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The Rutherford Head was founded in 1966. The main inspiration behind the new venture was the late Dr Graham Matthews, a member of the Tyne Amateur Rowing Club, who was a lecturer in physics at Rutherford College in Newcastle. In 1964, Graham had been instrumental in establishing a Boat Club in the College, and the creation of a rowing fixture under its auspices was a logical progression.
At that time, during the Autumn, student men's crews in the North tended to row in fours, going into eights after the Christmas vacation. And so, on Saturday 10th December 1966, the first head took place, with two men's divisions, shell fours and clinker fours, reflecting the limited range of craft available. The race was rowed downstream on a slack but falling ebb tide. Despite a strong challenge from crews from Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh, the shell fours race was won by Grey College, Durham in a time of 16 mins 13 secs. Tyne ARC finished fifth. While in the clinker division, Tyne's fourth crew overcame the challenge from Durham City and their own third crew to win in a time of 6 mins 59 secs. All in all, the event was adjudged a resounding success.
Since that inaugural event, the race has taken place annually without a break. In 1970, the Rutherford College of Technology became Newcastle Polytechnic, and this appeared to trigger a decline in the fortunes of the Boat Club. That year, to meet popular demand, a new division was introduced for Novice Restricted crews, and this helped to boost the entry to 52. Membership was declining, however, and by about 1976 the club was moribund, and by 1978 its boathouse, erected in 1969 when the future seemed bright, had fallen into disuse. This boathouse has since been demolished.
There had been no-one at the Polytechnic since about 1976 to keep the Boat club in existence, and during the mid-Seventies the Head race was organised with considerable external help. Shortly before the 1977 race, it was suggested that Tyne Rowing Club should take over the organisation of the Head. The club were pleased to organise it, in spite of the short notice. Entries, which had been steadily if slowly rising over the years, suffered a slight setback, but the following year they recovered and by 1979 had reached a total of 62 crews.
Since then, the event has gone from strength to strength. Women's Eights were introduced in 1985, and by the year 2000, prizes were being offered in 31 categories, including men, women, junior and veteran, in eights, coxed and coxless fours and quadruple sculls. Such a programme attracts many more entries, a total of 160 or even 180 being regarded as normal in recent years.
The Rutherford Head is the largest rowing event on the river Tyne, a far cry from its modest beginnings over 40 years ago.
Abridged version of an article written by Russell Kernahan (2007)
Definition of clinker:- A method of boat construction in which planks of wood overlap, giving a stepped shell.