Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Pearce, Henry John (1852–1920)

by Suzanne Edgar

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Henry John Pearce (1852-1920), professional sculler and master fisherman, was born in Hounslow on the River Thames, London, son of James Pearce, labourer, and his wife Ann, née Young. Best known as Harry, he migrated to Sydney in 1859 and worked on Thomas Playfair's butcher boats at £4 a week. He began competitive rowing in 1869 and in the 1870s rowed with Elias Laycock's four-oared crew which was seldom beaten. The champion Edward Trickett beat him in 1874.

Successful in light skiffs and heavy watermen's boats, the wiry, close-knit Pearce began to attract notice as a possible champion. On 1 January 1880 he defeated Richard Hickey in Newcastle and on 26 January won the Sydney Morning Herald trophy of a new cedar skiff in the watermen's skiff handicap at the New South Wales anniversary regatta, with 'strength but very little science'. In February he laid £100-£60 to row against Laycock over the championship course on the Parramatta River in equal watermen's skiffs. Rowing with 'a swing as regular as a clock's pendulum' Pearce won by twelve lengths. In July he was involved in a dispute over fouling William Trickett's boat on the Clarence River at Grafton. Sports columnists attacked Pearce but the local regatta committee exonerated him and upheld the umpire's decision, yet he had difficulty in arranging matches for some months. In 1881 he made a comeback at the Pyrmont regatta in January where his extraordinary performance in winning three races on the same day had never been equalled. He won the wager boats race, defeating W. Trickett, John Laycock and Power; then with J. Lynch he won the double sculls; with only time to change boats, he came out against fresh men in the watermen's race, carried top weight of 100 lbs and 'rowed his opponents down one after another'. Pearce was now seen as 'a fine piece of stuff', and 'the coming man for the championship of Australia'.

On 26 December Pearce beat William Beach carrying a 45 lb. (20 kg) weight in the boat. When E. Laycock returned to England in 1882 he took with him Pearce whom he considered 'second to none in the colony'. Supported by J. Davis and others, Pearce had to sell his boat to raise the fare but left on 3 March in the Potosi. At Putney, backed by Laycock, he was twice matched against England's second sculler, John Largan, but failed because he was overweight. Pearce amazed the English by demonstrating the prehensile toes from which his nickname 'Footy' derived: he could lift a 56 lb. (25 kg) weight with each foot and knock them together in the air. Deflated by their failures, Pearce and Laycock returned to Sydney on 30 August in the Sorata but on 30 December when Largan visited Sydney Pearce beat him on the Parramatta River before huge crowds.

In 1884 Tom Clifford beat Pearce who now found himself too heavily handicapped to make competition worthwhile and retired. Out of 60 races he had won 25 and was placed in 9. He became one of the most eminent master fishermen and boatowners on the harbour.

A member of the Royal Order of Foresters and a highly respected trader at the Woolloomooloo markets, Pearce married Susan Rebecca Chamberlain in 1875; with five sons and seven daughters he founded a well-known family of sportsmen and fishermen. His son Harry was a sculling champion in his father's lifetime and Sydney a prominent footballer; his daughters Alice and Lily rowed successfully against a visiting Maori team in 1911. Aged 68 Pearce died on 31 July 1920 at Pearce Street, Double Bay, and was buried in the South Head cemetery with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • J. E. Tonkin (ed), The English, Australian & American Sporting Calendar (Syd, 1884)
  • Sydney Mail, ‘Aquatics’, 31 Jan 1880–24 Feb 1883
  • Town and Country Journal, ‘Aquatics’, 31 Jan 1880–24 Sept 1881, 4, 11 Jan, 1 Feb 1911
  • Sunday Sun, 24 June 1906
  • Australasian, 31 July 1920
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Aug 1920
  • Bulletin, 5 Aug 1920.

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar, 'Pearce, Henry John (1852–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pearce-henry-john-4379/text7127, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 25 June 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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