The First GB Ladies Rowing Team to Compete Abroad

Pic: The GB crew in third place, Macon 1951. Courtesy of the River & Rowing Museum.
The GB crew in third place, Macon 1951. Courtesy of the River & Rowing Museum.

In 1951, the first GB ladies rowing team to compete abroad had to borrow a clinker eight and take holiday from their jobs to be able to go, writes Clive Radley, whose cousin, the late, Shirley Boyde, nee Radley, was taught to row by her father, Sid Radley, in the late 1940s. She graduated rapidly from club rowing on the Lea at Springhill to a GB crew.

Clive Radley writes:

The highlight of Shirley’s rowing career was racing in the 1951 England ladies eight at the European championships at Macon in eastern France. Prior to the event the News Chronicle had an article about the England crew in August 1951:

The captain of the England crew Grace Harvey believes they are the first British women’s team of eights to compete abroad. The ages of the eight rowing enthusiasts range from 17 to 30. Three are civil servants, three are office workers, one is an assistant nursery matron, another a bio-chemical technician. They go to Barnes Bridge to train on the Thames three evenings a week and each weekend. And training is strict with a no smoking no drinking and no late nights rule.

‘We would like our own boats but cannot afford to buy them’, said Grace Harvey, ‘but we are buying our own uniforms. We are paying part of our fares and some of the team will go to the regatta as part of their summer holiday.’ A Boatman commented ‘I have never seen girls so keen they are one of the finest teams on the river.’

The article underlines how much GB women’s rowing has changed since then. I can’t see the current GB ladies crew even considering buying their own eight. The 1951 England women’s eight was the first English women’s crew to compete in an international competition. Unlike today’s female rowers, who benefit from generous lottery funding, the 1951 eight had to do things on a shoestring budget and with no funding to support training prior to the competition. Since I publishing The Radleys of the Lea further research has revealed that the 1951 ladies regatta at Macon was not a European Championship event but was the first international  women’s event sponsored by FISA and was held in conjunction with the Men’s European Rowing Championships.

Pic: The GB team enjoying refreshments at Macon. Family photo.
The GB team enjoying refreshments at Macon. Family photo.
Pic: The GB team in 1951, Shirley fourth from left.
The GB team in 1951, Shirley fourth from left.
Pic: Daily Express article, August 1951: Ladies races described as curtain raisers?
Daily Express article, August 1951: Ladies races described as curtain raisers?

Shirley’s future husband, Tom Boyde, remembers that her presence in the 1951 GB eight was questioned on the basis that she was the daughter of a professional. This took the form of a letter to the ARA, even though there was a Women’s ARA in existence at the time. Shirley was furious about the letter but nothing came of it and she was able to compete.

Tom Boyde’s recollections of Macon 1951:

‘Shirley rowed bow in the England eight in 1951 in the European Championships at Macon, eastern France. She and all the rest had been “stroke girls” of their club crews except the one chosen to be stroke of the international eight! They came third.

When the crew arrived in France, the French customs attempted to saw the oars in half once they found out they were hollow. They were of course borrowing a boat and the crews they were competing against were in shells. The boat they were lent was clinker and much heavier, perhaps a good explanation of their third place finish.’

Authors note: In 1952, 1953 and 1954, Tom Boyde rowed in the Thames Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta for University College of London Boat Club. He was also captain of The University of London Boat Club in 1953 and 1954. He currently has a Sid Radley-built fine single scull stored at Thames Rowing Club, and at the age of 82, he hopes to scull it again after getting it repaired.

Pic: Tom Boyde with his Radley ‘sculler’, after cleaning by Joanne Harris at Thames RC- January 2015.
Tom Boyde with his Radley ‘sculler’, after cleaning by Joanne Harris at Thames RC – January 2015.
Pic: The GB crew about to start training at Macon. Courtesy of the River & Rowing Museum.
The GB crew about to start training at Macon. Courtesy of the River & Rowing Museum.
Pic: GB Macon crew with Shirley wearing the silly hat. Family picture.
GB Macon crew with Shirley wearing the silly hat. Family picture.
Pic: Shirley, far right, with GB crew at the European Championships in Macon. Family picture.
Shirley, far right, with GB crew at the European Championships in Macon. Family picture.
Pic: Menu signed by some members of the 1951 GB crew at Macon. Courtesy of the River & Rowing Museum.
Menu signed by some members of the 1951 GB crew at Macon. Courtesy of the River & Rowing Museum.
Pic: GB team with the Spanish team members at Macon 1951.
GB team with the Spanish team members at Macon 1951.

Shirley’s international career was relatively brief and her interest in competitive rowing gradually declined after she met her future husband, Tom Boyde, who was a medical student. She married Tom in 1954 and in 1959 they moved to Newcastle, then in 1969 to Uganda and in 1973 to Hong Kong.

One of her sons, Nicholas Boyde, remembers:

‘Macon was obviously a big thing for Mum: representing England, going overseas and catching aeroplanes when most people didn’t, in 1951, before the days of mass tourism.

The England crew didn’t like the food at the hotel in France. It was French, and the English ladies didn’t like it, probably tasted of something. They couldn’t get decent boiled eggs for breakfast. They were either stone raw, merely dipped into luke-warm water for a second, or boiled so hard you could strike sparks off them. Why do I remember this? Mum didn’t like eggs, and never ate the egg-whites unless within a scramble or the like, and it had better be well-scrambled.

These days our international crew’s food intake is carefully planned and monitored by the coaching team in an attempt to achieve maximum performance. Looking back to the 1950s everything seems very amateurish, which is not surprising as they were amateurs. The Football Pools in the 1950s was the equivalent gambling vehicle to the Lottery but didn’t have a fund to support sport!

The Macon spoon blade had just been invented and was used by some crews in Mum’s international regatta. Called the Tulip in those days, it wasn’t universally adopted. The England ladies crew used sweeps, as did most people for a few years. Macon blades achieved prominence at the 1959 European Championships in Macon when they were used by the West German national team. West Germany won all the male sweep events that year, except the coxless fours.’

One early press picture of Shirley had the following text below it. ‘ROWS ALONE — Sixteen year old Clapton girl, Shirley Radley, clerical assistant at Scotland Yard, and member of Hackney Ladies Rowing Club, often rows alone in skiff competitions.’ The text appears quaint and paternalistic and some would say sexist from a twenty-first century   viewpoint.

Shirley’s sister, June Cann, nee Radley, was also an elite rower, based on the Lea, and on the way to one regatta June and her team members took their blades to Hammersmith regatta on the underground to Ravenscourt Park which was near St Paul’s School Boat Club at Hammersmith Bridge. It caused quite a commotion as there were two fours and some scullers, 12 blades in all, on the tube! These days they would have been stopped at the ticket barrier and turned away.

June says:

‘they would not have let us on a bus to go to Chiswick or Barnes where we also raced. Sometimes our greengrocer Eric Charlton would take our blades in the back of his van to places like Barking Creek or Barnes. He had a shop up in Mount Pleasant Road near the Woodman at the top of Big Hill. If we went by coach to places like St Neot’s, the blades went on the floor between the seats and you walked up the coach astride them.’

In 1951, June was part of a combined Lea Clubs eight who entered the 1951 Festival of Britain Regatta on the Serpentine. June describes the regatta as follows:

‘We were asked to enter a representative crew from the Lea to row against the Thames. It was half Borough of Hackney which was our club and half Stuart Ladies. My f u t u r e husband’s sister was in Stuart and I was in Borough. My sister was in the England Eight rowing bow so did not come into the crew. It was sponsored by the Evening News and I won an engraved Stratton powder compact. We had the beating of Thames easily and at one stage the umpire called us to not get too far in front as they were trying to get both crews in shot for the cameras. It is the only race I have been in when the officials told you to slow down. It was horrible rowing on the Serpentine. Cross winds just past the island made it difficult to keep station and it was like rowing in treacle compared to the free moving rivers we were used to.’

Pic: June Radley at no. five in combined Lea Clubs crew on the Serpentine, 1951, during the Festival of Britain. Family picture.
June Radley at no. five in combined Lea Clubs crew on the Serpentine, 1951, during the Festival of Britain. Family picture.
Pic: Combined Lea club 1951 Festival of Britain crew – June fourth from left, back row. Family picture.
Combined Lea club 1951 Festival of Britain crew – June fourth from left, back row. Family picture.

June also remembers the blades she learned to row with:

‘We used boats with thowel rigging and the blades only had a quarter leather to prevent it slipping right through and out of the rigger. Catching a crab was not just painful but could result in your blade floating off down the river. You did learn to control a blade properly and keep it square. Albert even raced chock fours with fixed seats and won his novices in a tub four with thowels topped by a piece of string to keep the blade in. This was at Tommy Green’s boathouse at Barnes Bridge. Sixteen crews entered, and it took four rows to win. He was 17 at the time, having started at age 15.

After the war everyone had to win their status races all over again, probably because records disappeared. For the first couple of years from 1945 you could easily meet a crew who had originally been senior oarsmen trying to re-establish themselves. I can recall using swivels for the first time once we moved up to restricted boats, one stage below best boats. Sculls were longer in the spoon but only 4 inches wide, blades were 5 inches.

My first pair of modern sculls from Aylings were a joy to use. Trouble is, one forgets these details until you start chatting about conditions and how they have changed. A pair of sculls cost 2 1/2 times a week’s wages to buy!’

Pic: Sid with June and Shirley Radley.
Sid with June and Shirley Radley.

8 comments

  1. One thing I forgot to say was that Nicholas Boyde one of Shirelys sons provided most of the family pictures from his archive of Radley/Boyde pictures and newspaper articles.

  2. Wonderful article, and a great contribution to the utterly under-studied subject of women in rowing. However, it depends a bit on labeling, doesn’t it, but perhaps this crew was not “the first English women’s crew to compete in an international competition”. To my knowledge, the first was a crew of four women, formed by Ann Glanville of Saltash, who defeated several all male crews in a regatta in Le Havre in 1833. One might argue that, being Cornish, Ann was not English, or that, by beating men instead of women, her “international competition” didn’t meet the same-gender standards otherwise being discussed, but I say give Ann and her crew mates a tip of the hat and the pioneers prize!

    • 1833 is certainly a long time ago. When writing the article I was not certain whether to call them UK, GB OR ENGLISH. As far as I know all the crew came from London based clubs on the Thames and the Lea.

      • I suppose part of the equation is “where were they from”, and part is “under whose banner did they sail”. As to the latter question, two of my Yale teammates were among the very first US lightweight internationals. When their [US] Cambridge Boat Club eight won the 1973 US national championships, they then raced in the Europeans as the effective “US entry”, but under no color of being either a national team (which concept had only recently been introduced in the US) or (trickier) a true national representative. When they won the blue riband trophy at an international regatta in Austria, the Austrians asked “What shall we put on the trophy?” It couldn’t be USA, so they opted for Cambridge Boat Club. As to the first question, of course, we don’t worry about the various geographical sub-allegiances involved with being from England, Ireland (either one), Cornwall, Wales or Scotland (or, for that matter, Guernsey, Jersey, the Isle of Man, etc) as much we worry about the somewhat more toxic political associations, but those parties don’t sponsor crews … yet.

  3. I had lunch this week with Nicholas Boyde one of Shirley Boydes( nee Radley) sons He wrote part of the the Radleys of the Lea book.

    He told me that in the 1951 womens 8 Macon race picture that the GB 8 was in fact in 2nd place but finished 3rd. Shirley at bow is wearing her hat to keep the sun off.

    I was rather taken aback to learn this as NIc, his sister Emma, and Shirleys husband Prof Tom Boyde had read the draft of the book and hadn’t corrected the error. Tom was at the race as was her dad, Sid Radley ( my late uncle ). Sid had built Shirley a very light wooden fine sculler since destoryed but Tom Boyde has another one which is at Thames rowing club and another is in the Hong Kong Maritme museum.

    There is a newpaper article I didnt include in the book about the race whch said that the GB crew set off at 42 srokes a minute a higher rating than in that years boat race.

    They were in a borrowed clinker 8 whereas the others were in shells so I assume they dropped back after their fast start.

    Nic has a digital archive of all his mothers press cuttings, photographs etc from when she rowed and sculled in 1949/50/51 etc.

  4. “I must look in the Daily Express to find out how the GB women did at an international regatta; in particular I need to know what their stroke ratings were”. There’s a faint air of fantasy to that sentence, don’t you think?

    • No fantasy but they they didnt keep it up for long. The husband of one of the GB crew is still alive and was there. The Daily Express was a different type of newsparer then. It actually had news in it then and was mid market and not a tabloid and was owned by Lord Beaverbrook

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