Kit Inspection

Ernie Barry, five times professional world sculling champion, 1912 – 1919, in some well-worn rowing kit.

8 October 2019

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch produces one of his rowing shorts.

When I started rowing in the mid-1980s, there were two British suppliers of rowing kit: Godfrey and Spartan. What they supplied was not very much, mostly black terry towelling shorts and white cotton singlets with club colours in a horizontal band across the chest. For a time, it was fashionable to sew a rectangular towelling bar mat (preferably Guinness) to the seat ‘to improve grip’. Even this was an advance on what had come before when shorts were long, baggy and cotton, and tops were old vests (undershirts) onto which wives or mothers sewed a few inches of club ribbon. By the late 1980s, lycra shorts started to come in – though the early examples lost their stretch after a season.

In his book, Pieces of Eight: Bob Janousek and his Olympians (2012), Chris Dodd records perhaps one of the first uses of ‘technical fabrics’ in British rowing kit. In the early 1970s, British rowing was having some rare success with a Thames Tradesmen’s crew, ‘The Beatle Four’, so called because of the young crew’s long hair (which the Amateur Rowing Association suggested that they have cut). In 1970, Bill Mason, Fred Smallbone, Jim Clark and Lenny Robertson were selected for the World Championships in Canada:

They were given a Marks & Spencer vest and a GB badge to sew on to it themselves, and white (cotton) shorts with reinforced backside and pockets and buckles. ‘They were horrible, we hated them,’ Robertson says. ‘Bill said, I can’t wear these, and the next day he turned up with four pairs of black cycling shorts, long in the leg, which he bought from (a cycling shop) in Putney…’ 

No international kit in 1912 – just Leander colours at the Stockholm Olympics.
International kit at Long Beach, California, in 1932: GB vest and Thames socks. Left to right: Rowland George, Jack Beresford, Hugh Edwards, John Badcock.
Helen Glover and 2016 GB kit.

Whatever changes were made to get to the abundance of rowing kit in technical fabrics that we now have, for most of rowing’s history, kit was mostly inflexible, often dirty and usually well worn – as these pictures illustrate.

The First Eight of Kings College, University of London, outside Biffen’s Anchor Boathouse, Hammersmith, in 1922. The building is now the Auriol Kensington Rowing Club.

The custom of not washing rowing kit on a regular basis was not thought of as strange in the days when washing and drying any clothing was a complicated business and standards of personal hygiene were very different to today’s. When I arrived at Auriol Kensington in the mid-1980s, there still existed a tall, asbestos lined cupboard in the changing room. I was told that at one time this had an open gas ring on the floor. Wet clothing would be hung in there after rowing and the gas put on a low flame to dry the kit out. On club nights, the old jockstraps would be pushed aside, the gas turned up and sausages cooked in a frying pan over the open flame.

A illustration of the fact that it was not only rowing kit that went unwashed for long periods. Here Dick, Bill, Jack and Tom of the famous Phelps rowing family are hard at work maintaining boats at Henley sometime in the 1930s. Typically for the time, they are highly respectable in their shirts and ties but the condition of their trousers betray the fact that they are engaged in tough, manual labour.
A family snapshot of a crew from the West London area in the inter-war period.
Gaston Delaplane, a French rower at the (unofficial) 1906 Olympic Games.

American crews seemed to wear kit made from thinner cotton than their British counterparts, or perhaps some sort of jersey knit wool. This was probably more practical and comfortable, if not more revealing.

Syracuse with coach Ten Eyck, circa 1908.
A ‘colourised’ picture of Cornell in 1911.
Potomac Boat Club, 1921.
Stanford not bothering with kit. This picture is perhaps from the early 1900s and it makes its way around the internet – but nobody is sure what it is all about.

One comment

  1. IInteresting, how conservative the Brits still were in Koch’s day. When I started rowing in the States in the 1950s, we wore knitted wool shorts with a chamois leather seat – to be moistened to adhere to the slide.

    In germany a few years later, crews wearing the new one-piece gear were required on land to wear cloth shorts over them (can’t let everyone see how masculine oarsen are – no pun intended).. That was rather peculiar, since German men’s swim shorts then were all like those seen at any aquatic competiition.
    Myoarin aka Fogelberg

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