Letterhead of the first women’s rowing club in Ballarat formed 1971-72 rowing season

As the rowing season 2021- 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the first women’s club in Ballarat and also significantly, the first women’s regatta held on Lake Wendouree in January 1972, it seemed an appropriate time to research further into the Begonia City Ladies Rowing Club history, particularly their struggles to establish the first women’s rowing club in a very male dominated sport. Rowing was established on Lake Wendouree in 1864 when the Regatta Club moved in from Burrumbeet and became the Ballarat Rowing Club. Despite considerable “feminine interest” over the years, and formation of a women’s club that existed very briefly in early 1912, there was no serious challenge to the status quo for over 100 years.

In 1970-71 Ballarat City Rowing Club had been in operation for 100 years, celebrating its centenary in 1971. Of the three men’s clubs in Ballarat, Ballarat City took the brave move of agreeing to house and support the new women’s club, being the only club that had “facilities” for women. Women had always been involved at the club in social and fundraising roles but never as rowers! It took two remarkably determined schoolgirls to ask the question “Why can’t we row?” They started the conversation which gathered together a small group of like-minded women. These women, who faced objections at every turn, answered with “We can, and we will!” and founded the Begonia City Ladies Rowing Club.

Article from the Ballarat Courier, August 1971

In future posts I will be detailing the club’s beginnings, especially the first two or three years when the Begonia City Ladies Rowing Club was very much a stand-alone women’s club, forging a distinct identity from the club that would host them and with whom they would later amalgamate, Ballarat City Rowing Club. The two other male clubs on Lake Wendouree, Wendouree and Ballarat Rowing Clubs did provide some assistance to the women before the club was formed. Wendouree and Ballarat amalgamated in 1973 and it would take the new Wendouree Ballarat club another 10 years or so to accept women as members.

No minute books exist of the first years, and it was only after 1975 that the two clubs came together for meetings and the minutes of the men’s club record the members and some of the activities of the women’s club. I was very fortunate to discover amongst piles of boxes and papers shoved in a storage area at the boatshed and forgotten, in a dusty, old cardboard folder a file of old correspondence and club papers for Begonia City Ladies. Amongst these were copies of programs for the first four regattas hosted by Begonia City Ladies Rowing Club and also the first and second Annual Reports. To my knowledge these are the only papers that exist, and I was extremely lucky to find them.

In recording the history from 1974 onward, I have relied on my own personal archive of recollections, diaries and regatta programs. I first started rowing as a sixteen year old in about September 1974. Begonia City was still in its infancy. I loved everything about rowing and saved and collected nearly everything related to my rowing including the programs from every regatta I attended. Some of these programs have notations about placings etc and are an excellent record of the women’s regattas held at the time and of the clubs and the crews that competed.

In late 1975 I became secretary of Begonia City Ladies Club and attended committee meetings from this time until 2018, a period of 43 years. BCLRC meetings were initially held independently but in conjunction with BCRC men’s committee from 1975 until 1978. I served on the executive of the Begonia City Ladies Rowing Club until September 1978 when the two clubs formally amalgamated. I then became the first female secretary of the united Ballarat City Rowing Club, the first female to hold that office in 109 years.

Many of the details of events were recorded in a collection of old press cuttings, copies of which were handed to me when I became secretary. This collection was made by Kim Butler who was instrumental in the formation of Begonia City and was one of the first schoolgirl rowers in Ballarat. Many of the articles included the only photographs of the women involved in starting the club in those early days. Because they were such poor copies, I researched the early Courier newspaper archives and found as many of the originals as I could. The quality is not always great but at least they have been preserved. Jan Madin, was the first Captain Begonia City, and responded to a questionnaire sent out in 2003 and added valuable details to my research. Her letter which I will publish in the next post, gives a real insight into what it was like to be a pioneer of women’s rowing in Ballarat.

I am forever grateful to these women as they established the sport that I personally have been involved in for nearly 50 years. Rowing became and still is my passion and my way of life. I cannot image an existence without it. When, as a schoolgirl I first ventured out on to the beautiful waters of Lake Wendouree, it felt so adventurous and wonderful. That feeling of launching your scull and taking off to the tranquility that awaits in the middle of the lake, far from everyone and everything, can be magical. These pioneering women gave me and many more women the opportunity to be a rower over the last fifty years.

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