiffs, double skiffs and carvel fours was gradually acquired to complete a top racing fleet. A caretaker was even employed to ensure careful handling and proper maintenance of the fleet and other equipment – Tom Dellow and Dad Charleston were the caretakers for many years.

The above photo (sorry about the quality – the original is now in poor condition) shows the original Grafton Rowing Club building not long after its construction (note that the verandah and awning have not yet been added). A number of single sculls (called wager boats at the time) and skiffs can be seen on the water. Some members also kept their boats at home and rowed to the shed to join up with other rowers.

This later photo shows the Grafton Rowing Club with the verandah and awning in place. The wharf in the background has been further developed and the new Water Brigade shed is visible beside the Rowing Club. Boats on the water include a single scull, single and double skiffs, butcher boats and a couple of coxed carvel fours. This is believed to be in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Grafton Rowing Club functioned successfully for many years until the advent of the Great War, when all eligible members enlisted – activities soon returned to normal after the war.

The club has held regular regattas at all levels, along with handicap events, right up to the present day. Most of the regattas in the early days were held at Harwood, Brushgrove, Maclean, Evans Head and Grafton, with the Clarence being represented by many great champions including Michael Rush, Henry Searle, Percy and Eric See, Evan Fisher, Ernie Hiller, Lex Essex, Ray Fanning and Cheryl Everson to name just a few.

The program shown above is from a professional regatta held in 1882, with the “City of Grafton” as the flagship. It is interesting to note that the regatta is scheduled for the middle of the week rather than a weekend. This program is interesting reading (note the categories e.g. amateurs who work in offices or indoor salesmen) – click on the program image to see a larger view of the original or click here to see a retyped HTML version. (Have a look at race 12!)

Grafton also had a tradition of hosting Easter regattas, and for years hosted popular regattas with Lismore and Lower Clarence Rowing Clubs. These regattas attracted rowers from all over the east coast and were run over 3 consecutive days – one day at each venue. Socialising was just as important as the racing over the 3 days, with dinners and dances held, and much revelry amongst rowing friends from many clubs.

This photo, taken from the river end of the Crown Hotel, shows the current boat shed not long after its original construction. The picture was taken on a regatta day. (This is thought to be in the 1930s, probably after 1932 as the southern approach to the bridge can just be seen to the right of the large trees).

The Grafton Swimming Baths can be seen at centre right, in front of the eastern end of the boat shed. The judge’s stand for the regatta is visible on top of the southern (right) side of the baths, whilst what appears to be a flood boat (or perhaps a wherry) is tied up at this end of the baths. A couple of the wharves can be seen at South Grafton, with a ship (possibly the “Ulmarra”) tied up at the town wharf which is now the site of the South Grafton Ex-Services Club.

Notice that some of the large crowd of spectators is on top of the shed – at this stage the shed had a concrete roof (or perhaps it should be called a concrete floor, as it was intended to have another storey put on the building at a later stage) – unfortunately, the weight of the bank behind the shed eventually cracked the concrete roof and parts of the back wall of the shed. A construction company, Reg J. Want, was called in to install supporting buttresses at the back of the shed to reinforce the back wall. They also replaced the concrete roof with a metal roof – the old concrete roof was leaking badly by this stage and was too dangerous to walk on.

The photo above shows a couple of school fours outside the boatshed in 1983. Notice that the gable end extensions are not on the shed – in fact the judge’s box has not even been added to the top of the building at this stage.

Notice the sliding gates rather than roller doors, with “Besser Blocks” in the two middle bays.

This photo is taken from the walkway which used to pass right along the shoreline in front of the shed, with two “bridges” where the boats were carried out.

The river is also up a few feet in these photos – the water would normally be beyond the walkway, but the photo above shows water almost up the concrete at the western gate.

This shot was taken the same day and shows a school crew taking an eight out – this was awkward as the eights were stored parallel to the water, so they had to be brought out at an angle and then redirected back into the shed at a steeper angle, then finally taken out of the shed and down to the water.

Well known rowing identity Jeff Schneider can be seen at the bow of the boat (the bearded gent on the left – or is it Dougie Pearson?)

More alterations have been carried out on the shed over the years to make it the bigger and more functional boat shed that we are proud of today.