Mixing up the Genders

At Lucknow Regatta in 1912, Mrs Gratton coxed the Royal Army Medical Corps to victory in the Challenge Fours. Third man from the left is the coach, ‘a medic with whom you did not mess’. Photo from Chris Dodd’s “The Story of World Rowing”.

4 August 2017

While delving into the history of women as competitors and Stewards at Henley Royal Regatta, Chris Dodd stumbled over some quirky tales of daring do.

There was the occasion at Henley Royal Regatta in 1978, when Astrid Ayling and Pauline Hart attempted to compete in the Double Sculls. There were no events for women then, so the two sent in an entry under their maiden names, A Hohl and P Bird, apparently with the connivance of their club, Kingston.

Their wheeze was rumbled a few days before the regatta. The entry ‘was found not to comply with the rules of the regatta and had therefore been rejected.’ Only coxing seats could be occupied by women. Gus Gait, the captain of Kingston, was given a dressing down by Peter Coni, the chairman of the Stewards’ management committee: ‘I thought it was a frivolous venture. I found it very sad that one of the longest established clubs in this country should think it reasonable behaviour to make a deliberately false declaration, signed by the captain of the club.’ Coni said that the Stewards have no fear of the Sex Discrimination Act, and he threatened to ban all Kingston’s crews. Gait sent an apology, requesting the return of his £10 entry fee.

The Head of River Race crashed into the headlines in 1974 when the race commentator opined that Barclays Bank II, chomping past the Putney boathouses toward the finish, was steered by a woman. The bank was duly disqualified while this Guardian reporter took 21-year-old computer programmer Angela How for an exclusive photo shoot in a booth up Putney High Street. Under the Head’s Amateur Rowing Association rules there was nothing specifying that coxes must be men, but the notes for officials to be read in conjunction with the rules of racing said ‘women may not compete in men’s crews or vice-versa’.

Chris Dodd’s article with a photo of cox Angela How, a photo shot in a booth in Putney High Street.

Len Habbitts, the bank’s captain, was enraged. ‘Coxes are at a premium. There’s a shortage of them everywhere. Besides, we have to recruit from the bank, and 70 per cent of our staff are female.’ Miss How told the newspaper: ‘I belong to the club and can steer. I don’t see why we should be disqualified.’

In 1975 both the ARA and Henley rules were reformed to allow women to take the seats of command in men’s crews.

Sue Brown of Oxford made 1981 a red-letter year when she became the first woman to steer the Boat Race. Sue was 5ft 3in tall and weighed 6st 5lb with an appetite for Weetabix and therefore did not have to live on Ryvita and slimline tonic during preparation. In the previous year, she had coxed the Oxford women’s Blue boat and Britain’s Olympic eight. She became a darling of the media, almost a rival to the young Diana Spencer, who was to wed the heir to the throne that year (good for Sue, bad for Diana).

Wide-ranging correspondence began in The Times and The Telegraph. The Rev Archie C Markby wondered if he would see men and women row in the same crew (Henley had already announced invitation events for women’s doubles and coxed fours). On 18 April, Peter Coni wrote in The Telegraph that by the racing rules of the ARA, women could cox men’s crews and men women’s because the difference in sex makes no difference to the performer’s ability. ARA and HRR rules required the cox of men’s crews to weigh at least 50 kilos (7stone 12lb) with deadweight carried to bring a light cox up to minimum, with the cox providing at least 45 of those kilos. ‘Accordingly Sue Brown will have to train on potatoes and puddings and gain a stone in weight by 26 June if she wishes to win the Grand as well as the Boat Race this year,’ wrote Coni.

He continued that there was no likelihood of men and women rowing in same crew at present. ‘But I have seen a letter by Steve Fairbairn written in 1932 saying “I have prophesied the day will come when girls will beat men at Henley… but I am years before my time, I’m afraid”.’

Cox Sue Brown, Boat Race pioneer for the Dark Blues in 1981, a race that Oxford won. Brown also coxed Oxford to victory in 1982. She had previously coxed the British women’s eight at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.

On 22 April, P H Turner of Pontefract wrote to The Times that in 1954 Leicester University BC claimed the first mixed crew to race in competition in Britain, something that was ‘met with dismay bordering on horror by that august body, the ARA, which lost no time in informing us that such a development was not permitted by the regulations.’ The club pointed out that neither was it prohibited, and raced the season. ‘The ARA conceded our point but argued lamely that mixed crews must be ‘contrary to the spirit of the regulations and thus anathema to gents.’ Next year, the ARA forbad the practice.

‘I feel the social achievement of Oxford in carrying the banner of equality to that renowned of all rowing events cannot be underestimated. Yet I cannot but feel a tingle of pride, and not a little humility, that my own club had reached more than 25 years ago a level of social achievement which Oxford has only just reached today,’ concluded Turner.

On 4 May, a letter appeared from Anthony Haigh in The Times about his part in the establishment of the Brussels Treaty Race in 1952 for university crews from the treaty’s capital cities, Amsterdam, London, Brussels and Paris. At the post-race London dinner bawdy songs were sung in three languages, a live swan was introduced to the dinner table to drink champagne, and old men retired early while insisting on escorting the Belgian female cox home, much to her annoyance.

Professor P H Cohn FRS returned to the subject of mixed crews in The Times on 8 May. ‘As in so many other ways, Cambridge led the way in fielding the first mixed crew,’ he wrote. ‘The US airmen stationed in Cambridgeshire during and after WW2 were invited to compete in the Cambridge Bumps in 1946 and 1947. As they had no man light enough to cox, they were allowed a girl cox. This bit of history was recorded in one of the national newspapers (not yours, Sir) with the comment ‘they rowed in the fourth (last) division, but were not the last boat; they had First and Third Trinity boat VIII behind them.’ The latter boat contained–Yours faithfully, Paul Cohn, 18 Brim Hill, Hampstead.

Another momentous event took place on 26 April when Leander members voted to remain a male bastion (several years later women were voted in when a huge grant from the National Lottery depended on it). With women now permissible in the men’s Boat Race, an interesting problem could face Leander. The club’s Rule 14 stated that membership was open to Blues and winners of HRR medals, but Miss Brown seems to have been an exception to this procedure. Furthermore at this time, presidents and secretaries of OUBC and CUBC were automatically ex-officio members of Leander’s committee.

This was almost tested in 1989 when cox Alison Norrish was elected president at Oxford only to resign the post when she decided to study for a Ph.D. at London University.

Cox Gratton

Lastly, the pioneers of female coxswains were not all on the Thames or steering classic events. Calcutta Rowing Club had a terrific asset after its foundation in 1858 when Mrs Daniell held the rudder strings. She was so tall that she could see clear over the bow man’s head, thus aware of speedy tea clippers and other shipping on the Hooghly River.

Then there was Mrs Gratton who coxed the Royal Army Medical Corps to win the Challenge Fours at Lucknow Regatta in 1912. This photograph (see on top) was discovered some years ago behind the mantelpiece in the crew room at Trinity College Dublin when Raymond Blake (author of Trinity’s rowing history, In Black & White) and myself were rummaging around for memorabilia.

The large gent is the coach – a medic with whom you did not mess, I suggest.


  1. I well remember the 1978 doubles incident, as I was the Kingston RC vice-captain who submitted the HRR entry for Hohl and Bird. As you say, our club captain Angus Gait had to apologise for the entry, and Peter Coni threatened to reject all the other crews from KRC. When Angus went up the steps to collect his medal for winning the Brit, Peter told him that he was lucky to be there.

    It was in 1974, not 1975, that the ARA rule was changed to permit women coxes in men’s crews, but it was indeed 1975 that HRR followed suit. The first woman coxswain at HRR was Christine Paul of Furnivall Sculling Club in the Thames Cup, and I coxed the Saxon BC crew who beat them in the first round.

  2. Fascinating, I had always thought Sue Brown was the first ever. What a shame those two ladies were found out before they got a chance to compete in the double sculls.

  3. The Cambridgeshire Rowing Association holds annual bumping races for crews from local town clubs, and any others who may be interested, under their own rules, not those of the ARA. In 1973 or 1974 an eight was entered under the name of Goldilocks, a mixed crew with men from Goldie in the middle four and women from CUWBC as stern and bow pair. This crew was quite fast, making several bumps (I followed them on the bank). There was outrage from some in the CRA, not because a crew with women was not fast enough, but that it was embarrassing for men’s crews to be bumped by this mixed crew.

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