Rowing in New Zealand

Page 3 – The world professional sculling title

In the late 19th century, rowing was one of many sports split between amateurs and professionals. Challenges for the world professional sculling title were among the most hyped (and gambled on) contests in the English-speaking world.

NZ world champion scullers

Holders

William Webb: 3 Aug 1907 to 15 Dec 1908

Dick Arnst: 15 Dec 1908 to 29 Jul 1912; early 1921 to 5 Jan 1922

Darcy Hadfield: 5 Jan 1922 to 18 Apr 1922

Unsuccessful challengers

Tom Sullivan: 2 May 1892

William Webb: 22 Jun 1909

George Whelch: 4 Apr 1910

Pat Hannan: 11 Jun 1921, 27 Jun 1925

Darcy Hadfield: 21 Jul 1923

The Championship of the Thames was first raced in 1831; this became the Championship of the World when an Australian challenged the holder unsuccessfully in 1863. The gruelling 4¼-mile course from Putney to Mortlake is still used by the Oxford–Cambridge boat race. After Edward Trickett won the title in 1876, the Australian dominance of the event for the next three decades was broken only by a couple of Canadians. These races offered serious prize money – £500 a side (worth $80,000 in 2010) was a typical stake.

The first New Zealander to challenge for the world title was Wellingtonian Tom Sullivan. In May 1892 he lost to the champion Australian Jim Stanbury on the Parramatta River (upper Sydney Harbour) by just two lengths. On Boxing Day 1906, Whanganui pipe inspector William (Billy) Webb – ‘a man of very high pressure’ – beat Stanbury (who had just lost the world title for the last time) over 3 miles on the Whanganui River. On 3 August 1907 Webb went one better, defeating Australian Charlie Towns for the world title on the Parramatta River. Towns’ protest after a minor collision was dismissed by the umpire, whose decision on fouls was final. The world title was to stay in the new Dominion for five exciting years.

On his return to ‘Webbanui’, the champion received a hero’s welcome and a house. A 22-carriage train brought a ‘gay crowd’ from Wellington in late February 1908 to watch Webb see off the challenge of Australian Dick Tresidder. His next opponent was more formidable: Dick Arnst, a burly young Cantabrian who had been a leading cyclist. A group of prominent Cantabrians paid for Arnst to be coached in Sydney by former world sculling champion George Towns. By late 1907 he was competing with the best.

Arnst beat Webb easily on the Whanganui River in December 1908, and less easily in a rematch six months later. After trouncing local sculler George Whelch on Akaroa Harbour on 4 April 1910, Arnst defended his title in a more exotic setting – the Zambezi River in southern Africa.

Zambezi Regatta

Dan Barry – Ernest’s grand-grand-nephew – came second in a 2010 race which marked the centenary of the world title match. Races in the biennial Zambezi International Regatta were compromised by both hippos and elephants. A ‘very large’ crocodile took a close interest in the single sculls.

The muscular Arnst’s match with the English champion Ernest Barry – ‘the most scientific oarsman in the world today’ – was sponsored by the British South Africa Company founded by arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes, which ruled the vast region now occupied by Zambia and Zimbabwe. It was the purse of £1000 that lured both men so far from home. To the accompaniment of the ‘incessant roaring’ of the nearby Victoria Falls, hippos were deterred from interfering by a marksman. The umpire was Spencer Gollan, a Hawke’s Bay runholder who owned the famous racehorse Moifaa. Cheered on by ‘the black population, in all their finery’, Arnst won easily.

Arnst next defeated the Australian Harry Pearce at Parramatta on 29 July 1911, rowing ‘the race of his life’ in front of nearly 100,000 spectators. But on Christmas night he was beaten up by some drunks outside his Sydney boarding house. After-effects of his injuries and a lifelong tendency to put on weight meant he was not at his best for his next defence. Barry won the title on the Thames on 29 July 1912. When Arnst failed to win the Australian title in November 1913, the 30-year-old’s rowing career seemed over. But he resumed training in Sydney in 1920, aged 36 and weighing 108 kg, and inherited Barry’s title the following year when the 38-year-old Englishman declined to defend it.

After shedding 20 kg on a training regime that included alcohol ‘in moderation’, Arnst comfortably defended his title against New Zealander Pat Hannan, 12 years his junior, on the Wairau River near Blenheim on 11 June 1921. His next challenger, Aucklander Darcy Hadfield, was a ‘pocket Arnst’ in physique. After recovering from wounds received at Passchendaele in 1917, Hadfield had starred at the Royal Henley Peace Regatta and the Inter-Allied Games in Paris in 1919. The following year he won New Zealand’s first Olympic rowing medal, coming third in the single sculls at Antwerp despite losing six weeks’ training on the voyage from New Zealand.

Six years younger than Arnst at 32, Hadfield was in his prime and beat the champion easily on the Whanganui River on 5 January 1922. Three months later on the same course Hadfield met the 35-year-old Australian Jim Paddon, one of the world’s top scullers for the last decade. After Paddon won comfortably, both Arnst and Hadfield lodged challenges. Arnst’s match did not go ahead. (Instead he took up shooting and soon became world-class in a third sport.) In July 1923 Paddon defeated Hadfield on the Richmond River in northern New South Wales. Though Hannan challenged for the title again in 1925, the golden age of New Zealand professional sculling was over.

How to cite this page

'The world professional sculling title', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/rowing-in-new-zealand/world-professional-sculling-title, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 13-Jan-2017