Legacy of Clarence rowing champion remembered 125 years on

TODAY marks 125 years since the death of one of Australia's great rowers, Henry Searle.

Born in Grafton in 1866 and raised on Esk Island in the Clarence River estuary, Searle died on December 10 in 1889 of typhoid fever, aged just 23.

The hugely popular rower had arrived in Melbourne just three weeks earlier via ship from England, where he had defended his World Sculling Championship title against Canadian William O'Connor for a 500 pound purse.

"Thousands met the train that brought his body to Grafton," Lex Essex told The Daily Examiner this week.

LEFT: Lex Essex, next to the grave of Henry Searle, holds on to the Bill Beach NSW Station Championship he won for rowing in 1956. PHOTO: ADAM HOURIGAN
LEFT: Lex Essex, next to the grave of Henry Searle, holds on to the Bill Beach NSW Station Championship he won for rowing in 1956. PHOTO: ADAM HOURIGAN


The 86-year-old Maclean resident is a life member of Lower Clarence Rowing Club and former president of Northern Rivers Rowing Association.

"No one will ever really know how good Henry Searle was," Mr Essex said.

"In those days they raced three and one-eighth mile - about 5000 metres.

"A tremendous amount of money was blown by the Canadians that day he won that race on the Thames. Someone put up an umbrella to show the Canadian was leading when they passed under a bridge. Searle might've just been playing with him."

Essex is one of the last vestiges of the region's rich professional sculling history, which ended in 1963.

For generations the one-on-one stakes races had been extremely popular, as scullers would wager large amounts to race one another.

"If you thought you were good enough you could challenge a title holder and put up a stake," Mr Essex explained.

"They had six months to accept the challenge or hand over the title."

After winning a two-mile race on the Clarence River by 880 yards as an unknown 18-year-old, Searle soon took on and beat the best of the world.

He had the capacity to break opponents with sudden, repeated and sustained bursts. His races drew tens of thousands of spectators to the banks of the Clarence and Parramatta rivers. It is estimated 100,000 people witnessed his final race in London.

The Lower Clarence continued to have a strong presence in the sport, including a period of dominance in the 1950s.

"In 1953 we hosted a world championship," Mr Essex recalled.

"I held the world lightweight championship and state championship.

"Jimmy Skinner held the Australian Championship, he was a descendant of Searle.

"Evan Fisher was world champion. His grandmother was a sister of Searle."

Topics:  lower clarence rowing club rowing

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