Return to the blog!

I have taken an extended break from posting after the epic feat of covering 150 years of club history in 150 days! I didn’t think when I started that it would be simultaneously very challenging and extremely rewarding. I promised myself that I would revisit some posts as some years there was so much extra detail that I couldn’t cover it all in my tight timeframe. I also want to revisit some of the people and characters that I only mentioned in passing. Thanks to all the people who read the blog and gave me such positive feedback. I hope you enjoy the next posts as much. The journey continues.

2021 is the 50th anniversary of women becoming full rowing members of the club. Begonia City Ladies Rowing Club was formed in August 1971, with a nucleus of about 10 members and rowing out of the Ballarat City Rowing Club and using the men’s equipment. Glenda Shears was elected the first President and then Pan Johns was elected to fill the position when Glenda was transferred for his nursing job. Denise Moroney was Vice-president; Kay Rizzoli, Treasurer; Carolyn Johns and Irene Hatt, secretaries and Jan Madin (Falla) was the first Captain.

Over the next eight months I will detail the development of Begonia City and the “ladies” who pioneered women’s rowing on Lake Wendouree. Having been there almost from the start, joining Begonia City Ladies in mid 1974 as 16 year old and having been a member ever since, I have a unique perspective on the club’s history and development. I hope to research some more the very early days and fill in some of those gaps.

Today’s blog is a copy of an article that was published in 2006 in AURUM, the newsletter of the Ballarat Gold Museum. I wrote an article detailing my experiences of writing and researching the club history in “The Boys from the Rush Beds”. It appeared with a picture of J. W. McPhail and one of his trophies in possession of his family.


Tragically, the boatshed belonging to the Ballarat City Rowing Club burnt down in 1950. What was then considered the finest federation style boatshed in the southern hemisphere was burnt to the waterline. All the memories and memorabilia collected over 80 years were totally destroyed. Photographs, trophies, boats, oars and the records of the Club since its inception in 1870-nothing remained. The club struggled to survive but went on to rebuild. The boatshed was finished in time to host crews from all over the world for the 1956 Olympic Games. 

My husband Danny who, like me, has been heavily involved in the Ballarat City Rowing Club, had always wanted to record the history of the club. I’d always wanted to write a book, but never had the time to follow my dream. In 2001, after 25 years of competing, coaching and administration, the four requisites-motivation, time, knowledge and experience finally converged, and I sat down to record the history of the club. I set myself a schedule of how many hours of typing a day, and tried to do some at night when my son had gone to bed. When he started kinder and later school I had the luxury of several uninterrupted hours at the keyboard. I also did some part-time lecturing to earn enough money to print and publish the book. I received great assistance with the printing and publishing process from Ron Finkel at Hightech Printing. Maree Corbett, my Mum, undertook the awesome task of researching the early newspapers, working quietly in the library and the Mechanics’ Institute for hours even in the depths of a Ballarat winter. Maree did the most amazing job, and without her assistance the book would still be just a dream.

On the research front we struck gold in the form of the Ballarat Star newspaper. Here, quoted almost verbatim, were reports on all the annual meetings, regattas and everything in between. I trawled through all the online picture catalogues and discovered several important pictures including an engraving of the first Learmonth Regatta in 1864. I also made many visits to the excellent American rowing history website and learned that Canadian Ned Hanlon, the World Champion sculler, had visited Ballarat in and been a guest of the Club in 1884. He actually gave a rowing demonstration on our beautiful lake and proclaimed it very good indeed. I spent hours going through the picture collection at the Gold Museum and found many gems there. I contacted former members, met and talked to older members and their families who freely shared their personal part of the club’s story with me. Through advertisements placed in the Courier, The Weekly Times and the Sun newspapers I made contact with more people with a story or photograph to add to the collection. One of these was Junella McPhail whose great grandfather J.W.McPhail coached at the club. He was a friend of Adam Lindsay Gordon and it was he who dared Gordon to jump his horse over the wall at Craig’s Hotel. Then there was Audrey Schoobridge, great granddaughter of HR Caselli who sent me a photo of HR to include in my book. Each new discovery, each little snippet of history, no matter how small was a little “Eureka” moment! It took a further two and a half years of writing, typing, scanning and continuing research until the draft was finished and the editing began. In late 2004 I proudly saw the completion of a project first mooted 20 years ago.

The book includes the most complete chronology of the development of the Lake written to date. The first chapter of the book is devoted entirely to the struggle to attain a “clear sheet of water” that boating enthusiasts and the general public could benefit from. This research has also convinced me to try and have Robinson McLaren recognised as the father of the Lake and of rowing in Ballarat. There are 15 chapters in the book, each covering a decade in the club’s history. The appendices contain lists of every win the club has ever had, a complete list of officers of the club for 134 years and the club’s World War One and Two Honour Rolls. There are also several short biographies of significant members of the club throughout the years. J.W.Graham who founded the club, H.R. Caselli noted architect, Peter Cazaly, great uncle to Roy Cazaly the footballer, Dan Brophy, Robinson McLaren and many more.

After this you would think that I had had enough, but it was really only the beginning of what will probably be a lifelong quest to fill in gaps in our history! I am currently about half way through writing a book on the history the 140 years of the Ballarat Regatta 1862-2002.

Just a note to you readers of Aurum, because I never let an opportunity go by.  If by chance you have photos or memorabilia especially predating 1950, or if you know anyone that has a rowing connection, I‘d love to hear from you. I am also collecting early photographs of the lake, so if you have photos that are in a private collection and don’t mind sharing them, my contact details appear on Page One.


John McPhail was an interesting character. He lived in Ligar Street and was a “mate” of Adam Lindsay Gordon. It was apparently John who dared Adam Lindsay Gordon to jump the wall at Craig’s Hotel on his horse. The two friends were later instrumental in forming the Ballarat Hunt Club. John’s portrait used to hang in the Gordon cottage in the Botanic Gardens.

John was a jockey and then a bookmaker enabling him to live a very comfortable life.He was a member of Ballarat Rowing Club initially and his family have in their possession a silver biscuit barrel won at Geelong regatta in 1892.They also have the silver tray and monogrammed visiting cards that belonged to John and his wife Ella.He later joined Ballarat City and was a successful coach with his brother Oswald becoming a coxswain for many City crews. Ozzie later moved to Brighton,Melbourne and was the brakeman on the Big Dipper ride at Luna Park.The family also has a Eureka connection as they still have today the china teacup that grandmother McPhail was drinking from when the Eureka rebellion erupted.

J.W. died on April 27th 27th 1950. Information courtesy Junella McPhail

Ella McPhail, wife of J. W. McPhail
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