Rowing was a very popular sport in the second half of the 19th Century – with much more spectator interest than today with professional oarsmen racing for very large sums of money becoming the heroes of the day. When one Newcastle oarsman died, over 130 000 people turned out for his funeral! In the West of England rowing was also a popular sport and many of the clubs now affiliated to the West of England A.R.A. had been formed long before the association itself.
The first meeting of the West of England Amateur rowing Association (W.E.A.R.A) was held at The Bradley Hotel, Newton Abbott on 29th January 1896. Those present included delegates from Exeter ARC, Totnes ARC, Dart ARC, Torquay ARC, Paignton ARC, and Dartmouth ARC. At this meeting a Mr W Wilson from Dartmouth was elected as the first Chairman of the association.
Laws and byelaws were finalised at a meeting on 29th April 1896 at which it was agreed that racing shells should be 36 feet long. A Senior oarsman was defined as one who had won a 1st prize in a Senior Race, a Junior oarsman had not won a first prize in a senior event, but if he did he might continue to row junior for the rest of that season. No race to be less than 1 mile or more than 3 miles and all boats were to carry distinguishing flags. Thus many of the points that are regularly disputed at todays AGM’s were contentious from the outset, in the early days rules of status were changed frequently, as were starters orders, and umpires decisions were regularly queried.
In 1897, regattas were held at Exeter, Torquay, Paignton, Bideford and Totnes. The Championship points system was initiated with 2 points for a win and 1 for second. From these few regattas Torquay won the Senior and Dartmouth the Junior Championships, the crews were awarded medals in celebration. 1897 also saw the nomination of an umpire by each affiliated club; he was appointed for one regatta and received travelling expenses of 10/6d for his trouble. The following year six regattas were held, amassing 18 races, 77 entries and 299 competitors. Some of which were shown to be most enthusiastic about their sport as in September 1900 the Secretary had to write to Dart ARC regarding the conduct of their crew at Dartmouth Regatta for, ‘throwing water over another crew with whom they had fouled‘.
1904 saw the appointment of two umpires per regatta and clubs were assigned distinctive colourings for the Cox to wear: Exeter-mauve, Dartmouth-dark blue, Bideford ARC-green, Totnes-pink, Paignton-yellow, Bideford AAC-light blue, Torquay-white, St. Thomas- red. There was also dispute over regatta courses, 1905 saw the secretary in correspondence with Torquay Regatta Committee asking, ‘that the course be clear of the rocks in future!‘
The movement to change to 42′ boats was started in 1908 by the Bideford clubs; this requested was not allowed and resulted in the measurement of all boats at the start of each season. By 1913 both Bow and Cox were to wear distinctive colours.
There were no championships in 1914 and the following years AGM resolved that “The Association remain in abeyance until such time that normal conditions prevail” In 1919 no championships were held and Torquay were reminded that they had not paid their subscription from 1914.
In 1920 again saw regatta course difficulties with Dartmouth Regatta asked to provide a better course and a faster launch for umpires. Several clubs changed colours BARC-red, Dartmouth-white, Torquay-dark blue. It was also ruled that coxes were to be over the age of 18, (nowadays they must be at least 12 years old).
A Silver Shield was purchased in 1922 for the Senior Championships at a cost of £25 this shield is still presented today and remains a centrepiece of the WEARA armoury of trophies. The Chairman at the time, a Mr Reed of Torquay, donated a similar bronze shield for the Junior Championship. The following year a proposal to row in 42′ boats was again defeated and umpires complained of crews arriving late for the start at Bideford Regatta, starting guns were also to be used.
In 1927 a conference was organised by the National Amateur Rowing Association (NARA) with delegates from all Rowing Associations in the UK, ‘to arrive at a satisfactory definition of Amateur Status and to promote harmonious working among the Associations’. The Amateur Rowing Association (ARA) had been founded in 1882 and had a strict definition of amateurs, which in practice banned anyone who worked with his hands i.e. a manual worker. The NARA was founded in 1890 to give a broader admittance of amateurism, but still banning professional oarsmen, fishermen, watermen, boatmen etc. WEARA affiliated to NARA in 1927 and adopted its definition of amateurism.
In 1932 the Novice Championship (under 20 years old) was started and a shield was presented. This was also the year that Bideford AAC were disqualified from Totnes Regatta for the use of bad language. In 1933 Senior and Junior crews from Dartmouth combined to row for the Daily Herald Cup at the NARA Regatta, they won after only a few days training on the Tideway and the first time rowing together in an eight. In 1937 it was proposed to hold a Ladies open (non status) championship and it was agreed that all coxes must be male.
Dart Totnes Exeter RC Castle Dore Dartmouth Plymouth Bideford Blues Bideford Reds Paignton Torquay Wimbleball Greenbank Carrick Exmouth RC Mayflower River Teign
The October 1939 meeting was held by post; and all activity ceased for the duration of the 2nd World War, the first post war meeting was held in August 1945 whence it was agreed to drop the amateur status requirements for anyone who had served in the forces. However, details of club activities during the war years have emerged from the 1947 NARA Handbook, kindly supplied by Dennis Woodford (BTC Southampton).
BIDEFORD AAC – The clubhouse and gymnasium were requisitioned by the military on the outbreak of war; were later released to the club for a few weeks, and then again requisitioned as a N.A.A.F.I; subsequently were used as a full-time day nursery by the Ministry of Health, and were still under requisition at the end of 1946. The boats remained in the boathouse, which was also stacked with furniture from the clubhouse, and all escaped damage. Members in the Forces numbered 53, and in the Home Guard or Civil Defence 30.
Six members were reported killed, or missing believed killed.
Exeter ARC and Port Royal ARC amalgamated in 1946 to form Exeter Rowing Club. A Jubilee Dinner was held at The Royal Clarence Hotel, the press report opened: ‘The men who make the art of rowing their pastime – for it is an art, commanding the utmost of effort, physical fitness in its truest sense and self sacrifice…‘
In the late 1940’s Bideford ARC won the NARA Open Senior Fours, but were disqualified from the Championship Fours since the Cox was too light. It was also this time that saw all clubs asked to write to their local MP asking that rowing vests and shorts be provided free of clothing coupons. Regatta Committees were also requested to supply, ‘Loud talking equipment’ for use by the umpires.
The 1949 NARA Regatta was held at Bideford, where Bideford AAC won the non-status Senior Fours and Exeter won the Junior and Novice Fours. The Ladies Sections also voiced their wishes to form their own association, whereby they were invited to row under WEARA rules and help was offered in the foundation of a separate association. It was suggested that the women’s sections affiliate to the Women’s ARA. In 1953 the first WEARA annual dinner dance was held in Bideford Blues Clubhouse.
1955 saw the NARA Championships again held at Bideford, an eight was borrowed from what is now Exeter University and composite WEARA crews rowed in both Senior and Junior Eights. The Senior Crew winning the Desborough Cup and Bideford ARC winning the Daily Herald Trophy for Senior Fours. Dartmouth also won the non-status Junior Fours.
In 1956 after years of discussion NARA and ARA amalgamate, writing to suggest that WEARA drop the word “Association” from its title, at a meeting to discuss WEARA’s position it was pointed out that 1956 was the Diamond Jubilee Year and it was proposed and carried unanimously, ‘That this Association keep its separate identity and carry on as we have in the past’. The sixtieth anniversary was celebrated with a Dinner at The Countess Wear Hotel, Exeter.
The first South Coast Regatta was held at Poole in 1957, offering Senior, Junior/Senior and Junior Championship Fours plus Open Senior and Open Ladies Fours. Eight WEARA men’s crews and three ladies crews took part. In 1958 the regatta, which had now become known as The South Coast Championships, was held at Dartmouth, WEARA Clubs won Senior and Junior Senior Championship Fours and Junior and Novice Fours.
In 1963 the Women’s ARA was dissolved and the following year it was agreed that lady members of WEARA affiliated clubs should be affiliated to the Association. The Ladies Championships started in 1965, and was won by Torquay, who also won the South Coast Championships in 1966.
A request was made in 1968 for WEARA to be recognised by the ARA, but due to non-conformity between some of the WEARA rules this was turned down. The Secretary was asked to write to the ARA, ‘expressing the feeling that WEARA had once again been snubbed’. At the 1969 AGM, the Secretary requested that crews should wear their correct colours and not, ‘faded vests and fancy hats’. Dartmouth and Torquay celebrated their centenaries in 1969.
Bideford AAC celebrated their centenary in 1970 and presented the Regatta Points Shield to WEARA. The first President (by rotation) – Brian Morris of Grenville College was elected in 1971 and at the 1972 AGM the College presented the President’s Badge. The Exeter Regatta course was changed to its present ‘Sprint’ course of 420 metres and it was agreed that 42′ boats should be used for Senior races from 1974 onwards. WEARA appointed an official delegate to the ARA becoming Area 24.
At the 1975 AGM C D Myrone was appointed Chairman and Penny Chuter held the first Bronze Coaching course with 21 participants. The Executive Committee started in 1975 and the Finance and Coaching Sub-Committees were set up in 1976. Status rules changed to Senior A, Senior B etc. to come into line with the ARA.
The 1980 AGM approved the 50p surcharge on all entry fees except sculling events, and there was a modification to the championship point scoring system in that points awarded became – 3 for a win, 2 for second and 1 for third. Bideford ARC and the ARA celebrated their centenaries in 1982.
In 1984, 17 notices of Motion were debated at the AGM and all were defeated, Colin Myrone was elected President and Chairman of the association and the first delegates were appointed to ARA sub-committees, forging closer links with the ARA. In 1985 the Umpires report commented that , ‘there had been an unusually high number of disqualifications and protests last year and the standard of steering was generally poor and there was a woeful lack of knowledge of the rules’. This was also the year that Wimbleball Reservoir was rejected by the South Coast Championship Committee as there were, ‘insufficient social facilities’; it was queried whether this was a ‘Social’ regatta or a ‘Rowing’ one!
1989 saw the start of the Instructors Award for 15 participants. The Regatta Levy was increased to £1.00 and M Baker presented the Novice Shield from Exeter. The Ladies Senior B Championships started in 1990 for a trophy presented by Torpoint R C. That year WEARA won the Bass Charrington Shield as overall regatta winners for the first time in history at the South Coast Championships held at Plymouth.
The first WEARA Handbook, giving details of member Clubs, officers, umpires, regatta dates etc. was published in 1991 and has proved to be a most useful publication. The articles and bye laws of the association were revised in 1992 were printed in the handbook which was produced annually and distributed to virtually every member, giving no excuse for lack of knowledge of the rules of racing. Sadly, the handbook is no longer produced, with the advent of the computer age, details are now published on the Associations website and can be easily updated. A major sponsorship deal was secured in 1993 with the Brend Hotel Group enabling the launch of the WEARA School of Rowing Excellence, backed by further sponsorship from the Sportsmatch organisation.
Thanks must go to Alastair Barr from Castle Dore Rowing Club for spending much time researching the history of the West of England Amateur Rowing Association and for providing this account for publication on the web site.