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Kings Cup rowing centenary celebrated

• Rowers competing in the 1919 Peace Regatta.

By Charles E. Rees

The King’s Cup is the premier rowing race in Australia; annual interstate representative senior heavy weight mens coxed eight, the final event of the Interstate Championships regatta.

Known as the King’s Cup Regatta it rotates amongst the states each year and is rowed over a two kilometre course.

Interstate rowing commenced in 1878, but was ‘put on hold’ during World War One (WW1) owing to the large number of rowers among the volunteers to the “Great European War”.

How did the King’s Cup become named so? It is a most interesting story!

At the cessation of WW1 hostilities on November 11, in 1918 hundreds of thousands of Allied Forces servicemen were being repatriated in England and France, while awaiting ships to transport them to their homelands. Among them 200,000 Australians. Rehabilitation was required for these war weary, traumatised, injured and ill men. Many forms of activities were being organised as a distraction from ‘mischief’ after celebrating peace, as well as to overcome the unsettling readjustment to civilian life. Educational and training programs were implemented to help absorb the idle time of men awaiting their return to Australia. Sports activities, including rowing, was considered a worthwhile means of recovery from the severe psychological scars of war. (Prince Harry’s Invictus Games is today providing that outlet).

Reports suggest during that time, tension was ever present, as a  result of the Spanish flu pandemic, political unrest in Russia following the Revolution two years earlier and ‘fractured peace’ negotiations in Paris, with the eventual signing of the Versailles Treaty on June 28, 1919. It was a restless and somewhat uncertain period.

Early in March 1919, the Royal Henley Regatta on the Thames River in London, England was being planned for July. Instead of resuming the past format it was decided to conduct a ‘peace regatta’, with crews from the Allied Forces competing. To be called the Royal Henley Peace Regatta.

King George V presented a trophy for the winner to be named the KING’S CUP .

Eight crews of amateur oarsmen from Canada, France, New Zealand, USA, two Australian (AIF), with Oxford and Cambridge Universities representing the United Kingdom.

There being only two rowing lanes, elimination heats were run. Unfortunately AIF1 drew AIF2 in the first heat, with AIF1 successful. All crews displayed a high standard of rowing.

The eventual recipient  of the King’s Cup was the Australian ‘AIF1 crew’, defeating Oxford University.

The AIF1 crew were all club oarsmen, some being interstate representatives.

They were : Bow – Sgt Archie Robb (Derwent Rowing Club, Tas.); No 2 – Lieut. Fred House (Derwent Rowing Club, Tas.); No 3 – Lieut. T. McGill (Leichhardt Rowing Club, NSW); No 4 – Gunner Arthur Scott (Murray Bridge Rowing Club, SA); No 5 – Lieut. Henry Hauenstein MM (Leichhardt Rowing Club, NSW); No 6 – Major Sydney Middleton DSO (Leichhardt Rowing Club, NSW); No 7 – Gunner G.W. Mettam (West Australia Rowing Club); Stroke – Capt. H. Clive Disher (Melbourne University Boat Club, Vic.); Cox (wain) – Sgt A.E. Smedley (Sydney Rowing Club, NSW).

The Aussie oarsmen proposed that the newly acquired silverware be a perpetual trophy for the Australian Interstate Championship Regatta. However the Australian War Memorial Committee (AWMC) claimed ‘the cup’ as a war trophy, supported by the Minister of Defence and Prime Minister W.M. “Billy” Hughes.

Following a lengthy dispute, the Governor-General accepted advice from the government ministers and the AWMC retained the coveted silverware.

Led by Captain H.C. Disher the crew appealed directly to King George V by petition. It is suspected the A.I.F contribution to the Allies cause, was reason enough for the King to issue a command and delivered by Secretary of State for Colonies Winston Churchill.  “His Majesty commands me to inform you that it is his wish that the Cup should be used as a permanent trophy and it be competed for annually in the interstate Eight-oar Race of Australia”.

It has held a special place in Australian rowing since 1921.

On July 5, 2019 at the Royal Henley Regatta an additional race was scheduled to mark the centenary of the Royal Henley Peace Regatta.

A new King’s Cup was contested by eight military  crews of mixed gender (first time for the Royal Henley Regatta) from the original six nations, plus the Netherlands and Germany. The cup contains metal from important objects from the competing nations, including the original King’s Cup.

The USA Armed Forces Eight, out rowed the Bundeswehr (German Armed Forces crew) recording a one boat length victory in the final. In the semi-finals USA defeated France by three quarters of a length and Australia Defence Force crew lost to Bundeswehr by a margin of one and a quarter lengths.

The international race co-ordinator Mr Chris Hartley said, “In 2019 (it was) a demonstration of the power of sport to build a positive change (in international relationships)”.

Thank you to rowing enthusiast Mr Bob Gooding of Dimboola for sharing his interest in this history.

Australian historian Bruce Coe has written a book – Pulling Through: the King’s Cup story. Further information can be found at row-360.com.