75 years of Women’s Rowing at Cambridge, Part 2: Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club: 1974 to 2015

1975 Blue Boat
1976 Blue Boat

Here is the second part of an article that is compiled by Jane Kingsbury and Carol Williams. It is 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 by clicking here.

From the 1970s onwards, CUWBC changed gear as the university changed its policy about admitting women undergraduates. Until that point it had decreed that only one student in ten could be female but King’s, Churchill and Clare Colleges decided to become co-educational and allow women to apply to study there. This meant that there were not just women undergraduates at Newnham, Girton and New Hall but also increasingly at other, previously male, colleges as well. (In fact Girton, previously an all-women college, started to admit men as well!)

So after 1973 there was a bigger pool of oarswomen from which CUWBC could select a crew to row for the university. At this stage, too, the national women’s rowing coach, Penny Chuter, became involved training and started coming to the Isis and the Cam to encourage the crews and pick out promising athletes. The club did manage to acquire a new boat at this point with the support of Dr Cindy Griffin from Girton College and financial help from a crew member’s American grandmother, after whom the boat was named. A new set of oars was also found, which were not needed by the members of a school club on the Thames. The oars were Macons, which up to that time the women had not been allowed to use as the men thought they might damage themselves ‘down there’ if they did. Cambridge was also winning at regattas other than the boat race, at Bedford and Reading.

13-1976 crew rowing under the Green Dragon footbridge
1976 crew rowing under the Green Dragon footbridge.
14-1976 crew with medals after Southern Universities regatta
1976 crew a with their medals after the Southern Universities regatta.

There were other changes that decade, as well. By the mid-1970s, CUWBC’s second boat was a more permanent feature and came to be known as Blondie – perhaps after the pop group of the time, but perhaps also reflecting the fact that the CUBC second boat was called Goldie. And from 1977 the boat races for the two women’s crews were moved to the Thames at Henley after a rather disastrous experience racing at Oxford the previous year. The idea at the time was that this would be neutral water, but as Oxford is much closer to Henley than Cambridge is, the OUWBC crews were able to train there more easily and got to know the river better. Cambridge oarswomen had to pay to stay at Henley for a week prior to the races and, of course, this put the cost of their training up, much of this having to be funded out of their own pockets. It also became clear over time that the last (equinoxial) weekend in March does not provide ideal weather for rowing races and at times the races have had to be curtailed or moved at the last minute. Another major change at the end of the 1970s was when CUWBC chose its first male cox, Mark Mills.

15-1978 Mark Mills first male cox for CUWBC
1978 Mark Mills, the first male cox for CUWBC.
16-1978 May bumps crew
The 1978 bumps crew.

In the early 1980s there was still an extreme lack of funds and things were difficult. Although the women’s record of winning against Oxford was better than the men’s at this point, it cost each oarswoman £200 out of their own pocket to row. (The men, meanwhile, appeared to have a large amount of money in the bank.) The women had no boathouse, no boatman and unpaid volunteer coaches. A new set of oars, really needed every three years, cost £1,000 and a loan had to be taken out, which was supported by parents of a crew member, so that finally the club got a new boat, the first for ten years.

With the two women’s races and the men’s lightweight races being rowed at Henley each spring, the event came to be known as the Henley Boat Races and in 1984 these crews were joined by women’s lightweight crew at the point when lightweight rowing for women was just becoming established. The first lightweight crew from Cambridge, which won against Oxford in 1984, all got together again in 2014 for a re-row against Oxford, with one member of the crew flying in from New Zealand and another from New York. Even the spare came back and was rather disappointed to still be the spare! It was a wonderful experience for them, and for the spectators, that they slotted back into rowing together as though they had not been apart for 30 years. (Read their account here.) This lightweight crew then went on to represent Britain in the first international event for lightweight women at Ghent Regatta later in 1984. Other heavyweight oarswomen from CUWBC have also represented their country on many occasions.

17-1984 first lightweight crew
The first CUWBC Lightweight crew in 1984 (courtesy of Eaden Lilley/Lafayette)…..
18-1984 lightweight crew reunion in 2014
…. and their reunion in 2014.

The first events for oarswomen at the Olympics occurred in 1976 in Montreal and some Cambridge oarswomen were included in the squad. In fact, CUWBC has sent oarswomen to every Olympic Games since then, sixteen club members in all. During the 1980s, the number of women of international standard from CUWBC was growing. There was a pool of talent to be tapped, and it was usually of oarswomen who learnt to row at Cambridge. Over the years, from rowing in crews, which came in near the bottom of the results table, the CUWBC oarswomen have moved up to winning medals in the Olympics of 2004 onwards. Money from the National Lottery has certainly helped rowers to achieve.

1985 Blue Boat crew with Mike Spracklen and Roger Silk.
1985 Blue Boat crew with Mike Spracklen and Roger Silk.
1989 crew sitting the boat.
1989 crew sitting the boat.

For a prolonged period during the late 1980s and 1990s, CUWBC was producing athletes of an international standard and was very fortunate to have high calibre coaches, who did not ask for payment or expenses. Mike Spracklen commuted from Marlow during the Lent term to join the coaching team, which was led by Roger Silk from Cambridge. Ron Needs, who already coached international crews, also joined as a head coach from 1989 and this led to period of success for the club against Oxford which ended in 2000.

1995 Blue Boat crew with coach, Ron Needs.
1995 Blue Boat crew with coach, Ron Needs.

In 1993, when all six Cambridge crew defeated Oxford, a dinner was held at the Hawk’s club and a photo was taken on this occasion. Unfortunately, it did not seem to bring CUBC and CUWBC closer together. Nor did another social occasion organised by Dr John Marks for the two crews at his cottage in Duxford. John has been a long-standing supporter of both men’s and women’s rowing at Cambridge in many ways, especially as Senior Treasurer to the two clubs, and CUWBC is deeply indebted to him.

Celebration photo taken in 1993 when all six Cambridge crews had beaten Oxford (courtesy of Eaden Lilley/Lafayette).
Celebration photo taken in 1993 when all six Cambridge crews had beaten Oxford (courtesy of Eaden Lilley/Lafayette).

Success in the women’s boat race led to invitations to CUWBC to row abroad and crews have enjoyed going to the University of Washington and to the Head of the Charles in the USA, as well as to Moscow and European regattas. This international experience of course helped to raise the standard of rowing and CUWBC prospered.

1997 crew with cox Brad Par – always on top!
1997 crew with cox Brad Par – always on top!
24-2007 crew at commonwealth regatta
2007 crew at the Commonwealth Regatta.

Unfortunately for Cambridge, around the turn of the millennium, Oxford decided to put more effort into sport. A new boathouse with good facilities was planned and built at Wallingford and it was shared by all rowers, male, female, heavyweight and lightweight. In Cambridge, the women were still keeping their boat outside a boathouse on the grass on the Cam and renting cramped facilities with a boat rack and a toilet but no changing room at Ely. There was no access for them on the Cam at the Goldie Boathouse with all its training facilities until 2012, and even then, they had to raise the money themselves for the small extension of changing rooms, an office and kitchen. By this stage members of CUWBC were paying for rent, kit, training camp and accommodation to the tune of £2,000 each year in order to represent the university.

Goldie Boathouse in 2013 with minibuses sponsored by Mellon and Newton.
Goldie Boathouse in 2013 with minibuses sponsored by Mellon and Newton.

Despite all this, CUWBC has also been fortunate in the limitless pool of support it has received over the years from many people. In the early days relatives paid for a boat, later a coach supplied another boat, as did a chair of the executive committee. One father built a trailer and another lent his Land Rover to tow a trailer. Club members raised money themselves in inventive ways, one year even staging a race rowed backwards to bring in some money. Later there were boat race balls with celebrities, where wonderful prizes were donated and raffled.

The club has also had reason to be grateful to a whole host of sponsors and without this support rowing for Cambridge women would not have been possible. Some sponsors, like Beefeater and Xchanging, even offered joint funding for the men’s and women’s clubs. But in each case negotiations foundered and so parity did not happen until 2012 when, with BNY Mellon sponsoring the men and their daughter company, Newton Investment Management Ltd, sponsoring the women. Finally, the Boat Race Company Ltd, the BBC and CUBC were brought to the table and agreement was reached that the women would race on the same day as the men on the Tideway in 2015. In fact, it seems that it could have been American sponsorship, which is governed by Title IX legislation, as well as the expectations of American investors of equality in funding for men and women in sport, which finally created the situation where the women joined the men in the Boat Race.

Seventy-five years after CUWBC was founded this event was something to celebrate, and celebrate we did, whoever won or lost.

Newton Trophy designed by Rod Kelly and donated by Newton with presidents from both clubs in 2013.

Looking to the future, fundraising continues to this day. Cambridge University is now planning a joint boathouse at Ely for men’s, women’s and lightweight crews, which will make a vast difference, especially for the women and lightweights. But there is a long way to go before this is achieved. The women’s crews can now afford the same support as the men’s crews and also have a wonderful trophy for their race, commissioned by Newton, but the race needs to be one in which there are athletes of similar calibre in the two crews. For the first Tideway race OUWBC had a crew containing a double Olympic medal winning stroke, as well as junior international rowers. Although the Cambridge crew also contained oarswomen with junior international experience it could not match this, but has the spur to do so in the future.

If this has inspired an interest in rowing for women at Cambridge University do read more in the book Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club 1941 to 2014: The Struggle Against Inequality, which can be ordered via www.cuwbchistory.org

One comment

  1. A fascinating article but surely the most important struggle in equality in women’s rowing happened much much earlier pre world war 1 and in the immediate post world war 1 years. One example of this was my great aunt Phoebe Radley who founded Cecil Ladies during that period who rowed from my families V Radley and sons boat house on the river Lea a few miles north of where the London Olympic Stadium is now. There were numerous newspaper article about them in the interwar period and Pathe News items. In the early 1950s my late cousin Shirley Radley was at bow in the first GB ladies 8 to compete internationally, at Macon eastern France. They came third using a borrowed clinker boat competing against crews using shells . I will buy the Cambridge university book but finally a plug for The Radleys of the Lea- 130 years of boat building and rowing , a book which contains chapters describing my families involvement in the early days of UK ladies rowing.

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