Judy Vergison, Bulletin 6/2021  August 2021

The Glebe Rowing Club’s new artwork (photo: Phil Vergison)

Glebe Rowing Club (GRC) is a key part of Glebe’s foreshore history, being founded in 1879. GRC is the third oldest rowing club to be in continuous operation on Sydney Harbour.

The Club has been through some tough times, being burnt down twice and rebuilt twice, plus surviving a major financial crisis in the mid-1990s due to mismanagement. It says something of the Club’s resilience that after each challenge, it has been risen like a phoenix to again be a successful club, where today it has many Australian champion rowers, from juniors to masters.

It has built a strong family of rowers, who even after retiring from the sport ‘come back to give back’ to a Club to which they have a strong sense of loyalty. The GRC Old Boys has around 200 members who range in age from their 80s to ones of much younger years, with a smaller core group of active members.

The term ‘Old Boys’ is a reflection of each generation of Glebe rowers since 1879. Today it is more of a collective term as the Club comprises men and women who have rowed for Glebe and have GRC at their heart. Max Solling, well known to the Society, is a member and, as many will recall, he invested a huge effort in getting the new GRC building erected in 2001.

The GRC Old Boys gather twice a year to keep in touch and have been raising funds to do something special to celebrate the generations of members who rowed for GRC.

The Rowers artwork by night (photo: Phil Vergison)

Two weeks ago my husband and I, on an evening COVID walk along the foreshore were stopped in our tracks passing by the entrance to GRC. For the first time, we noticed an impressive artwork of a rower shining in the evening light. I was intrigued to find out more.

When I spoke to Mark Tietjen, President of Glebe Rowers, he was very clear that all credit was due to the GRC Old Boys and suggested I contact their President, Ken Main, and the artwork creative designer and footing retaining wall installer, Frank Dempsey. Both conversations were very uplifting, and I was sure others would also be interested to know the backstory on this new foreshore artwork installed on 9 July 2021. The final stage of the project will see interpretative signs on the history of the GRC.

First, I spoke with Ken Main, who came to rowing later in life but who valued the colleagueship it provided.

Ken described himself as a ‘Westie’ being born in Punchbowl and he loved all sports – especially anything to do with the water. His involvement with GRC was pretty much by chance. His brother rowed and talked him into having go by encouraging Ken to come to an Old Boys event at the Club where he was fortunate to have Keith Cummins (one of the Old Boys) get him into a four and saw a natural strength in the way he rowed.

Ken took up the sport in his early 20s, at a time when he thought he was pretty fit – but that was until he tried his hand at rowing! He was part of a very successful eight racing for 5-6 years. He recounted that one of the sayings in rowing circles at the time was that ‘If you were up against Glebe, you would know you were in a race’.

What he loved about GRC was how egalitarian it was – people came from all walks of life, and everyone was respected for who they were; he made life-long friends. There were no politics; you just ‘put it in on the water’. He used to travel from Punchbowl to Glebe for training by public transport, eventually buying a VW to make it easier. Life changed and he married and moved to Lugano to raise his family and ended his racing period.

Ken’s role in the initiative was as a project manager of sorts, encouraging the project along to reach completion. He was also involved in the leg work at the end to get the footings in place. He shared the real team effort with Frank, his family and their business network to get it installed. Frank said he genuinely believed that because of the busy lives we all live, this project would never have been completed without Ken Main pushing it to completion.

Frank Dempsey was born and bred in the Glebe Estate in Gottenham St. His story is one of many long-term Glebe connections, even though he now lives in Epping. His mother, Beryl Dempsey, was very active on the Glebe Residents Action Group and was deeply involved in community support provided at the Old Fire Station in Mitchell St. Beryl was still living in Broughton St Glebe when she passed away in 2019.

He went to school at St Ita’s in St Johns Rd and was one of the last students before the school closed and moved to St James School in Glebe. Growing up, Frank had a paper round near his home and went on to sell the Greyhound Recorder at Wenty Park on race nights which he recalled were attended by 10,000 people on a good night.

His cousins lived in the row of terraces on Wentworth Park Rd opposite the WPC entry gates. In later years his daughter and her husband lived in a terrace on Pyrmont Bridge Rd.

Frank rowed with GRC from 17 to 22 years of age. He met his wife, Sharon, through her brother, who also rowed at GRC. You will see how these connections grew to be a true family affair with this initiative. Frank served on the GRC Committee for 10 years, had a break of two years and now he’s back helping the GRC Old Boys.

Ken Main (left) and Frank Dempsey (right) with rower sculpture cut from stainless steel by Dan Smith Metal Fabrication Padstow August 2020 (photo: Dan Smith)

All of the Old Boys were very involved in rebuilding the Club in 2001, Frank was particularly involved in fundraising to build the new pontoon. Then with the GRC Old Boys decision to donate a special artwork to the Club and the community, Frank played a key role in the design, fabrication and organising of a company to carry out the installation of the artwork.

Frank is a landscape designer and says he can visualise things and had a clear vision of what he wanted for this installation. The original concept was for four rowers but the scale would have been too small for the site, so he decided to focus on one rower. When he imagined the artwork, Frank had in mind being able to see the sunlight through the figure and bring all these three elements together:

  • Rowing – in action
  • Glebe – the Club’s colour, deep red
  • 1879 – highlight GRC rowing here since 1879

The artwork is constructed of 6 mm stainless steel which was electro-polished to withstand marine salt spray (this work was carried out by Metalglo at Hornsby) and then the rower was painted in GRC Club colours. The preparation for painting was done with the assistance of his nephew, Shaun Wickenden, whose father Rob Wickenden rowed for Glebe. Shaun’s connections in the motor industry provided access to a quality and enduring paint job.

It was hard to find a metal fabricator to take on such a large figure and the team appreciated Dan Smith, of Padstow. After the rower was cut, electro-polished and then painted, it was moved to Epping and had pride of place on Frank’s home deck for 12 months while the footings were finalised.

There was significant thought given to structural stability and resilience to withstand the elements. The substantial retaining wall and footings were tricky to build amidst incoming tides and the challenge of an awkward location. Graham Gardiner, a GRC Life Member, provided valuable advice on the engineering requirements for the attachment, support poles and other structural elements.

Frank’s son-in-law Les Meredith and a team from his earthworks and drainage construction company, H&M Civil, finished the tough job of the footings given the steep slope of more than 2 m between the top of the water and the top of footings. The GRC Old Boys family were on hand to help and advise with the pole erection, footings preparation work and pouring.

When all the foundations were finished, the support poles installed, the final steps were taken to fix the artwork to the poles. The rower artwork was driven to the GRC in the back of Frank’s ute. He and his wife Sharon helped load the heavy rower and poles for us to enjoy today.

This is a wonderful gift that highlights the special place of GRC on Blackwattle Bay and adds a new point of interest to the foreshore walk. Thank you GRC Old Boys!