Assuming you don’t think this is a trick question (it’s not), you might be tempted to answer, “At a rowing club, stupid!” And you’d be right. But until the 1970s, you would have needed to be more specific because – at least in the South of England – women rowed at women’s rowing clubs.
This is why a quick look at race results for from the era is full of such unfamiliar names as United Universities Women’s RC, Alpha Women’s ARC, St George’s Ladies RC, Lensbury-Britannic Ladies RC, Stuart Ladies RC, Bedford Ladies RC and Harrodian Ladies RC. The only ones still in existence today (with their original names) are Weybridge Ladies ARC and the Oxford and Cambridge University clubs*.
Before the 1970s, when women and men tended to pursue their all their leisure activities separately, the trend in London was for separate rowing clubs for each gender. What made this practical, though, was the lack of direct links between boathouses and boat clubs. A single boathouse might accommodate many clubs, especially as many employers at the time had their own ‘business house’ rowing clubs, which were inevitably quite small. It was therefore very easy for a new club to be set up as it could hire boats from a boathouse and get out rowing straight away.
* Women at the University of London rowed as ULBC rather than ULWBC from 2010. In 2020, openweight and lightweight men and women at Cambridge voted to row as a single, combined CUBC club, leaving Oxford University Women’s BC and Oxford University Women’s Lightweight RC as the only student women’s clubs in the UK.
Women’s rowing outside London
In what were sadly often referred to as the ‘provinces’ in those days, the situation was rather different and clubs like York City, Broxbourne, Christchurch, Norwich and Exeter already had women members by the early 1960s.
And in the ‘metropolitan area’
So that they’re not forgotten, here’s a brief list of some of the women’s clubs of the postwar era and what happened to them, with links to more about their history where these exist.
Alpha Women’s Amateur RC
Founded in 1927, Alpha produced many of Britain’s top women rowers. In 1984 it became part of what is now Mortlake Anglian and Alpha BC.
Barnes Ladies Amateur RC
According to the January 1950 issue of Rowing magazine, “In the spring of 1944 the Youth Council of the Borough of Barnes issued a notice to members of various local youth organisations to the effect ‘that all those interested in learning to row’ were invited to attend a meeting to be held at Tom Green’s boathouse. The result of the meeting was virtually the start of the Club, but it was first formed to be a mixed one under the title ‘The Barnes Juniors Rowing Club’. The Services soon depleted the male supporters but, as such, the club ran with some success for a season. However, the successful junior ladies who were members at that time were determined the Club could not be abandoned so they decided to carry on but under the circumstances to change its name and moreover to aim for senior status. With that object in view they formed The Barnes Ladies Amateur Rowing Club.” Its most famous member was Pam Barber who won the Women’s Sculling Championships of the Thames in 1949 and 1952. Its last appearance in the Almanack was in 1962.
Bedford Ladies RC
Bedford Ladies first affiliated to the Women’s Amateur Rowing Association in 1955. It merged with Star Club in 1972 to form Bedford’s first mixed rowing club.
Civil Service Headquarters Women’s RC
Civil Service Ladies RC renamed itself Barnes Bridge Ladies RC in 1997 to reflect the fact that its membership was no longer restricted in any way to employees of the Civil Service, but this was only the last in a long line of name changes. The 1949 Almanack lists Civil Service Headquarters Women’s RC and Civil Service Women’s Rowing Association as separate entities (although the contact address of the former is c/o the latter) and the Savings Bank Dept Women’s RC also rowed out of the same boathouse in the early 1960s. By the early 1970s these had consolidated into Civil Service HQ Women’s RC which also permitted to have up to 10% of its membership who were not civil servants. The clubs name had changed to Civil Service WRC by the 1972 Almanack although the ‘W’ may have been a typo as by the following year it’s listed as Civil Service Ladies RC.
Today Barnes Bridge Ladies (‘For her’) is the only open women-only club on the Tideway and shares the Civil Service boathouse with Cygnet RC (‘For him’), the only open men-only club in the area in a happy partnership.
This ‘business house’ club seems to have had quite a short existence, first appearing in the 1959 Almanack but disappearing again by 1963. It’s brother club Harrodian RC’s colours were, of course, green and gold to match the livery of the famous Harrods department store.
Although nothing about its name said it was a women-only club, it was as there was a separate Lensbury RC at the time for men. Lensbury Club was the name used for all of the social and sporting organisations for Shell employees, and Britannic a similar setup for BP staff. Formed in May 1952, it was still listed in the 1962 edition of the Almanack with a contact address at a BP office. By 1963 it had been replaced by Lensbury Ladies RC c/o a Shell office address. This was apparently subsumed into Lensbury RC which apparently ceased to exist in 1998.
St George’s Ladies RC
Founded in 1924, St George’s ceased to exist as an active club when it merged with Twickenham RC in 1979. In the intervening 55 years it played a major role in the development of women’s rowing.
Stuart Ladies RC
One of many clubs based on the river Lea in east London, Stuart Ladies took over as the leading women’s club from Borough of Hackney Ladies RC in the early 1950s and was the only women’s club still there when all the remaining clubs amalgamated to form Lea RC in 1980. It was founded in the late 1940s by Yvonne Stuart who, at the time, was a member of Cecil Ladies RC which was started just before the First World War by Phoebe Radley and achieved a lot of success in the 1920s, according to Phoebe’s great nephew Clive Radley in his book The Radleys of the Lea.
United Universities Women’s BC
‘UU’ as it was affectionately known almost single handedly kept GB women’s international crew rowing going in the 1960s. It merged with Thames RC in 1973.
In the 1990s Headington School and Lady Eleanor Holles School dominated junior women’s rowing in England but when girls’ rowing was first ramping up in the 1960s and 1970s, there were a whole different set of schools that everyone was talking about.
Regular competitors included Gilliatt School, Marianne Thornton School, Vauxhall Manor School, Hammersmith County School, Holland Park School, Cardinal Pole School, Fulham County School, St Mark’s School (where international Clare Grove learned to row), Bridgenorth Grammar School, Mayfield School and Southfields School, several of whom boated two eights at the Women’s Head in 1969. Do get in touch if you rowed for any of these!
A few months before she died, Di Ellis, the former Chairman of British Rowing who was a keen historian of women’s rowing gave me a list of a number of other women’s clubs that have come and gone:
First wave: 1923-1930
Ace RC, London Foresters, Barking Ladies RC, Helen Smith Ladies RC, Isleworth Ladies RC (one of whose members, Phylis Taylor was part of the English crew that successfully toured Australia in 1938), Caxton Ladies RC and Ditton Ladies RC
Grocers Ladies RC, Cleavely Ladies RC, Chiswick Ladies RC, Twickenham Post Office, Kettering, Lyons Ladies RC (the home club of Elsie Matthewson who was another of the 1938 English crew that went to Australia), Palmers Stores, Zephyr, and West Kensington Savings Bank.
Many, many examples of the impermanence of early rowing men’s clubs can be found in the marvellous list from 1898 of defunct metropolitan clubs on the Thames Regional Rowing Council’s website, including my personal favourite, the ‘Hand in Hand RC’.