9 March 2016
Tim Koch writes:
Yesterday, it was International Women’s Day and Henley’s River and Rowing Museum marked it with a talk by its Head of Collections and Exhibitions, Eloise Chapman, on the person who pioneered women’s competitive rowing in Britain, Amy Constance Gentry (1903-1976). What proved to be an already fascinating story was further enlivened by contributions from some veteran members of Amy’s creation, Weybridge Ladies Amateur Rowing Club, who made up a sizeable part of the forty-strong audience. They were clearly a resolute and fun-loving group of women who gave the rest of us present a real sense of the pleasure that rowing at Weybridge Ladies has given them.
This is a transcript of Eloise’s talk which HTBS is very grateful to be allowed to reproduce along with some pictures from the Museum’s collection:
I want to start though by acknowledging that there are people in this room who probably know far more about Amy Gentry than I do, because unfortunately I never had the opportunity to meet her. Whereas, there are people here who knew Amy personally and maybe even spent time in a boat with her!
With this all very much in mind my talk today will concentrate on the information I have available to me from the archive we hold at the Museum of photographs, documents and personal affects that belonged to Amy and were donated when the Museum first opened. They are some of my absolute favourite items in the Museum collection and it is a joy for me to talk to you about them and the wonderful Amy Gentry today.
So where to begin with a woman who, according to her obituary in the British Rowing Almanack, ‘developed Women’s Rowing in this country’? I am lucky that I can use Amy’s own recollections for this. She wrote several articles for her club and for rowing magazines where she describes her upbringing and where her love of the river came from.
She paints an evocative picture of her father as ‘a chubby little cockney boy with a round rosy face’ who ‘played on the Queenhithe steps to Old Father Thames in the City of London’. Although both her parents were born ‘real cockneys’ their family backgrounds were in Worcestershire and Essex and she claims this instilled in them a love of the ‘dear old Thames’. She called her father a typical Victorian who ‘came from a very humble start but worked hard to become, in the publishing business, one of the best book men on the road’. She tells of how, from the age of 17, her father would organise river holidays for his office colleagues and then by 24, he was married and dragging Amy’s mother off each summer instead!
Born in the Barnes area of London in 1903, Amy’s first introduction to the Thames was at one month old, her parents would tell her how they took her for her first outing at Richmond and christened her over the side of the boat somewhere between Richmond and Twickenham. When Amy was a year, old her father took over sole ownership of a camping plot at Shepperton, and there the family would spend holidays and occasional weekends. In an article she wrote for The Voice of Weybridge Rowing Club, she gives this wonderful description of holidays with the Gentry family:
Each year, almost invariably on the day father donned new flannels, there would be piercing shrieks for help due to an unexpected plunge overboard in the search for mussels and suchlike treasures. Father off to the rescue, never had time to go round by gates and fences, always had to go by the front and wet route, and by the time the new flannels were in, the rising generation (aged two or so) was out with the remark ‘it’s alright Daddy, I saved myself’. Father’s comments on these episodes as he surveyed the new flannels are best left to the imagination.
It was during these holidays that Amy got her first taste of racing when she was entered into Dinghy races in 1909 and 1910, at the Gymkhanas organised by the islanders, when she would have been less than 10 years old. Her claim that she was introduced to life on the river when she was ‘knee high to a frog’ was no exaggeration.
Her first experience of racing light boats was at the Victory Regatta held in 1919 by Weybridge Rowing Club where they introduced a Ladies’ Fours race. Sixteen girls were, in Amy’s words, ‘collected’ and coached for the event, and Amy, still a school girl at the time, was one of them. Four members of the club volunteered to coach them and in a fortnight they were ‘licked into shape’ and ‘put up such a good show’ that a Ladies section was added to the club in 1920. She doesn’t say who won the event though in any of the documents we have, which I will take to mean that it wasn’t her crew!
During the 1920s she continued to row at Weybridge alongside her brother Frank. The pair won the mixed double skiff championship three years in a row between 1924 and 1926.
Other Ladies clubs were also appearing on the Tideway and River Lea in the early ‘20s and regattas began to include races for women’s fours, giving the Weybridge ladies a chance to make their name further afield. So much so, that in 1925 they were invited to compete in Brussels at a charity regatta. Over the course of two days racing the Weybridge four with Amy as stroke won both races, defeating France, Belgium and Holland, and came second to Holland in one style competition and third in another. As the best crew they were presented to Albert, King of the Belgians.
The Weybridge ladies outfits at the time consisted of white jumpers, knee length dark blue shorts and long black stockings. Amy’s main recollection of the event was the quote ‘phenomenon of girls rowing in long skirts! The Dutch girls then were not allowed to race and were attired in gorgeous long royal blue skirts with orange jumpers, the skirts being tied up round their knees to prevent them catching in the slides – and believe it or not – they produced the most perfectly balanced boat of all time.’
It was around this time that women in the UK began asking for official recognition but both men’s rowing associations decreed that they only legislated for men which, Amy referred to as a ‘marvellous get out wasn’t it?’ And so, in 1925, the Women’s Amateur Rowing Association (WARA) was founded. Amy began as Assistant Honorary Secretary, and then soon after became Honorary Secretary until being elected chairman in 1939.
She credits a lot of the early success of the WARA to the help of Vesta Rowing Club, who lent their premises to hold the first WARA Regattas. She quotes one member, Len Field, as having commented that ‘While I do not approve of rowing for women, as they will do it anyway the best thing I can do will be to help them to do it properly’.
By 1926 the success of the women of Weybridge Rowing Club meant that they needed their own boathouse, and so Weybridge Ladies Amateur Rowing Club was born whereupon Amy was voted Captain, a role she retained for the rest of her life.
Both the club and the WARA continued to grow from this point onwards, no doubt due in no small part to the will and talents of Ms Gentry.
The WARA Regatta soon became too big for one afternoon and became split over two afternoons between Vesta Rowing Club and the Westminster Bank Rowing Club. In 1927, the first Women’s Eights Championships were held over the University Boat Race Course from Putney to Mortlake. At this time, Weybridge Ladies didn’t have an eight they could row in, so they began by training in two fours. Then Thames Rowing Club agreed to loan them a heavy tub eight and they went with a coach for ten trips to the course to train before the race. She gives a description of one of these trips in an article for the Surrey County News which centres on the fish and chips that they would pick up on their way home in the char-à-banc they used for transport, which allowed them to feed the driver chips from the seat behind. On one – quote – ‘particularly hilarious trip somebody shook hands from the coach with the Policeman on point duty by Putney Church – fortunately we were well up the High Street before he found his speech!’
On the day of the race the conditions were terrible, Amy recalls in the same article, “the feeling of rowing at least three strokes without moving the boat appreciably”. Fortunately, after Barnes Bridge the conditions improved and Weybridge went on to win easily over Ace Rowing Club in a time of 26 minutes. The miniature cup she was presented with for the win became one of her most prized possessions. They won again in 1928.
In 1928, the WARA instituted a sculling championship, with the early days dominated by a rivalry between Amy Gentry and Miss Margaret Barff, whose racing archive we also hold at the Museum. Margaret won in both 1928 and 1929. Amy took part again in 1931 and lost again, this time to Miss Enid Chamberlain. Each of these times Amy had sculled in a borrowed boat, which she only borrowed for a ‘few practice spins the last week or so before the race’, and so she was essentially untrained.
Pathe Newsreel film of the first Women’s Amateur Sculling Championship, Putney to Mortlake, in 1928. It shows a remarkable race in testing conditions with Margaret, Amy and another woman finishing overlapping each other after 4 1/4 miles.
A few months before the 1932 race her father went to see boatman Bossie Phelps, to ask him bluntly ‘If I buy this girl a boat of her own can she win the Championship?’ to which Bossie replied ‘If she has her own boat she’ll win it on her head.’ Luckily her father’s response was ‘OK go ahead and build it.’ After that, they went on the hunt for a coach, finally ending up with a friend of Ted Phelps, Dick Cocksedge. Every weeknight in the lead up to race she trained and I will now quote again from Amy’s own unique description about this time:
The training was a real joy – nothing to do but sit and scull for miles… the only other thing that sticks out really vividly is Dick’s often repeated order to “draw that finish home”. Other competitors were training at the same time and many were the grey old riverside heads that were shaken in pity at my having a “Bossie” built boat – none of them thought to compare my build with the Phelps build – not very tall and with broad, heavy shoulders. So I wasted no pity on the grey heads for their lost bets!! ‘Bossie’ proved right – I won as I liked from Chiswick Eyot onwards.
She went on to repeat this success in 1933 and 1934, retiring undefeated.
Amy was also having great successes at other local regattas during this time, as well as umpiring races. A couple of letters in the collection from Mr C J Johnson, Honorary Race Secretary of Walton-on-Thames Regatta in 1928, firstly thanks Amy for agreeing to umpire at the event and then notes that ‘So far as my experience goes you will be the first lady who has umpired races at an open regatta’.
She was also working full-time and noted herself:
Today I don’t know how I survived those hectic years when I was Association Secretary, Club Captain, living at Barnes, rowing in Weybridge, and earning my living in a busy stockbrokers’ office in the City of London.
Her work was to lead to one of her great lost opportunities as a rower.
During this period, International events were taking off for the Women’s clubs. There had been the trip to Brussels for Weybridge, in 1929 Ace sent a four to Poland and in 1931 the Warsaw Women’s Rowing Club paid a return visit. Cecil Ladies Rowing Club, from the River Lea, went to Ostend, St Georges Ladies Rowing Club went to Boulogne and Weybridge also arranged bi-annual visits between themselves and Academia Club of Paris. This all led in 1938 to a crew being put together by the WARA made up of, and funded by, affiliated clubs for a tour of Australia at the request of the Australian Rowing Association.
By this time Amy was working for the Vickers-Armstrong Company as secretary to Barnes Wallis and was not allowed the amount of time off needed for the trip, she describes it as one of her ‘bitterest disappointments’.
The war of course followed shortly after, and put a temporary stop to the momentum that had built up in women’s rowing. Although she found another way to keep rowing. She worked for Barnes Wallis throughout the war, and assisted him with his experiments with the bouncing bomb that would be made famous in 1955 in the film The Dam Busters. Wallis and Gentry would go out on Silvermere Lake, south-east of Brooklands airfield. Wallis would launch projectiles and Amy would row out to retrieve them. She was clearly not afraid to talk back to her esteemed employer as the story goes that on one such occasion she bellowed at ‘Sit down, Wallis! You’ll have us both in the water, and I’m in charge of this boat!’
Her time at Vickers-Armstrong also gave her the opportunity to further pursue another of her talents. Amy was a contralto who, during the 1930s, won gold medals at the Richmond and Twickenham festivals. In 1946, she established, with her colleagues, an amateur dramatics group called the Desborough Players. They would perform old time variety musicals, and Amy herself would sing songs like “Don’t Dilly Dally”, “Mr Baggy Britches” and – of course – “Down by the Riverside”. During the war, the same group performed at army headquarters and old people’s homes. Quoted in the Daily Sketch in 1938, where she is described as Britain’s No.1 singing sports star, as saying ‘I think singing keeps girls fit’, ‘It helps breathing. I have found that singing and sport aid each other’. She is also described as wanting ‘to become a great English concert artist’ once again showing that she was never one to aim low!
After the war, Amy went back to the cause of women’s rowing once again. Weybridge Ladies were back on winning form and France held the first international Women’s regatta in 1951 at Macon, a day ahead of the men’s European Championships. This was repeated in Denmark in 1953, where FISA made the decision to hold a women’s European Rowing Championship from the following year, the first to be in Amsterdam. In Amy’s own words again:
We moved heaven and earth to give this event our fullest support and were rewarded when our representatives in the coxed fours, the Stuart Ladies Rowing Club, won a Bronze Medal for us against heavy odds in a magnificent final, where a bare length separated all four crews – this splendid spectacle converted the FISA President Gustav Mulleg who had been reputed previously to be ‘anti’-female participation.
The Championship came to London in 1960 and Amy was the driving force behind its organisation. The WARA worked closely with the ARA for this event, and it is this that Amy felt led to the merger of the two associations in 1963, where she became Chairman of the new Women’s Rowing Committee until 1968. Writing about it in 1969, she said ‘it is a source of great satisfaction to me, as I feel it is how it should be although I was very proud of our achievements while we were a separate body’.
She still found time to hop in a boat occasionally as well, in 1950, when the stroke was ill in one of Weybridge’s fours, and the substitute stroke got ill as well she stepped in as they had three trophies to defend, they won all three. She believed that there were probably her best performances.
A Pathe newsreel from 1933: ‘Land and water girls filmed at Wimbledon and Weybridge’. The first minute shows women cross-country running followed by film of women rowing, presumably at Weybridge.
In 1969, Amy Gentry was awarded the OBE for her services to the sport, and she continued to work ceaselessly on behalf of women’s rowing as well as coaching and training at Weybridge Ladies, and sitting on a long list of other boards and associations until her death in June 1976. One of the saddest things, I think, is that she didn’t quite live to see the first women rowing at the Olympic Games only a month later. That women should be able to compete at the Games was something she felt very strongly about. In fact, I will leave you with a letter that she wrote in 1927, shortly after the WARA had been established, to Lady Desborough, the Association’s President and also wife of Lord Desborough who had organised the London Games in 1908. I think it perfectly sums up her tenacity, positivity, determination, humour, self-belief and, something I think was hugely important to her success, that she didn’t moan, she just came up with solutions.
It is with regret that I trouble you so soon again but it has just occurred to me you may be able to help us gain our dearest wish – to compete in the Olympic Games.
One of the chief objects the Clubs had in view when forming the Association was to see that England sent abroad her best crews for such events and, while we have corresponded with various people both in this country and on the Continent we have so far not received any definite information.
Our Association is “Associated with the British Olympic Association” but that is all they can do for us as they do not, I understand, affiliate any Association which is entirely for Women.
Could you interest Lord Desborough on our behalf and ascertain if anything can be done as we are all extremely keen to compete in the Games at Amsterdam next year and if we cannot get a Race put in perhaps they will consider holding a Style Competition.
When I met the Dutch Women’s Crew in Bussels in 1925 I discovered that country did not allow the women to race – all they were allowed to do was compete against each other in style.
I think they rather envied us but I must say they could teach us something as regards style then, but I hope, as we have now introduced it to England, that we should be able to hold our own.
Our Treasurer, Mrs Y M Gedge, has been attending to this side of the question for me but as she is away just now I thought I would write you at once as I fear there is no time to be lost if we are to be successful in persuading the British Olympic Association to press for a Ladies’ Race or Style Competition next year.
I have given the matter a good deal of thought and I should think the most popular event would be in the Best Fours with Coxswain but if the Committee preferred an Eights event I have not the slightest doubt we could meet their wishes.
Trusting I have made myself clear and that you will be able to help us.
I am sure there were many more letters like this over the next 50 years, and I am certain that the success of women’s rowing in Britain today owes a great debt to Amy Gentry.