Still Rocking the Boat

GB Women's crew c. 1930s.
GB Women’s crew c. 1930s.

The River & Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames reports:

‘Rocking the Boat: Women in Rowing’ is the title of this year’s Rowing History Forum at the River & Rowing Museum to be held 10am – 4pm on Saturday 21 November. Speakers include Annamarie Phelps (Chair of British Rowing), Mike Sweeney (ex-Chair of Henley Royal Regatta), Thomas E. Weil (rowing historian and contributor to this site) and Peter Mallory (author of The Story of Rowing).

Annamarie Phelps will be giving the inspiringly titled talk ‘From Assisted Drifting to Driving Force’, while Mike Sweeney will look back at his 25 years as Chair of Henley Royal Regatta and how it was brought into the 21st century including the introduction of women stewards and women’s races. Both Thomas E. Weil and Peter Mallory will be looking back a little further to the 19th century and some of the early pioneers of women’s competitive rowing.

A number of events came together serendipitously to make this the perfect opportunity to take a look at where women’s rowing is today and how it got there. Firstly, the ongoing success of GB women rowers since their glorious victories at London 2012 (can you detect any bias!). Secondly, the Women’s Boat Race moved to the same date and location as the men’s race in March 2015.

Anita DeFrantz at the Los Angeles Games 1984.
In the seven-seat, Anita DeFrantz at the Los Angeles Games in 1984.

Finally, and very excitingly, the Museum has just been awarded funding as part of a consortium of sporting museums to support a PhD in the history of women’s rowing. We have just put out a call for higher education institutions to act as partners. The women’s rowing collection of the Museum has grown significantly over the past few year, thanks in big part to the exhibition we held in 2011 called ‘Rowing the Boat’. The exhibition celebrated some of the pioneering oarswomen who helped to establish women’s rowing as a competitive sport, including Amy Gentry, Eleanor Lester, Anita DeFrantz and Penny Chuter. In response, we received archives of material from the family of Eleanor Lester and from Christine Dugdale, the last secretary of the University Women’s Rowing Association.

It also led to the donation of the extraordinary collection relating to Lucy Pocock, winner of the World Women’s Sculling Championship in 1912, from her great-granddaughter Heidi Danilchik.

We also heard some great stories.

Penny Chuter
Penny Chuter

Penny Chuter told us about travelling to East Germany by herself as a 19-year-old. She struggled to fit her oars in a taxi and the American soldiers at Checkpoint Charlie would not let her cross into East Germany. Eventually she walked through without them stopping her. After being held up for four hours, she arrived at the regatta in Grünau, outside Berlin, raced just one hour later and won.

1938 Women's Crew Australia

The family of Eleanor Lester (née Gait) provided the story of Amy Gentry’s missed opportunity to compete in Australia in 1938 with the first England women’s crew. The women, including Eleanor, were selected by WARA and had to pay their own way while relying on sympathetic employers to allow them time off work, as the boat trip alone took 6 weeks. Amy, who was secretary to the inventor of the bouncing bomb Barnes Wallis, was denied leave and so couldn’t go. As a teetotaller she may have disapproved of the crews association with a famous brand of Australian lager while they were there.

1938 Women's Crew drinking beer Australia
All smiles from the 1938 GB Women’s crew trying an Australian lager.

If you would like to come and hear more fascinating stories about women in the sport tickets cost £30 and include a buffet lunch. Please call 01491 415600 to book. More details can be found on the museum’s website A pre-forum dinner with speaker Thomas E. Weil will take place at the River & Rowing Museum on 20 November. Tickets are £55 and includes a three course meal and a glass of prosecco on arrival. Tickets can be purchased via phone on 01491 415 631 or email


  1. All very good but my pioneering Radley ancestors Phoebe my great aunt and cousins Shirley Radley, June Radley completely missed out for some reason.
    Phoebe started Cecil Ladies just before WW1 which morphed into Stuart ladies. Shirley was in our pioneering GB 8 who were the first GB 8 to compete abroad at MACON in a FISA event. Of course they rowed on the humble river Lea ?
    There were a no of national newspaper articles re Cecil Ladies and 2 pathee news films and Shirley was a regular in the press as was her sister June.

    So no shortage of material ?

    There are a no of pictures of the Macon regatta in the Henley museums archive and I have a number of others from Shirley’s son Nic Boydes archive of his mums rowing career which was short but illustrious. The other members of the Macon 8 will also be disappointed to have been ignored.

  2. To clarify the missing out refers to the Women in Rowing Event and not Gorans article. Also Phoebe etc achievements are all documented in my Radleys of the Lea book so they aren’t exactly secret.

  3. Clive, to clarify one thing with the article above, it was written by the staff of the RRM, not by yours truly. ~ Very best, Göran

  4. Goran- Eloise has kindly granted me a short slot to talk about the Radley ladies, I assume in the afternoon. Very good of her and much appreciated. She has also asked me to help with getting Chris Dodds rowing photographs organised. This is because the RRM are going to get a PHd student to do further research on ladies rowing and it will help that person if photos have already been sifted re relevance to the PhD project.

  5. Henleys most famous former resident and his song about Henley and other things


    album released in 2002 Brain washed
    George HarrisonS SONG
    “Pisces Fish”

    Rowers gliding on the river
    Canadian geese crap along the bank
    Back wheel of my bike begins to quiver
    The chain is wrapped around the crank

    Old ladies, who must be doggie training
    Walking, throwing balls, chasing all the sheep
    While the farmer stands around, and he’s complaining
    His mad cows are being put to sleep

    And I’m a Pisces fish and the river runs through my soul

    Smoke signals from the brewery
    Like someone in there found the latest Pope
    In a vat of beer that keeps pumping out with fury
    While the churchbell ringer’s tangled in his rope

    There’s a temple on an island
    I think of all the Gods and what they feel
    You can only find them in the deepest silence
    I got to get off of this big wheel

    And I’m a Pisces fish and the river runs through my soul
    I’m a Pisces fish and the river runs through my soul

    And I’ll be swimming until I can find those waters
    That one unbounded ocean of bliss
    That’s flowing through your parents, sons and daughters
    But still an easy thing for us to miss

    Blades go skimming through the water
    I hear the coxon shouting his instructions about
    With this crew oh it could be a tall order
    Have we time to sort all of these things out?

    Some times my life it seems like fiction
    Some of the days it’s really quite serene
    I’m a living proof of all life’s contradictions
    One half’s going where the other half’s just been

    And I’m a Pisces fish and the river runs through my soul
    I’m a Pisces fish and the river runs through my soul
    Mm mm hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm mm
    I’m a Pisces fish and the river runs through my soul
    Mm mm hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm mm Compo

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