“Paris or the Bush” now in Post-Production

Filmmakers Bilsbrow and Groom
Filmmakers Carolyn Bilsbrow and Wayne Groom. Photo: Tait Schmaal and the Portside Messenger.

Greg Denieffe writes:

In January 2014, in an article called The Cods: Paris or the Bush?, HTBS brought you the news that the story of ‘The Murray Bridge Cods’ was to be made into a documentary by Australian International Pictures. We can now reveal that the film is in post-production with a release date of spring 2015, which according to director Wayne Groom means that they will complete the editing by July 2015 and the film will be release as soon as possible after that.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Wayne and Carolyn Bilsbrow whilst they were in England continuing their research into to the remarkable story of the working class crews from Murray Bridge, South Australia, that dominated Australian rowing for over a decade leading up to their participation at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris.

The paragraphs in italics are the overview of the film as given to me by Wayne.

‘The Cods’ was a working class eight from Murray Bridge who won three Kings Cups from 1920 – 24 and earned the right to represent Australia at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. Australia sent 34 athletes to Paris in 1924, remarkably, a third of the team were from the tiny rural township of Murray Bridge.

The Murray Bridge rowing club was formed in 1909 and ‘The Cods’, as they were affectionately known, represented the state of South Australia at the 1913 National Eight Championships as a club crew and won the race held on the Port River.

Before the event, Charles Abbott, who later became South Australia’s Attorney-General, tried to derail the crew, whom he didn’t think deserved to represent the State. He accused five of the Cods rowers of being ‘professional’ based on news reports they had years earlier received prize money at a picnic race. Three of the Cods signed statutory declarations denying the charges and avoided delisting, but two Jaensch brothers, acting on legal advice, would not sign and never rowed again. Despite this setback, their crew spots were quickly filled and the Cods were victorious.

This is what has been happening recently:

Production on the documentary Paris or the Bush started last October with Groom interviewing and Bilsbrow filming in and around Murray Bridge. The first interviews were with Ron Graetz (Eph Graetz’s son), Phil Nolan (Teddy Higgs’s grandson), Mike Brown (Murray Bridge RC historian), Ken Wells (Tom Wells’s son) and Helen Carroll (Wally Pfeiffer’s niece).

In December they moved on to Adelaide, recording interviews with descendants and various experts connected with the story. In early January, a trip to Melbourne allowed the pair to talk with sports/rowing historians Rob Bartlett and Andrew Guerin. Whilst there, they paid a visit to the National Sports Museum at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in search of Cods memorabilia and found Olympic blazers belonging to Bub Jarvis and Wally Pfeiffer as well as two King’s Cup oars.

Next stop was Tasmania where the pair went in search of information on Cods’ coach Teddy Higgs, visiting his home town of Devonport and meeting with his grandson, Trevor Sullivan.

The Cods remarkable success was partly due to its extraordinary coach Teddy Higgs. The son of a master boat builder in northern Tasmania, he grew up on the Mersey River in the 1880s and became a champion rower. He arrived in Murray Bridge in 1910, just after their club had been formed, on his way to the Kalgoorlie goldfields. He went for a row with some of the Cods, between trains, and they begged him to stay. He remained in Murray Bridge for the rest of his life.

After travelling back to the Australian mainland, the indomitable pair set off for England and a whirlwind tour to London and Henley-on-Thames, where they visited well-known rowing author and historian Chris Dodd at the River and Rowing Museum to talk about Steve Fairbairn, amateurism and the 1919 Peace Regatta. Then they headed to Cambridge in pursuit of more information on Fairbairn.

In 1919 after the war ended, with many allied troops still stationed in Europe waiting to go home, King George V held a famous ‘Peace Regatta’ at Henley-on-Thames and donated a gold cup to the victorious crew. The AIF No 1 crew, which contained Cods rower Arthur Scott, defeated Cambridge in the semi-final and Oxford in the final and won the coveted cup, which was then bequeathed to Australia to be used as a perennial trophy for the annual Australian Eights championships, now known as the King’s Cup.

Then it was across the Channel to France. Of course, the Paris Olympics in 1924 is what gels the whole story together but there was an earlier visit to France by five members of the Murray Bridge club that enlisted in the AIF and were sent to the Western Front. Wayne and Carolyn spent a day exploring this area of northern France, visiting the battle fields and the WW1 graveyards. They paid their respects at the grave of Hedley Joyce, once a member of the Cods.

Although he was a member of the 50th Australian Infantry Battalion (and not the Sportsmen’s 1,000), perhaps Joyce was inspired to enlist by the AIF recruitment posters that feature rowing images and which can be seen in the HTBS post Play Up, Play Up & Play THE Game.

Gravestone Hedley Joyce
Gravestone of Hedley Joyce of Murray Bridge Rowing Club. Photo: Carolyn Bilsbrow.

The Cods looked set for a promising career then World War 1 commenced and five of the Cods rowers enlisted. One of them, Hedley Joyce, was killed in France and another, Frank Cummings, returned from the war with shrapnel buried in his back. He rowed in the 1920s’ victories in great pain and was later confined to a wheelchair.

The Cods reformed in 1920, after a seven year break from rowing, somewhat battered and aged by their war experience, winning the 1920 Kings Cup held in Brisbane, thus reconfirming their dominance of Australian rowing.

They lost in 1921, after drawing a bad lane on the Yarra, but won again in 1922, defeating the most successful and richest club in Australia, Mercantile Rowing Club from Melbourne, who were chosen to represent Victoria in an attempt to break the working class Cods crew’s hold on the event. It was a remarkable and convincing victory for the Cods and raised questions from competitors about the ‘secret’ of how this poor club from tiny Murray Bridge could be so good.

The answer may have been due to the influence of Australian, Stephen Fairbairn, who revolutionised rowing in Britain when he coached at Cambridge from 1904 onwards. There is evidence to suggest Teddy Higgs may have become aware of Fairbairn’s philosophies in Tasmania, a stone’s throw from Melbourne, where Fairbairn rowed before going to the UK. One of Fairbairn’s famous mantras was “mileage makes champions”, a saying which Teddy adopted on his long, gruelling 60 km training rows on the River Murray, Australia’s longest river.

The Cods confirmed their greatness in 1923, winning their third King’s Cup, defeating a young Western Australian crew in Perth on the Swan River. They were heralded as the natural representatives of Australia at the Olympic Games in Paris in 1924. However doubts were raised about their ‘suitabilit’’ as working class men to represent Australia and also at their age, some were now in their forties, to row the fast stroking style needed over the Olympic distance of 2 km as all their victories had been over 3 miles.

A ‘test race’ was held in March 1924, after the Australian Olympic Federation reluctantly agreed to the Cods right to represent Australia but only if they could win against all comers in a 2 km sprint on the Port River. The younger Western Australian crew were favourites to win the race over the much shorter distance. Five crews competed in the famous race and, to the spectator cries of “Paris or the Bush”, the ageing Cods won by a canvas from Western Australia in the near world record time of 6 m 7 sec.

Postcard Australian Olympic team
Postcard showing the Australian Olympic team just before the opening ceremony on 4 May 1924.

Back in Paris there was a visit to the Olympic Rowing Course at Bassin D’Argenteuil and Colombes Stadium, home of 1924 Olympic Opening Ceremony and athletic events.

The Cods travelled to Paris in 1924 but various factors worked against them rowing their best in the Olympics, including their age, their outdated equipment, a six-week boat trip which provided limited opportunity to train and a demoralising bout of dysentery just before the event which severely affected their strength. The Cods didn’t win gold, but perhaps won the Olympic ideal, overcoming war, class and age to compete.

Painting of the Opening Ceremony 1924
Painting of the Opening Ceremony of the 1924 Tailteann Games by P. J. Walsh. Based on an original photograph which can be seen here.

After leaving Paris, the duo headed to Dublin, following in the footsteps of the Australian Olympic crew that had been invited by J. J. Walsh, director of The Tailteann Games, to compete against the winners of the senior eights, fours and sculls of the national section of the games. You can read about their exploits in Dublin in two posts on HTBS from May 2013: The Case of CoD v Cods and More on Murray Bridge and the Cods.

On the way home, the Cods travelled to Ireland to compete in the Tailteann Games. They had a great time in Dublin, perhaps too great, and were beaten by Derry in the final of both the eights and fours. The consolation was that Waldemar Pfeiffer won Gold in the single scull. Before leaving Dublin, the Cods donated their boat to the Irish Amateur Rowing Union.

Photo Courtesy of the State Library of South Australia
Photo: Courtesy of the State Library of South Australia and the family of RA ‘Bob’ Cummings.

Before heading home, there was time for a visit to Derry, the home of the City of Derry Boating Club; the IARU presented the boat to them for upholding the honour of Irish rowing. Outside Derry’s city walls on Boating Club Lane, is Quaywest, a restaurant set within the 19th-century former boathouse of the club and it was here that the victorious Derry crew housed the Olympic boat. Derry used the boat up until the club closed for World War II and then they donated it to Queens University Belfast Boat Club in 1941 where it was used as a training boat. It is thought the boat was later scrapped.

‘Quaywest’ former home of City of Derry Boating Club. Photo: Carolyn Bilsbrow.

Towards the end of February, Wayne and Carolyn were ready to release a five-minute preview and it got its premier at the Murray Bridge Rowing Club dinner on the last Saturday of the month. The finished documentary promises to be a rowing highlight of 2015 and we in the rowing community both in Murray Bridge and further afield should be grateful to them for their efforts in keeping the memory of this band of brothers alive. The budget for the production is AUS$½m, of which AUS$200k needs to be raised by donations. Owing to two recent AUS$10k donations, the total collected now stands at AUS$173k. To contribute towards the final AUS$27k please click here.

Here is the preview video which Carolyn kindly uploaded to YouTube so that I could include it in this report:

The 1924 Australian Olympic team
The 1924 Australian Olympic team, a quarter of who were from Murray Bridge.

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