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150 Years of Rowing

Securing Wesley's future

Rowing is one of the oldest competitions on the Wesley College sporting calendar. This year marks an extremely important historical milestone in the story of rowing – especially with the inauguration of our redeveloped Boathouse on the Yarra River.

Competitive rowing had its beginnings in the late 1860s. The first Public School boat race in Victoria ‘…was rowed on the Upper Yarra down stream on 18th June, 1868.’ Wesley joined in 1871 with the Headmaster of the day, Professor Martin Howy Irving, coaching the crew. Wesley won the major race, ‘Head of the River’, for the first time in 1874 but had a long wait for a second victory in 1896. The Head of the River was rowed in four-oared boats from 1868 to 1900. In 1901, some 121 years ago, several headmasters of leading schools for boys – that would go on to establish the Associated Public Schools of Victoria (APS) in 1908 – made several important decisions that have shaped the nature of interschool rowing to this very day. They decided that the race should be conducted in eights instead of fours. The boats used would be clinker-built eights with sliding seats.

It was also in 1901 the term ‘Head of the River’ was first used. Previously, the race had been more generally referred to as the Public Schools’ Boat Race. ‘The thirty-fourth Head of the River was rowed on 12th October on the Lower Yarra which enabled a first and final. Wesley won in fine style, 1 1/2 lengths in front of Scotch College.’

In 1901, Wesley College appointed Charles Donald as, arguably, Wesley’s first professional rowing coach. Charlie was an oarsman of great repute and widely regarded as an innovative coach, as his 10 wins in 12 races for Wesley indicate. On 12 October 1901, coached for the first time by the great Charlie Donald, Wesley won the 34th Head of the River as already noted ‘in fine style’. Wesley dominated on the Yarra in this period, with 12 wins from 15 starts; Scotch being the only other victor in 1907 and 1908, during a period of unequalled rowing supremacy. The golden age of Wesley rowing really came to an end in 1913, although Charlie saw two further wins, in 1915 and 1933, and continued to coach Wesley crews until 1940. Charlie’s extraordinary achievement earned him the sobriquet, ‘Prince of Coaches’.

Today, rowing is not only part of our legacy, but continues to be an important part of Wesley life throughout the summer sport season. Since its modest beginnings in the 1870s, rowing has remained a popular and thriving sport. The College has redeveloped the iconic Wesley Boathouse under the direction of well-known architect and former Wesley rower Peter Sandow (OW1966). Our students – present and future – will enjoy a stunning contemporary facility with an additional fourth bay for storing boats, redeveloped interior, boat trailer storage and sealed car parking. The interior of the existing building will be transformed into a large multifunctional space, with new change rooms, gymnasium and kitchen. Much of this work has been made possible through donations to the Wesley College Foundation from members of our College and alumni communities. There is still more work to be done at our Boathouse and continued support is required to ensure that our boys and girls crews can perform to their very best. The Wesley College Boys First Crew last won the Head of the River in 1984 and thrillingly, the girls won this year – for the first time since 1987.

Of course, winning is the aspiration, but participation is just as important. The Wesley College Song Book is full of songs about rowing and for many rowers being in a crew forges lifelong friendships. The annual Boat Race Dinner, held every year for the past hundred years, is evidence of the love of rowers for their old school and cherished rowing memories. Rowers know that rigorous and disciplined training is one of the key elements in the winning formula and having a new state-of-the-art facility will hopefully contribute to greater success.

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