THE LADIES OF THE BALLARAT CITY ROWING CLUB

This is one of my favourite postcards!

It took 100 years for women to finally take to the water in boats at the club, but they made a significant contribution to rowing in Ballarat from the very beginning in 1870. Their contribution is largely overlooked and forgotten. Much of the work done for the club by women has been unrecognized and unrecorded, so in this post, I would like to begin to highlight as many of the contributions made to the club by women as I can. Just because the contribution wasn’t actually on the water doesn’t make it any less significant. The social expectations of the time, that women worked primarily in the home, added to the medical belief held right up until the 1930’s, that women could not cope with the intense physical exertion needed for rowing, would have prevented most from taking part. Rowing clubs were very much male dominated and it wasn’t until the 1960’s and 70’s that this began to change. Not just in Ballarat but Australia wide and worldwide.

There is today hanging downstairs at the boatshed in the current ergo/gym room of the club the bow of a boat. It was christened the LADIES AUXILARY 1960 in recognition of the work of a group of ladies who contributed substantially to the finances of the club in the 1960’s.Specifically, they raised the money to buy the new boat. They did this by running all sorts of efforts from raffles to Apron Parades. They were wives, mothers and girlfriends of the members of the club and since their menfolk seemed to spend inordinate amounts of time at the club, the women adopted the “If you can’t beat them- join them attitude” and over the years have been both the social and financial backbone of the club.

From the beginning of the club in 1870, women have made a contribution both formally and informally. It wasn’t until a year after the club’s centenary in 1971, that women actually took up their oars and began rowing for Begonia City Rowing Club which was an associate division of Ballarat City Rowing Club. It took another 7 years before they achieved full and equal membership with the men and the two divisions united under the one flag. However, if it had not been for the efforts of the women in previous generations, who comprised the many social and fundraising committees organizing and running a myriad of fundraising activities, the club would have struggled to survive financially. Indeed, had the club not admitted women in 1971 there would possibly be no club today, as the female membership throughout the 70’s far exceeded the men’s.

It was thanks to the foresight of the older men on the committee at the time, Norm Angow and Ted Edwards especially, that the committee had the foresight to let women join the ranks of rowers. Both Ballarat Rowing Club and Wendouree decided against it at that time. Perhaps if Ballarat RC had admitted women, it may have saved their club from folding in 1972 and we would still have three clubs operating today. Ballarat City was the first Ballarat club to give women the opportunity to row on an equal footing to men and one of the first in Victoria to give women equal membership rights and the right to be on the committee. This led to the membership suddenly starting to grow again after stagnating in the 1960’s and reinvigorated the club.

Back in the 1870’s the primary role for women was to be the elegant spectator invited to attend regattas to be awed by the skill and physical prowess of their male counterparts. They would be occasionally allowed in a boat to be rowed around the lake for a picnic but the rowing itself was a male domain. Wives obviously had the minor, but very important role of supporting a husband or son in his training endeavors and enabling them to attend club meetings-sometimes as many as twenty meetings a year! On club Open Days the ladies would be again invited to watch the proceedings. In later years, Ladies Nomination races were held where the ladies would nominate an oarsman to compete on her behalf in a race! In 1877 the club held its first concert to raise funds and several ladies volunteered their talents to contribute to the evening. Miss Ellis and Miss Davies were listed as singing several songs and would have graced the stage relieving the mainly male cast. In 1880 noted Ballarat soprano, Miss Marian Willis featured in the club’s Annual Concert. She was also listed as patroness of the club in the Annual Report having donated trophies for intra-club races. There were contributions also from Miss Alice Rees and Miss Emilie Sutton, a debutante of whom all spoke highly and the sister of noted inventor Henry Sutton. Both Henry and his brother rowed at the club and so probably prevailed on their younger sister to sing at the concert. The Concert was a huge success raising 300 pounds towards building a new shed. This is the equivalent of $60 000 today. The same year a Grand Bazar was held to which wives, mothers and lady friends made a great contribution to raising another 250 pounds. This made the total of 550 pounds the equivalent today being $55,000! In one year the women raised over $100 000! This amazing amount of money could not have been raised without the hard work and efforts of the women.

Flyer from the Mechanics Institute, Ballarat.
Advertisement from the Ballarat Star, September, 1880.
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