Wherever oarsmen gathered, or were employed, rivalry ensued and this was clearly the case in Maitland.
In September 1844 the first regatta was held after a hastily arranged committee set the course, appointed umpires and referees, set the entry fee and raised the prizes.
Races occurred before the first regatta but they were "challenges" between two contestants involving a wager.
These continued throughout the century.
Rowing then was completely different to modern sculling. Today's sculls emerged in the mid-nineteenth century and are longer, narrower, dependent on outrigger rollicks to hold the oars and, because of their instability, only suited to sport.
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Back then where working boats were used, rowing was a sideline to a serious occupation undertaken only by the strong and skilled. T
he boats resembled contemporary surf boats, being river/harbour boats, usually clinkered, with a deep draught, stable, heavy and roomy to carry goods and people. They operated as ferries across the Hunter, Williams and Paterson Rivers and between Morpeth and Central Maitland and were employed in rescue work during floods and for recovering drowned bodies.
Many of the best boats were built in Maitland and surrounding districts. In the 1845 Anniversary Sports, for example, the Mercury reported:
The Cornstalk and Currency Lass have both been built in Maitland within the last three weeks, .... In racing oars the supply in Maitland is miserably deficient, ... a supply of good sound ash oars, from fourteen to seventeen feet long would be a profitable speculation, and be quickly disposed of... In pullers we are much better off; we cannot say how they would stand a cross sea and a longer pull ....
These two boats were built and owned by Mr Bussell, a Horseshoe Bend cabinetmaker and undertaker. His sons William, James and John provided the core of the rowing crews. They won many accolades for their daring rescues of flood victims using these boats.
It would appear, however, that some modifications to the solid nature of the working boats were introduced given the comments on the need for more "racing oars" and a perceived lack of seaworthiness in more trying conditions.
Rowing in Maitland was always a spectator sport. The narrowness of the river limited participants to only three or four boats in any race.
Huge crowds would picnic on the shore or in their own boats - young gentlemen had the opportunity to impress the young ladies with their skills as a rower or poles-man. Betting was fast and furious and added volubly to the cheering from the sidelines.
Races of four, two and single rower boats were held on varying courses essentially between the junction of Wallis Creek and the Hunter River, then just east of today's Smyth Field, to "The Falls", just upstream of Belmore Bridge. They normally started and ended opposite Mr King's ferry site at the end of Plaistowe Street, Horseshoe Bend.
Today most of this course is dry land. Some races were held on the still water of Howes Lagoon.
Numerous Maitland rowing clubs were formed and fell during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries - ironically sharing the same fate as the river.