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The Edwards buildings on the south side of the Yarra River, c1870s

Jas Edwards & Sons

The racing shell, scull and skiff builders James Edwards and Sons were located on the Yarra River in Victoria from the late 1850s. The firm was amongst the earliest boatbuilders in the region and along with the Blunt family maintained their business with successive generations.

RWE Wilmot wrote about the Edwards story in the Argus in 1928, with a revised version in the Australasian in 1938. The following background is largely derived from that source.

James Edwards, the patriarch and founder, was born in England and as a youth was apprenticed to the English boat builder Dean. He later became a Thames waterman and developed Into a successful oarsman with the ambition to win the famous Doggett's Coat and Badge race This was the blue ribbon event on of the Thames River competed for annually by the best of the watermen. James was unlucky, in the year he was eligible to compete there were too many entrants and in the ballot for places he was not chosen and had to be a spectator.

James Edwards came to Melbourne Australia in the early 1850s and in 1857 built a boatshed on the Yarra, just upriver from the Princes Bridge. Here he established his boat-building business which became well known in Australia, and was still in operation up until World War II. Rowing craft of all types were built here but it was his racing craft that are best known and recorded. Rowing was a very big sport throughout coastal and inland waterways and Edwards built craft for many clubs and associations in Victoria and nearby. It is understood one of these, a clinker eight was the boat rowed by the South Australian crew called the “Murray River Cods” in the 1924 Paris Olympics.

The Edwards boat sheds and associated buildings became a landmark on the river, and were home to Edwards, his wife and their seven sons and two daughters. The first location on the northern side is understood to have been just to the east of what is now Federation Square and where Birralong Mar the Aboriginal community and cultural reserve has been located. In the 1920s they moved to the southern side of the Yarra beside the Princes Bridge.

Three of the sons, Sydney (the eldest), Robert Dean (named after the English boatbuilders to whom James Edwards was apprenticed) and Fred became professional sculling champions of Victoria. Sydney won the championship from Greenland (also a Victorian boat builder), Ireland and Sullivan from New South Wales, while Robert defeated Messenger, the famous Sydney sculler and descendant of another English rowing shell and scull builder.

Frank, who also had many sculling successes, was born on October 33, 1869 the same day that the first eight oared racing boat was launched in Victoria. It was clinker-built by James Edwards to his own design.

Sydney and some of the other brothers were often coxswains as well, with many success to their credit. Sydney steered Scotch College crews to the Head of the River in 187 and 1873, and the Victorian four which won the Australian championship in Hobart in 1873. He was also respected as a coach, working with Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania, and West Australian crews.

Robert was the second brother. When the world champion Canadian sculler Edward Hanlan came to Australia in the late 1880s, he chose Bob Edwards to row with him in an event on Albert Park Lake, where Hanlan was the chief attraction. Bob Edwards caused a sensation by walking on the water in specially made boots.

As coxswains Arthur, steered Melbourne Grammar School crews for four years, and was in the winning crew in the Head of the River race in 1877, while his brother, Frank attended Scotch College and steered his first race when he was 8 years old. As he got older his increasing weight made It impossible for him to continue, however he was also a good sculler and footballer, playing In the Melbourne team or four years.

Fred steered Scotch College to victory in the Sumner Cup and was coxswain for Victoria in the last Intercolonial race in fours and the first three eight’s crews. He also rowed in the Grand Challenge behind W. W. Senior in 1884, and R, D Booth In 1888. His younger brother Bertie was the coxswain on both occasions.

Charlie, who was educated at Halleybury, was also a well-known coxswain and sculler.

Wilmot noted that for many years “the seven brothers could be found on the top of the bank along the Henley staging at the Head of the River boat race, and there they held court with old rowing men, companions and opponents. Almost every Monday morning throughout the year they met in Collins Street to conduct family business, and they were as regular as the Town Hall clock.”

The three eldest brothers carried on the boat -building business established by their father under the firm name of James Edwards and Sons. Until the new cut was made near the Botanic Gardens and the Henley course was established, the recognised upper Yarra River course was from the Botanic Gardens to Edwards’s boat house downstream, or vice versa upstream.