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Towns built Gladstone skiff, owned by Sydney Heritage Fleet and on display at Wharf 7, Pyrmont NSW

Gladstone skiff

The Gladstone Skiff is a wooden single scull, built as an open skiff and around 6 metres long. The class has been built and rowed in eastern Australian regions from around the mid-1880s. Competition probably ceased in the 1950s or 60s, but the craft remained in use as a training boat and has also found a new role with recreational rowing for fitness
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The origins of the Gladstone have been researched extensively by Alan and David Perret and the following information is based on their published booklet from 2015. To that point it was understood the first Gladstone appeared in 1885, but there remains doubt to the exact date, builder and reference for the name.

In an article from 'The Australian Oarsman' of October 1941 entitled 'The Origins of The Gladstone Skiff” Mr. E. Shepard of Willoughby, 'an old follower of the sport of rowing', indicates that “The first Gladstone Skiff was designed and built by Mr. Tom Stratton of Stockton, Newcastle and was named the Gladstone Skiff in honour of W.E. Gladstone, British Prime Minister at that time".

Records show Tom Stratton was actively involved in rowing in the region in the early 1880s but there is no corroborating evidence recording him as a boat builder.
Mr Shepard who wrote the article is understood to be the son of a Maitland boat builder Edward Shephard who is listed building lightweight waterman skiffs with sliding seats. An article in The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser of April 2nd 1878 reports “It was built on racing lines........... A peculiarity of the present boat is that it is provided with sliding seats.......... This is the first time the sliding seat has been fitted on the Hunter River".

This was seven years before the supposed birth date of the Gladstone. Therefore by 1885 sliding seats were no longer new in this type of craft.

In 1870 the town of Darkwater on the Macleay River (not far north of Newcastle and Maitland) was renamed Gladstone, after Anne Lowrey-Corry, nee Gladstone, wife of the Governor of NSW, the Earl of Belmore, daughter of Captain John Nelson Gladstone R.N. and niece of William Ewart Gladstone the British PM. Rowing regattas were held at there from as early as 1858.

The Sydney Morning Herald 11 January 1858 notes “there being not less than seven boat builders on the river, each of whom prides himself on his particular build........ pulling boats from the Thames Skiff to the ship's barge.......... And results of a race “For boats not confined to lengths, pulling a pair of oars, without steersmen..... The race excited interest in consequence of two of the boats having been built by two of the principal shipbuilders on the river -one of them, the Lady Bird, being upon a principle superior to any previously introduced in the colony.”

Lady Bird was built by August Oakes.

With no additional supporting evidence for Stratton as the original builder or a builder of boats, unless he built one as a single vessel for himself, the reports open up the possibility of one of the other builders taking it upon themselves to create the name and class, and even referring this back to the town where the races took place, rather directly to the British Prime Minister. It must also be noted that at Eton, Gladstone was capable of handling a small wherry or skiff, so he had rowing connections that may have been recognised as well..

The exact origins remain unresolved but do point to a likely connection to the Newcastle and Maitland region in the 1880s and a strong link to the Prime Minister Gladstone.

An early reference to the class was in an unfortunate accident on August 15th 1888 when the captain of the British Lions Rugby Football team touring of Australia Robert Seddon drowned whilst rowing a Gladstone Skiff on the Hunter River near Maitland. He capsized and it is believed his feet became entangled in the foot straps. (He was unfamiliar with this type of craft).

In 1893 the Newcastle Morning Herald ran an article on Gladstone races between The Newcastle Mercantile Rowing Club and The Newcastle Rowing club, each with 3 Gladstone skiffs and in 1895 the same paper has a Gladstone for sale. By 1900 it is known that Bill Fisher was producing Gladstone skiffs at his Drummoyne shed, before he later moved to Putney. In 1905 the class raced at the Balmain Regatta, and in 1912 Sydney Rowing Club purchased two Gladstone skiffs. By 1917 there nine of the class in their fleet.

The class was clearly well established by this point, and the evidence from the nearly 20 remaining craft identified so far shows they were built by a number of builders over a long period, and the builders are exclusively along the east coast of Australia from Geelong to Brisbane. George Towns, A & H Green, Tantner, Sargent & Burton are the well-known names who have built most of these surviving Gladstone skiffs, but there is one built by Max Fisher in Sydney and another by Ernie Hiland in Ballina. Other records include Alan Sykes, Botterill and Fraser, Howard Croker, Allen Turner and the Carmody brothers as Gladstone skiff builders. The first two are from Victoria while the last three are from NSW and all have connections back to George Towns.

Almost all the Gladstone skiffs that have been currently documented fit the basic dimensions of around 20 feet long and 28 inches wide, (6 metres x 0.72m). No published rules have been located, but it is thought the maximum allowed was 22 feet long (6.7m) based on one early report. Another report from 1952 declares that the minimum weight was 75lbs, (34kgs) noting a rower being disqualified because his craft was over 8lbs under this limit.

Early craft were clinker built with four 5/16th inch thick strakes per side. Tantner and Sargent & Burton moved ahead in the 1960s with cold-moulded plywood producing a lighter hull sharing racing scull methods of construction, and Towns made at least one in this method too. At this point the minimum weight may have been abandoned as a restriction.

A number of characteristics are shared. They have riggers, a sliding seat and stretcher and all seem to have an almost vertical top strake, even the moulded ply hulls, but other details reflect each builder’s preferences and can become hallmarks for identification. All have a rounded bow with different amounts of overhang, at the transom some are double-ended but a few have a small wineglass transom fitted.

There is no doubt these craft were fine trainers as well as good racing craft able to handle open water conditions better than a pure racing scull. Current owners find this aspect one of the principle merits of the skiffs, but their elegant proportions and construction will also ensure they continue to be valued and rowed well into the future.