Ladies First

‘The Wet Dock, Ipswich’. Oil painting c.1842 by Claude Lorraine Richard Wilson Nursey (1816 – 1873). Ipswich is the county town of Suffolk, eastern England, set on the River Orwell, 65 miles north-east of London. Picture: Public Domain/Ipswich Borough Council.

10 July 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch has not been wasting his time during lockdown.

We all need to try and take something positive from our time-filling activities during lockdown and when I recently discovered what I claim to be the oldest known photographic images of a women’s rowing crew (the 1867 photos of “The Rowing Memsahibs of Naini Tal”, I assumed that I could not better or equal this find. However, after yet more random browsing of Tim Berners-Lee’s splendid World Wide Web thingy, I have come across what I think is the oldest non-photographic image of a women’s racing crew: the above picture, titled “The Wet Dock, Ipswich”. It shows a coxed four crewed by women in matching boating outfits and it is claimed to be ‘c.1842’, the year that the dock was built. However, the artist, Nursey, was living in Ipswich between 1843 and 1845 so it could have been painted in one of those years. The picture is on Wikipedia and the accompanying explanatory text reads:

A very early image, possibly the earliest example of a women’s crew, dressed identically for racing. The wet dock in the background was opened in 1842 with great pomp and ceremony, as the largest wet dock in the country at that time. A visiting crew of women from the south coast travelled to ‘take on all comers’. This is likely to be them, captured in the oil painting.

Detail from “The Wet Dock, Ipswich”. I will be visiting Ipswich to take a better photograph of the painting when circumstances allow.

There were random reports as early as 1733 of working women (often watermen’s or fishermen’s wives and daughters) taking part in rowing races for money prizes. However, no known images of any of these events have survived. Tom Weil, rowing historian and avid collector, has newspaper stories of American women racing in 1860 but the oldest image of such is from 1870. It shows “The Women’s Rowing Match, on the River Monongahela, Near Pittsburgh, between Lottie McAlice and Maggie Lew”Thus, this ‘Ipswich’ image from the early 1840s is the earliest that we have of a female racing crew. The question is: who are they?

Ann Glanville (1796 -1880) of Saltash, Cornwall, ‘The Champion Female Rower of the World’. An obituary said ‘She was a tall and handsome woman (when) in her prime; possessed of extraordinary vigour and resolution, all (Saltash) was proud of her prowess with the oar’.

A women’s boat that, in 1842, ‘travelled to take on all comers’, can only be Ann Glanville and her crew of working women from Saltash, Cornwall, who were active in boat racing at this time.

Although surprisingly obscure in rowing history circles, Ann is at least a legend in her native Saltash, a small town in the south-east of Cornwall, facing the famous seaport of Plymouth over the River Tamar. However, like all ‘legends’, many myths have attached themselves to the story of Ann and her crewmates. Partly, this is due to the woman herself; she was not shy, and she could tell a good story – particularly when it reflected well on herself. She was particularly fond of recounting her meetings with royalty. The fact that Ann and her crew were once seen afloat from the Royal Train by Queen Victoria somehow morphed into the story that Victoria had Ann presented to her on the Royal Yacht (though it is true that, in later life, she met the Queen’s two eldest sons, Prince Alfred and the future Edward VII). The publicity resulting from such tales could only benefit Ann’s business of rowing for financial reward. Contemporary newspapers and magazines picked up and even embellished Ann’s boasts. Like most of us, journalists tend to prefer amusing (if dubious) anecdotes over boring facts.

The most embellished of Ann’s stories concerns her trip to Le Havre. A common version is that, in 1833, Ann’s crew rowed the English Channel to the French port and easily beat ten crews of Frenchmen. In fact, in 1842, they travelled to a Le Havre regatta by paddle steamer, but on arrival, the French crews refused to race them ‘for reasons of chivalry’; there were no races for their four-oared gig; they were professionals trying to enter an amateur event. Ultimately, the women’s only race was against a crew of seamen from the ship that brought them (which the women won). The crew was Ann, Jane House, Emilia Lee and Harriet Hosking.

Because of the lack of reliable material, virtually the only source that I have used in writing about Ann is a little booklet titled Ann Glanville: The Myths and Facts by Terry Cummings, published in 2018 by the Saltash Heritage Museum and Local History Centre. The centre is a well-run and hard-working organisation that should be a model for ambitious local history groups. There also exists a separate website on various aspects of Saltash history, including the waterside.

The plaque on the site of 2 Albert Road, Saltash (demolished c.1960). Before 1869, Albert Road was called Middle Street. ‘Kernow’ is Cornish for ‘Cornwall’.

In his introduction, Terry Cummings wrote:

The story of Ann Glanville has grown legs since the days when she was an active rower… There have been a number of accounts written that are good stories, but that are actually fictional and bear little resemblance to the facts. The purpose of this booklet is not to debunk (them) but rather to tell the real story of a person who is still a Saltash legend…. but also was something of a figurehead for a number of equally strong and formidable Saltash women. In writing this, I have used a number of sources including contemporary newspaper reports and, in particular, two articles written by AT Goodman in ‘Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries’.

To buy Cummings’ 32-page illustrated booklet (£5.96 including p&p), go to the Saltash Heritage website and click on ‘Shop’.

This annotated tourist map from 1890 shows the opportunity for work that the Rivers Tamar, Plym and Lynher, and their tributes, gave for local watermen and women in the days before steam boats and bridges.
An 1829 view of Plymouth from the Cornwall side of the River Tamar. Saltash is marked ‘x’. Engraving by W Miller from a painting by T Allom.

I am not too concerned here with the commonly repeated minor inaccurate details of Ann’s personal life, I have concentrated on her time afloat.

Terry Cummings writes that Ann was born in Saltash in 1796, the daughter of George Warren/ Wherrin, a coachman, and his wife, Margaret. She married John Glanville (1798 – 1871) in 1822.

At that time, there were no steamers or railways and the roads were poor so the main method of transporting goods was by sailing barge or rowing boat. Saltash was something of a ‘half-way house’ between the various places on the river and was a central place of business in terms of water carriage. There were master watermen and women, others who owned boats and also those employed to row them. Ann spent her early years in this environment and acquired a personal strength and efficiency as a rower that won her such a reputation in later years. John Glanville was a waterman, at that time quite a lucrative occupation, and Ann joined him in the business, eventually having a boat of her own.

The ferry between Saltash and Plymouth ran for more than 700 years, only ending as late as 1961 when a road and pedestrian bridge was opened. The last ferry powered by oars stopped in about 1831.
Even when limited to oar power, the Saltash watermen and women seemed able to deal with whatever needed to cross the River Tamar.
In 1811, the artist JMW Turner toured Cornwall. This is his impression of ‘Saltash with the Water Ferry, Cornwall’. Picture: Public Domain/The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
‘Saltash, Cornwall’. Engraving (1827) by W Smith after a drawing by JMW Turner (1811). Picture: Creative Commons Licence CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) © Tate Gallery.

Cummings again:

It is likely that Ann worked as a waterwoman between 1815 and 1850, rowing goods and passengers about the Tamar estuary and its creeks. Through this work she developed the muscle and skill to earn a living. The arrival of paddle steamers on the river from around 1830 threatened the watermen and women’s trade and this led to the water-folk earning money racing at local regattas. A winning team could share a prize of £3 – £4… 

This was at a time when a labourer’s average weekly wage was about 50 pence.

It was not only the arrival of steam powered river craft that threatened the trade of waterman and woman whose craft were oar powered, so did the building of bridges. This is the Lary Bridge over the River Plym, opened in 1827. Engraving by P Heath after the painting by T Allom.
Burnel’s famous railway bridge, the ‘Royal Albert’, over the River Tamar between Saltash and Plymouth is shown here under construction. When it opened in 1859, it took yet more trade from local water-folk.

Ann’s racing career stretched from around 1833 to about 1847. Unpretentious regattas for working people were popular local events that attracted large and boisterous crowds. The Cornish Times of 3 June 1858, reporting on the Saltash Regatta, said that ‘People evidently came out to make a day of it; they brought their wives, their children, their babies, their beer barrels and their larders’.

Cummings has done some especially interesting research for his chapter ‘Regattas’ where he quotes many contemporary newspaper reports of boat races around Saltash and Plymouth.

The first mention of women being involved was in 1831. A report in The Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse Herald on the Port of Plymouth Regatta said:

It should be noted that the Saltashers – that is both men and women, showed their superiority as rowers throughout the rowing matches, all the winning boats being manned with the worthies of that spot.

Regattas were popular local events.

Cummings:

The first mention of Ann Glanville is in 1833 at the Port of Plymouth Royal Regatta when her team was second in a four-oared gig race. From this point it seems that Ann and her crew were rarely beaten….

In 1833, the names of the team captains and winners were Ann Glanville, Mary Glanville, Mary Jones and Susan Screech…. 

By 1841, women’s racing had become one of the main attractions at local regattas and for some 20 years, Saltash women were the elite….

Cummings then goes on to quote a selection of race reports from between 1836 and 1846. The one from The Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse Herald’s report on the 1839 Sutton Pool Regatta is particularly full of florid praise:

The Saltash ladies as usual created the greatest attraction; they ‘gave way’ in fine style, and Ann Glanville, the heroine of a ‘thousand races’, came in victorious in the principal gig race. The style in which these ‘water nymphs’ managed their boats was greatly admired…. (They) were enthusiastically cheered by the spectators afloat and ashore…

Plymouth Harbour, 1829.  Engraving based on a picture by T Allom.

In my attempts to see if the boat in the ‘Ipswich’ painting is Ann’s crew, I was particularly interested in Cummings’ sub-heading, ‘Around the Country’:

By the 1840s, the Saltash ladies travelled further afield, their reputations travelling before them…

In 1842, Ann’s ladies raced in Portsmouth on 2 August, in Plymouth on 5 August and in Le Havre, France, on 15 August. In 1847, they travelled to the North of England intending to race at Fleetwood, Hull, Newcastle and possibly other places. Sadly, Ipswich is not mentioned in the 1842 ‘tour’ but Cummings’ list is not exclusive and a search of Suffolk newspapers for the time is needed.

Even perhaps 15 years after Ann retired from racing, this 1862 report on the Port of Plymouth and Royal Western Yacht Club Regatta wrote of boats that were ‘propelled by the notorious Saltash women’ who were ‘diverting in their gay coloured print dresses and their snow-white jackets, sending along their cockle skiffs with the speed of lightening….’

The Illustrated Sporting News report continued that the Saltash women’s races:

…must be witnessed to be thoroughly enjoyed…. In the first place there can be no better specimens of the art of rowing. In the second (the spectator) will get a few lessons in the art of self-defence, and in the third they will hear such ‘chaff’ as will induce them to believe that the quintessence of all that is humorous must have been installed into the composition of the aquatic ladies, but had become a little impaired by a slight Billingsgate (fish market) influence of an undesirable character. The scene alongside the committee barge is always of the richest kind, and entirely baffles description. It generally begins with a laugh, progresses into smart badinage, develops into warm satire, becomes manured into a red-hot row, which finds a culminating point  in a general melee in which oars and tongues create such a confusion as to give one an idea of another babel in the shape of a flotilla of cockle skiffs manned – or womanned – by the fair  damsels of Saltash. In the race there is sure to be some fouling, which is fouling in more than one sense of the word. But, to give ‘les dames du Saltash’ their due, they are splendid rowers, and on any mile of water between Drake’s Island and the Royal Albert Bridge, at their own native place, they can, and will, bid defiance to all comers.

Today, the Caradon Pilot Gig Club, based at Saltash, has a boat named after Ann. It is pictured here under the ‘Royal Albert Bridge’ of 1859. The 1961 road and pedestrian suspension bridge, the ‘Tamar Bridge’, is just visible behind it.

In his chapter ‘Rowing against men’, Cummings writes:

A major part of Ann’s fame is her success against teams of men, the legend being that she and her ladies could take on any team of either sex and beat them. On checking all the available records, we find that Ann Glanville’s team is known to have rowed against male teams on only four occasions….

There are no records of Ann’s team rowing against watermen in local regattas, although there were many open races.

The first time that the ladies were victorious against the opposite sex was in August 1842. After beating another women’s crew, they had an impromptu race against two men’s boats, perhaps doing it almost as a joke, ‘for the love of the thing’ they said. Their win surprised them as much as anyone.

In their four contests against men, Cummings notes that for at least two of the wins:

…these races were against amateurs and occasional rowers – men with strength and courage but lacking the watermen’s skills.

To give due credit to the Glanville crew, in a race against men at Hull, where they crossed the line second, they were against ‘a picked crew consisting of the best rowers in the port’. They were beaten allegedly only after a ‘tremendous struggle’ against a crew of similar skill. In fact, they were eventually declared the winners on the grounds that the men had fouled Ann’s crew during the race.

The basis of their success against female teams was their skill and strength, whilst against male amateurs it was skill. When matched against experienced racing watermen, as at Hull, the women came off worst.

Ann pictured in 1875, aged 79. Picture: Saltash Heritage Collection.

In his chapter “How they were funded”, Cummings notes that Ann and her crew could not have competed outside of their local area without financial backing as the value of the prizes that they raced for would rarely have covered their travel and accommodation expenses. He speculates that a local boatbuilder, the aptly named Mr Waterman, may have used the women as a ‘demonstration team’. Further, there was a Mr Green who supplied the boats that Ann used racing in Hull and also trained and coxed them. Possibly, he hoped to get his money back by betting on the women to beat the men, an unlikely contest in which he would have got good odds.

Ann Glanville and Tom Weil. Ann seems immune even to the charms of a Yale and Leander man. Despite her death 140 years ago, she has a Twitter account, @AnnGlanville.

The last known reports of Ann racing were in 1847 when she was 51. In 1851, it was suggested that she enter a race for which the first prize was £1. She was not amused: ‘Me, pull for a pound! Ann Glanville, pull for a pound!’ She enjoyed her celebrity status into her old age and did not tire of telling (and improving) her fund of stories. Ann Glanville died after a short illness in 1880, aged 84. Lord Beresford, an admirer of her skills and achievements, saw that ‘she was buried in a thoroughly respectable manner at his personal cost’.

A picture from Terry Cummings’ booklet. Permanently gazing over the Saltash waterside sits Ann Glanville, ‘The Champion Female Rower of the World’.

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