75 years of Women’s Rowing at Cambridge – Part 1: Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club: 1941 to 1973

Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club 1941 to 2014; The Struggle Against Inequality, published earlier this year.
Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club 1941 to 2014: The Struggle Against Inequality, published earlier this year.

This article, in two parts, is compiled by Jane Kingsbury and Carol Williams and based on their book Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club 1941 to 2014: The Struggle Against Inequality, which came out earlier this year. The book can be obtained via Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club’s website.

Although the women of Cambridge and Oxford have rowed races against each other since 1927, a year after Oxford University Women’s Boat Club (OUWBC) was founded, in the early days the crews from Cambridge University were composed of rowers from Newnham College, and as a result none of them was awarded a Blue as the Oxford women were. To rectify this inequality, the members of Newnham College Boat Club (NCBC) decided in 1940-1941 to persuade the women of Girton to join them and to found a university boat club (CUWBC). That year, the first race between crews from each university, rather than between OUWBC and Newnham College, took place on the Cam and it was won by Oxford. The women from Cambridge were all awarded Blues and could wear (or borrow – this was wartime) the same light blue blazer as other athletes with Cambridge University Women’s Athletics Club emblazoned on the pocket.

There had been rowing at Girton before the 1940s but usually only in small boats, if at all. Girton College Boat Club (GCBC) did not approve of rowing in VIIIs. One reason for this lack of crews could have been the fact that the Girton girls had traditionally been told to leave their bikes at Castle Hill and walk into town from there. This would have made getting to outings on the river more difficult as they would have had to walk everywhere, which is slower than cycling. Newham girls were allowed to cycle – with restrictions (see Boats for Women on www.cuwbchistory.org)

This joining of forces of rowers from the only two women’s colleges at Cambridge at that time perhaps only took place because it was war time and a lot of the men had gone to the front. The ratio, which had been set by the university, of nine male students to one female student, was drastically altered in the early 1940s and there were far more women than usual compared to the men. Added to this, the formidable Miss Chrystal was in charge of the Amalgamated Games Club (which seems to have been a Newnham institution) and she prevailed upon the Chairman of the Blues committee, Mr Frederick Brittain of Jesus College, to allow a joint boat club and for women to be awarded Blues. Unfortunately, this situation did not last for very long. Within a few weeks, he had thought better of it and later, in 1948, Mr Brittain was objecting to women using the word ‘Blue’ and ‘wearing clothing in CUBC uniform without permission’. In fact, resistance to oarswomen being awarded blues and wearing ‘Cambridge Blue’ was to persist in Cambridge for a very long time.

1942 crew rowing a race (courtesy of Newnham College).
1942 crew rowing a race (courtesy of Newnham College).

The first women’s Varsity boat race in 1941 was very dramatic as it was rowed in flood conditions. It had proved impossible to get through to the women at Oxford to cancel and so the race went ahead, even though the towpath was ‘under so much water that one could not see Grassy Corner’ according to Iris Preston, who gives a detailed account in her book From Newnham College Boat Club to CUWBC. In addition, the Cambridge coach G.M. Trevelyan caused some excitement when, being unable to see the bank, he accidentally rode his bike into the river. Members of CUWBC only found out later that day that CUBC had forbidden them to go out on the river that day.

By the next year, 1942, the women’s crew was highly regarded on the river and won not only against Oxford but also against Reading and Bedford.

1942 crew photo (courtesy of Newnham College).
1942 crew photo (courtesy of Newnham College).

Initially, in the early 1940s, there was a period during which the women of Girton were becoming more proficient in rowing when crews were largely made up of women from Newnham, although Joyce ‘Joan’ Hunter became the first Blue from Girton in 1942. However, by 1944-1945 CUWBC had three crews on the river, the first mainly containing Girton rowers, the second rowers from Newnham and the third a mixed crew. (For more details of those who rowed for CUWBC go here.) At this stage, CUWBC was still rowing with the brown and gold colours of NCBC, not the blue of a university crew. However, the boat race itself was becoming a more established feature and, after the end of wartime restrictions, it was easier to travel to each other’s rivers. A tradition had evolved of rowing one year on the Isis at Oxford, and the next year on the Cam at Cambridge. (In fact, this pattern continued until the mid-1970s when the women’s crews moved to race at Henley, joining the men’s lightweight crews from the two universities who had emulated the original Henley Boat Race of 1829 by racing each other there.)

Ruth Bonney’s shorts in 1953.
Ruth Bonney’s shorts in 1953.

However, when the Oxford women’s crew was banned from the river after they went over a weir the day before the boat race in the mid-1950s, women’s rowing on both rivers went into decline. OUWBC, which was said to be facing financial problems, was unable to produce crews to row against Cambridge and this left the Cambridge women with no opposition for nearly a decade.

In the absence of a Varsity boat race, the oarswomen at Cambridge could not be awarded Blues and had to be content with colours for the next eight years. They competed against the Cambridge University coxswains’ crew and against other rowing clubs but, perhaps because of this lack of a Varsity race, by the end of the 1950s women had almost disappeared off the Cam. As was to happen more than once, the club looked as though it would cease to be.

1956 rowers and crew racing against the coxes.
1956 rowers and crew racing against the coxes.

But, as often occurred in the history of CUWBC, extinction was narrowly avoided. Two undergraduates from the recently formed college, New Hall, who were each already trailblazers in being the only women engineering students in their college in their year, took on the task of rebuilding the club. They found out that there was one boat, some oars and some petty cash and they cajoled others to come and learn to row and their (male) fellow engineering students to come and coach. With no race against Oxford, they decided to take part in the Clare Novice’s race and join the men in the bumping races. However, here they met with some opposition and the first time they took part, in 1962, they were bumped within 25 yards of the start and ended up on the bank as the crew chasing them had rammed their boat into number 7’s rigger. This did not deter them and they continued to compete in bumping races, much to the delight of spectators, if not the oarsmen.

1961 Val Goldsbrough raising the CUWBC flag before the Clare Novices race.
1961 Val Goldsbrough raising the CUWBC flag before the Clare Novices race.
1962 crew at the Ditch after the bumps race.
1962 crew at the Ditch after the bumps race.

The opposition to women rowing intensified, however, and in 1964, the President of CUBC tried to get women banned from rowing in the bumps, even though they had been doing so for a couple of years. The problem seemed to be that women should not be rowing against men according to ARA/WARA rules. But the women claimed that ‘any boat club in the university’ could put in a boat for the bumping races which were not run under ARA rules. The local and national press took up the debate and the CUWBC cox, Ruth Kidd, a law student from Canada, was even led to pronounce that she would register the boat under the Liberian flag of convenience if that was what it took to be able to row. In fact, it was largely the staunch support of their coach, Canon Duckworth, for his ‘Sweaty Betties’ that meant that the women prevailed and, after a big meeting of the rowing community (and some machinations by the Canon), the vote went in favour of the women taking part in the bumps. The Canon also proclaimed at this time that there was no reason why a woman should not cox the men’s boat next year – but, in fact, that took another twenty years.

When the women had rowed in the Mays in 1964 they celebrated afterwards with champagne!

1964 crew list and photo of post-Mays drinks.
1964 crew list and photo of post-Mays drinks.

It was also in 1964 that CUWBC was surprised to receive a challenge from OUWBC for another Varsity boat race and in March the race between the women of the two universities resumed, being won the first year (and for twelve years thereafter) by Cambridge. It seemed women’s rowing was not going to fade away. In 1965, CUWBC took part in the bumps again and also rowed at Mortlake on the Thames.

1965 crew rowing at Mortlake.
1965 crew rowing at Mortlake.
1965 crew by the Plough (photo by Cambridge Evening News).
1965 crew by the Plough (photo by Cambridge Evening News).

Despite these struggles during the mid- to late 1960s it is worth noting that in 1969 CUWBC was equalling and beating the selected British crew for international races, from St Georges Rowing Club, and at this time also a previous CUWBC president, Beatrice Scorer, and her partner, Liz Pickering, were being encouraged to train for internationals. This had all occurred within a few years in a club that, on the whole, started with novice rowers to form its crews and had unpaid coaches, who were usually fellow students, and certainly no professional coaches, except perhaps for Canon Duckworth, who was a very experienced cox and coach.

1971 crew before rowing at Pangbourne.
1971 crew before rowing at Pangbourne.

This was still the case in the early 1970s when Pat Fosh tried to get a crew to international standard and it came very close. A coxed four made up of postgraduate students won many events including the British Universities Sports Federation Regatta at Pangbourne, which was held under flood conditions. At this event, one won largely by luck and pluck. But with student coaches, old boats and oars and no boathouse (rowers changed outside or in the bike sheds next the men’s boat house) it was difficult to attain the required standard. If the crew was going to a regatta the boat, a restricted VIII, was split and loaded along with the oars onto the roof racks of two small cars.

At this point, too, CUWBC could easily have disappeared for lack of oarswomen but it was revived again, this time by Vicky Markham, who allowed herself as a complete novice to be talked into taking over as president and, enlisting the support of male friends, she built up the club again and even spent a summer vac writing a fascinating account of the early days of women’s rowing at Cambridge entitled Boats for Women. Vicky was also very pleased that, for once in 1973, the whole women’s crew were awarded Blues. She thought this was a first, but in fact the original crew of 1941 had all been awarded Blues.

The article will continue tomorrow.

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