In the late 19th century challenges for the world professional sculling title were among the most hyped (and gambled-on) contests in the English-speaking world.
Championship of the World
The Championship of the Thames was first raced in 1831 on the River Thames in London, England. It was renamed the Championship of the World when an Australian challenged the holder unsuccessfully in 1863. From 1876 Australians dominated the event for three decades. It was rowed over about 4 miles (6.4 kilometres) for a typical stake of £500 (worth nearly $100,000 in 2013).
In May 1892 Wellingtonian Tom Sullivan unsuccessfully challenged Australian Jim Stanbury on the Parramatta River (upper Sydney Harbour). On 3 August 1907 Whanganui pipe inspector William (Billy) Webb defeated Australian Charlie Towns at the same venue despite Towns’s protest after a minor collision.
On his return to ‘Webbanui’, the champion received both a hero’s welcome and a house. In February 1908 he repulsed the challenge of Australian Dick Tresidder. His next opponent was more formidable: New Zealander Dick Arnst, formerly a leading cyclist. Prominent Cantabrians paid for Arnst to be coached in Sydney by former world sculling champion George Towns.
Dan Barry – English champion Ernest Barry’s great-great-nephew – came second in a 2010 race which marked the centenary of the world title match. Races in the biennial Zambezi International Regatta were compromised by both hippos and elephants. A large crocodile took a close interest in the single scullers.
Dick Arnst’s Zambezi race
Arnst beat Webb easily on the Whanganui River in August 1908, and less easily in a rematch six months later. A few months after trouncing local sculler George Whelch on Akaroa Harbour on 4 April 1910, Arnst defended his title on the Zambezi River in southern Africa. The muscular Arnst’s showdown with English champion Ernest Barry, who was said to be the most scientific oarsman in the world, was sponsored by the British South Africa Company, which controlled the region now occupied by Zambia and Zimbabwe. The prize was £1,000 ($160,000 in 2013 terms). There was ‘incessant roaring’ from nearby Victoria Falls1; curious hippopotamuses had been deterred by a marksman. Cheered on by the black population, who dressed up for the occasion, Arnst won easily.
Dick Arnst and Darcy Hadfield
Arnst next defeated the Australian Harry Pearce at Parramatta on 29 July 1911 before nearly 100,000 spectators. However, injuries from being beaten up by drunks outside his Sydney boarding house and weight he put on while inactive contributed to Arnst losing his title to Ernest Barry on the Thames on 29 July 1912. When 30-year-old Arnst failed to win the Australian title in November 1913, his rowing career seemed over. But he resumed training in Sydney in 1920, aged 36, and inherited Barry’s title in 1921, when the 38-year-old Englishman declined to defend it.
After losing 20 kilos, Arnst comfortably defeated New Zealander Pat Hannan on the Wairau River on 11 June 1921. His next challenger, Aucklander Darcy Hadfield, was a ‘pocket Arnst’ in physique.2 After recovering from wounds received at Passchendaele in 1917, he had starred at the Royal Henley Peace Regatta and the Inter-Allied Games in Paris in 1919. In 1920 Hadfield won New Zealand’s first Olympic rowing medal, coming third in the single sculls at Antwerp despite missing training on the six-week voyage.
Six years younger than Arnst, Hadfield won easily on the Whanganui River on 5 January 1922, but soon lost his title to Australian Jim Paddon. Hadfield’s second loss to Paddon, in northern New South Wales in July 1923, marked the end of the golden age of New Zealand professional sculling.