Rowing Our Way to a Separate (and Proud) Australian Identity

Sydney welcomes

On 27 June 1876, Edward “Ned” Trickett defeated the Englishman Joseph Sadler on the River Thames and, by doing so, became the World Sculling Champion – and Australia’s first ever World Champion in any sport, write Janis Rafter and Craig Henshaw from Australia.

Ned Trickett’s win was the start of a Golden Age for professional sculling in Australia. When he returned home victorious to Sydney, it was reported that more than 25,000 people turned out at Circular Quay to welcome him home. The impact of his victory can be judged by the words of the then Premier of New South Wales, the Hon. Sir John Robertson, who praised Ned as:

… the first man not bred in England to win the great prize of the championship of the world who had won honour for the people of the whole of these colonies.

Trickett’s achievement was an important early contribution to a separate and proud Australian identity. At the time, Australia as a nation didn’t exist; we were an unfederated collection of ‘colonies’, not the cohesive modern nation of today with our own history, traditions, and distinctive culture. Those developments were in their infancy; with the first stirrings of nationhood being stoked by people such as the politician William Charles Wentworth, the novelist Marcus Clarke and Ned’s remarkable achievements.

Early Life & Rowing

Joseph Henry SadlerNed Trickett was born in Woolwich on the Lane Cove River in Sydney; his father was a former convict and his mother a free settler from Ireland. He developed his rowing skills transporting blocks of sandstone from his father’s quarry in Greenwich, across Sydney Harbour to various building sites. The retaining wall around Sydney’s beautiful Royal Botanic Gardens, just one such site, is still in evidence today.

After Ned’s remarkable early competitive rowing career in New South Wales, Sydney publican and ex-rower James Punch, organised a public subscription, enabling Trickett to travel to London and successfully challenge for the World Sculling Championship title.

The First Defence

mapA year later, on 30 June 1877, Trickett made the first defence of his title, competing against his long-time rival and friend Michael Rush, an assisted Irish migrant who came to Sydney as a 16-year-old to augment Australia’s agricultural workforce.

The defence took place on Sydney’s Parramatta River and by all accounts electrified the colony. It was reported that more than 70,000 people (equivalent to one third of Sydney’s population at the time!) lined the banks of the river to cheer the competitors. Thousands more spectators watched from the many steamers following the race along the river.

Three weeks after the race, on the 21 July 1877, The Illustrated Sydney News published a series of articles and illustrations celebrating the historic race, the competitors and the cheering crowds. In that issue they also inserted a fold-out ‘birds-eye view map’ of the River, showing the route of the race (familiar to generations of Sydney rowers) and an imagined aerial perspective looking West to the then township of Parramatta.

This rare, historical and beautiful map has now been reproduced in three museum-quality limited editions by Rafter Limited Editions, with assistance from Mr Lyn Lockrey (one of Trickett’s great-grandsons) and supporting the Black Dog Institute (perhaps Australia’s leading institution for research and treatment of depression and related disorders).

More details on these limited editions can be found at: www.trickettstriumph.com. This purpose-built website provides a treasure trove of the history of this remarkable man and the story of his successful first defence of the World Sculling title.

Own you own piece of history by clicking here.

Illustrated Sydney News
The starting line was located at Charity Point and the rivals were followed by a fleet of steamers. The estimated number of people who crowded the shore was in excess of 70,000. From The Illustrated Sydney News July 21, 1877. Courtesy of Rafter Limited Editions.

Subsequent World Championship Career

Trickett’s second defence was against fellow Australian Elias Laycock, on 29 August 1879. Laycock was perhaps the finest of Australian scullers, but never managed to become World Champion. (However, Laycock’s standing in the Australian Rowing community was such that he was invited to pose in a photograph of Australian champion scullers at a Sydney Lord Mayoral reception in 1903 with Jim Stanbury, Henry Pearce, Bill Beach, Michael Rush, Ned Trickett and the Towns brothers.)

The course was again on the Parramatta River, the distance this time almost four miles. Laycock had previously beaten Trickett, so many had high hopes (and heavy wagers!) on Laycock winning the £200 aside. Laycock lead early, but after four hundred yards Trickett had passed him and led for the rest of the race; winning by a convincing margin. Trickett had used the then new invention of swivel rowlocks. (This race was unusual in that the winner was to represent New South Wales against the Canadian Ned Hanlan, the champion of Great Britain and the United States.)

Ned HanlanAt 29 years old, Trickett’s next defence (his third) was on 15 November 1880 on the classic Thames course between Putney and Mortlake against the 25 year-old native of Toronto, Canada, Ned Hanlan. It was a generous concession on Trickett’s part to have the race in England, rather than take the ‘incumbent’s prerogative’ of again having the race in Sydney. The stake was £400 and there was heavy betting on the outcome. In spite of great anticipation of a close race, it was effectively over by the time they reached Hammersmith Bridge, with Trickett losing the race to Hanlan in 26 minutes, 12 seconds and consequently losing the World Title.

Trickett’s final title race was again on the Championship Course on the Thames attempting to regain the title from Hanlan on 1 May 1882. The stake was £500 aside and Trickett used a new boat weighing only twenty-nine pounds. But the race was very one-sided in favour of Hanlan and, although one of the great scullers of his time, he demonstrated questionable sportsmanship by turning around and rowing back to Trickett, only to beat him for a second time.

In 1888, Trickett raced his old foe Ned Hanlan on the Fitzroy River. Some 10,000 spectators watched Trickett, then aged 36, be beaten and lose his money on the race.

Life Beyond Rowing

Ned Trickett Family archiveIn 1879, Ned opened Trickett’s International Hotel (a beautiful Italianate building, still in the heart of Sydney, and now heritage listed and dwarfed by multi-story office blocks) and in 1884 moved to the Oxford Arms Hotel in Rockhampton, Queensland.

As a result of his rowing victories in Australia and around the world, Ned became fairly well-to-do but, like thousands of others, he lost everything in the banking crisis of 1893. The result was a very bleak time when his lifelong struggle with the ‘black dog’ of depression almost overwhelmed him; creating thoughts of suicide. Fortunately his strength, his faith, and the good fortune of a chance meeting with someone who remembered his glory days of sculling resulted in a job at the NSW Department of Customs that he would retain until his retirement in 1916.

Visiting his son in the town of Uralla in northern New South Wales that same year, he died prematurely at 65 when a mining trench they were digging together collapsed on him. He’s buried in the Uralla cemetery with a modest gravestone in place of the much grander one erected by public subscription in 1938 and subsequently vandalised. Fortunately, the local Uralla historical society recovered and restored the original (in close to mint condition) and it now resides in pride of place in the Trickett section of the McCrossin Mill Museum in Uralla.

It is clear from his life story that Ned Trickett was a person of great achievement and strength both on and off the water. The legacy of his remarkable achievements lives on in the annual Trickett’s Regatta in Sydney, as well as his legendary status in the Australian rowing community. Perhaps it also lingers in the proud Australian sporting tradition he helped to establish by being Australia’s first ever World Champion in any sport.

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