2022 marks the 40th anniversary of British women first winning at Henley Royal Regatta in 1982, the second year that women raced there.
Women’s events had been introduced to the regatta in 1981 as invitation events on a test basis. These took place over a course of about 1,500m, starting near the Barrier, where a separate start had to be installed for the women’s races and then removed again for the subsequent men’s races. In order to fit in with the timetable, which spanned just four days at the time, only four crews were invited to take part in each of the two events – Coxed Fours and Double Sculls.
The purpose of the races, as stated by the Regatta, was to, “Assess the feasibility of including races over a shorter course during the normal daily racing programme, and the desirability of the considerable extension to the hours of racing which full events for women would necessarily involve.”
The GB double of Astrid Ayling and Sue McNuff took part in the Double Sculls, and the GB eight raced as two Coxed Fours. All three boats lost to overseas crews in their first rounds.
In 1982 the course for the women’s events was reduced 1,000m, starting at Fawley, to match the then international distance for women.
Following Beryl Mitchell‘s historic medal at the World Championships in 1981 (the first for a British woman), and with “Beryl too good for Henley to ignore,” as a headline in the Daily Mail put it, a Single Sculls event was added to the programme.
Although the two British entries in the Coxed Fours both lost their first round races, the Single and Double Sculls were a different story.
Beryl, representing Thames Tradesmen’s RC, secured an easily verdict in her first round against Joan Pendleton of Long Beach Rowing Association, California, who was also racing in the Double Sculls. In the final she faced Stephanie Foster of New Zealand who was using what Rowing magazine describes as “an untried sliding rigger boat”. The official record calls this race, “One of the highlights of the regatta,” and recounts how, “Mitchell was faster away, at 40, to the New Zealand sculler’s 34½. Foster then began to close up but touched the boom, allowing Mitchell to draw away again to lead by two lengths at the mile. After this, at 28 to Mitchell’s 32, Foster fought back, but Mitchell held on to win by a length.”
This rather detached commentary belies how quite how hard-won this battle was for the British sculler, who was known as a ferocious racer. Beryl’s widower Duncan Crockford recalls that she would recount how “bloody hard” the race was. So much so, in fact, that when she came into the pontoon, she said to Mark Hayter, her coach at the time, “I don’t think I can get out of the boat, my legs won’t move,” and she had to paddle up through the bridge to loosen up before she was able to do so.
The GB double of Astrid Ayling (Kingston RC) and Rosie Clugston (Borough Road BC) won their first round (after a false start) against Patricia Pinkerton and Kathryn Reith of Riverside Boat Club, Boston by four and a half lengths, and their final against Haldis Lenes and Solfrid Johansen of Sandefjord Roklub, Norway in the final by three quarters of a length. Due to the timing of their final within the programme of racing, they were the first British women to win an event at Henley Royal Regatta.
The official regatta record states, “In the final the British crew led at once and always had the result just about in hand,” although Rosie later wrote, “This was a tough race with both boats overlapping for the whole course but in the middle we pulled out a small lead which, although challenged, we managed to maintain to the finish.” She added that Astrid’s performance was particularly impressive as she was suffering from heavy cold at the time.
The legacy of the 1981-82 test events
The women’s events were discontinued after this, mostly because of the time taken to put in and then remove the short start in the packed four-day programme at the time. But the impact that they had on Rosie (now Mayglothling) has gone far beyond what anyone might have imagined.
She explains, “Looking back on the event now I think the experience of winning at Henley Royal Regatta was instrumental in driving me to help create Henley Women’s Regatta. I had the unique experience of racing on this water in front of crowds, and I realised what a focus Henley is for club and university crews. Women didn’t have anything like that to aim for; the National Championships in mid-July were too late for most students and the medals often went to GB crews anyway. So I was upset when, after two years of exhibition events, the women’s events were not taken into the main programme of HRR the following year, and it was obvious that this would be a long time coming. By then I was working for the Amateur Rowing Association (now British Rowing), and one day I was talking to a colleague, Doug Parnham, about my frustration with this lack of opportunity for women. His response was, ‘You’d better start your own regatta, then.’ From that, Henley Women’s Regatta was born. The HWR events created the intense focus for women already obvious at HRR for men but with the rowers centre of the event.”
The first Henley Women’s Regatta took place in 1988, and continues to sit two weeks before Henley Royal in the rowing calendar. In 2022 it had a record entry of 512 crews from the UK, Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the USA. Meanwhile 251 women’s crews have entered the 10 women’s events Henley Royal Regatta this year – over a third of the total.
Timeline of women’s events at Henley Royal Regatta
1981: Women first row at Henley Royal Regatta in Coxed Fours and Double Sculls in invitation test events over 1,500m.
1982: Single Sculls added. All women’s events over 1,000m.
1993: Single Sculls reintroduced over the full course, for the first three years as a round of the FISA World Cup.
1998: Eights added as an invitation event.
2000: Eights became an open event.
2001: Quadruple Sculls added.
2012: Junior Quadruple Sculls added.
2017: Coxless Fours, Pairs and Double Sculls added.
2021: Club Eights, Student Eights and Junior Eights added.
The photo at the top of this page shows Rosie Clugston (left), Ron Needs and Astrid Ayling celebrating their 1982 Henley Royal Regatta win and is © John Shore.
© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2022.