The Rowing Memsahibs of Naini Tal

A photograph held by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, inscribed ‘Nynee Tal Lake 1867’. Sited in northern India, this lake (whose name is nowadays written as ‘Naini Tal’) is surrounded by the town of Nainital. In 1867, it was in what was then called ‘The United Provinces of Agra and Oudh’ in British ruled India. Today, most of the former United Provinces are in Uttarakhand State. Unknown photographer/Public Domain

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.

This photograph is listed on eBay by Charles Nelson, an English dealer in rare books, vintage photographs, fine art and ephemera using the business name, Kernoozers Gallery.

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.

An 1865 photograph of the north end of Naini Tal. I have put an ‘X’ where I am sure that the photos were taken, the boathouse with the twin apex roof seen behind the boated women is sited to the left.
Closer contemporary and modern views of the spot where the photographs were taken.

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.

Detail of the ‘Undine’ crew photograph. I have contacted the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, about this picture but I have not yet had a response.

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.

A post-1880 postcard showing Nainital’s lake and Ayarpatta Hill.
The Waverley Hotel, Nainital, c.1908. These two hand-coloured postcards give an idea how verdant Nainital was (and is).

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…’

A view of the north end of Naini Tal in 1875. The boathouse is the one shown in the background of the two photographs of the women’s crews. In 1880, a disastrous landslide destroyed many of the buildings shown here.
A view of the lake from the north end taken several years after the 1880 landslide. Debris from the landslide was used to extend ‘The Flats’, the level land in front of the lake, a popular place for sport in a hilly area otherwise lacking ground suitable for athletic activities. The building on the waterfront in the middle of the Flats was the Assembly Rooms, a centre for social events.

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…

Nynee Tal Rifle Club, 1861, First Prize Won by T.P. Gudgin.
Cricket on the Flats, c.1867. This and other photographs of cricket at Naini Tal are also for sale by Charles Nelson’s Kernoozers Gallery.
Tennis next to the Assembly Rooms, 1899. The lake is to the right, the Flats are to the left.
Polo on the Flats, 1900. Picture: Amar Dev Singh.
Rowing past some splendid looking boathouses c.1900.
Messing about on and in the lake, 1920s. Picture: Anup Shah.
A dance, probably in the Assembly Rooms, 1920s.

David Gilmour:

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.

A prize tankard offered for sale on eBay. It is engraved ‘Fours / Ranikhet v Nainital / May 99 / Won by Ranikhet’. It also has the names of the army officers from the winning crew. Ranikhet was another hill station, 55km from Nainital.

Gilmour again:

(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?

The Naini Tal Regatta. The top picture shows some of the spectators in 1898, the picture below is from 1900 and shows a men’s four coxed by a woman. Pictures: navinsamachar.com
The United Provinces Policemen and their female cox, winners of the Barampur Pairs at the 1911 Naini Tal Regatta.

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’.

Nainital today. Some of the Victorian boathouses remain though it seems that a number are now used for other purposes. Picture: Anirudh Singh.
Possibly, this boat, pictured in Nainital in 2019, is made locally but I would like to think that it could be one of the ‘good boats from the banks of the Thames’ reported by “The Times of India”. Pictures: Shravan Yadav.
In 2019, the Facebook page for the alumni of St. Joseph’s College, Nainital (a Roman Catholic school for boys founded in 1888, a former seminary known as ‘Sem’), showed the school’s now unused boathouse. Piyush Singhania responded: ‘I was an avid participant and member in the 1983 rowing teams… It was a very enjoyable and coveted sport… The school should do whatever possible to revive it’. Picture: @semalumni
In this @semalumni picture of a St Joseph’s crew from 1966, they are still using fixed pin rowlocks. This is not too strange as Oxford had given them up only 15 years before. I previously wrote about Britain’s rowing legacy in India in my piece “From Empire to Independence”.
Vitai Lampada. Old-fashioned values that the Raj would have approved of remain at St Joseph’s (perhaps unsurprising for an institution run by the Christian Brothers).
Today, only tourists row on Naini Tal. The oars look locally made but are the skiffs from ‘the banks of the Thames?’

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.

Another very early Indian rowing photograph, though not taken in Nainital but in the then provincial capital, Lucknow, 400km away. It shows British Army Officers of the Chattar Manzil Club coxed by a Miss Maxwell on the Gomti River in 1871. Picture: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Open Content Program.

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.

‘Lord Niune rowing with his mistress’, dating from between 1310 and 1340. I presume that it is his manservant and her maid that are doing the actual rowing. The oars are in rowlocks of some kind, they are not paddles.

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’.

The Great Race between Robert Coombes and Charles Campbell for the Championship of the Thames, 1846. I have inserted a close-up of what appears to be a woman coxing one of the fours.

Tom:

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.

I would add ‘figures of fun’ to Tom’s list of the way women were portrayed in many early rowing pictures.
Cornishwoman Ann Glanville (1796 – 1880) was racing with her women’s crew from the 1830s to the 1860s but no images of this seem to exist. There were random reports throughout the 1800s of working women (often fishermen’s wives and daughters) taking part in various one-off rowing races for money prizes. In 1814, for example, Chester Regatta had a race for women with a two-guinea prize.

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.

Another early illustration of women racing: The Empire City Rowing Club Regatta on the Harlem River in New York – the Ladies’ Double Scull Race (1871).

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.

Another 1858 rowing photograph taken next to Henley Bridge: A man in a single scull opposite the ‘Angel on the Bridge’ pub.

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.

7 comments

  1. What a superb post.

    For this Anglo-Indian old coxswain, this is truly stuff of legend . . .

    Great work, inspired sleuthing, and wonderful story. Bravo!

  2. Fascinating post, such a lot of research and time must have gone into it. Incidentally as regards the “Fishing Fleet” there was an awful term to describe girls who failed to catch a man in India. If after a year they had proved too plain or too unpleasant for even the most desperate Company man, they were shipped home as “Returned Empties”. It is always rather poignant finding trophies etc turning up on eBay and you wonder why. My cousin has a treasured rowing trophy from the Kingston Rowing Club in 1879 with an ancestor’s name on it and he would not dream of selling it.

  3. Lovely. Thank you Tim (and Göran). This brings back 65-year-old memories of our summers in Ranikhet, as we escaped from New Delhi, where my father worked at the US Embassy. No electricity, so our evenings were lit by little gas lanterns that hissed as they burned. No running water, so the paniwallahs would heat bath water in a central facility and carry it to our cabins. Monkeys hurled pine cones at us as the horse handlers led our ponies along the heavily treed hill trails. We were quite impressed when the German military attache, who was also staying at the camp, shot a leopard, particularly since he had only one arm, having lost the other in the war. My one memory of Nainital itself was being introduced to golf there by my father, and watching delightedly as my ball, quite inadequately struck by a five year-old, kept rolling down the manicured hillside, drawn much more by gravity than propelled by my swing (it was a very odd location for a golf course …). All very Raj (that was only a few years after independence) and Kiplingesque.

    Ooty, another hill station mentioned in your piece, is where I was conceived on my parents’ honeymoon during an earlier India posting …

  4. The name Nainital seemed familiar to me and on reading this piece again it came back to me: a cousin of my great grandfather, called Major Martin Morphy, actually was killed along with his wife Isabel in that landslide on 18 September 1880 and I have a newspaper article about the tragedy. Interesting here to see pictures of what the landslide actually looked like.

  5. It’s interesting to see that out of the 134 readers, who found their way to this article when it was first posted on 5 June, none came from India. It was mostly readers from the UK. What normally happens is that an article has fewer readers the second day, and third, etc. Between 8 and 17 June, “Rowing Memsahibs” seemed to have run its course, with no readers at all. Then on 18 June, something happened: someone in India must have found the article. The stats show 385 people from India had found HTBS and the article was read 557 times. The day after, the piece was read by 704 readers, 590 from India. So far this Saturday morning, 20 June, “Rowing Memsahibs” has found 183 readers of which 152 are from India. Well, just an observation on a sunny day under self-isolation…

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