I was sad to hear this week of the death at the age of 92 of Margaret McKendrick, cox of GB women’s crews on five occasions between 1960 and 1965.
Known as Mac to all her rowing friends (although ‘Mog’ to her family), she was one of the first complete strangers I interviewed for RowingStory.com, and we hit it off from the beginning. “Talking to you was such fun,” I wrote in an email to her after we’d spent the best part of a morning exploring memory lane directed by the map and compass of her international coxing career.
Mac actually started our conversation by telling me that that she was an excellent editor and wouldn’t hesitate to tear my prose apart if she felt it wasn’t up to scratch. I was highly relieved when all she found was evidence of my sloppy typing once RowingStory.com was launched, but while kind enough to be complimentary about the project, she was nevertheless meticulous in sending me lists of all the typos in my pieces about her era and contemporaries. I was genuinely grateful.
As well as providing me with exactly the kind of detailed memories that brought the history of GB women’s rowing in 1960-1965 to life, she entertained me with all sorts of what she referred to as ‘Mac stories’ that I haven’t included elsewhere on RowingStory.com up till now, simply because I didn’t know where to put them. That place is here. Although none of them are epic revelations or contain punchlines that will bring the house down, what comes over in all of them is how she sought and found fun very successfully in all aspects of her rowing life.
From her time as an international cox, she remembers, “One year, the European Championships fell in my term-time and I had to ask for leave of absence. I was the only woman on the staff and as my boss didn’t want women there anyway, I was pretty far down the pecking order. He told me I could have the time off unpaid so long as it was approved by the County Education Commitee. Well, that’s where it backfired on him. It turned out that there was a rowing man on the committee as well as several ex-athletes so I got a personal letter of congratulation and was told I would be paid as usual after all.”
On another occasion, “We went to Holland to a regatta and took our blades with us on the plane, but while we were there we got a message from the airline saying they wouldn’t accept them on the flight back because they were too tall. So we went to the office at the regatta to ask if we could leave them somewhere, and when we explained why the chap said, ‘Hang on a minute,’ picked up his phone, dialled somebody, had a rapid conversation in Dutch, and then turned to us and said, ‘That’s alright, take your blades to the airport.’ He was the Managing Director of the airline, and we came home First Class!”
This may have been the same occasion when they won their race and Mac was presented with some flowers on the medal pontoon. Rowing back to the landing stage afterwards to disembark, she told me, “I discovered that it’s very difficult to steer an eight against a crosswind while carrying a bouquet of orchids!”
Her interenational crews were often coached by Frank Harry, who also coached men’s boats from London Polytechnic. “We often used to do pieces against them on Sunday mornings so that we’d got another crew along side us. His most memorable comment to the students from one of these occasions – in a voice that echoed right across the river – was, “It’s a dreadful thing to see women…. Going past you!’”
Several other Mac stories date from her time as an official. For instance, she was Team Manager when the Women’s European Rowing Championships were in Hungary in 1970. “At the officials’ dinner, I found myself sitting next to a Hungarian historian who could speak English and we spent the entire time discussing the clauses of the Magna Carta,” she recalled. “Apparently they have a Great Charter in Hungary from almost the same date and covering almost the same things. I didn’t actually know a lot about Magna Carta, but I don’t think he did either so I got away with it!”
She also worked in the Organising Committee office when the World Rowing Championships were held in Nottingham for the first time in 1975. “I was sitting at the Reception desk when a large gentleman wearing a gold and enamel chain over his shoulders came in,” she explained. “He shook me firmly by the hand and said, ‘I’m the Sheriff of Notingham’. I rather regret that I couldn’t think of anything better to say than just, ‘Good morning’!”
The women in the office team at the Worlds that year contained a mix of former internationals from United Universities Women’s BC like Mac and, she recounted, “Whatever oarsmen’s wives we could muster. Some of them had been top class secretaries, so were much more use than us. One of the wives had a baby which she’d left in her room in the Watersports Centre when she was on duty (this was the 1970s, just move on…). One morning, the cox of the New Zealand men’s eight, who was only a child himself, popped his head round the door and said, ‘There is a baby crying in one of room along the corridor.’ The mother was busy doing something at the time and said, ‘I’ll go along in a minute,’ but the little cox asked, ‘Shall I go?’. It transpired that he had numerous younger siblings and was well accustomed to babies. After that he came every day to take the baby for a walk, which was much appreciated by the mother!”
In her capacity as an umpire, she was amused by an incident at a head race in Maidstone. “A schoolboy sculler got himself disqualified somewhere down the course and an irate schoolmaster came to complain. He was told he would have to speak to the Senior Umpire, who happened to be me that day. He looked me up and down and said, ‘Does she know anything about rowing?’ All the other umpires collapsed in heaps laughing. I managed to say, ‘Enough to know your boy is still disqualified’. I think one of the other officials added, ‘And next time, don’t insult the umpire – she probably knows more about it than you and it doesn’t help your case.’ He avoided me at the next regatta.”
Alongside the fun Mac made a set of life-long friendships, and her life perfectly exemplifies the saying, ‘Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.’
The photo at the top of this post shows Mac (left) coxing a UU/GB four on the Tideway. Stroke: Barbara Philipson, 3: Pauline Baillie Reynolds, 2: Jill Ferguson, bow: Marrian Yates. (Photo: Margaret McKendrick’s personal collection.)
© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2022.