2012 HRR: Ladies Last

One historic crew in the Junior Women’s Quadruple Sculls: Walford Anglican School for Girls, Adelaide, Australia.

HTBS’s Tim Koch continues to report from Henley Royal Regatta:

Traditionally, Henley Royal Regatta was a man’s event. However, times change and, while the sometimes cussed Regatta does not like to admit to it, Henley changes with it. It is a paradox that, to appear to be unchanging, an event or institution must constantly evolve. In this spirit, this year’s Henley saw the introduction of the Junior Women’s Quadruple Sculls, an event for ‘crews from any one club or school, home or overseas, where no sculler will have attained her eighteenth birthday before the first day of September preceding the event’. With the exception of masters and lightweights, junior women was the last rowing group to be unrepresented at ‘The Royal’.

On Thursday, I had the pleasure of talking to the girls from Walford Anglican School for Girls, Adelaide, Australia. They were the only foreign entry amongst the seven others in the event. They usually row in eights, but Meg Barnett, Georgia Day, Hannah Jury and Georja Osborne won a place in the quad through a qualifying time trial. A trip to the U.K. was always going to be exciting but the excitement increased as they discovered what a special event Henley is. They made history as they were in the first race in the new event but, sadly, they lost. In mitigation, they were 16 year-old sweep rowers in an event for 18 year-old scullers. Mike Sweeney, Chairman of the Regatta, said ‘We are confident that (the event) will establish itself very quickly. We’re delighted by the fifteen boat entry and think that the quality of racing so far has been good’.

There are many variations on the joke concerning someone thinking that the ‘Ladies’ Plate’ was a race for ladies but women and Henley have always had an interesting relationship. The social side of the Regatta has always, of course, welcomed ‘the fair sex’ and membership of the Stewards’ Enclosure has been open to women for many years. On the water it has been more difficult.

Mimi Sherman, cox of the Santa Clara University Heavyweight Men’s crew, was not allowed to cox her crew at the 1974 Henley Royal Regatta, but she did start something at Henley. Courtesy: Thomas E. Weil Collection.

In 1974 Mimi Sherman (‘the pig tailed Californian’), the cox of the Santa Clara University Heavyweight men’s crew was told by the Regatta that she could not compete as ‘it would be against the tradition of Henley’. She arrived in England anyway, hoping to change the Stewards’ minds. They did – but it took five months before they lifted the ban on women coxswains. Henley Chairman John Garton was quoted as saying ‘I would emphasize that this is in no way the thin end of the wedge. It is not a triumph for women’s lib – or any nonsense of that sort’. This gives the impression that the Chairman and the Committee of Management were ‘old fools’ but Garton went onto say ‘We may have to consider the introduction of women’s events before long’ and that ‘…the acceptance of a new situation brought about by a changing world….. cannot probably do the regatta any harm’.

Kingston Rowing Club tried to hurry things along when, in 1978, they sent in an entry for the Double Sculls in the name of A. Hohl and P. Bird. Regatta Chairman Peter Coni discovered that these were the maiden names of the two best female scullers of the day, Astrid Ayling and Pauline Hart. He was not amused.

Between 1981 and 1983 Henley tinkered with some women’s invitation events over a shortened course. The programme explained that the events ‘…will enable the Stewards to assess the feasibility of including races over the shorter course during the normal regatta programme, and the desirability of the considerable extension to the hours of racing which any full events for women would necessarily involve’. However, the experiment was carried out with little enthusiasm or thought and it ended without comment.

It was in 1993 that things got serious. An event for Open Women’s Single Sculls was introduced and was initially counted as a round of the World Cup. In 1996, the event was renamed the Princess Royal Challenge Cup. A women’s eights race was held as an invitation event in 1998 and 1999, but by 2000 it was formally incorporated into the regatta as an Open Women’s event. First called the Henley Prize, it is now the Remenham Challenge Cup. An Open Women’s Quadruple Sculls race was introduced in 2001 and in 2003 was renamed the Princess Grace Challenge Cup. No doubt, in time, the Junior Women’s Quadruple Sculls event will eventually get a more attractive name.

What of the future? The Regatta programme is already fairly crowded but I would think that a ‘club event’ for women would be the next step, probably a women’s ‘Thames Cup’. There is also the effect on Henley Women’s Regatta to consider. Mimi Sherman certainly started something.

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