15 September 2016
Tim Koch looks back to a visit that he made in June:
As HTBS reported at the time, on the night of 3 August 2011, Marlow Rowing Club, founded in 1871 and sited nine miles from Henley-on-Thames, was engulfed by fire. For me, there was a personal aspect to this very sad event as, every year, I and other veterans (‘masters’) from Auriol Kensington Rowing Club enjoy Marlow’s hospitality at lunchtime on the final day our annual three-day row from Hammersmith to Henley.
By the end of 2015, three years and £2.5m later, the fire damaged building had been demolished and had been replaced by a magnificent new structure, expanding the boathouse from four boat bays to five, doubling the gym space and adding a third floor to house the bar. Much of the club’s splendid collection of memorabilia somehow survived the smoke and flames and, after professional cleaning and restoration, was back on display.
The most remarkable survivor of the fire was a unique, 150-year-old sculling boat that hung from the ceiling of the old bar and which now occupies the same position in the new building. It is perhaps best appreciated by first studying a print that is contemporary with the boat and which Marlow has recently acquired. Amazingly, the boat in the picture and the boat hanging above it are one of the same.
In the picture above, the gates are ‘fixed pin’, though an 1863 account says that the boat had rowlocks ‘on the swivel principle’ with the dubious claim that Green invented and patented them. The account gives the dimensions as: ‘length 36 feet 6 inches; width at seat, 10 inches, and weighs only 32 lbs….. built of cedar externally, with her inside timbers of honeysuckle, and is copper fastened’. The seat appears to have a short slide, perhaps no more than 16 inches, but I presume that this is a later addition as 1869/1870 seems to be the accepted date that John C. Babcock perfected the sliding or tracked seat.
The story of Richard AW Green is well told by Stephen Gard in Port Jackson Pullers: Australia’s Early Sculling Champions, though I have only read parts of this 2014 work in preview:
An outstanding oarsman, Richard Green was also vain, touchy, grandiloquent, an inveterate writer of hot-tempered letters to the newspapers. Green was guilty of not a few breaches of sporting etiquette….. Over the years of his career various regatta committees cautioned, arraigned, fined and banned him for such offences. But Richard Green was irrepressible. And he outlived every one of his critics.
Richard’s father, George, who had been sent alone from London to an aunt in New South Wales at the age of 12 ‘for a better life’, was a boat-builder in Port Jackson, Sydney’s natural harbour. George’s five sons were enthusiastic participants in local boat races, but not just for pleasure. Gard writes:
…. Richard’s family were part of the Port Jackson boat-building industry, and their activity amounted to professional commitment….. the Greens were allowed repeatedly to enter events as ‘amateurs’ ….(as) only watermen who plied for hire were considered ‘professionals’…
Within six years of his first win at the age of 17, Richard was so successful that he had difficulty finding men who would compete against him. On one occasion, he won five events in a day. In January 1858, he easily beat James Candlish, a recent immigrant from Britain and one of that country’s top scullers. The race was run over a section of Sydney’s Parramatta River chosen because its layout was said to be similar to that of the Putney to Mortlake section of the Thames.
There was no-one left in the colony to beat….. Green had bested the field. At 23 years of age, there seemed nothing for this extraordinary young athlete to do but to throw down the gauntlet to the rest of the world. And he did.
Initially, Green challenged the world’s best scullers to come to Australia, to race him for up to £1,000 a side. But the ‘world’s best’ laughed at Green’s cockiness, ‘demanding that the locus of world sculling should be shifted sixteen thousand miles southward for a single match….’ The journey would have to be the other way. The first British professional sculling championship is usually taken to have started with the Professional Championship of the Thames in 1831. Initially dominated by London oarsmen, a fierce rivalry soon arose with the North East of England when, in 1859, Newcastle’s Bob Chambers became the first non-Londoner to win, eventually demanding that challengers to his title come North – or that he was paid travel expenses to London. These (not unreasonable) requests helped make Chambers very unpopular in the South. This did not distress the Northerners too much and a popular music hall song went:
O, ye Cockneys all,
Ye mun think’t very funny,
For Bob he gans and licks ye all,
An collars all yer money
A further dimension was added when Green became the first foreigner to challenge for the title, making the event the ‘Championship of the World’ in deed if perhaps not yet in name.
Green arrived in London in July 1862 and moved into ‘Bells Tavern’ in Putney, owned by the former Champion, Henry Kelley. Here he trained with Kelley on the Putney to Mortlake course and waited for his boat and his stake money to arrive from home – but both were a long time coming.
Finance and boat finally sorted, the race against the reigning champion, Chambers, was set for 16 June 1863.
The University Boat Race sized crowd that lined the banks of the Championship Course saw a fine start for the man who had travelled many thousands of miles to race and he soon took a lead that many described as ‘commanding’. However, Chambers later claimed, ‘although I lost the lead, I never lost heart’ and some observers thought that after the start, Green made the beginner’s mistake of sculling ‘too high and too hard’ for a four-and-a-quarter mile race. Whatever the case, the Englishman slowly and deliberately worked his way back and eventually took the lead. At this, all the fight left Green and he essentially gave up. At the finish, he was over four minutes behind his opponent.
On landing, Green claimed sickness and, later, that he had been poisoned by a servant girl at Bells Tavern. This was the story that he stuck to for the rest of his life. Gard has a different view:
What is more probable is that Richard Green…. opinionated and stubborn…. had ignored (trainer) Henry Kelley’s advice….. Kelley had never quite managed to correct Green’s eccentric oarsmanship, and Green had gone his own way in other respects. Overwrought,….. kept waiting for almost a year, Green had starved, worried, and over-exhausted himself, and had then raced when he was unfit to do so.
A month later, on 21 July, Green entered the Thames National Regatta held on the Putney to Hammersmith course and won both the pair-oar race (with Kelley) and the sculls. He made much of the latter but, though there were good Thames men in the race, there were no past or present Champions, bar Kelley, who was, in any case, ‘fouled’. What he really wanted was a re-match with Chambers.
The true facts of the numerous attempts at organising another race between Green and Chambers will almost certainly never be known and attempts at establishing them leads to such a web of half-truths, distortions and lies coupled with incompetence, vested interests and possible corruption that an investigator may inevitably conclude, ‘A plague o’ both your houses!’ Suffice to say that when Green finally had the chance to race Champion Chambers at the Tyne Regatta on 23 August, he withdrew at the last minute, claiming illness but never giving a clear explanation. The Sporting Gazette said that, ‘the Australian has compromised his reputation in the rowing world by his strange conduct on this occasion’.
With his expenses continuing to mount and his return passage already booked, Green could only write to the English newspapers inviting the leading English and American scullers to follow him to Australia, where he offered to race them for £500 a side, plus £150 expenses. No one took up the challenge.
What of the boat, the Star of Australia? Before he left Australia, Richard had sculled only a prototype. It was (and is) very difficult to get unbiased facts regarding the performance of the Green family’s products as they were in the business of selling their boats and so were never going to say that they were anything but innovative and fast. The Star was not ready before Richard left for England but outside observers in Sydney thought the finished scull fast but inherently unstable and that the raised upper surface caught the wind and created drag. The Greens denied any problems and immediately shipped the boat off to join Richard in Putney. The Star of Australia naturally generated great interest when it arrived in England and Richard spent a lot of time ‘talking it up’. However, before the Chambers race, he discarded it in favour of a more conventional craft, built two miles upstream of Putney by Biffen’s of Hammersmith. Most tellingly, he eventually took the Biffen boat back to Australia with him, but, as we know, left the Green boat behind in England.
What of the title, boldly emblazoned on the Bragg lithograph, “Richard AW Green, Champion of England and Australia”? Claiming the Championship of England (effectively the World Title) was a typical Green move. After losing to Chambers, Green immediately rechallenged him and both put down a deposit of £25 each. However, the two men could not agree on a date for the rematch and so the cocky colonial claimed both Chambers’ stake money and the Championship, a title that he forever claimed was his by default.
In an excellent study titled “Early Sporting Diplomacy: The Case of RAW Green”, Richard Fotheringham of the University of Queensland puts forward this view of Green’s place in Australian history:
A curious phenomenon in the history of Australian sport is the fact that one of Australia’s first international sporting champions was quietly forgotten barely a decade after his triumphs and tragedies, and is quite unknown today…… Green’s failure to reach legendary status had at least three factors.
First, he was an Australian-born European at a time – the year 1863 – when barely a third of his non-Aboriginal fellows were similarly ‘colonial natives’. Nationalism, therefore, was a somewhat uneasy concept for an ethnic minority in their own country to celebrate.
Second, it was in England, not America, that Green attempted to assert his claim to be the world’s greatest sculler, and while Australians have always been willing to believe any myth concerning American lack of ethics in sport, they have been somewhat less keen to believe the same accusations when they have been levelled against the home of fair play itself.
Thirdly, Green didn’t die: he was only nobbled, or, if the rumours to that effect were wrong, simply a very unlucky loser.
It was to be another Australian, Edward Trickett, who would, in 1876, be the first non-Briton to win the World’s Professional Sculling Championship. It was Australia’s first world sporting title and the start of a ‘Golden Age’ for Australian professional sculling. However, it was Richard Green that showed the way. It was unfortunate that the song written for him back in New South Wales when he won twice at the Thames National Regatta could not have applied to the Professional Championship of the World, a title that, on the right day, he was probably perfectly capable of winning.