Docco’s Diary: A rich tradition of rowing at St Peter’s College

Posted 06 APR 2021
Memory BankOld Scholar NewsSPOC Sport

Our First VIII won the Head of the River Regatta for the sixth time in a row on Saturday March 20 2021 and went on to be Schoolboy’s Coxed Eight National Champions at Lake Barrington in Tasmania on Sunday March 28. After qualifying through the repechage, our boys lead from start to finish in the final to win in a time of 6:28.33. Congratulations to Nick Burr, Edward Chipperfield, Faris Harb, Tom Oldfield, Felix Packer, Jake Nesbitt, Jeremy Beale, William Howard, cox Aidan Hughes, coach Mr James McRae and Director of Rowing Mr Tim Hennessy (SCH 1996) on this amazing result!

It is interesting to consider the rich tradition of rowing at St Peter’s College. Rowing at our School can be traced to 1860, less than thirteen years after St Peter’s College was founded on July 15th 1847 and long before it was possible to row on the River Torrens. The introduction of rowing to Saints owed much to the energy and enthusiasm of a young bachelor master Englishman, Frederick Henry Digby, who served on the staff from 1858 to 1862. He had completed his education at Headmaster Farr’s old school, Christ’s Hospital, in England. Digby soon became popular in the School, but this was more because of his contribution outside rather than inside the classroom. Digby had no degree, but he was young and interested in sports. He is thought to have been the driving force behind the formation of the first St Peter’s Rowing Club in 1860. This seems to have been a club for young men who were associated with the School as members of staff, Old scholars or “sixth formers”. Most of the club’s members were old collegians, and membership was restricted to “swimmers only”! The small size of the School and the lack of a Torrens Lake until 1881 meant that it was not practicable at this time to race boats wholly crewed by boys still at school. It was not until 1880 that the Torrens Weir was built to dam the river and form a lake. This opened up the possibility of rowing on the River Torrens.

George Henry Farr (Headmaster of St Peter’s College 1854-1878 – the great ‘pioneering’ Headmaster) supported the efforts of Digby to establish a Boat Club because of his own enthusiasm for rowing and his considerable background in rowing.

The new club first raced a four-oared boat, “Lady of the Lake”, at the Port Adelaide Regatta on the Port River on New Year’s Day 1861. The “Lady of the Lake” was pitted against another four-oared boat, the “Lady MacDonnell”, entered by the well-established Pelican Club. The St Peter’s boat won easily by several lengths. The “Lady of the Lake” was steered by J. Morphett. The rowers were stroke Fred Digby, B Featherstone, GW O’Halloran and A Hallett. Morphett was the only member of the crew still at school. Featherstone had been in the sixth form from the previous year, O’Halloran had been Captain of the School nine years earlier, and Hallett had left the School some time before 1857. Digby’s age is not known but he was presumably in his early twenties.

On April 26, 1862, a rowing race between a crew of the Pelican Club and St Peter’s College was rowed at Port Adelaide, attracting a large number of spectators. The St Peter’s boat consisted of John Morphett (coxswain), FH Digby (bow), GW O’Halloran, A Hallett, and AM Wooldridge (stroke). The St Peter’s College boat won by a length.

Starting in December 1882, there were rowing races between schools on the Torrens. There were more races from 1884-1892 on the Torrens and at Port Adelaide for the Blackmore Challenge in 1893. The March 1893 magazine records: “Mr EG Blackmore, who has in the past done so much for our rowing, has added to our obligations by his generous offer of a Challenge Shield, to be rowed for annually between St Peter’s College and Prince Alfred College”.

The Blackmore Club, founded in 1989, was set up to encourage, foster, support, and promote rowing at St Peter’s College. It is noteworthy that two Old Scholars (Collier Cudmore and Tim Willoughby) have gone on to win medals at Olympic Games in rowing.

Our School has had amazing success in rowing. An analysis of the results of the Gosse Shield, since it was presented in 1932 for competition between school First Eights, shows that St. Peter’s College has won the Shield more times than all the other schools combined.

The Head of the River Regatta had its inception on the Torrens Lake in 1922. St Peters College challenged Adelaide High School to a race in eights. Adelaide High won the race and the Head of the River Regatta began. From these small beginnings the event has grown into South Australia’s largest championship rowing regatta with rowers from the 3 public and 11 private rowing schools competing. It is now held at West Lakes. The Regatta involves junior coxed quadruple sculling events over 1,000 metres and 1,500 metres, as well as senior coxed four and eight races over 2,000 metres.

Image: SPSC Winners Dash Eights, 1922

St Peter’s College has had many exceptional rowing coaches. Our School enjoyed success in the Head of the River in 1996, 1997 and 1998, with David Bishop as Director of Rowing and John Jarvis as First VIII coach. In the 1998/99 season, David also took on the role of First VIII coach, with the 1999 crew winning silver in the Schoolboy Eight A – Final at the Australian National Rowing Championships. The crew went on to place second at the Henley Royal Regatta in 1999 for the Princess Elizabeth Cup on the River Thames in England. The First VIII also won silver at the Australian National Rowing Championships in the following year under David’s guidance. David continued coaching after his retirement from teaching in 2007 until 2013. He coached the First VIII to nine Head of the River victories. The seven consecutive Head of the River victories from 2005 to 2011 equals the longest winning streak in the history of the event (the other winning streak also being achieved by St Peter’s College in the late 1940s-50s). On the occasions the First VIII crew entered the Head of the River race as underdogs, David was able to weave his magic, juggled the crew and secure an improbable victory from the maelstrom of likely defeat. He is the first to acknowledge that one or two victories have slipped from his crews’ grasp. All of the First and Second Eights that have not won their final races in his time have placed second – an unprecedented achievement.

David was also active when it came to fundraising. The FH Digby Fund was established at his initiative, alongside the Boat Club Parents’ Committee in order to help secure the success of the Boat Club in the future.

David, alongside Headmaster Richard Burchnall instituted many outstanding rowing initiatives. Richard Burchnall was instrumental in seeing the Sports Centre built and equipped. David made available a separate area in the Conditioning Room of the Sports Centre for the storage and use of Boat Club ergometers and weight training equipment, all essential support systems for a modern school Boat Club. He also negotiated the lease on a bay in the rowing facility at the West Lakes Rowing Headquarters for our fleet. For these key moves, generations of St Peter’s College oarsmen will be grateful to David Bishop and Richard Burchnall for their work in establishing a leading schoolboy rowing program.

David Bishop had entered St Peter’s College as a student in Year 4 in 1951 and was in Short House when he moved to the Senior School. As a nearly sixteen-year-old playing Senior House Cricket on the Caterer Oval, David was invited down to the Torrens to try out for the Short House tub four for the House Rowing in 1958. Little did he know then how that opportunity would affect his life. After rowing in the winning 1959 Second Eight, and in the winning Head of the River Eight in the Boat Club Centenary year in 1960, the last crew coached by the redoubtable WJ Ferguson, “prince of coaches, but a coach of Saints”, David went on to represent South Australia and Victoria in a number of King’s Cup crews. St Peter’s College was fortunate to benefit from David’s outstanding coaching over many years, leading to a long and successful period for the Boat Club.

The 1992 Head of the River saw the end of an era, with Lindsay Southcott concluding an extraordinary career as coach of the St. Peter’s College 1st VIII. Lindsay’s record of 14 Head of the River wins in 27 years is unprecedented in Australian schools’ rowing and is unlikely ever to be challenged. He began his rowing career at Saints and was a member of the 1957 and 1958 First Eights. He started club rowing whilst still at school and went straight into the South Australian King’s Cup Eight when he left school. He spent four years in the State crew before moving to Melbourne, where he concluded his rowing career. Lindsay’s first stint as coach of the Saints First VIII lasted from 1961 to 1964. After returning from Melbourne, he resumed the First VIII coaching duties in 1970 and continued without a break until the 1992 Head of the River. The enormous amount of time devoted by him to this job, which is an honorary one, says much about Lindsay’s commitment. His meticulous preparation of his crews and his attention to every minute detail of training, rowing technique, racing and rigging of boats brought him his well-deserved successes. He has also produced some very fine oarsmen in the process, including two Olympians.

David Docwra

David Docwra retired from St Peter’s College in December 2015 after 37 years’ service, and will be fondly remembered by many as a dedicated teacher, a committed coach of squash, cricket and soccer, and most especially as a passionate Head of Hawkes House for 21 years.

Image: St Peter’s College First VIII in 1992