Thames skiffing is a form of traditional boating practiced, obviously, on the Thames (and also by one enthusiast in Cambridge) that uses wide, fixed-seat, clinker-built wooden boats of a design that was cutting edge in the late nineteenth century and has deliberately remained unchanged since then, eschewing outriggers, sliding seats and composite materials.
The highlight of the skiff racing calendar is the Skiff Championships, whose 125th anniversary regatta took place yesterday.
What does any of this have to do with the history of GB women’s international rowing (the subject of RowingStory), you might reasonably ask? The answer is twofold, though they’re related.
First, from the point of view of the social history or rowing, skiffing was decades ahead of rowing in terms of women’s racing. For starters, all of the skiff clubs have always had both male and female members, unlike in ‘fine boat’ rowing where new clubs were formed so that women could row, and it was many years before men’s clubs opened their doors to women.
But lady skiffers also raced, and not only in ladies crews, but actually with men in mixed doubles too. The first skiff club – called, faintly confusingly, the Skiff Club – was formed in 1895, and the first Skiff Championships were run just two year later in 1897. The first mixed doubles race seems to have taken place in 1906 and was won by Lucy Pocock and Nigel Wakefield. Lucy went on to win the first Women’s Sculling Championship of the Thames (in a skiff-like fixed-seat outriggered boat, with a male cox, while wearing corsets) before emigrating to the US where she briefly coached the first women to row at the University of Washington in Seattle.
To add some rowing context to this era, the first women’s rowing club – Hammersmith Girls’ Sculling Club which was later renamed Furnivall Sculling Club – opened in 1896, rowing legend Amy Gentry was only born in 1903, and by the time the Women’s Amateur Rowing Association was formed in 1923, women’s skiff racing was well established. The first recorded Ladies Doubles Championship race took place in 1898.
The other reason why skiffing is pertinent to GB women’s rowing, though, is that an awful lot of its lady Champions have been international rowers, and vice versa. Women the women’s GB squad was started, run by Penny Chuter, to provide a team for the 1974 World Rowing Championships – the first which incorporated women’s events – skiffing provided a crucial source of women who at had significant amounts of racing experience.
Although not a FISA event, two of the members of the famous British women’s rowing tour of Australia in 1938 – Eleanor Gait and Violet Cyriax – also won numerous Skiff Championships: Eleanor first won the Lades Doubles in 1934, before taking her first Singles title in 1935 when she took the Doubles with Violet.
The first lady Skiff Champion who went on to row for GB was Frances Bigg who won the Ladies Doubles in 1955, and became the first woman to win all three Skiff Championships in the same year in 1956. She was selected to row for GB at the 1957 Women’s European Rowing Championships in Duisburg but contracted polio on the way there. She did, however, race in 1960 and 1962.
Since then, there have been at 23 women who have represented GB at a Women’s European Championships, World Championships or Olympic Games:
- Penny Chuter (GB 1960-1964)
- Rosemary Gale (1960)
- Zona Howard (1960-1964)
- Jean Wilshee (1960)
- Alicia Arthur (1960, 1966)
- Elaine Steckler (later Laverick) (1966)
- Pauline Meikle (1966)
- Chris Aistrop (1974)
- Jackie Darling (1974-1975)
- Pauline Bird (1974-1980, 1986)
- Rosie Clugston (later Mayglothling) (1975, 1977, 1979, 1980, 1982)
- Sue Handscomb (later McNuff) (1975, 1977, 1979, 1980, 1981)
- Yvonne Earl (1977)
- Beverley Jones (1977, 1979, 1981)
- Sally Bloomfield (1981, 1982, 1984)
- Tessa Millar (1983, 1984, 1985)
- Alison Barnett (1985, 1992)
- Kim Thomas (1987-1989, 1992)
- Jackie Prout (1987)
- Sally Thomas (née Andrae) (1988)
- Sarah Birch (later Ockendon) (1997, 1998, 2000-2004)
- Elise Laverick (later Sherwell) (1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008)
- Sarah Winckless (1998-2000, 2002-2006, 2008)
Of these, Penny Chuter still holds the record for the most Championships, having clocked up no fewer than 21 between 1958 and 1966 in all three events including nine consecutive Ladies Singles wins. Her total is. however, matched by one man – three-times Olympian Salih Hassan. Although he didn’t race this year, few would put it past him to try and ho one better than Penny before he finally retires.
For this reason, Penny and Sal were the first crew off in the row-past of former Champions which took place during the luncheon interval at this year’s Skiff Championships in Henley. They were followed by as many others as there were boats, with more in attendance on the bank.
All photos © Helena Smalman-Smith.