The history of rowing in Australia began in the early 19th century when crews of Merchant and Naval vessels competed against each other on Sydney Harbour. In 1840 the first Regatta was held on the Parramatta River. By this time rowing had become an integral feature of the riverscape with frequent races and perennial training sessions by both competitors and non-competitive enthusiasts. There were three classes of competitive rowers – manual labourers, professional, and gentlemen amateurs, each group competing separately.
1863 saw the first four oared race between Sydney and Melbourne crews on the Parramatta River. Sydney won.
Professional sculling was a popular spectator sport of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, drawing enormous crowds to watch races.
Between 1876 and 1907 Australia dominated international professional sculling for 22 of those 31 years and produced seven of the nine world champions. Factors, such as a mild climate, abundant waterways and the healthy lifestyle favoured by a succession of prime athletes, together with generous backers, have been attributed to the Australian domination. While these factors contributed to Australian superiority, concepts such as class, cultural imperialism and organisation and control played an even greater role in determining Australia’s domination of the sport.
Enthusiasm for sculling led to the formation of several rowing clubs along the Parramatta River, chief of which was the Sydney Rowing Club. Although formed near Circular Quay in 1870, the SRC purchased land at Abbotsford and later moved its headquarters to the Parramatta River site.
In the early 1890’s, schools from the Sydney G.P.S. group began inter-school races, which soon led to the introduction of an Annual Regatta – the Head of the River Regatta – an event destined to become a major sporting event on the Sydney calendar. In the early years the race was from Putney to Gladesville but in later years it was from the Yaralla Estate at Concord to Cabarita.
In succeeding years it was common for crowds of over 100,000 to view the race from a flotilla and along the foreshores at Cabarita Park adjacent to the finishing line. The Regatta was eventually transferred to the Nepean River in 1936.
Trams ran almost non-stop from the Enfield depot, taking huge crowds to Cabarita to watch the finish of the race. Supporters chartered ferries and launches, decorated them with their team’s colours and made the spectacular trip along the river to the finish point.