A Raj Regatta

Detail from a photograph of 1867 showing a British women’s rowing crew on a lake in the Himalayan resort town of Nainital in what is now Uttarakhand State. The lake is called “Naini Tal” which means simply “Naini Lake”.

12 October 2021

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch joins the memsahibs.

The Internet compresses distance and last year it enabled me to reconnect two long-separated 153-year-old rowing photographs, one residing in Bagshot, Surrey, England and the other held in Houston, Texas, USA. I found that they were pictures of the same crew of British women in uniform dress in a boat in British ruled India, the American photo showing them in their club boaters and jackets but the British picture showing them without such encumbrances.

In my subsequent article, “The Rowing Memsahibs of Naini Tal”, I wrote:

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 collections of rowing memorabilia, the very knowledgeable Tom Weil. He confirmed that he had not known of any photographs of rowing women prior to 1870. 

Tom subsequently purchased the Bagshot “hatless” picture, and it is now safely preserved as part of rowing history. The Houston picture is held by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas.

Top: The “Bagshot” picture now owned by Tom Weil. Below: The Houston museum’s version.

In my original piece I wrote:

I am certain that these are pictures of a group of women who took their boating seriously, they were not just 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 held 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.

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 fifteen scarlet anchors’”. 

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 of the plains.
A chronicler of British ruled India said of hill stations, “Imagine a Victorian seaside holiday town that has somehow acquired an Indian bazaar…” The “Little England” idea was perpetuated by the names that the British residents gave to their houses. As this map of part of Naini Tal in 1909 shows, they included such un-Indian names as “Strawberry Cottage”, “Snowdon”, “Oak Park” and “Windermere”.

Margaret MacMillan noted 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.

In Nainital in particular, sport was an important part of the social scene and there was equestrianism, cricket, soccer, tennis, archery, rifle shooting and hockey. Naturally, the lake attracted sailing, swimming and rowing. The first boat belonging to a British resident was put on the lake in 1843.

A gymkhana on the Flats at Naini Tal, one of the many sporting activities that took place on the rare flat land by the north end of the lake.

The extent of rowing activity by women is perhaps illustrated by a regatta programme that I recently acquired, one for the Naini Tal Club Regatta of 30 September 1915 (though there may be some distortion as a number of the men would be away at war).  

As far as organising the regatta went, the men were still in charge.
The top picture shows some of the spectators at the Naini Tal Regatta of 1898, the picture below is from the 1900 regatta and shows a men’s four coxed by a woman. Pictures: navinsamachar.com
Three of the eight events offered in 1915.

Naini Tal Regatta Rule 6 stated:

All boats are to be coxed by ladies with the exception of Ladies’ Fours and Ladies’ Pairs or Double Sculls.

Sadly, none of these three events for ladies took place in the 1915 Regatta. It would be interesting to know how often they did occur. Did Rule 6 mean that all-women crews had to be coxed by men – or was this optional?

Event 1: Mens Open Pairs coxed by a woman.

Event 2: Canoe Race, one man and one woman.

Event 3: P and O Padding Race. The “P and O” is presumably a reference to the shipping line and the three women, two men crew must mean that one of the women is coxing. What sort of coxed, four-person boat could be propelled by paddles and not oars, I do not know.

The United Provinces Policemen and their female cox, winners of the (Maharajah of) Balrampur Pairs at the 1911 Naini Tal Regatta.
Five of the eight events offered in 1915.

Event 7: Waterman’s Race. This is a mystery. Could it have been for local Indian men who worked with boats as their trade? This idea is perhaps supported by the fact that their names are not recorded, the casual racism of the time probably making such information of little interest. In my history of Shanghai Rowing Club, I noted that the Europeans put on a race for Chinese men in their regattas from at least 1901 onwards.

Event 8: Men’s single sculls.

Event 9: Mixed Fours. Two men and two women rowing, a woman coxing.

Event 10: Mixed Double Sculls. A man and a woman rowing, a woman coxing.

Event 11: Men’s Coxed Fours, Civil v Military. Four men rowing, a woman coxing.

Boats were “committee boats” i.e. ones provided by the organisers. As always in such events, it was dependent on luck to get a “good” boat. Rule 3:

Crews will draw lots for choice of boats. They will have choice of stations in reverse order to choice of boats.

No doubt made as a result of experience, Rule 4 further stated:

No complaints as regards defects in boats and oars will be considered after the commencement of a race. Competitors should draw the attention of the Committee to such defects, if any, before the race begins.

Spectators at the 1907 Regatta.

The fact that women’s rowing seems to have been a common and popular activity on Naini Tal from at least the 1860s may be explained by the fact that, for much of the year, women formed that majority of those living in hill stations, the men having to spend most of their time working in the towns and cities on the plains. Possibly, the reduced male presence allowed women to be more daring and engage in activities not always considered “proper” for the gentle sex – such as rowing in both ladies and mixed crews.

It is unlikely that many, if any, of the female rowers of Naini Tal thought of themselves as radical pioneers – but perhaps that is what they were.


  1. Tim, this is most interesting and prompts me to ask whether we also saw punting and racing punting at such events? Do I recall seeing a photograph of the prince of wales punting in India?

    • Peter, the lake at Naini Tal is too deep for punting (see the depths on the map above). I have not seen any pictures of punting in India but there is no reason why the British would not have introduced it on suitable rivers.

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