Balmain Rowing Club is the oldest operating boatshed in Australia. And if it wasn’t for a group of dedicated members and strong community partnerships, this heritage building may have been lost.
Balmain is rich with institutions, but few are as longstanding as Balmain Rowing Club. Nestled alongside Elkington Park, the club was founded in 1882 after a meeting of like-minded rowers at Dick’s Hotel. The club’s origins can be linked to the rapid development of rowing as a sport in Australia in the late 1800s when rowing clubs began to spring up along waterways across Sydney. As a suburb with a strong maritime heritage, Balmain became a natural hub for rowing enthusiasts.
The club immediately adopted Balmain’s iconic black and yellow club colours, which are still used today. Proudly wearing these colours, it wasn’t long before the club produced Olympic, national and local rowing champions - including famous locals such as poet Banjo Patterson.
For many years the pre-Federation boatshed on White Street was a hive of activity and the iconic black and yellow stripes could be spotted across the water on regatta days and early morning training sessions. However, time and rising sea levels took their toll on century-old timbers and the shed was in desperate need of repair. The restoration project is a great example of a community coming together. It was funded by club members alongside grants from Inner West Council and both State and Federal Governments.
The restoration was made more challenging when recent inflation led to a sharp increase in cost. Fortunately, the club’s generous suppliers stood by them and kept cost increases to a minimum. Club President Joe Grech says, “If it wasn’t for our suppliers, many of whom are small businesses based in Balmain and Rozelle, I’m not sure how these works would be completed. Increasing costs are tough for any community club and particularly so when the project is as large as this one.” The entire structure over water had to be re-stumped on new piers in very deep silt. In a challenging operation, the original shed structure was lifted to deal with sea level rises.
The club is about to reopen and looks forward to welcoming both old and new members back to the shed. Joe says, “Rowing sometimes has a bit of a reputation as an inaccessible sport, but at Balmain we have welcomed rowers from all walks of life for over a century. Newbies and veterans of all ages and abilities feel right at home here.”
In 2019, Balmain Rowing Club was recognised as Community Club of the Year by Sports NSW. The club has always emphasised participation over winning and has junior and adult squads as well as competitive and social groups. They also run a popular Learn-to-Row program for people who want to learn a fun new skill.
The new accessible boatshed is open to the non-rowing community too. Its upper level features a beautiful open space which is available for hire. Complete with sweeping views across Cockatoo Island and a large balcony, it is up there with some of the finest wedding venues in Sydney. The whitewashed interior and wooden floors reflect the sheds heritage and adds to the atmosphere. If you’ve ever thought of taking up rowing again, or wanted to try something new, then maybe now is the time. Long-standing member Maria O’Connor says, “I can’t think of a better way to start your morning than gliding through the waters of Iron Cove with friends while the sun rises over Balmain.”