Lisa Taylor: Lucy Pocock Stillwell – A Woman in a Waterman’s World?

Lucy Pocock with the 1912 championship cup, which she received from Ernest Barry (right), who a month earlier had become the world’s new professional sculling champion. On the left is Lucy’s unnamed coxswain. © River & Rowing Museum, Henley on Thames, UK.

16 March 2018

This is an abridged version of a talk by Lisa Taylor* about Lucy Pocock Stillwell. The talk was given at the River & Rowing Museum, Henley on Thames, on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2018.

Lucy Pocock, married name Stillwell, led an extraordinary life for a woman of her time. Her male relatives, Dick and George, have long captured the imagination of rowing historians and enthusiasts alike. Yet the focus of this talk was of course on Lucy’s life. Peter Mallory and others, whose work can be found online, have begun to shine ever more light on her story and offer very thorough accounts of various areas of her life that are only touched on here. The aim was less to present new detail pertaining to Lucy’s life than to view her story through the lens of social history, and to consider her role specifically as a woman within this context. I was also fortunate to be able to speak to Heidi Danilchik, Lucy’s granddaughter, in the course of researching her life. I am grateful for all direct and indirect assistance.

Lucy was born in Kingston, Surrey, in September 1887, the second of four children born to her parents, and five to her father – the youngest, a half-sister. The Pococks were an established and well renowned family of boat builders and watermen; her mother came from the Vickers family, another familiar name in boatbuilding at the time.

The Pocock Family, left to right: Julia, Richard ‘Dick’, Kathleen, George, Aaron and Lucy. © River & Rowing Museum, Henley on Thames, UK.

The prominence of rowing and watermanship in the family then is perhaps unsurprising; yet Lucy’s access to the sport first for leisure and, later, as a profession is unusual. Even apart from the specifics of rowing, the opportunity for leisure at all was also often contested for women, especially for those outside of the middle and upper classes.

Lucy was reported to have been passionate about rowing ‘ever since she could lift an oar’, and while her father, Aaron Pocock, worked at Eton, he would take his four children out rowing together, coxing them himself. Eton would have broadened her opportunities for rowing; apart from access to equipment, and more flexible working patterns for her father, it represented a sheltered environment, with benign water, and far greater privacy, especially compared to the polluted, highly trafficked Thames. These conditions would be far more optimal for rowing, especially for women, whose participation in sport was often contingent on privacy and environmental control.

A passion for rowing would not necessarily mean access to, or even interest in, competition. But Lucy was a competitor. She appears to have raced, successfully, from the age of about 18 or 19, and ultimately she would become a champion, winning the Daily Mirror Sculling Championship of the Thames in 1912.

Lucy Pocock in mid-race. © River & Rowing Museum, Henley on Thames, UK.

Entry to this race was only open to female family members of previous winners of the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race. This may simply have been a practical filter: it would more or less guarantee some degree of skill or experience, and the family name, an important asset, would be at stake. If nothing else, the watermen themselves would be the gatekeepers to the boats required to race – their female relatives would not, in all likelihood, have been able to enter themselves without their backing.

This de facto guarantee of competence is not without sense, on a difficult stretch of water – although in men’s professional racing, competence was no guarantee of safe or sportsmanlike behaviour. Yet this was a contest run by a newspaper, with the intention of generating money and interest. The Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race was a well-known and highly regarded event – the link would create good publicity opportunities, as would recruiting former winners as coxes, and sculling champion Ernest Barry as a judge.

This requirement also located them within a particular social and cultural context, in a working-class community of tradesmen – important because the legitimacy of physical exertion and strength, for women, varied significantly according to class. Working class women were constructed as more physically robust than their middle- and upper-class counterparts; and while this physicality was often constructed as a negative, it also meant the ideological barriers to physical exertion were less among the working class. They didn’t conform to conservative feminine ideals by the very fact of their class, so their transgression of these ideals was, correspondingly, less. 

Whatever the stipulations of the race, it proved popular and highly competitive, with qualification required even for the heats and some 25,000 people reported to have lined the banks to watch the race.

Lucy Pocock – first winner of the Ladies Sculling Championships of the Thames, 1912. © River & Rowing Museum, Henley on Thames, UK.

Interestingly, according to Lucy’s granddaughter, Heidi Danilchik, Lucy’s opponent, Miss Brady, had been put forward to race by her family, who had heavy financial stakes in her win (and that a rematch between the two of them was at least in part a kind of ‘double or nothing’ for them). This financial imperative doesn’t seem to have been the case for Lucy – while her prize money facilitated subsequent travel to the United States, there’s no indication that financial gain was an integral part of her decision to race. This highlights an element of privilege to Lucy’s position – that this was more like sport for sport’s sake than for financial opportunity or, indeed, security.

At the end of the first race between these two, Lucy is reported to have fainted and her opponent to have gone ‘immediately to her assistance to bring her round’: although competitive during the race, the constitution of the winner could bear no more. For Miss Brady, sculling to her aid, the feminine impulse to care and nurture remained unchanged despite her engagement in this competitive tussle. In the rematch, it was Miss Brady who fainted, having lost, and Lucy who provided support to her. It’s possible that this was coincidence; yet the symmetry of this storyline, and the degree of fouling and match-fixing common in men’s professional racing, might give the cynical among us some pause, not least because such explicit display of weakness also offered a useful way to communicate ideas about femininity and women in sport. Reports could reiterate middle-class gender norms surrounding female physiological capacity and exertion – perhaps appeasing readers with more conservative views on women racing boats.

This is evident in more general reporting on the race. The ‘form’ of many of the competitors is characterised as ‘indifferent when compared with the form of the average male sculler’; the form shown by Lucy, however, is described as ‘a revelation to most oarsmen of what a woman sculler can do’ (The Citizen). A different article portrays Lucy as ‘the picture of athletic girlhood’, and ‘the centre of interest for a huge crowd as she stepped ashore – a little woman for such a big task’ (Hendon and Finchley Times). In fact, Lucy was over six foot tall; she was 25 in 1912, so hardly a girl; and images of her don’t easily align with this written description. Was this a lack of observational power on behalf of the journalist, or an intentional reshaping of the facts – part of a long tradition of fake news, perhaps? 

On winning the sculling rematch, Lucy’s additional prize money, supplemented by bets placed by her father, enabled her, her father and sister to join her younger brothers, Dick and George, in the USA, where they had moved in 1910. Shortly after her arrival Lucy began to work, initially as a cook for the men’s rowing team at the University of Washington (UW), and was subsequently employed to coach rowing and the related, prerequisite skill of swimming.

Women had rowed at UW since 1903, in explicitly competitive racing from 1907, and employed coaches were not unusual; but women’s involvement in rowing at this time at UW was in flux. American society, like British society, was conflicted about the extent to which it was appropriate for women to exert themselves; and while the frontier feel of Washington State might have created a more liberal mood – certainly when compared to Oxbridge or the Ivy League – the university still exhibited fairly conservative impulses when it came to women’s sport.

Despite her reported popularity, Lucy only appears to have coached for one season. Her granddaughter suggested that she resigned from the club when it became clear that women would no longer be permitted to pursue competitive training under a new Gymnasium Director. The arrival of this new Director and Lucy’s departure don’t directly follow one another, but perhaps she had hoped – or been promised – that she would be able to make bigger changes to the programme than turned out to be the case.

After she left UW, Lucy appears to have continued to scull for pleasure; and the story goes that her husband to be – James Stillwell, a contractor working on the waterfront – saw this graceful, accomplished sculler skimming across the water, and the rest, as they say, being history. They were married, had children and grandchildren, and led a long and happy life together, Lucy taking a step away from more active, public life, and back towards the domestic sphere. 

Lucy with her daughters Betty and Grace. © River & Rowing Museum, Henley on Thames, UK.

Lucy’s life story thus exhibits an intriguing mix of conformity to, and disruption of, gendered norms in terms of work, sport and home life. On the one hand, here was a woman who was a champion athlete, in a sport dominated by men, both professionally and among amateurs; a woman whose athletic successes allowed her and her family to emigrate, to a place she made a life in; a woman who was paid to coach competitive women’s sport in 1913. On the other hand, we can see her in much more conventional vein: as a young, single woman she participated in competitive sport, she worked in order to support her parental family group – and, on getting married, quietly disappeared from the sport and from public life. The second version of events does her a disservice; but the first is to overlook the extent to which her achievements were facilitated by men, and – importantly – that they all had stakes in her success, from her father and brothers, to the University of Washington, and even the Daily Mirror. Both versions are incomplete; neither are straightforwardly untrue. For a number of reasons – not least of which her talents, but also the specifics of her family life, the financial and domestic opportunity to emigrate, the serendipity of her brothers establishing themselves in a rowing community – unusual opportunities were there for her to take. And we should look to understand her in the context of her circumstances, as well as a woman of her own making. 

*Lisa Taylor is a researcher based at the River & Rowing Museum, in collaboration with the International Sports & Leisure History research group at Manchester Metropolitan University: a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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