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The Pearce scull at the ANMM in 2009

Bobby Pearce

Australian/Canadian, 1905 -1976

Henry Robert 'Bobby' Pearce, amateur and professional sculler, was born in Sydney in 1905 and grew up in Double Bay. He entered his first race, a handicap for under 16s while only aged six, and finished second. Pearce won his first race at the age of 14 and his first major title at 21. He went on to win the first of three successive sculling titles at the age of 22.

His father Henry 'Footy' Pearce was allegedly a former Australian sculling champion and was also Bobby's first coach. His nickname came from his oversized feet, a family trait. The Pearce family were a strong sporting family involved with rowing, Rugby League and swimming.

Pearce's first occupation was a carpenter, and then he worked in the fish industry with his father. He joined the army in 1923 but left in 1926 to take up rowing full-time. During his period in the army he won the army’s heavy weight boxing championship.

Despite accusations of professionalism, Pearce competed in the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, Holland, and won the single sculls event in a world record time of 7:11:0. His time allegedly would have been faster if he had not slowed down for a brood of ducklings which blocked his lane. Pearce was 188cm tall and weighed 92 kgs which made him a formidable opponent. He was also highly regarded for his technique and style.

Pearce was the first Australian to win a gold medal in the single sculls. Later in 1928 he entered the prestigious Henley Diamond Sculls but was ruled ineligible because he was a carpenter by trade. The Henley race rules deemed anyone ineligible to compete who was 'by trade or employment for wages a mechanic, artisan or labourer'. He went on to win the single sculls at the British Empire Games in 1930 held in Hamilton Ontario.

During the Depression, Pearce had difficulty finding employment despite his sporting reputation. After the Empire Games he worked picking up scraps of paper at the Sydney Show Ground to earn enough money to eat. Eventually he was offered a job in Canada by the Scottish whisky tycoon Lord Dewar who appointed Pearce as his Canadian sales representative. In 1931 with his new job and status as 'distinguished gentleman' Pearce was permitted to compete at Henley where he won the Diamond Sculls.

Despite his Canadian residency, Pearce competed for Australia at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932. Again he won the gold medal in the single sculls event. He then turned professional and went on the win the world title in 1933. At this time professional rowing was in decline and Pearce relinquished his title after World War II having only defended it twice. After retiring from professional competition he joined the Canadian Navy and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

Pearce married Rita Hendron in 1930 and they had two children. She died in 1938. He then married his wife's best friend and had another son. In 1972 Pearce took out Canadian citizenship. He was invited to be the rowing commentator at the 1976 Montreal Olympics in Canada but died shortly before the Games aged 70. In 1983 Pearce was nominated as one of Australia's ten greatest male Olympians.

Amongst the many accolades given to Pearce in Canada and Australia, where he is featured in sporting halls of fame in both countries, there is the ‘Bobby Pearce Award: Junior Female Sculler of the Year’, given by Rowing Canada Aviron. Pearce was considered the finest sculler in his day.

Four generations of the Pearce family have been successful Australian rowers, starting with his grandfather Harry Snr, followed by Bobby’s father Harry II, then Bobby and his cousin Cecil. Cecil’s son Gary continued the tradition; he was in the Australian eight at the Munich Olympics in 1972 that won a silver medal. Other family members were champion swimmers and rugby league players.