Down near the mouth of the Don River in Toronto the old Don Rowing Club, formed in 1878, was to be found. It wasn’t the “class” club in the city (that title belonged to the Argonauts) but the club of the Irish and Catholic community. For many years it produced some of the doughtiest oarsmen, beginning with the redoubtable William O’Connor, at a time when Toronto was certainly one of the rowing capitals of the world. Not the least was Lou Scholes, a superb amateur oarsman who in his relatively short career brought high honours to this club and to his country.
Lou came from a sporting family. His father, John F. Scholes, who ran the Athlete Hotel on Yonge Street, had been an all-round athlete – an oarsman, track star, snowshoer, champion boxer. Lou’s brother Jack was an outstanding amateur boxer, winning the Canadian featherweight and lightweight titles; in 1900 and 1901 he won the United States amateur championship in the featherweight class. The Scholes kids were brought up to fend for themselves. “I tried to bring them up good,” their father told the Toronto Globe. “They were left motherless when they were in knickerbockers.” According to his father, Lou was always a little bit wild, but “I told him to fight it out himself if he was right.” Scholes Sr. encouraged the boys to go into athletics; he was an official of the Don Club, so Lou got his start there.
We know little of young Lou’s early development as a rower, but in 1901 he was good enough to be sent to the US Nationals at Philadelphia wearing the Don colours. There he won the US intermediate singles. Though he was marked as a promising rower, the big news for Toronto sports fans was the victory of the Argonauts in the heavy eights.
In 1902 Lou Scholes began to attract some attention in his own right. At the Harlem regatta in May he won the two premier senior sculls fixtures. Significantly, in the major event he defeated the reigning US champion, C.S. Titus, through sheer drive and toughness. The same year both Titus and Scholes competed for the Diamond Sculls at Henley-on-Thames, but neither won.
Scholes was a conscientious and hard-working athlete. Preparing for another crack at the Diamond Sculls, he rolled up an impressive record in 1903. With his partner, Frank Smith, he won both the Canadian and American double sculls titles; in singles he won the Dominion Day regatta in Toronto, the Canadian Henley and then the National Rowing Association of the USA title. By 1904 he was ready for Henley-on-Thames.
Lou breezed through the first two heats. But the third heat was crucial. Scholes rowed against F.S. Kelly from Trinity College, Cambridge, a classic stylist who was the darling of the British rowing public. Kelly, an Australian, had won the Diamond Sculls in 1902 and 1903. The sporting press was harsh with Lou. Despite the fact that Kelly also was from abroad. Scholes was invariably referred to as a “colonial visitor,” or as a foreigner, and his “rough and ugly” style was contrasted with a man “reckoned the finest, if not the strongest sculler the regatta has seen.” In line with all the predictions, Kelly jumped off to a good lead, having two lengths on Scholes after half a mile, but with a great spurt Lou caught him at the three-quarter mark and simply wore him down. To prove that his victory was not a fluke the British papers alleged, Scholes went on to defeat A.H. Cloutte of the London Rowing Club. Characteristically, he came from behind to win by more than a length, and dumbfounded his detractors by doing it in the record time of 8:23.2 minutes.
Lou Scholes, the first Canadian to win the Diamond Sculls, was given a civic reception before an estimated 80,000 of his fellow Torontonians, including Ned Hanlan. “The frank, sunny, boyish smile of the champion, like a glint of sunshine, carried gladness to thousands of hearts that had known him only as a name,” one paper gushed. The Diamond Sculls (for which the city of Toronto put up the $5,000 deposit gracelessly required by the Henley committee to guarantee their safe return to England) were proudly exhibited in the elder Scholes’ hotel. The British press reported vindictively that “at times they get mixed up with the cigar boxes.” As R.D. Burnell, the English historian of the Henley regatta , says, the treatment of Lou Scholes by the British press was “not very honourable,” but it showed “the sensitive, and even belligerent feelings of the British public, at that time, as regards foreign and even Dominion sportmen.”