03 November, 2012

"The school of the Barwon"

In my previous post, I looked at the early days of Geelong Grammar and at the old school building in Maud Street, Geelong. Aside from its relative proximity to the Barwon and the probable use of bluestone from quarries along the river in its construction, the school has close historical ties to the river which date back formally to 1870 when boys from the school took up rowing. In these early years, they made use of the Barwon Rowing Club's boats, honing their skills in preparation for taking on the best that the Melbourne public Schools had to offer. In 1873 and realising the talent amongst the school boy rowers, Barwon held scratch four races in which both Grammar and Geelong College took part with Grammar winning the event which did not go unremarked in the newspapers of the day.
The current crop: a Grammar crew on the Barwon January, 2012
In 1874 Grammar formally established its own rowing club and bought its first boat. The following year saw the arrival at the school of James Lister Cuthbertson - a master who would come to define rowing at Geelong Grammar and significantly influence the Victorian School Boys Head of the River - the longest-running school boy rowing event in the world. The Head of the River dates back to 1868 and was first held, not on the Barwon, but on the Yarra River between Melbourne Grammar and Scotch College in Melbourne.
Geelong first competed against the Melbourne schools in 1874 but did not contest the Head of the River until the following year. It was another three years before they took home the title, winning for the first time in 1878. These early races were all held on the Yarra River in Melbourne, however in 1879, following Grammar's win the previous year, the race was held for the first time on the Barwon River in Geelong. From this time the race moved back and forth between the Barwon and the Yarra until 1948 when it moved permanently to Geelong. This continued until 2001 when the race moved to the Olympic standard course at Nagambie.
Until 1900, the Head of the River was contested by coxed fours in boats of varying styles (for details see Wikipedia), however after this date the race was contested by crews of eight. This would have been well received by Cuthbertson who spent much of his 20 year teaching career at Grammar, lobbying the collective headmasters of the public schools for just such a move.
Grammar crew on a very rainy Barwon. Training isn't always sunshine and picnics
Hired by the school in 1875 "Cuthy" was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1851. He studied for the Indian Civil Service at Oxford but had a change of career plan when he failed one of the required exams. Possibly encouraged by the fact that his father managed the Bank of South Australia in Adelaide for a time, he came to Australia where he took up the position of master of classics at Geelong Grammar. He returned to England in 1882 to complete his degree at Oxford which he did in 1885 and then returned to resume his position at Grammar.
In addition to his academic duties, Cuthbertson enjoyed the outdoors and was a keen bushwalker, often spending his weekends taking groups of boys hiking at Mt Moriac, the You Yangs or the place he spent the most time - the Barwon.
During rowing season he would often head out on a Friday with a crew of four or eight boys and they would row downstream, sometimes staying over night at one of several popular camping spots such as The Willows (which as far as I can tell was on the river in the vicinity of the St Albans Homestead), Campbell's Point (extends prominently into Lake Connewarre from the north bank), Cormorant (can't pin this one down, but would guess downstream of Campbell's Point) or at Barwon Heads. Once at the Heads, Saturday would be spent lazing on the beach or hiking in the surrounding area before the long pull back upstream to Geelong. It was perhaps these extended training sessions along with Cuthbertson's passionate interest in rowing and in his students which saw Grammar become the strongest school in the APS between the years of 1878 and 1895, winning the Head of the River no less than 12 times in this 18 year period including a run of six consecutive wins between 1885 and 1890.
Looking towards Campbell's Point (right) from Ash Road, Leopold
Following the death in 1895 of his much respected colleague and headmaster, John Bracebridge Wilson, Cuthbertson acted as principal for the remainder of the year. A new appointment was made early in 1896 but it soon became clear that he would not enjoy the same relationship with the new principal that he had with Bracebridge Wilson and he agreed to leave, however he maintained close ties with the school until his death in 1910.
To the present date, Geelong Grammar has won the Head of the River no less than 33 times, a record surpassed only by Scotch College who have held the title on 40 occasions and are the current champions.
James Lister Cuthbertson is remembered today by the school primarily in the senior boys boarding house at the Corio campus which bears his name and in the Cuthbertson Health and Wellbeing Centre, but he was also, a poet of note whose published works are contained in the volume "Barwon Ballads and School Verses." Some of those verses will be the subject of my next post.

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