In 1886, the Balmain Working Men’s Rowing Club (later renamed the Enterprise Rowing Club – ERC) established itself just a few hundred metres from the Balmain Rowing Club. In these early days a working man “one who toiled with his coat off” was barred from rowing against someone “who worked with his coat on” in a clerical profession. The working men’s club challenged these class rules and in 1894 gained affiliation with the NSW Rowing Association which meant working men could compete equally against all rowing clubs.1
At this time on the Wallamba River, a schoolboy named Albert George Chapman was winning races at the Cape Hawke Regattas. He was only 10 when he won the Under 14 Single Sculls.2 Living on Chapman’s Island near Tuncurry, Albert rowed to Darawank School each day and later when he was working he rowed a 20km roundtrip to the Failford Sawmill six days a week. His work at the mill allowed him to buy the island and dairy farm from his father.
Albert’s reputation grew as he won sculls in Sydney, rowing in the Eights for Abbotsford.3 He joined the ERC and in 1912 the club had one of its most memorable wins when the Maiden Eights4 team fiercely fought off rivals to claim victory. Chapman was a member of this team.5
This win however was not Albert’s finest rowing hour. On 20 April 1927 when the Wallamba was hit by devastating floods, Albert realising the imminent danger, rowed his boat against the surging torrent to rescue his neighbours. From one house he rescued 10 people who were already on table tops and took them back to his house. He rowed tirelessly throughout the night neglecting his own needs (losing 80 of his 85 dairy herd). Albert and his father-in-law, Augustus Wilkes, then rowed to Tuncurry to dig a channel to release the flood water before the sheer force of the river finished the job. This working man rower was hailed a hero.6
Author: Janine Roberts with thanks to the Chapman family for information and photos.
1 Balmain Working Men’s Rowing Club, Enterprise Rowing Club 1886-1917, https://cdn.revolutionise.com.au/cups/rowingnsw/files/2kqw7jkqvglazfzk.pdf
2 Sydney Morning Herald, 31 December 1904, 14
3 “The Rowing Chapmans” written story from Great Lakes Museum.
4 Rowing levels: Novice, Maiden, Junior, Senior. Once a rower has won three races at novice level they move to the next level.
5 Sunday Times, 1 December 1912, 4.
6 Manning River Times and Advocate for the Northern Coast Districts of NSW, 23 April 1927, 10.