Nothin’ like a Dame

Dame Di Ellis, 1938 – 2017. Photo: British Rowing.

30 May 2017

Chris Dodd remembers Dame Di Ellis – and being the editor of Regatta magazine:

Patrick Kidd writes about reviving The Times Diary in July’s Oldie magazine. It is four years now since he was asked to take it on after its four years of absence, and he has written a book to mark its fiftieth birthday, The Times Diary at 50: The Antidote to the News. His plug for his diary has a diarist’s light touch, claiming that if journalism is the first draft of history, then diaries are the first draft of biography.

‘Diaries are the antidote to news,’ as Patrick says, they raise eyebrows and smiles, and the point he makes frequently to his editor in these days when newspaper diaries have diminished in number is that The Times has put on 50,000 readers since his revival began. That sounds to me like a typical diary story – not fake news, but a highly polished nugget.

The only bad news about Patrick’s diary exploits is that he ceased to cover rowing in The Times. Patrick’s Oldie piece reminds me that there used to be a diary in the good old days of Regatta magazine. The People column was a mixture of diary and sketch writing, sometimes unravelling the ravelled, sometimes sending up human folly, sometimes letting off steam. While other departments such as news and regatta reports, features, coaching and nutrition tips, product testing and safety codes were the stuff of the magazine, Hammer Smith’s People column and the letters to the editor gave it rant and raw, smiles and sanity.

I should declare an interest here: Regatta magazine was created to my blueprint in 1987, and I was the editor until the early years of the present century. Although the official magazine of the Amateur Rowing Association (ARA; now British Rowing), Regatta had an independent editor who set out the stall as ‘a magazine about rowing for rowers’. There seemed little point in restricting it to ARA matters and public relations, for a large portion of the best events are outside the governing body’s jurisdiction. The hierarchy at the time understood that risk there may be, but they got the idea.

Anyway, while the team of correspondents were given exemplary standards of journalism to follow, the worldly-wise Hammer Smith was entrusted with assembling the People column each month. He soon established a rhythm and was entrusted with tip-offs and titbits. On rare occasions when the ARA got in a pickle or the editor fell out with his liaison officer twixt the editorial board (regular writers and photographers) and the executive, the People column was a safety valve, a place where steam could escape, miscreants chided, firecrackers diffused.

How else but through Hammer’s diary could you read the runes of the great Oxford mutiny of 1987? Or record the efforts of the president of the Italian federation to embrace his athletes on every podium to create an RPO (Romanini Photo Opportunity)? Or suggest that a grounded hot air balloon would readily rise when FISA officials stood under it? Or explain the to and fro of amendments that may or may not be put at Leander’s chaotic meeting to admit women members? Or to query what the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had against Hammersmith Bridge when it tried to bomb it for the third time?

Three years after Regatta started, Di Ellis was elected chairman of the ARA – an impoverished outfit run by well-meaning amateurs. Unhealthy musical chairs was played out among the national coaches. During her 25-year tenure at the helm, Dame Di was the architect of a transformation into a well-funded organisation with improved governance both for domestic development and Olympic performance.

Di, who died on 18 May, aged 79, after a short illness, was a most unlikely physical specimen to ascend to the summit of British rowing. At 5 foot 3 inches tall, she occupied a coxswain’s frame in a world of lofty men and women. But her skills as a competitor, manager and manipulator – in the best sense of the word – took her to the head of, arguably, Britain’s most successful Olympic sport, and propelled her into the orbit of national and international sports institutions.

Her rowing career was unorthodox. She began ‘messing about in boats’ as a teenage Sea Ranger, and competed for Middlesex, becoming a one oar ‘sculling-over-the-stern’ champion from 1954-57. In 1960, she began rowing at St George’s Ladies rowing club. In 1966, she married John Ellis, a bank official, and from that year until 1973 won the women’s eights head of the river race seven times, four as a cox and three as a rower. She became a champion at the first national championships in 1972, held on the new 2000-metre course at Holme Pierrepont.

Di was the second of three daughters of Robert Hall, a proofreader, and Mable (née Steadman), a nurse. She attended school in Ealing before studying management and nutrition at Guildford College. This led to a career with Surrey County Council that included management of the school meal service.

In the 1970s, Di began her rise as an official. She qualified as an umpire, was secretary of the national championships, chairman of the women’s commission of the Amateur Rowing Association (ARA), team manager and then chairman of the ARA in 1989.

Her diplomacy and leadership over 25 years – she resolutely refused to be called ‘chair’ or ‘chairperson’ – gradually modernised the sport. It was Di who persuaded Sir David Tanner to take early retirement as a headmaster and set up the high performance programme that has consistently produced Olympic gold medals since the National Lottery came on stream after 1996, when Steve Redgrave and Matt Pinsent won Britain’s only gold medal at the Atlanta Games. Tanner describes her as ‘a pulse of the sport, a pioneer, a very strong administrator and leader’.

Di Ellis and John Major, the PM who gave British sport, including rowing, the National Lottery. Photo: British Rowing.

Di Ellis was awarded a CBE for services to rowing in 2004 and made a Dame – or as Hammer Smith would say, ‘damed’ – for services to sport in 2013. Di was not the kind of leader who filled a room. She was everywhere and nowhere, in the sense that she was the fixer in the back office who appeared on every towpath with a word of encouragement, graced every international regatta with a shout of encouragement, attended meetings of numerous rowing and sporting organisations including the board of the British Olympic Association and the River & Rowing Museum trustees, and attended as many dinners and boathouse events as she could fit in. Her score of unveiling plaques challenges the Duke of Edinburgh’s.

Di could be direct and determined when she was after something, but confrontation was not her style. She reflected, thought ahead and shaped opinion. As editor of Regatta I had a few run-ins with the hierarchy, including a couple over covers where more reflection on her part might have been a good idea.

In November 1993, the magazine’s cover story was Imperial College’s award of an honorary degree to Bill Mason, who had started as a lab technician in the college’s lubrication laboratory and gravitated to highly successful coach. The cover picture was a close-up of Bill in a black balaclava with his red megaphone to his lips. Over the page Bill was wearing gown and mortarboard and grinning from ear to ear at his degree ceremony.

After the magazine went to the printer but before it reached the mail, the IRA committed an appalling atrocity in which many innocents died. Meanwhile, as was customary, the Regatta cover was faxed into the ARA office. Nobody there had yet seen how the story unfolded on page 3. Panic ensued. Mick Sharp, the production editor, was ordered to replace the cover, and he began the manual task of replacing the balaclava with the gown and mortar picture on 20,000 copies. A statement was given to the Press Association, PA, giving notice of withdrawal of the edition.

Meanwhile, nobody had spoken to the editor, who heard of the crisis when he reached his day job at The Guardian. Later in the day, I contacted PA and gave them my side – that the picture had nothing to do with the IRA and had gone to press before the atrocity – which the agency ran as a follow-up. The final irony was that, unbeknown to chairman Di, the first 50 copies off the press with the original cover were already in the post to sports desks and rowing correspondents. The Times Diary ran the cover and its tale next day, thus giving the ARA an airing – positive, I would argue – that it hoped to avoid.

In 2000, the artist Annabel Eyres was commissioned to design a cover for the pre-Sydney Olympics edition. She turned in a fabulous abstract in subtle Aussie reds and ochre coming together as pastel Olympic rings. This was dutifully faxed to the ARA office, where Di referred it to the British Olympic Association, BOA, on the grounds that it might be a breach of International Olympic Committee copyright. The BOA thought it might, so the ARA pulled it. I suggested that we run it and let the IOC sue if they were so inclined, pointing out how ridiculous they would look, to no avail.

Annabel Eyres’s art that was pulled by the ARA.

After the Sydney Olympics, Regatta prepared a long feature attacking the IOC for its attempts to copyright words like ‘Olympic’ and ‘Olympus’ that prevented equipment manufacturers and boat builders from associating themselves with the Games in advertising. Several small firms had contributed to the British team with time, money and expertise, and been denied acknowledgement. They couldn’t even put their name discreetly on their product. This was printed after vetting by specialist lawyers, international manager David Tanner and chairman Ellis.

This was Di in action as her successor Annamarie Phelps describes her: ‘genuine, wise, reflective and truly inspirational. She was a mentor and confidante to so many.’

By Sydney 2000, however, the Regatta People diary was under pressure. As the ARA had grown more professional, so it had become more bureaucratic and sensitive about its image – see above. Some senior managers didn’t get the point of the sometimes irreverent Hammer Smith. Eventually People was killed off and Hammer wandered away.

But a new catchphrase was heard in press boxes whenever a controversial situation arose. ‘Where’s Hammer Smith when you need him?’ Di Ellis, to her credit, was one who took it up. The answer is that he may be found occasionally in Rowing Voice.  Meanwhile, the proprietors of today’s Rowing & Regatta magazine would do well to heed Patrick Kidd’s experience on The Times.

In 1997, Di became the first woman elected as a Steward of Henley Royal Regatta, a role that she relished. Latterly, she was in charge of the three-person team in the judges’ box who perform a smooth routine that is nevertheless hair-raising during close races. Di possessed the temperament for it. The former chairman of the regatta, Mike Sweeney, describes her as a very capable administrator. ‘She got things done and smoothed out rough water.’

The Henley stewardship was indicative of the growth in women’s rowing that was a phenomenon throughout Di’s 60 years in the sport. Today around twenty per cent of Henley’s Stewards are women (once a Steward, always a Steward), and this year the regatta introduces three new events for women to bring their open events on a par with those for men.

For years Di was a sound voice as leader of the British delegation at the international rowing federation’s congress. She manoeuvred World Rowing’s congress to choose Eton as the venue for the 2006 world championships in the face of opposition from a split executive. Her abilities as a doer and a fixer earned her trusteeships and board seats on a host of organisations, and awards aplenty. A full list of these and offices held can be seen here.

Di’s special gift, says British Rowing, is making you feel you were part of something special. She is survived by her husband John whom she married in 1966, her daughter Claire, her grandsons Daniel and Joseph and her sisters Janet and Sue.

Dame Diana Margaret Ellis CBE, DBE born 11 April 1938, died 18 May 2017.

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