CUBC 1939: Cissies who Laughed Last…

The Cambridge Crew of 1879 and the Oxford Crew of 1953 vary their training.

9 January 2021

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch discovers that (gasp) a woman made an important contribution to training for the 91st Boat Race.

Boat Race crews have long looked for something to give them ‘the edge’ over the opposition. Nowadays, the latest sophisticated methods produced by sports science are applied fairly uniformly to both shades of Blue. However, in the past, individual coaches’ ideas on diet and on land and water training were rather more quirky and random and they varied considerably in their effectiveness.

The Cambridge Crew of 1939 were Light Blue – and Yellow.

Between 1924 and 1936 Cambridge had its famous record winning streak of 13 wins. Oxford won in 1937 and 1938 and the 1939 Light Blues were naturally keen to get back to winning ways. The principle behind one of the ideas that CUBC adopted would be approved of today and it is interesting to see how two different publications, the specialist Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News and the popularist Daily Mirror newspaper, reported on the innovation.

This picture from the “Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News” of 24 February 1939 was under the headline, ‘Cambridge May Owe it to a Woman’ and shows Miss Signe ‘Mona’ Laven coaching the CUBC crew in her methods.

The text accompanying the above picture reads in part:

If Cambridge University wins the Boat Race this year they will have to thank a woman for helping them — Miss Laven, a Swedish physical-training expert… She finds that rowing develops some muscles abnormally while having little effect on others, and by carefully selected exercises she corrects this uneven development… ‘They are very good pupils,’ says Miss Laven, ‘fit, fearless, keen and quick to improve’… (It) is a fact that last year none of the Cambridge crew suffered any muscular strain. It was some years before the (1914 – 18) war that Miss Laven, having studied physical culture and taken degrees in Sweden, came to England… She built her gymnasium and clinic at Cambridge, where she is now very well known.

Cambridge performing more of Signe Laven’s exercises under her supervision.

The Daily Mirror of 17 February 1939 took a different approach to the respectful one demonstrated by the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. The hilarious idea of a woman making a contribution to Boat Race training was too good to ignore and it was made extra funny by the fact that she was a foreigner:

Leaping hither and thither, brawny arms extended, knobbly knees raised in the air, the Cambridge crew look as though they’re going in for ballet.

The Mirror particularly latched onto the idea that a small part of Laven’s series of exercises included dancing with ribbons. As she also taught Swedish folk dancing to schoolgirls, the ‘special correspondent’ decided that Cambridge were also in receipt of such lessons, not letting the truth get in the way of a good story.

The “Daily Mirror” reports on Signe Laven’s methods.

The Mirror asked the Oxford President, JL Garton, what he thought of this. Under the headline ‘Oxford have a laugh’, Garton, probably with some prompting, responded to the dubious facts put to him by the paper:

It will cause a riot when everybody hears about it. Of course we have heard of Swedish drills for developing the muscles, but folk dances — that’s going too far. You won’t catch us doing a thing like that. I’m afraid the Cambridge chaps have let themselves in for a lot of laughter. It’s the biggest joke in years. And I don’t see how they’re going to get out of being called cissies.

Laven stoically told the Mirror: 

The men have told me that it does them good. They are very amused at the idea of dancing, especially with ribbons, but it is all part of the training.

More on the life of Signe Elfrida Laven (1885 – 1955) is on a website on the history of Harston, the Cambridgeshire village where she lived for many years.

The 1939 Boat Race produced an unexpected result.

Come Boat Race Day 1939, Oxford were the favourites, but it was Cambridge that had the last laugh when they won by four lengths. The Observer said that the Dark Blues ‘made no effort to race’ while the Manchester Guardian claimed that OUBC ‘settled down to a dignified and, as it were, middle-aged stride’. Ultimately, Cambridge danced away with the race.

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