"Built on Tradition"

Although the New Zealand University Games began as far back as 1902, rowing, however, was not originally included. It was not until 1927, when “the Brooker brothers, Lud, a Senior Four member of the 1926 and 1927 Waitemata Club, and his brother who rowed for Victoria were returning from the 1927 Championships at Picton in the company of Mr. E Dickie” that the idea was formed. “In the smoke room of the TSS Tamahine they discussed the possibility of an Inter-College Eight, and so keen were they that just four weeks later Auckland and Victoria met in Auckland on Easter Saturday to contest the four oared races.”

The three University Colleges of Auckland, Victoria and Canterbury had all competed at the 1929 University Games; however Otago had not yet been represented. These three rowing clubs were now well established and were all “eager to see a rowing club established in Otago University.” Canterbury University, in particular, were disappointed that O.U. was not represented in the eights race at Easter, and of their eagerness to see a club formed, offered to travel to Dunedin to row a race on the 13th April 1929 against an O.U. crew. With the assistance of the Otago Rowing Club, the two clubs were able to arrange a race, the four most experienced university oarsmen commencing training immediately. Despite some misgivings on the chances of the recently ‘bundled’ together crew, Otago put up a good showing, Canterbury having to come from behind to win by a canvas.

Through the determination of the four O.U rowers, and also to ensure that an Otago University Eight would be represented at the next annual Inter-Varsity Tournament, of which Otago would be the host, it seems a great deal of interest was indeed stimulated. According to the first entry of the O.U.R.C minutes,

“All those interested in the formation of an Otago University Rowing Club,” met “in the Men’s Common Room on Tuesday, April 16th 1929.”

This auspicious occasion, convened by M. W. E. Henley, was to lay the foundations for what is now New Zealand’s pre-eminent university rowing club. The meeting was attended by about 40 people, and in the traditions of today, consisted of a mix of both experienced rowers and novice enthusiasts. Dr. Carmalt Jones (Professor of Systematic Medicine, 1919-1940) was elected to the chair, before “The constitution of the proposed Club was then read and passed and the Otago University Rowing Club was declared duly constituted.” Included in the Constitution was the clause: “Uniforms & Colours”.

The original clause stated that:

“The colours of the Club shall be Cambridge Blue and Gold and the Uniform shall consist of blue singlet with a Gold ‘O’ in front and blue shorts”

However, due to the rapidly increasing number of members, alternations to the constitution were made at a Special General Meeting held on Sunday August 14th 1929 at the Otago Rowing Club Shed. In order to distinguish from the rowers in the 1st VIII and the rest of the club, the above clause was deleted and the following amendment inserted in its place:

“The colours of the Club shall be Cambridge Blue and Gold, the uniform for ordinary members Cambridge Blue singlet and shorts and for the Representative members an additional Gold ‘O’ on the front of the singlet”

Thus the formation of the O.U.R.C was official and enthusiasm grew quickly. The club, formed only in April, boasted a membership of about sixty members by August 1929. The club started by rowing out of the Otago Rowing Club, from the shed which still stands on Kitchener Street near the steamer basin. However tensions between the two clubs began from the outset. The Otago Rowing Club “refused to allow students to pay a reduced membership fee of 32 shillings and six pence” After some discussion it was decided that members of the Club would have to pay the full subscription, however they would not have to pay the entry fee of ?1.1.0 if they had previously been members of any other rowing club. This decision resulted in the members of the O.U.R.C becoming full members of the Otago Club for the 1929/30 season.

In concluding the first meeting of the O.U.R.C, “Mr. Henley proposed a vote of congratulation to the four who had rowed Canterbury College on the 13th April on the good showing they had made”, which was of course seconded and carried unanimously. The meeting was convened by Mr. W. H. Henley, and it is recognised today that the formation of the O.U.R.C. was mainly due to his efforts.

Progress of the club had been somewhat hindered. The first and foremost issue to be dealt with was obtaining a boat of their own. The 1931 Easter Tournament was to be held in Dunedin and it was the aspiration of the Club to be represented at the Tournament, for the first time, as well as playing host. Despite this desire, the Club was unable to compete at the 1931 Easter Tournament after the Otago Rowing Association refused to lend them an Association Eight, therefore dashing their hopes of competing at their own tournament.

Although unable to race in the 1931 Tournament, C.U.C. ‘very sportingly’ offered to row a scratch race on Easter Monday afternoon. The race, held over a length of a mile and a quarter (approximately 2km), took place at about 5:30p.m. The average weight of the Otago crew at 11st, 10lbs., was considerably heavier than any of the other crews and were expected to give a good showing. According to the Critic:

"Although they had only had five spins in the Eight together (part of the time having been spent in preliminary training in Fours) the Otago Rowing Association Officials were very pleased with the crew, and considered that they would have been a stiff proposition had they been in the race".

The Otago Eight were thus deemed to be very competitive against Canterbury, and competitive they were. C.U.C started very strongly and gained a healthy lead of about a length. This lead was maintained for most of the race before the Otago crew made a very fine effort and finished strongly, only to lose by a canvas. The Otago crew was: F. Mulcahy (stroke), T.A. McFarlane, J.A. Barron, A.M. Hartnell, H.G. McAlpine, A.M. McGavin, W. Titchener, W.M. Platts (bow); C. Lowndes (Coxswain).

Later that year the club became affiliated to the Otago Rowing Association. It had also been decided to resign from the Otago Rowing Club in 1931 wherein the O.U.R.C was to began its long association with the North End Rowing Club, which, according to their Centennial History occurred because: “No clubhouse could be afforded, but showing the typical openheartedness of the North End Club, varsity were offered space to accommodate their boat and members were permitted to make use of their facilities.” It was decided to become affiliated with the O.R.A “so that the Club could compete in regattas and also to give the Club official standing.” The Club also decided to alter their colours “owing to the fact that Club colours are almost exactly the same as those of another club.” The Cambridge Blue was kept, however instead of the gold ‘O’ for the Eight, it was changed to a four inch gold band.

The Club was represented at the Portobello Regatta in March 1932 - O.U.R.C’s first representative race! Racing in their new colours they competed in the Maiden Fours, in a borrowed boat from North End. “Although the crew had had only a week’s training it came second, a very credible performance indeed.”

1933 was to be the first year that Otago would be officially represented in the Inter-University boat race, and tremendous enthusiasm abounded as the fortunes of the Club were seemingly looking up, or so they thought. Unfortunately one member of the Eight became ill and therefore had to be replaced. This meant the crew had to be rearranged shortly before the event. However, even greater misfortune was to follow when on the day of the race the water was “totally unsuitable for rowing.” To make matters worse, the borrowed A.R.A boat was their second boat and was too small for the composition of the men. This article printed in the Critic seems to sum up the feelings of the race:

"...it was a keen disappointment to all Otago supporters that our Rowing crew repeated their performance of the previous Saturday, and gracefully disappeared below the surface of Auckland Harbour. They did, we admit, make a valiant attempt to empty their boat and complete the course, but owing to their having received outside assistance, this effort could not count for Tournament points. Perhaps we may excuse the crew on the grounds that they were not the only crew to suffer this disaster, Auckland also swamping earlier in the race, and leaving the Canterbury men to row the course alone. It is worthy of note that the stern of the Canterbury boat was also disappearing as they crossed the finishing line".

Swamped and with no regatta points to show for, spirits had been bruised. However, as was the way, the Club showed proud resilience: “Although dogged by bad luck the Otago crew showed very good form and is to be heartily congratulated on the showing it made.”

The disappointment and complications continued throughout the first 9 years of the clubs existence. The Hebberley Eight once again sank during the 1934 race and the Club continued to experience fundraising hardship. Reports suggest the lack of success was due in part because the Club had never owned a racing eight of its own, and this could be stood no more.

Following the aftermath of the 1938 Tournament, it was unanimously decided that an Eight must be purchased. An ‘Eight Fund’ was duly instituted with foundation donations being made by Messrs. Cook, Douglas & Ramsay. It was decided that £20 should be raised by the Club before approaching the Student Executive, fundraising events such as ‘Legal Lotteries’ and dance’s being the main contributor to this fund.

With a loan having been approved by the Executive of the O.U.S.A, the committee (after having corresponded for some time) wrote to Mr. Sharpe, from Wanganui, accepting his offer to build a new Eight for £125.

The 1938-39 season was officially opened in conjunction with the North End’s Club Dinner and was now a very successful event. The membership of the Club is reported as being good and the recent building of the shed proved to be a wonderful asset and inspiration to all members, the numbers of new rowers improving all the time. The only regatta the Club attended throughout the season was the N.E.R.C regatta, held in the second week of March. The Critic details this huge step forward for the Club:

"For the first time in its history the Club is participating in a large way in a local regatta. North End Rowing Club is holding a regatta on Saturday, March 18th starting at 1.45 p.m. All five Otago Clubs are competing. ‘Varsity crews are training hard under the care of the coach, Mr. Paul Vallis, and four crews will be competing – one in Junior Fours, one in Youth Fours, and two in Maiden Fours. Anyone interested is invited to this free show at Club House to-morrow. The Regatta will assist materially in giving rowers experience for the coming Eight-oared Inter-University Tournament Championship at Easter."

The new eight arrived in March, the boat being “beautifully finished, a credit to any builder and has the admiration of all the rowers on the Harbour.” The Eight included swivel riggers (a relatively new invention) and was a smaller boat than the O.R.A’s boat they had been used to. The ODT also reported the arrival of the Club’s newest prize:

"The University Club has taken delivery of its new eight-oar boat, the first of its type to be acquired by the club. The University crew will race in it at the tournament at Easter, when the New Zealand interuniversity eight-oar race will be held on Otago harbour, subsequent to the New Zealand interprovincial eight-oar championship, which will be contested on Easter Sunday morning."

A small christening ceremony was held at the new shed on 1st April, and including the members, the proceeding was attended by numerous Otago rowers, the namesakes of Dr. Carmalt Jones & William Thompson also being present. The president christening the new Eight the ‘Carmalt Jones’, “the rowers National beverage foamed over the bows as worthy names & good wishes were bestowed upon them.” The recently purchased McPherson Four was christened the ‘William Thompson’. Interestingly, according to the Annual Report, it seems that the boat actually received an early baptism, “the Eight had the night before been purified by total emersion….”, the crew apparently having to be rescued from the harbour.

The 1939 Eight was, coached by Mr. Paul Vallis, was under immense pressure to perform due to the fact that the previous few years’ results had been lacklustre, however, a more pertinent fact confronted them; they would once again be the hosts of the Hebberley Shield.

O.U.R.C now boasted its own shed, it possessed the newest racing eight out of all the other Colleges and of course, it was the Club’s 10th Anniversary year! Otago’s crew was lighter than its competitors; however the remaining crew from the previous year had considerable experience. Victoria were the holders of the Hebberley, Auckland presented the heaviest crew and four of the Canterbury Eight were N.Z.U Blues recipients, by far the most formidable crew on the water.

The race was held immediately after the N.Z Interprovincial Eights Championship and as both races aroused unusual public interest, ‘several thousands of spectators’ were apparently present. It seems only fitting that the outcome of the race should be told in the words of the author of the 1938-39 Annual Report and bowman of the Eight, J. N. Ramsay:

"On Easter Saturday on Otago Harbour with a slight swell beginning to rise from an oily calm the University crews lined up for a good start from which Auckland broke ahead to head the field by a length at the fisherman’s huts. At Waverley, Canterbury led by a length and the rest were bunched. Otago, faithfully carrying out Mr. Paul Vallis’s instructions and training lengthened its steady 28 and slowly crept up on Canterbury leaving Wellington and Auckland. At the head of the basin Canterbury still led by half a length and Otago slightly quickened passing them to win by a few feet. The Hebberley Shield was ours for the first time."

Victory! O.U.R.C had won the three-mile race in what was described as “one of the most exciting ever seen in the history of this race.” Jubilation over the Eights win was cemented when the Tournament Shield for the overall points of the competition was won by Otago, the first time since 1929!

The Club grew to a large group of 60 members during the 1930 but by the 1990’s membership had swelled to nearly 150 rowers. Today the Club boast a membership of around 120, about half of which are female. Over its history, the Club has witnessed numerous changes in location to its clubhouse and has played guest to the North End Rowing Club for a significant number of those early years. While it can be said that the Club shared a close relationship with North End throughout much of its history, the O.U.R.C is today home to one of the finest rowing clubs in the country, flush with all the amenities afforded to an aquatic centre of international standard.

Despite OURC’s inauspicious beginnings, the Club has managed to overcome great adversity and has unquestionably grown into the pre-eminent University rowing club in New Zealand. The Club has won no less than 26 Hebberley Shield titles and has dominated the New Zealand University Rowing scene over recent years, winning the last seven consecutive Championship Eights races. The Otago University Rowing Club, established over 75 years ago, despite the hardships endured, must surely be a legacy of which the founder, Mr. Henley, can truly be proud of.

Michael Grace

September 2007

Can you help us...?

The club is keen to hear from anyone who has historical material they would like to contribute. We are particularly keen to obtain copies of historial photographs.

If you have material you would like to contribute please contact Michael Grace, mgracee@yahoo.com or Glen Sinclair, glen@ourc.org.nz