Saturday, 29 October saw the third Rowing History Forum at the River and Rowing Museum (RRM), Henley on Thames, an event co-hosted by The Friends of Rowing History. Around forty people attended for a full and varied day of talks, updates and demonstrations. Many of those present had got themselves in the mood by attending a very enjoyable dinner at Leander Club the night before.
Opening remarks were by Paul Mainds, the RRM Chief Executive. He spoke of the links the museum was building with other sports museums and the efforts that were being made to have an exhibition at the 2012 Olympic Regatta site, something which could perhaps attract 5,000 visitors a day. One of the things he hoped to do was to bring together the shells that won the 1912 and the 2000 Olympic eights for Britain. The older of the two craft is still in Sweden where Leander left it after the Stockholm Olympics nearly one hundred years ago!
Chris Dodd of the RRM, rowing historian and journalist, reminded us of the next Forum in Mystic, USA on 11 March 2012. Among other updates on recent RRM acquisitions he announced that the Oxford Cambridge Boat Race archive would be organised from the museum. Chris also spoke of two great men of rowing and rowing history who died in the past year, Hart Perry and David Lunn-Rockcliffe.
The morning session belonged to the three keynote speakers, Tom Weil, Peter Mallory, and Guin Batten.
Tom Weil owns the world’s largest private collection of rowing memorabilia. Fortunately for us, he is incredibly generous in sharing it with both sides of the Atlantic. He spoke on ‘Cheers and Jeers, perspectives on women in rowing from 1850 to 1900’ and illustrated his talk with a small selection of contemporary pictures from his collection. His broad thesis was that historically there have been four classes of ‘rowing women’ each of which has superseded the other. The four are manual labour, working women, middle/upper class women, and university women. He feels that this is a much neglected aspect of rowing history and that there is still much work to be done.
Peter Mallory has spent the last seven years working on his magnum opus, a four-volume, 2500-page work entitled The Sport of Rowing. It is now printed and ready for sale. He talked about his research methods and how he reconciled people’s different views and memories of the same event. There cannot be many people of note in the rowing world that Peter has not interviewed but he paid particular tribute to Hart Perry, Mike Spracklen and Joe Burk.
I was not looking forward to Guin Batten’s contribution. A fine athlete (in 2000 her quad made history by winning Britain’s first ever women’s Olympic rowing medal) is not necessarily a good speaker. As it turned out, Guin gave the most thrilling presentation of the day. Her theme was ‘The Glass Ceiling, the rise of the GB women’s rowing team, 1996-2000’. She spoke on how marginalised women’s rowing was when she entered the sport in the late 1980s but how it was also the beginning of a period of rapid growth. She noted that the Women’s Head of the River Race for Eights had sixty entries in 1986 but had two hundred and sixty by 1996.
Guin holds that the current success of British women’s rowing started with three factors coming together. These were the National Lottery funding of individual athletes which was based on success and not gender, the international standard coaching of Mike Spracklin and the fact that women were being fed through to international level from the increasingly active clubs and universities. A further important change was the dropping of the coxed four as an Olympic class boat after 1988. It helped shift the emphasis from sweep rowing to sculling, the discipline in which the post 2000 success has been enjoyed. (Guin claims that she only got herself moved from the eight to the single when she challenged coach Bill Mason to a game of table football with the agreement that she would remain in the big boat if she lost but would expect to scull if she won. Whatever the accuracy of the story, she did beat Mason and did move to two blades, not one).
At the end of her presentation, Guin talked us through a video of the Sydney 2000 quad race. We all knew the result but few of us could help but hold our breath at the end. The British women’s quad has won silver in 2000, 2004, and 2008. The British women’s double has won bronze in 2004 and 2008. The one sweep oar medal was silver in the pair in 2004. The next step is, clearly, gold in 2012.
Following lunch there were short presentations on a variety of topics.
Chris Dodd read a chapter from a work in progress, a book on the Czechoslovak, Bob Janousek, the man who began the revival of British rowing in the 1970s. One of Bob’s greatest advantages was that he spoke no English and so had no chance of getting sucked into the old boy network of the Putney Mafia which was responsible for the moribund state of British rowing.
Maurice Phelps of the famous Putney rowing and boat building family (watch a film about the Phelps here) announced that, after seven years and five edits, his book, The Phelps Dynasty would be published in mid-2012. He showed us a table with ten generations of his family tree, all watermen and lightermen save for the present generation. He was keen to emphasise that his book would be part social history, not romanticising the grinding poverty and deprivation suffered by many of his ancestors, even down to his own father. Maurice also said that his work would show his anger at the division between the ‘amateurs’ and the ‘professionals’ as defined at the time. He holds that this categorisation worked to the detriment of the professionals, depriving them of employment and driving many of them abroad to work, particularly as coaches, their skills lost to British rowing.
In other presentations, John Clayton shared his researches on the forgotten rowing clubs of the Medway River, John Hall-Craggs talked on the women of Lady Margaret Boat Club, Terry Morahan introduced us to a collection of characters from Irish rowing, I read extracts from a transcript of an audio recording that I recently discovered of Wally Kinnear, the 1912 Olympic Sculling Champion, and Bill Washburn gave us a preamble to the screening of the film A History of Rowing on the Hudson.
The day ended at the RRM Education Building where Bill’s film was screened to great interest and where and Jerry Sutton and Peter Martin gave a practical demonstration of wooden oar making. It is always fascinating watching a skilled person working in wood especially when it is done largely by eye with little measuring or use of templates. There is still a good demand for wooden oars, not least from the thriving Cornish Gig Racing scene.
The splendid room in the River and Rowing Museum in which we met in had a fine view of the river and of people boating from Henley Rowing Club opposite. This was rather distracting on a fine, mild and sunny day that was just made for going on the water. This would be my only complaint about a most enjoyable day, my thanks to the RRM, the Friends of Rowing History and to all the contributors.