20 October 2022
By Tim Koch
In the best tradition of letters to The Times, Tim Koch receives a response to his recent post.
To further illustrate my recent piece on oarswomen’s dress in the 1920s as recalled in letters to The Times in 1972, HTBS contributor and historian of Oxford’s Brasenose College Boat Club, William O’Chee, sent me the splendid picture shown above. He also wrote:
I should add that the stroke, Miss Francombe, was actually called upon to cast her eye over the 1929 Brasenose College 1st VIII, who were Head of the River in Summer Eights that year…
This enlightened view of a woman’s abilities in 1929 seemed uncharacteristic of men’s attitudes at the time and I felt it needed further investigation.
Florence Elizabeth (Betty) Francombe, stroked the Oxford women’s boat in 1929 and subsequently coached them from 1930 to 1936, winning the three of the four races held in that period (1934, 1935, and 1936). She was a local girl from Iffley Road, Oxford, the only daughter of Samson Francombe. Bill O’Chee has found that, on Samson’s retirement from Barclays Bank in Oxford in 1929, the Oxford Chronicle noted:
Mr Francombe was an enthusiastic oarsman in his youth, and was a member of the Falcon (Rowing Club) crew which was head of the river in the City Bumping Races (in 1894). He was regarded as the finest “three” that Oxford City Rowing has ever known. His daughter has inherited her father’s love for rowing, and is captain of the United Eight of the Women’s Colleges.
Betty Francombe was a member of OHS, the Society of Oxford Home-Students, and graduated in 1933. OHS had no fixed site but instead offered poorer female students cheap lodgings in houses across Oxford. It became St Anne’s College in 1952. Presumably, Betty lived at home while a student.
Betty Francombe’s name seems best remembered for the Francombe Cup, once the trophy for the Women’s Boat Race, a prize that she donated in 1936, the year that she retired as coach. The silver cup was lost for many years and a replacement in the form of a shield was used until the current prize, the Newton Trophy, was commissioned in 2014. By then the Francombe Cup had been rediscovered and had been repurposed as the Victor Ludorum for the most successful university at the Henley Boat Races.
One obscure fact that I did find about Betty Francombe could explain why in 1929 the all-male Brasenose College Boat Club asked a female coach for her view of their First VIII. It is possible that, at the time, she was the girlfriend of the splendidly named Carruthers Melvill “Monkey” Johnston of Brasenose. He was OUBC President 1931-1932, rowed in the Boat Races of 1930, 1931 and 1932, was in three Head of the River crews and was victorious in the O.U.B.C. Fours and Pairs. At Henley, he had won the Visitor’s Challenge Cup and been a runner-up in the Goblets. Carruthers and Betty became engaged in late 1933 and so they could have been in a relationship in 1929 (though they would have had a very long courtship by the norms of that time).
If the couple were actually “courting” in 1929, was Johnston simply indulging his girlfriend by asking her opinion of the First VIII – or is this suggestion very unfair to Betty Francombe? Bill O’Chee provides evidence that Johnston was one for making gestures:
As Oxford President, Johnston had the authority to allocate tickets in the official launches (to follow the 1932 Boat Race) to those old Blues who applied for them… When Guy Nickalls turned up at Putney Embankment he discovered that he was not welcome. In preparing the official manifest, Johnston instructed that Nickalls “was not given a ticket on the launches owing to his habit of writing the most appalling articles in the Press. It may be that this privation will make him remember his manners in the future.” Nickalls was eventually allowed to board the launch, but only after Johnston extracted a humiliating apology from him.
It must be noted that in 1929 Francombe had not yet proved herself to be an able coach as this was before her successes coaching the 1934, 1935 and 1936 OUWBC crews. We will probably never know the truth.
I do not think that the Johnston – Francombe marriage ever took place. The Times of 10 October 1936 announced that the marriage between Cyril Francis Gibbons and Florence Elizabeth Francombe would be in Rangoon, Burma, that December. However, Betty married Lieutenant Roderick Barratt, Royal Navy, in London in March 1940.
Johnston went to work in the colonial service in Kenya in 1933 and married Barbara Bonnor there in 1936. He retired in 1960, three years before the country became independent. Some have associated him indirectly with the torture of alleged members of the KLFA, the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (viewed by the British as a sort of evil cult that they called “Mau Mau”) in the notorious Hola detention camp in 1959 and he was at the very least complicit in the extremely violent and cruel suppression of opposition to British rule in Kenya between 1952 and 1960.
Officially, 11,000 black people were killed during the eight-year “emergency” but David Anderson, professor of African Politics at Oxford University, estimates the number at 25,000. The KLFA killed thirty-two white settlers, about 200 white police and soldiers and, admittedly, a number of black Africans including nearly 2,000 Kikuyu “loyalists.” There is a brilliant 850-word summary of Kenya pre- and post-independence in the online archive of the Washington Post. Johnston died in a motor accident in England in 1970.