Wesley College Melbourne Australia
Wesley College archives and collections

The golden age of rowing

The 1901 Crew
The 1901 Wesley College Crew

In 2011, we celebrated 140 years of rowing at Wesley College. The annual Head of the River has always been a highlight of the Wesley College sporting calendar and the traditions associated with rowing are many, including the famous annual Boat Race Dinner, an event which itself goes back over one hundred years. This dinner draws together current and former rowers to share stories, and to celebrate the virtues of this great sport.

Wesley College has had a long and distinguished history of contributing to rowing, especially through the Associated Public Schools, and providing rowers for Australian and international competitions, including the Olympics. The first boat race between any Victorian Public Schools was conducted between Scotch and Melbourne Grammar School in 1868. Wesley College entered the Head of the River competition in 1871, and the first coach was headmaster of the day, Professor Martin Howy Irving. Wesley won the race for the first time in 1874 and had a long wait for a second victory in 1896. The Head of the River was rowed in four-oared boats from 1868 to 1900. In 1901 Charles Donald became the coach of the crew (and was arguably the first professional coach, since this was his sole duty). The captain of boats, George Donaldson, thought that a professional coach was required.

As Andrew Lemon notes in A great Australian school: Wesley College examined, the school found a permanent job for Mr Donald, not on the teaching staff but as a factotum called “school sergeant”: and from 1906 his wife was installed as manager of the latest Wesley innovation, a tuck shop. Charlie was an innovative coach, shown by the results achieved on the water. He started with five successive wins and after a lapse of two years, another five in succession.

The extraordinary achievements of Charlie Donald ended with him being called the “Prince of Coaches.” The period 1902 to 1913 is often described as the “Golden Age of Wesley sport”, because of the many victories in all main sports of the era. Wesley dominated on the Yarra, with twelve wins from fifteen starts; Scotch (in 1907-8) was the only other victor during this unequalled period of true rowing supremacy. The golden age of Wesley rowing really came to an end in 1913; Charlie Donald would continue to coach the Wesley crews until 1940. In 1941, Charlie was suffering from growing ill-health and mid-way through the preparation of the crew that year, Charlie could no longer continue his coaching duties. Following the spectacular success in the early years of the twentieth century, Charlie would see two further wins, in 1915 and later 1933, but always said that he “turned out a good crew on the day”.

The pedigree of rowing at Wesley is long and distinguished and we shall never forget its golden age.