The 2,800 or so competitors entered in the Women’s Eights Head of the River Race this year can look forward to a great day’s racing as part of a fantastic event that now attracts hundreds of crews from across the UK and abroad, offers an innovative range of prizes, and is timed by a large team equipped with the latest timekeeping technology.
It wasn’t always like this. Read on to find out what racing at the Women’s Head was like for previous generations.
The 1950 Women’s Head, the first running of the race after the Second World War, attracted just eight entries. Why so few?
To answer this, it’s important to be aware that men and women rowed at different clubs back then, particularly in London. And unlike today where, in general, a club has its own boathouse containing its own boats, in the 1950s several clubs often operated from the same building, or even just hired boats by the outing from the boathouse which was staffed by a full-time boatman. During the war, with men away fighting, many boats at these boathouses were put into storage because they weren’t being used and also for safekeeping, reducing opportunities to row. So although women’s clubs hadn’t suffered from their members being killed in the same way that men’s clubs had, even the women’s clubs had been run down, and as a result, there just weren’t a lot of women who rowed in 1950.
Transportation was also a major issue. Eights were not sectionable, so could only be transported on lorries (often coal lorries with scaffolding added for the purpose) which had to be hired for the day, and petrol rationing didn’t end until May 1950 (even after that, the Suez Crisis in 1956 impacted transport again). Basically, if you didn’t row on the Tideway or couldn’t borrow a boat based there (if you could, you might bring your blades on the train), entering the Women’s Head really wasn’t practical.
Getting boats to London remained a major blocker to higher entries for a long time, particularly as women have tended to have less experience of driving large vehicles and trailers in other parts of their lives, although other issues didn’t help. In 1971 a postal strike from January to March meant that the organisers were actually quite pleased to receive as ‘many’ as 12 entries, presumably delivered by hand as there is no mention that the Entries Secretary had a pigeon loft at her disposal [though this would have enabled ‘tweeting’, of course – Ed.].
The prizes on offer at the Women’s Head this year are based on the ability of the rowers, and on the size of the club they represent. But once upon a time, the type of boat you were in was what mattered because, in addition to the wooden ‘shell’ boats that are the forerunners of the composite craft we have now, a lot of crews were in ‘clinkers‘ or ‘restricteds‘.
Almost all boats were wooden until the late 1970s, but clinkers, restricteds and shells used very different designs. The clinkers were built using a relatively simple, robust construction method that involved overlapping planks. They also had a small keel, a couple of centimetres deep, running along the whole length of the boat, giving it both strength and stability. Restricted boats were half way between clinkers and shells, having smooth skins but the same keel as clinkers. Neither restricteds nor clinkers had fins, and the rudder was about the size of a tea tray and attached to the back of the boat.
Clinkers were extremely heavy as they just plain had more wood in them than restricteds and shells, which made them slow. Restricteds were also generally heavier than shells and were slowed further by having a greater surface area.
When the Women’s Head was revived in 1950, it reflected the modern era by offering both shell and clinker classes. Before that everyone had been in clinkers. In 1967, it moved with the times and changed this to award shell and restricted pennants.
A schools category was introduced in 1968 and three of the 12 entries that year competed for the new pennant, all of which were part of the excellent Barn Elms boathouse setup for Inner London Education Authority schools. The winning Gilliatt School crew was stroked by one Beryl Martin, later Beryl Mitchell and then Beryl Crockford, the first British woman to win a World Championship medal (silver in the single sculls in 1981).
Dates and times
This year there has been comment on the unusual schedule of major events which sees the men’s HORR taking place the day after the women’s rather than in its usual slot two weeks later, because of tides and when the Boat Race can be fitted into TV schedules around other major sporting events. Difficulties in packing all these key events into the calendar was never easy, though…
“The tide was a bit on the low side when the  crews got off just after 3pm. This was due to the fact that the men’s Sculling Head went off from Mortlake to Putney to 2.30pm and we had to wait until they had gone through before starting our crews.” – The Oarswoman, May 1955
In 1975 the low entry of 13 was attributed to the Head clashing with the University Women’s Rowing Association Head and Bedford Head, which does seem to represent extraordinarily poor planning.
Nowadays the various Tideway heads need timing teams of nearly 30 people, particularly if they provide interim times as many do, using primary and backup timing systems to ensure that every crew gets an accurate time even if they’ve lost their Empacher slot number, have hair obscuring bow and cox’s numbers, and cross either the start or finish line overlapping with other crews [unavoidable at the finish, obvs, but please don’t do it at the start – Ed.] .
In some ways, the Chief Timekeeper’s experience of the start in 1950 was pretty much like that of the kind volunteers who will be timing the Head this year:
“From the moment the first crew reached the starting point all I saw was a series of flags dropping and figures on a stopwatch. Whether the starts made by the crews were good, bad or indifferent, I just wouldn’t know.” – The Oarswoman (The newsletter of the Women’s Amateur Rowing Association)
Once all the crews have started, your modern start timekeeping team will pack up their equipment and mostly retire to a nice, warm cafe somewhere, but back then, the job was far from over:
“As soon as the last boat was away my own activity began. I seized the card with the times on it from my obliging timekeeper’s clerk, leapt onto a bicycle and proceeded to try and beat the crews to Hammersmith. To begin with my progress was impeded by spectators falling off their bicycles in front of me, dogs, perambulators, and completely immobile spectators right in the fairway, to say nothing of traffic on the road. No sooner was I clear of all this than I ran into a cloud of flies. After swallowing three in quick succession I managed to shut my mouth! When I glanced at the river, crews seemed to be everywhere… With the inside of the bend in my favour at Chiswick Eyot I drew level with the first crew and was able to relax a bit and cycle alongside them to the finish where life became concentrated once more on flag-dropping.” – The Oarswoman
But don’t forget, there were just eight crews.
“It was unfortunate that the fifth crew collided with the starter’s stake boat, getting their rudder caught and causing the stake boat to drag its anchor. By valiant efforts, the starter, Amy Gentry, managed to get all the crews away, but as the last four crews and number 5 consequently did a slightly short course, adjustments had to be made to the timing in working out the results.” – The Oarswoman
Once the race was over, the results would be typed up (on a typewriter) and posted out to clubs who might find out how they did the by following Tuesday.
In 1956 the start had to be delayed because:
“Just as the crews were drifting down to the start [after turning], a men’s eight coming up stream and crossing over to get out of our way lost its stroke who caught a crab and somersaulted into the river. For a moment our hearts were in our mouths but the eight managed to turn round and the stroke managed to swim to the bank [don’t try this yourself – always stay with the boat – Ed.] and get out of the way in time.” – The Oarswoman
While in 1958:
“The starter’s flag came off the pole and fell into the river!” – The Oarswoman
And there you have it – an awful lot of things have changed about the Women’s Head in the last 68 years, but the volunteers who run the event now enjoy doing so just as much as they did ‘back in the day’, and as much as the competitors have always loved racing it too.
The photo at the top of this blog shows crew 2 (United Universities which merged with Thames RC in 1973) closing on crew 1 (Alpha Women’s ARC which became part of what is now Mortlake Anglian and Alpha BC in 1984) as they approach Dove Pier near the finish at Hammersmith of the 1961 Women’s Head. (Photo: Ann Sayer‘s personal collection.)
More about the history of the Women’s Head and the increase in entries over the years, can be found on the excellent history page of the event’s website.
The author has coxed the Women’s Head on 22 occasions, the first in 1992. She’s starting at number 68 in the MAA Masters D crew this year.