The Australian Boat Race boasts a longstanding tradition between Australia’s two oldest Universities, Melbourne and Sydney. Held annually, the venue alternates between the Yarra River in the heart of Melbourne and Sydney Harbour. It encapsulates the long-standing rivalry between two great cities and two great universities, has become a showcase event on each of the cities’ iconic watercourses, and is the new chapter of what’s now a 160-year-old rivalry between these two Universities both on and off the water.
Sydney and Melbourne University are Australia’s oldest and best-known universities. Their rowing clubs were founded in 1859 and 1860 respectively and are currently the two most successful rowing clubs in Australia, together contributing 18 athletes to the London Olympic rowing team.
The Tradition Revived
The two rowing clubs met informally on the Yarra in 1860. By 1870 the rowing competition between Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide universities became a regular feature, eventually growing into the annual intervarsity competition still held today. Australia’s future first Prime Minister Edmund Barton rowed in the Sydney boat at the first regatta in 1870. While the University of Melbourne was victorious on that first occasion, there has been a 160-year-old rivalry between these two universities both on and off the water.
Almost 150 years after the first regatta, the first Australian Boat Race was contested as a time trial as part of the 2009 Head of the Yarra, with Melbourne claiming victory in both men’s and women’s. Following this, the Vice-Chancellors, Professor Glyn Davis (Melbourne) and Professor Michael Spence (Sydney) agreed to an annual “match race” between men’s eights and women’s eights from each university. The second Australian Boat Race took place in 2010 over a 6.9 km course in Sydney from Leichhardt Rowing Club to Riverview Wharf. In 2011, it returned to Melbourne and was held over 4.2 kms on the Yarra River in central Melbourne, starting at the Docklands-Casino precinct and finishing at the Melbourne University Boatshed near Flinders Street Station.
The two universities have between them 100,000 students, 8,000 staff and more than 500,000 alumni in Australia and around the world. Sydney and Melbourne alumni include Nobel laureates, Oscar winners, business leaders, medical pioneers, artists, intellectuals and activists. They have all benefited from the universities’ determination to develop curious minds that are ready to embrace challenges and devour knowledge, to reveal new perspectives and find solutions.
The two university rowing clubs contain some of the nation’s finest athletes. The crews, which include several Olympians, are high achievers balancing academic, sport and business commitments. The sport of rowing is widely recognised as physically demanding, and requiring discipline and teamwork. Not only do rowers carry the weight of expectation from their team and club mates, but the pride of their universities and states are also at stake.
The history and rivalry between two of Australia’s oldest and greatest universities and their rowing clubs create a new race with an immediate sense of tradition – one that has become a major event in Australia’s annual rowing calendar: it’s now a showcase event on each of the cities’ iconic watercourses.
The race returns to the Yarra River in Melbourne in 2019.
australian boat race trophies
The Edmund Barton Trophy for The Men’s Eight
The Australian Boat Race trophy for the men’s race was designed and produced by Melbourne sculptor Jennifer Mann, and is named after Australia’s first Prime Minister.
More importantly though, Edmund Barton represented the University of Sydney in the two seat of the first official intervarsity race between Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide universities. The race was in fours and held on the Yarra.
Edmund Barton was born in Glebe in 1849 just a stone’s throw from the University of Sydney, which he attended from 1865 to 1870 earning Bachelor and Master of Arts degrees. He was admitted to the New South Wales Bar in 1871. Barton was active in sport (cricket and rowing), and in politics. His umpiring of cricket was notable, and in one particular colonial match (NSW v Lord Harris’ English XI) a riot broke out after a decision in favour of the English XI by his fellow umpire.
Barton served in the NSW parliament from 1879 and was a strong supporter of efforts to form the Australian Federation. He was a noted supporter of free trade and saw the freedom of commerce between the states as a major benefit of federation. After three years of tireless campaigning for federation Barton was the first of 49 delegates elected to the Australian Federal Convention. He became chair and leader of the drafting and constitutional committees of the Convention.
Barton played a pivotal role in drafting the Australian Constitution and was elected to the first Federal Parliament in December 1899. After William Lyne failed to secure the support required to form government Barton was requested to form a government and announced his Federal Cabinet on Christmas day 1899. The Federation of Australia was duly proclaimed on 1 January 1900 with Edmund Barton as Prime Minister.
The Bella Guerin Trophy for The Women’s Eight
The trophy for the women’s race, also designed and produced by Jennifer Mann, is named after the first woman graduate of the University of Melbourne – Bella Guerin.
Bella Guerin was born at Williamstown in Victoria in 1858. She was admitted to the University in 1878 and gained her Bachelor of Arts in 1883 and Master of Arts in 1885. Following her graduation Guerin became a teacher in Melbourne, after which she married and had one child. After her husband (many years her senior) died, she returned to teaching and moved to Sydney.
Guerin was active in women’s causes and fought for the inclusion of women in political life. Appointed vice-president of the Australian Labor Party’s Women’s Central Organizing Committee in March 1918, she aroused censure and controversy for describing Labor women as “performing poodles and packhorses”; under-represented in policy decisions and relegated to auxiliary fund raising roles. Henceforth she organised for Labor “only so far as it stands for those principles represented by the Red Flag”, believing in the parliamentary system but desiring capitalism’s elimination.
She described her political evolution as being from “Imperialistic butterfly” to “democratic grub” and experienced continual tensions as a socialist feminist within the Labor Party.