In April 1897, the 28-year-old professional sculler George Towns of Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia, who had learned to scull on the Hunter River, arrived to England. At the time, he was regarded as a ‘coming man’ and his financial backers back home in Newcastle had been eager to send him to England to be able to prove himself worthy to row for the World Professional Sculling Championships in a year or two.
Australian oarsmen had dominated the professional sport of sculling since August 1884, when William Beach beat the Canadian Ned Hanlan on the Parramatta River. But in September 1896, the World title went back to Canada when Jake Gaudaur of Ontario, defeated Jim Stanbury of New South Wales on the River Thames in London. In Australia, the hopes were set for Towns to reclaim the World title. In a race on 21 September, 1898, William ‘Bill’ Barry of Putney (Ernest Barry’s older brother) beat Towns on the Championship course between Putney and Mortlake for the Championship of England. Then, on 1 May, 1899, Towns beat Barry for the title, which should, if Towns and his backers played their cards right, open the doors for Towns to challenge Gaudaur for the World title.
However, Towns’s stay in England was followed by mishaps, the Australian newspaper The Star reported to its readers in an article published on 24 July (but dated 9 June), 1899. The paper’s correspondent wrote that Towns had been run into by an eight when he was training for his first meeting with Barry. Luckily, Towns only received minor injuries, though his boat got badly damaged. Then Towns had to pay foreit to William Haines of Old Winsor as the Australian was ill in influenza and could not race Haines. In another race Towns rowed into a big lump of wood which damaged his boat so he had to abandon the race (and by that losing money in stakes and bets).
In the beginning of June 1899, Towns could do with some extra cash. This was easily picked up by giving private lessons to amateur scullers who could pay his fees. One of these scullers was the young sculler Benjamin Hunting Howell (of New York, USA), who could do with some technical hints on a warm, nice day on the Thames. The article incorrectly mentioned him as a member of Trinity Hall, which he had rowed for between 1894 and 1898, but now rowed for Thames RC. The paper at least gave his championship titles correctly: ‘English amateur champion and holder of the Diamond Sculls.’
Towns and Howell set off from the Leander boathouse in the afternoon, sculling up the river against the tide, rowing side by side, with Towns closes to the Surrey shore. At Barn Elms, a coxed four came down with the tide, and before anyone understood the dire situation, the four ran into Towns. The larger craft’s ironshod bow hit the Australian sculler in the back and missed his spine with a couple of inches, but broke two of his ribs. Towns fell overboard but managed, despite that he was half unconscious, to grab hold of an oar in the four. The oarsmen in the boat managed to pull him into their boat, while Hunting gave them order to row to Thames boathouse. We can only imagining what went through Howell’s mind at this point, as he had a scar on his right lower part of his leg to remind him about his own accident in October 1897. Then another sculler had rowed right into Howell, who had got the other sculler’s bow right through his calf of his right leg just below his knee.
After Towns received first aid at Thames RC, he was taken to the professional sculler Tom Sullivan’s house at Battersea to be examined by a doctor. Beyond the broken ribs, the part of the back where he was hit was bruised and swollen. The Star wrote: ‘The accident caused a tremendous sensation at Putney, where, by reason of his good nature and gentlemanly behaviour, Towns has become a great favourite amongst ‘wet-bobs’ of all classes.’ The author of the article goes on by speculating how this accident might effect Towns’s future career. He even goes on saying that ‘it is quite possible that his career as a first-class sculler has closed.’
Luckily, Towns career as first-rate sculler did not come to an end that day in June. A year later, on 10 September, 1900, he defended his English championship title on the Championship course against his countryman J. Wray. The next year, on 7 September, 1901, Towns beat Gaudaur for the World championship title on Lake of the Woods, Canada.