Red Coats are awarded to the winners of premiere men’s rowing titles, and this specific coat was presented to Billy Webb when he won the National Champion Single Sculls at Whanganui on 19 February 1903. It was the first Red Coat to be presented in New Zealand.
William Charles Webb, known as Billy, was born and educated at Lyttelton in Christchurch where he showed early promise as a runner and cyclist before focusing on rowing. He relocated to Whanganui and had success as an amateur rower, winning Single Sculls and Double Sculls titles. He was so successful that he decided to turn professional.
Webb went on to international renown when he became the first New Zealander to win the World Championship title for Professional Single Sculls. The race was held on the Parramatta River in Sydney on 2 August 1907, and Webb beat the champion Charles Towns by five lengths. The win was not without controversy as Towns protested an alleged foul by Webb that was ignored, and not all the commentators agreed with the umpire. The award, however, was given and Webb became a local hero.
Australian Richard Tresidder challenged Webb’s title. The race was held on the Whanganui River on 25 February 1908, the first ever World Championship race held New Zealand. Webb won by three lengths and confirmed his status as World Champion, pleasing the residents of Whanganui so much that there were suggestions that the name be changed to Webbanui.
He was challenged again by Richard Arnst and they raced on the Whanganui River on 15 December 1908, where Arnst won by eight-ten lengths. A rematch was held on 22 June 1909 on the same course, and Arnst again won by two-three lengths.
Webb continued to race, including on the Whanganui River, but never regained the World Champion title. World War I halted the professional races and Webb retired as Undefeated Professional New Zealand Single Sculls Champion when the war ended. He continued to row for fun and sometimes performed exhibition rows, and was always ready to help young rowers hone their skills. Webb died on 2 October 1960. He was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in September 1997.
The Whanganui River had been a feature of the tourist industry for some time with riverboats carrying eager travelers to see the hidden treasures and stay at the famed Pīpīriki House. Many Whanganui photographers such as Partington, Denton and Harding, helped to boost this trade by taking spectacular images of the river and the people on it. Printer A D Willis introduced chromolithographic printing in 1883, extending the range and attractiveness of postcards and pictorial books that further promoted this region.
It was, however, Webb’s racing that confirmed the Whanganui River as an outstanding venue for professional rowing. The 1908 race between Webb and Arnst was honoured in December 2008 with a race between Olympic Champion Olaf Tufte, three-time World Champion Mahe Drysdale and wild card Hamish Bond. Since then the race has been held annually under the name of “The Billy Webb Challenge”, and continues to bring athletes, sports enthusiasts and visitors to the town.