Going to Town with Barry

One of the article writer’s favourite items in his rowing collection is a silk scarf for the 1908 professional race between Ernest Barry and George Towns.

23 September 2020

By Louis Petrin

Ernest Barry was born in London on 25 February 1882. He grew to be a tall man, rather over 6ft and though appearing of slender build was well set up and had muscular limbs. His training weight was 11st 10lb, a very fair thing for a man of his size. He began to row when a lad, and in 1903 he won the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race.

Ernest Barry

Barry gave a good deal of attention to four-oared rowing for some years and was successful. His brother, William Alfred Barry, taught him to scull, and in 1908 his supporters backed him to row against George Towns on the Thames for the Sportsman Cup and Championship of England, a title then held by the Australian.

George Towns was the World Sculling Champion in 1901-1904 and 1906-1907.

The Barry – Towns Race

The popularity of professional sculling was waning by 1908. The preference for “amateurs” and some professional races having been questioned by the punters was the death knell. However, there was hope that a title race between Ernest Barry and George Towns for the Sculling Championship of England on the Thames might change things.

News cables reported that both men were in fine condition and were training hard. The betting was 5 to 4 on Barry, but there were no takers.

A week or so before the race, Towns rowed over the full course in 22min. 25sec., but Barry followed and covered the distance in 21min. 43½ sec.

The following reference to the match is taken from the Sportsman:

Rowing men already are speculating upon what promises to be the most interesting professional event decided in this country for nearly ten years. When in 1900 the championship was last won Towns defeated James Wray, a man from his own colony, New South Wales. It must be admitted that the opposition of the two Australians, al-though interesting, did not evoke much enthusiasm in this country, and the race was quickly forgotten; but now that Towns, after an absence from England of over three years, has returned to meet an English-born sculler public interest is aroused. Indeed, we have to go back many years to find a race in which amateur oarsmen have displayed so much enthusiasm. The amateur of to-day is not particularly enamoured of the Professional, the why and wherefore of which does not call for much research; but on this occasion amateur oarsmen, realising that the two men who are to compete are serious and straightforward, have given it their full support. In one respect the match is quite exceptional, for nearly all the stake money comes not out of the pockets of bettors or “gaffers,” but amateur members of the most influential rowing clubs in London. Towns has be-hind him the Australian sportsman, Mr. Spencer Gollan, of the Thames R.C., and Barry Mr. H. T. Blackstaffe, of the Vesta R.C., and members of the Thames Vesta, London, and National Sporting Clubs. We doubt whether an important professional rowing match was ever be-fore made under such conditions. It can but augur well for the race and professional sculling. In the first place, it proves that the amateurs are confident of the two men; secondly, that there will be no hair-splitting or protests, and that, so far as metropolitan amateur oarsmen are concerned, there is a general desire to encourage honest professional racing and give sculling the lift of which it stands in such urgent need.

As with any professional rowing race, there were rules, well sort of:

Barry won the toss and chose the Surrey side, the side Towns said he would choose if he won the toss. This just goes to show that mind games were being played many years ago. The race started at 2:45pm, and Towns went away in the lead, and when Hammersmith Bridge was reached, Barry was catching up slightly with Towns leading by three-quarters of a length. But in the next mile, Barry caught up and passed Towns and was leading at Barnes Bridge. Just before Stratton Gentry Coal Wharf at Mortlake was reached, Barry was leading by two and a half lengths, and though Towns spurted he only succeeded in reducing this by half a length. Barry won in the record time of 21 minutes 12-2/5 seconds, a time not beaten for many years, with a margin of 32 seconds.

Barry’s times at various points on the course were:

Putney Bridge to Mile post 4m 44s
Hammersmith Bridge 8m 24s
Chiswick Steps 13m 10s
Barnes Bridge 17m 57s
Ship, Mortlake 21m 12s

Professional championship sculling races continued, but they were no longer the large events of the past. The last professional race was on 25 May 1957 between two Australians, the champion Evans Fischer, who defeated Evans Paddon on the Clarence River in the time of 20 minutes 46 seconds.

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