Getting to Know the Brockville Rowing Club
Club Profile/ Aug 20

Getting to Know the Brockville Rowing Club

To honour the history, dedication and current initiatives of each rowing community, Row Ontario will be producing a series of profiles on member clubs across Ontario. Today we get to know more about the Brockville Rowing Club!

Brockville Rowing Club
Established: 1894
Location: St. Lawrence River – Brockville, Ont

‘A small-town club known for punching above its weight’ is the perfect way to describe the Brockville Rowing Club.

Throughout its history, the BRC has proven that even small clubs from small towns can still compete and be successful at the elite levels of the sport. One of the oldest clubs in Canada, the BRC has had a storied history since being founded in 1894. However, the history of rowing in the Brockville area dates back almost 50 years before the BRC came into existence, with the earliest news reports of crews from the Brockville area coming in the 1840’s. The early rowers were likely former residents of the United Kingdom who had migrated to Canada and brought their knowledge and experience in rowing with them to their new country.

Brockville rowers even earned some prestige during this era, as in 1860 a group of rowers from Brockville (George A. Dana, Robert Bowie, George Reid, stroke Elias Gay, and coxswain Henry Beach) who incidentally called themselves the Brockville Rowing Club, were sent to Montreal to compete at an event held in honour of the Prince of Wales visit to Canada. They won their race against crews from the United States and Canada and were subsequently awarded the Tiffin Cup, which the club still has to this day and is still in use for boat christenings. By the 1870s, Brockville’s waterfront was hosting single scull races and the community’s passion for rowing attracted the 1878 Dominion Day Regatta, in which the great Ned Hanlan competed against many of the finest scullers in North America.

The club was officially founded in 1894 with Major James Morrow Walsh of the North-West Mounted Police installed as the first President. Major Walsh, as well as members of several prominent families in the Brockville area, helped found the club and usher it through its early years. Progress on the club was made quickly. Thanks in large part to the funds raised by the Brockville Amateur Athletic Association, a clubhouse dedicated to aquatic sports was completed in July of 1895 at the foot of Ferry Street. The club also purchased its first four-oared shell in 1897 and hosted the Canadian Association of Amateur Oarsmen championships in 1896, 1897, 1899 and 1902.

The BRC continued its steady growth throughout the early part of the 1900’s, but like many sporting clubs during that era had their progress stalled by the first World War. By the end of the war, 80 members of the club had served, with 13 losing their lives fighting for their country. Even though membership was down during the war years, the club continued to operate and in 1920, Brockville joined the Ottawa Rowing Club and the Lachine Rowing Club to form the Eastern Rowing Association. The three clubs competed against each other in an annual regatta, which Brockville hosted for the first time in 1922.

More turbulent times were ahead for the club though, as the beginning of the 1930’s brought on the Great Depression and the end of the 1930’s saw members of the club sent to fight in World War II. With declining membership in the early 1930’s the club was in trouble financially and faced foreclosure until several prominent families in the Brockville area stepped in to keep the club afloat.

“Four prominent families founded an association during the depression to keep the club going,” said Pat Marshall, Brockville’s unofficial club historian. “The Comstock, Fulford, Lewis and Maclaren families all contributed money and kept the club from going under. They allowed the club to pay off its mortgage and purchase the property which saved it from disappearing. These families were big supporters of rowing and their names are found throughout the history of our club.”

Despite the financial uncertainty, the club forged ahead and appointed Abbie Buett as head coach in 1933. Under his tutelage, Brockville crews began to distinguish themselves at events, winning its first eight at the 1933 Royal Canadian Henley Regatta and setting a record in the junior 145-pound class the same year. Buett’s tenure as head coach was short lived however, as the club went through a number of head coaches in the late 1930’s. They also dealt with a fire that caused significant damage to the clubhouse in 1937 and membership numbers plummeted again at the outset of World War II. At the close of the war in 1945, 150 members of the BRC had served and another 13 members had lost their lives. The club honoured the 26 members who lost their lives serving their country with commemorative plaques, which still hang in the clubhouse today.

Following the war, the BRC began to experience some stability within the club as well as success on the water. Two-time Olympian Cedric Liddell was hired as head coach and led the club to two wins at the 1947 Royal Canadian Henley Regatta, the most of any Canadian club. In 1953, the club fundraised in order to construct a new shell house and began work on significant repairs to the club house. The following year, Ralph Gifford was brought in as head coach and introduced new training methods which would see the club reach unprecedented success.

“When Ralph Gifford took over as head coach that really started the club on a quest for international rowing success and real prominence amongst the Canadian rowing community,” said Marshall. “He coached from 1954 – 62 and in 1955 we won five gold medals at the Canadian Henley Regatta which was a tremendous accomplishment and has never been repeated since.”

Following that outstanding performance, the BRC won three more gold medals at the Canadian Henley in 1956. That year, the club had a nearly unbeatable men’s eight who were sent to England to compete at the Royal Henley Regatta. They were the first crew from Brockville to compete at an international level and although they were not victorious, they returned to a hero’s welcome and a community inspired by their success.

To me when I think about the club a couple of words come to mind. Tradition and family.

Katherine Rowan, Current President

Gifford would unfortunately pass away in 1962 leaving the club without a head coach and with some big shoes to fill given the success Gifford’s crews had experienced. Fortunately for the club, they had another legendary coach waiting in the wings as Doug Marshall would step in to become head coach in 1963. Under Marshall’s guidance, the club continued to experience success on the national and international stage and Brockville also became leaders in the Ontario rowing community. Marshall and other prominent members of the club including Wes Kuran and Ben TeKamp were instrumental in establishing the Ontario Rowing Association (later changed to Row Ontario) in 1970. Along with contemporaries Jack Nicholson (Ridley College) and Forbes Monarch (Argonauts Rowing Club), Marshall was also one of the first coaches in Ontario to promote coach education and host coaching seminars across the province to help grow rowing coaching in Ontario.

Brockville would also host the first two Ontario Rowing Championships to ever be held outside of St. Catharines in the 1970’s, as the clubs from across the province travelled to the ‘City of the 1000 Islands’ in 1972 and 1974.

“We had two amazing regattas in ‘72 and ’74,” said Pat Marshall, who in addition to her role as unofficial club historian was married to head coach Doug Marshall. “We had a huge number of volunteers help with the planning and to set up the course and they were able to run successfully. We had to request that the steamships go extremely slowly when they came by the course to avoid rough waters. As usual we had a wind problem on one day but had mostly calm waters and they were great events.”

The club has hosted a number of other regattas over the years, including a head race in the Fall, an annual Mother’s Day regatta, and a popular event in the Spring called the Maclaren Fours. In this unique regatta, names were drawn randomly out of hat to place club members in fours. Competition was always fierce as the winners would receive coveted pewter beer mugs donated by the Maclaren family.

The 1970’s and 1980’s were a great time for members of the BRC as they continued to experience success on the international stage. Coach Marshall led the National Team at three World Championships (1975, 1978, 1979) during this time. The Nottingham, England World Championships in 1975 saw a four from Brockville (Bill Earle, Jim Earle, Bill Cody and John Armitage) compete at the Worlds, while the Earle brothers also competed at the 1979 World Championships in Bled, Yugoslavia. Another Marshall, Doug’s son Chris, also competed at the 1978 World Championships in Lake Karapiro as a coxswain.

The 1970’s also ushered in women’s rowing to the Brockville Rowing Club as well as the rest of the Canadian rowing community. Alma Rowan was appointed the first female President of the BRC in 1977 and may have been the first female President of a rowing club in Canada. Female rowers from Brockville were some of the early pioneers on the women’s side of the sport. Three BRC members – Betty Craig, Dolores Young and Jane Pal – earned a spot on the 1976 Olympic Team, the first Olympics to feature women’s rowing. Competing just a two-hour drive away from their home club in Montreal, the trio did Brockville proud as Craig finished in fifth place in the women’s coxless pair and Young placed seventh in the coxed four. A missed opportunity due the 1980 Moscow Olympic boycott didn’t slow them down, as Craig and Young both qualified again for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Craig brought home some hardware to Brockville this time around, claiming the silver medal with partner Patricia Smith in the coxless pair.

In addition to the success the club’s members were finding at the highest levels of the sport, the BRC was also finding success at the high school, provincial and national levels during this time. They won their second ever efficiency award at the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta in 1981 and in 1985 had its biggest medal haul in club history at the Ontario Rowing Championships, bringing home eight gold medals. Brockville’s high school rowers had their biggest year in 1982 winning three national titles and both the men’s and women’s programs continued to produce great results throughout the decade.

Off the water, Brockville was also productive during this era as a new clubhouse was built in 1978. The 81-year old original club house was demolished to make room for the new building, which greatly improved the infrastructure of the club. Funding for the new facility came from a Wintario grant, community fundraising and again through the generosity of the Comstock, Fulford, Maclaren and Lewis families who donated towards the project.

The club celebrated in 100th anniversary in 1994 and had a big celebration which brought back many alumni to the club. A book titled ‘The Brockville Rowing Club: 100 Years of Rowing’ was also published by the late Donald Swayne, a former BRC board member, who wrote ‘the story of the club is not just about its longevity, but about the people and the community that supports it.’ Indeed, the Brockville community has been very supportive of the club over the years and has contributed to the success of many of the club’s unique fundraising activities.

Among the more creative ways the club raised money included selling Christmas trees for many years, holding fishing tournaments, running bingo nights, tupperware parties, bake sales, dragon boat races and playing snolf (sometimes referred to as snow golf) on the frozen St. Lawrence River in the Winter months. The most inventive fundraising method though, was placing an old car on the frozen ice outside the club and running a lottery where Brockville residents could place bets on which day the car would break through the ice.

In its first 100 years, the BRC established a tradition of winning, earning 71 Royal Canadian Henley championships, 77 Ontario crowns, 38 national titles, and 35 CSSRA championships. In the last 26 years, the club has continued to produce high level athletes, including current National Team member Conlin McCabe who won a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics in the men’s eight. Today the club continues to focus on developing high level athletes and introducing the sport to rowers of all ages.

“We normally have learn to row camps for youths in the Summer, which have been very successful over the many years we’ve run them,” said Katherine Rowan, current President of the Brockville Rowing Club. “Our high school rowing programs are mostly centered around Brockville Collegiate, although we’ve had other high school crews row with us over the years, but the majority of our athletes have come from BCI. We’ve been really successful with the high school age group and that’s been our main focus, but we’ve also run adult recreational programs and over the years many university students have returned to the club after they’ve graduated to continue rowing.”

Doug Marshall remained head coach of the BRC for 42 years. After he retired from coaching, Chris Marshall took over the head coaching reigns from his father and remains the club’s head coach to this day. Yet another Marshall and BRC product, Phil Marshall, followed in his father’s footsteps as a high level coach and is currently the Senior Women’s National Team assistant coach after spending a number of years as head coach with Queen’s University.

The Marshall and Rowan families have a long history with the BRC and represent how rowing has been passed down in the Brockville area from generation to generation. Rowan’s grandfather Henry R. Phillips Sr. started rowing at Brockville in the 1920’s and became President in 1930. Phillips daughter Alma became President in 1977 and Alma’s daughter Katherine began on the board of directors in 1995 and is now President. Her daughter also rowed at the club through high school as a coxswain. The Marshall family’s involvement with the BRC dates back to 1929 when George Power, Pat Marshall’s father, joined as a member. He also coached and was rowing captain from 1946-48.

Many other members of the Marshall and Rowan families have been members of the club over the years and these types of family connections has helped foster a strong community culture within the club. The BRC had another big celebration last year to commemorate its 125th anniversary, which again brought back many alumni to honour the club’s history. The club also won the Chamber of Commerce Presidents Award and the Community Recognition Award, which is only given out on exceptional occasions by the City of Brockville, last year.

“To me when I think about the club a couple of words come to mind, tradition and family,” said Rowan. “A tradition of excellence of over 125 years and the generations who have competed, coached and supported the BRC over those same years is something of which we can be extremely proud.”

Thank you to Pat Marshall, Katherine Rowan and Chris Marshall for their generous contributions and help in completing this profile. Photos used are property of the Brockville Rowing Club.