21 December 2020
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch tunes his wireless to hear a voice from the first Oxford – Cambridge Women’s Boat Race.
It is popularly supposed that, following the 1914 – 1918 War, British women rapidly achieved a great deal of personal, political and social emancipation. Certainly, the 1918 Representation of the People Act enfranchised women for the first time and one of our dominant views of the 1920s is of the liberated young female ‘flapper’. However, the 1918 Act only gave the vote to propertied women over 30, and for most working and middle-class women in the 1920s, hair remained unbobbed, jazz unheard and cocktails unmixed. Sex may have become ‘casual’ for a few hundred ‘Bright Young Things’, but for the rest of the population it was still decidedly formal. Even the best educated young women studying at the universities had their gentle attempts at achieving some sort of parity with men continually resisted – including their efforts to lessen the draconian restrictions placed on university women’s rowing.
The male monopoly of an Oxbridge education had come to an end with the establishment of what would become Girton College at Cambridge in 1868 and Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford in 1878. The founding of other Oxbridge women’s colleges followed: Cambridge’s Newnham in 1871 and Oxford’s ‘Home Students’ (1879), Somerville (1879), St Hugh’s (1886) and St Hilda’s (1893). The Society of Oxford Home-Students (OHS) had no fixed site but instead offered poorer female students cheap lodgings in houses across Oxford. It eventually became St Anne’s College.
In 1878, London had been the first university to admit women to full degrees, but this reform did not reach Oxford until 1920 and Cambridge until 1948. Even after these changes, limitations on the numbers of women students lasted at Oxford until 1957 and at Cambridge until 1960.
In the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries, the academics at the Oxbridge women’s colleges were, naturally, very keen that their universities change the policy of not awarding full degrees to women. Jane Kingsbury and Carole Williams, authors of Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club 1941 – 2014 (2015), noted the effect that this had on women’s rowing at Cambridge:
In order to avoid any adverse criticism of the presence of women at the university [the authorities at the women’s colleges] policy was to adopt a low profile in all their activities outside the college walls. Criticism of poor handling of boats on the Cam might yet further delay the acceptance of women on equal terms with the men. Thus, competence, conformity, inconspicuousness and decency were the orders of the day for women in boats. Stringent regulations for rowing were thought necessary… (as) unlike other sports (it) had perforce to take place in full view not only of the male membership of the university but also the general public.
Naturally, Oxford’s female rowers suffered similar prejudices, problems and prohibitions. However, although institutional rules and regulations could be very irksome, attending university meant for most women that they had some control of their own lives for the first and perhaps only time. Mostly, they would live under the rule of a father or a husband. This, combined with the camaraderie generated, meant that the experience remained a liberation.
At the Cambridge women’s colleges, Newnham had set up a ‘Rowing Society’ in 1893 for non-competitive boating in various small craft. It became the ‘Boat Club’ in 1916 and from 1919 Newnham College Boat Club (NCBC) made rowing in eights its principal activity – something very rare for women at the time. At Girton, a boat club had been formed in 1906 but for many years its women sculled and were not allowed to row eights. Thus, until the Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club was founded by Newnham and Girton in 1941, a women’s ‘Cambridge Crew’ was in fact a Newnham Crew.
At Oxford, the women’s colleges of St Hilda’s and Somerville established boat clubs in 1911 and 1921 respectively. I have no information on an Oxford Home-Students boat club, but the 1927 Oxford Crew was made up of two women from OHS, six from St Hilda’s and one from Somerville. In the second women’s boat race in 1929, five of the crew were OHS and four were from St Hilda’s. Further, in the fourth race (1934) and also in the sixth race (1936) OHS supplied seven of the crew and St Hilda’s two. Thus, it seems reasonable to suppose that organised rowing existed among the ‘Home-Students’. I speculate that they used a town club, but I have no evidence of this.
As to inter-university competition, in 1917 the University of London Women’s Boat Club challenged NCBC to a race, but wartime logistics meant that it could not happen. In 1919 and 1920, NCBC challenged Somerville College Boat Club, Oxford, but the authorities at Oxford forbade it on both occasions. However, through the 1920s, Newnham found competition in eights at Marlow and on the Thames Tideway against the London School of Medicine for Women (LSMW) and on the Tideway from King’s College, London, and University College, London. Later, Marlow Ladies, Reading University Women’s BC and Civil Service Ladies joined in the opposition.
YouTube has newsreel evidence of NCBC racing LSMW at Marlow in 1919 here and here, in 1922 here, and 1925 here. It took until 1927 for what is regarded as the first Oxford – Cambridge Women’s Boat Race to be held.
In 1989, the Cambridge cox from the historic 1927 race, Margaret Teify Rhys (‘Tiffy’), was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour and what she said perfectly reflected the authorities concern over ‘competence, conformity, inconspicuousness and decency’. She talked about the worries over ‘women’s insides’, controversies surrounding the form of the race, having to train in secret and also the day that she collided with the ‘Elegant Young Men in the Almighty Eight’ aka the ‘Pale Blue Lords of Creation’ aka the CUBC Crew.
A transcript of Rhys’ interview is here but there is also a delightful video memoir on YouTube, made in 2018 when Richard Rhys O’Brien (Tiffy Rhys’ nephew) and Hanna Barton edited the radio interview with archive pictures.
As regards Rhys’ story about confusion over the ‘speed’ and ‘style’ parts of the contest, the Sheffield Independent of 16 March 1927 gives a slightly different version of events:
The heads of the women’s colleges had forbidden the holding of a proper race, and the contest was to be decided on points for style and speed, each crew rowing down stream for style and back again for speed. Cambridge won the toss and rowed first over the half-mile course. They afterwards ran along the towing-path to cheer their rivals.
The Sheffield newspaper went on to say that the two respective coaches (who were to judge ‘steadiness, finish, rhythm and other matters of style’) could not agree. The Cambridge coach thought the women from the Cam had the best technique, giving them 21 points to Oxford’s 19. However, the Oxford coach held that those from the Isis showed superior form and gave them 23 points to Cambridge’s 21. The Cheltenham Chronicle and others surmised that the judges deemed the style of each crew to be equal. In any case, the only solution was to settle the contest purely on speed. Oxford’s time was 3 minutes 26 seconds and Cambridge were 14 seconds slower.
There is one particular and completely incorrect story that has firmly attached itself to the first Oxford – Cambridge Women’s Boat Race. It has been widely and unquestioningly parroted even by sources appearing under apparently reliable banners such as those provided by all the broadsheet newspapers, the BBC, the Boat Race Company and the universities and their boat clubs themselves. It is often said The Times reported that, ‘large and hostile crowds gathered on the towpath’. In fact, The Times did not say this or anything like it and there is no evidence to suggest any hostility by spectators. Indeed, press reports, photographs and newsreel film all indicate that the large crowd was actually very supportive of the event. Tiffy Rhys did not mention any crowd problems.
Looking at the alleged source of the quote, The Times of 16 March 1927 made no mention of a ‘hostile’ crowd and managed to cover the events of 15 March in much the same way that it would have written about a men’s race, without a critical or patronising tone. It is disappointing that so many writers have not checked any original sources and have just accepted what they have read on the Internet.
The Sheffield Independent’s report was one example of coverage that made nonsense of the idea of spectator hostility:
(The Oxford) cox proudly sported a huge bunch of violets, presented to her by an undergraduate…
There was an enormous crowd on the towpath, and enthusiastic undergraduates flung confetti and streamers over the river and blew toy trumpets along the towpath. In the general melee one of the judges twice fell off his bicycle.
There was a failed attempt by ‘the powers that be’ to discourage spectators. The Western Morning News wrote that:
The authorities at Oxford do not like the idea of a large crowd of men students being present in a spirit of idle curiosity, so the race will start at 1:15 p.m., in the hope that the conflict with the lunch hour will keep spectators away.
In fact, some reports say between 4,000 and 5,000 people came to watch – in the spirit of idle curiosity or not. The numbers may be exaggerated but photos and newsreel film show that the crowd was perhaps five deep along part of the course.
YouTube has five minutes of silent newsreel film of the day. Though it is worth watching, it is a little confusing as both crews look similar and are not, of course, racing at the same time. Also, I suspect that the edited film has fallen apart sometime in the last 90 years and the film clips have not all been rejoined in the right order. Also, it may include shots taken in practice and footage that did not make the final edit. Watch it here.
Inevitably, the women’s physical appearance was of interest to the press. The Dundee Courier complained that they ‘were not gay figures… They had severe (short) hair… and looked just like serious young men’. The Sheffield Independent thought Oxford ‘looked very smart in their white jerseys and dark blue shorts. Two wore blue (headbands)… The Cambridge crew wore (Newnham) brown shorts with their white jerseys’. Reuters reported from New York that:
The novel character of the contest has aroused unusual interest here, and the attire worn by the respective crews is the subject of lengthy technical descriptions. The ‘World’ heads its account of the race: ’Petticoats Beat Painted Ladies’.
The conclusion of the Sheffield Independent’s report supports the idea that these were women of a new age for whom perhaps the race was another assertion of their modern ideas and aspirations:
The Cambridge girls were decidedly virile before the race, and their captain exhorted them to ‘row like hell chaps’. After it was all over, they called loudly for cigarettes.
Several sources say that following press reports of the alleged public utterance of ‘row like hell’, the Cambridge Women’s President was brought before the concerned principal of Newnham College who allegedly threatened to ban any further such contests.
After 1927, the next races between the women from Oxford and Cambridge using a similar ‘time trial’ format took place in 1929, 1930, 1934 and 1935. The first side-by-side race was in 1936 and the event became annual in 1964. In 2015, parity with the men was achieved when the women’s Blue and reserve boats raced on the Tideway on Boat Race Day – 88 years after the pioneers had gone out to ‘row like hell’.