5 June 2020
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch reunites two photographs of historical importance.
Things that are of importance to the history of rowing can originate in some unlikely places; I recently discovered two such items, both of which began life in a high-altitude Himalayan resort town in northern India 153 years ago. While engaged in some lockdown internet browsing, I found the above picture on the website of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Two things struck me. Firstly, that as a photograph of a women’s rowing crew, it was very early and, secondly, that it reminded me of another image that I had recently seen on the internet, this one on eBay.
Mr Nelson initially described the above picture as ‘A fabulous and extremely early original albumen photograph of a female rowing crew, with six members plus a cox, taken in the (English) Lake District in the mid-1860s’. However, looking at both the foreground and the background of both pictures, it was obvious that only the crews were different and both photographs must have been taken with the same boat, in the same place, at the same time. Was this India or England? I soon had two pieces of evidence that it was Naini Tal in India.
As well as using the above pictures to establish where the photographs were taken, I also contacted Charles Nelson and he told me that the photograph came from an album that contained both Nainital and Lake District photographs and that he (not unreasonably) concluded that the women were pictured in England.
I am certain that these are pictures of women who took their boating seriously, they were not just groups of friends who sat in a boat to make an interesting photograph or who would occasionally, randomly and inexpertly go rowing. They all look confident leaning on their oars and seem at ease in a boat. Notably, they are all in uniform rowing costumes. The women in the ‘Houston’ photograph have boater hats with ‘Undine’ on the band, a reference to the mythological aquatic female creatures, and this could be the Undine Club or the Undine Crew. They are in matching skirts, blouses and, most interestingly, they seem to be wearing some sort of short boating jackets, perhaps with brass buttons. The other crew is in simpler but still matching outfits. In her book Women of the Raj: The Mothers, Wives, and Daughters of the British Empire in India (1988), Professor Margaret MacMillan of the University of Oxford confirms that such activity existed on Naini Tal in the 1860s:
Ladies who had been too tired to do anything much on the Plains found in the cool air (of the high altitude settlements) that they could take up sport again… At Naini Tal, the lake was the scene of ladies’ rowing races. In 1867, young Barbara Kerr reported proudly, she was fortunate to be part of the crew of the Lieutenant-Governor’s daughter, which had ‘a very swell costume of dark blue stuff trimmed with scarlet braid and looped up with 15 scarlet anchors’.
The Naval and Military Gazette of 18 September 1869 said of Nainital, ‘During the season there are balls, cricket matches, croquet etc, and boat races on the lovely lake, the crews of the rival boats being some of the belles of the station’.
Thus, around the 1860s at least, it seems certain that organised competitive boat racing by women’s crews or clubs was taking place on Naini Tal.
Addendum: Shortly after this article was posted, HTBS contributor Greg Denieffe pointed out that it is the same women in both pictures: one photograph shows them with hats and jackets, one without. While I am slightly disappointed that we do not have images of two different crews, this does not change the fact that there were several women’s crew racing on Naini Tal in this period – as evidenced by the quotes from Margaret MacMillan and The Naval and Military Gazette.
Before contemplating the historical significance of these photographs, a look at the geographical, political and social context in which they existed would be appropriate.
Nainital, in the foothills of the outer Himalayas, is set in a valley around a 1,500-metre long lake, (Naini Tal) and sits at an altitude of 2,000 metres in an area known as ‘the Lake District of India’. Nainital was established by the British in the early 1840s as a ‘hill station’, that is one of the eighty high altitude towns used by the colonialists to escape the blistering summer heat and dust of the plains. By 1848, an Anglican church, St. John in the Wilderness (also known as ‘Jack in the Jungle’), had been built in the neo-Gothic style and the town grew as a favoured place for soldiers and colonial officials, soon becoming the summer headquarters of the Provincial Governor.
A ‘Little England’ was rapidly established with more churches (including India’s first Methodist Church in 1858 and the St. Francis Roman Catholic Church in 1868), a barracks, sanatorium, post office, library, assembly rooms, masonic hall and shops and schools. The Indian presence in the town was confined to only those native people needed to serve the wants and needs of the British residents. In The Magic Mountains: Hill Stations and the British Raj (1996), Dane Kennedy of Columbian College, Washington, writes:
To these cloud-enshrouded sanctuaries the British expatriate elite came for seasonal relief not merely from the physical toll of a harsh climate but from the social and psychological toll of an alien culture. Here they established closed communities of their own kind in a setting of their own design.
Another chronicler of the Raj said of hill stations, ‘Imagine a Victorian seaside holiday town that has somehow acquired an Indian bazaar…’
By 1880, the year-round population of Nainital was 6,600, rising to 10,000 during the summer season when people escaped the dreary life of the plains. In The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience (2018), historian David Gilmour says this about the social life of the hill stations when an organised week of fun and games would be held at least once or twice during the summer season:
The important thing for small stations was to make the programme attractive enough for women to come long distances to attend it … Loralai (now in Pakistan) devised a schedule that included a fancy-dress ball, three other dances, a dog show, a treasure hunt and a ladies-versus-gentlemen cricket match – at such events the men would bat left handed or with umbrellas.
In Nainital in particular, sport was an important part of the social scene and there was polo, cricket, soccer, tennis, archery, rifle shooting and hockey. Naturally, the lake attracted rowing, sailing and swimming. Margaret MacMillan notes that:
The British in India longed to be amused. They filled their days with visiting and parties – and sports. It was almost impossible to be a true member of the community without liking sports.
Typically for an academic, Dane Kennedy suggests a subtext for all this organised social and sporting activity:
… newcomers were socialized to the normative codes of colonial society through clubland’s powers to enforce conformity…
Most stations could provide amenities for most sporting activities except for rowing, a popular sport for young officers and officials who had been to schools with a river and a boat club…. The only hill stations that could hold regattas were those with large lakes, particularly Naini Tal and Ooty …
The Times of India of 8 July 1876 had a dispatch from Naini Tal saying that ‘the mania for boat racing is still raging’ and giving a long account of scratch racing by men’s fours.
(Naini Tal with its lake and ‘Flats’) became a very sporty place, holding one ‘week’ at the end of May and an ‘autumn week’ that included the regatta. It also had a September ‘week’ for women in which teams were selected according to marital status…. (In 1901, the married women) were defeated by the spinsters in the hockey, in the boat race and in the cricket…
The aforementioned spinsters (known as ‘the spins’) were not just the unmarried daughters of British families living in India, they would also be members of ‘the fishing fleet’, young women from middle-class Victorian households in Britain who were ‘too intelligent, too poor or too plain’ to make ‘good matches’ at home. However, if they went to India, where European men outnumbered European women three to one, they had a better chance of finding a suitable husband, particularly in a sociable town like Nainital.
Not all of the fishing fleet netted a man and in Women of the Raj, Margaret MacMillan wrote that ‘(women) who did not manage to attach themselves to members of the opposite sex could find hill stations very dull’. Perhaps these unsuccessful husband hunters (particularly the ones who were ‘too intelligent’) would be more likely to band together to form a rowing crew, briefly escaping to the lake for some fun away from male control and stifling social pressures?
In 1872, The Times of India reported:
Nynee Tal [sic] boating is first-rate, plenty of water, and good boats from the banks of the Thames. The girls in dainty sailor-hats and fluttering ribbons steer….
Possibly, coxing men’s crews was regarded as a more suitable pastime for a respectable lady in a ‘dainty sailor-hat’, steering being a more genteel activity than women themselves rowing. In a chapter titled Unconventional Women, Margaret MacMillan noted ‘British society in India did not much like unconventional behaviour in women’.
The colonial presence in Nainital started to decline after 1925 when British civil servants were given subsidised annual leave to the UK and so spent less time at the hill stations. Particularly after independence in 1947, Naini Tal attracted politicians, movie stars and other Indians from the country’s ‘smart set’. However, since the 1980s, they have been driven away by an influx of the country’s burgeoning middle-classes. This has resulted in the resort becoming overcrowded and being thoughtlessly and crudely overdeveloped with the lake suffering pollution and falling water levels. Sadly, this is a problem common to many former hill stations.
Returning to the two pictures of the boating women of Naini Tal, they are more than just interesting parts of the story of rowing; I am going to confidently state that these 1867 prints are the oldest known photographs of women engaged in rowing. The fact that the ladies appear to be doing it with some commitment and seriousness is a bonus. I have checked this assertion with someone who owns one of the world’s largest collection of rowing memorabilia, the very knowledgeable Tom Weil. He confirmed that he had not known of any photographs of rowing women prior to 1870.
As an aside, Tom has previously commented on a reference to Nainital by HTBS in 2017:
The mention of Nainital brings back marvellous childhood memories, as, during my father’s posting to the U.S. Embassy from 1953 to 1956, when ceiling fans were inadequate in Delhi’s summer heat (and air conditioning non-existent) we decamped to Ranikhet, a hill station adjacent to Nainital, with accommodations little changed from the days of the Raj (tiger hunts, monkeys hurling pine cones from the trees, no electricity).
This is a good place to examine other early rowing images. Looking at non-photographic representations of women rowing, I have previously stated that the picture below is the earliest.
As to women engaged in ‘serious’ rowing, Tom says ‘I believe that the well-known 1846 lithograph showing a Leander eight wearing top hats shows a woman coxing’.
Beginning in the mid 1860s, a number of images of rowing women, mostly caricatures, began to appear – not ‘serious’ sport or leisure rowing. Showing women as often portrayed in the era as passengers, spectators, sexual objects, etc.
Tom has newspaper stories of American women racing in 1860 but the earliest image of such that he knows of is from 1870 showing The Women’s Rowing Match, on the River Monongahela, Near Pittsburgh, between Lottie McAlice and Maggie Lew. It is strange that the earliest known photograph of a women’s racing crew is actually three years older than the earliest known illustration.
The earliest photographic images of rowing men that can be confidently dated are from 1858. At least four were taken at the same spot by Henley Bridge. There is one of an Exeter College, Oxford, crew currently held by the River and Rowing Museum. Coincidently, the eBay dealer, Charles Nelson, has two 1858 rowing photos for sale, these of Eton and of Radley.
Thus, the 1867 boating pictures of the women of Naini Tal were taken less than 10 years after the very first rowing photographs. They probably thought that they were just posing for a memento of an enjoyable activity – little did they know that they were making a piece of rowing history.