The origins of the Clifton Club began in 1888, when members of the Waitara Boating Club became unhappy with the club rules and regulations. In particular they were annoyed that they were forbidden to row on Sundays, as many of the rowers were employed at the local freezing works and Sunday was their only free day to row.
On October 14, 1888 a special meeting was held in the Waitara Town Hall to form the Clifton Rowing Club separate from the Waitara Boating Club. Thomas Bayly, Waitara’s then mayor, was elected the club's first president and Harry Spurdle became the club’s first secretary. The members then built a boatshed on West Quay and acquired whaleboats to race in. The whaleboat teams consisted of five rowers and a coxswain who used a long sweep oar to steer.
The rowing clubs of Clifton, Waitara, Tikorangi and Mokau held annual regattas on the Waitara River - with crews from Mokau rowing their whaleboats down the coastline to the mouth of the Waitara River. Outrigger canoes sometimes also competed at the regattas. Women also competed in the whaleboats in the 1890s (through to 1912) and were fully dressed, with long sleeved blouses, long skirts and hats.
The Waitara Regatta was very popular with the people of Taranaki and crowds came by train on regatta day and lined the banks of the river to enjoy the spectacle. Spectators were charged an entry fee and so barricades were set up at a number of vantage points to stop people from getting a free view of the racing!
Whaleboat racing continued into the early twentieth century but was gradually replaced by clinker-built boats. These were four men plus coxswain crafts and required a different style of rowing for successful racing.
Competitive rowing continued in Waitara until 1912 when it became apparent that the public was no longer as enthusiastic about the regattas as it had once been. Discussion about a merger of the Clifton and Waitara clubs took place but did not occur and eventually the Waitara Boating Club disbanded, leaving Clifton as the only rowing club on the river. The Tikorangi Club was no longer considered a viable club after the First World War but did not formally disband until 1922.
The Clifton Rowing Club continued to compete through the 1920s and 1930s. Prior to the outbreak of World War II the club enjoyed immense success when their senior crew of Gerry Fowler (stroke), Barry Old, Frank Olsson, George Topless and Maurice Crow (coxswain), with George Marshall as coach, won the New Zealand men’s coxed four title two years in a row in 1938 and 1939. When war broke out, Gerry immediately joined the army and George Topless took his place as stroke of the crew. Ossie Sampson came into the bow and the crew once again won the New Zealand title. Competitive rowing was then put on hold for the remainder of the war.
The men set about resurrecting the rowing club after the end of the war. They sold their existing premises (Clifton Hall), put all their boats in storage, and set about raising enough money to build new premises on the east side of the river. Using voluntary labour and a variety of fund-raising techniques, they were able to open their new boatshed on December 8,1951.
The 1950s and 1960s was another time of great strength for the club. There were plenty of rowers who all worked and played hard, and two of them – Ray Laurent and Peter Lucas – were chosen to represent New Zealand at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. Ray and Peter then teamed up with Pat Montgomerie, Terry McKeon and Johnny Hide (coxswain) to win the senior men’s coxed four title at the New Zealand Championships in 1957.
By the 1970s, although women had rowed in the earliest years of the club, women were officially allowed to join the club in 1972 and proved immediately that they were just as capable of rowing, hard work and dedication as the men!
From the 1970s onward, the membership numbers have reduced as other sports have grown in popularity in the region. The club however has always been able to sustain a core membership that continues to produce elite rowers and remains well served by enthusiastic volunteers who make sure that it functions as efficiently as possible.