Beryl Crockford (previously Mitchell)

Years 1975 World Championships (4+ 9th)
1976 Olympic Games (2- 10th)
1977 World Championships (2- 9th)
1979 World Championships (1x 13th)
1980 Olympic Games (1x 5th)
1981 World Championships (1x 2nd)
1982 World Championships (1x 4th)
1983 World Championships (1x 7th)
1984 Olympic Games (1x 6th)
1985 World Championships (Lt 2x 1st)
1986 World Championships (Lt 1x 10th)
Clubs St George’s Ladies RC, Thames Tradesmen’s RC, Sons of the Thames RC, Leander Club
Height  5’8″ or 173 cm
Racing weight 10 stone 3 lb or 65 kg (when openweight)
Dates 1950-2016

The photo of Beryl at the top of this page is © John Shore.

Getting into rowing

Beryl learned to row as a teenager at the excellent Barn Elms boathouse setup for Inner London Education Authority schools which was be a source of several internationals in the 1960s and 1970s.

Her first recorded wins in the Almanack came in 1967 when she won the Schoolgirl Eights event at the Lady Fletcher regatta, and the Schoolgirl Coxed Fours at Brent and Richmond regattas, and the Schools’ pennant at the Women’s ARC Head of the River Fours. In 1968, by now in the stroke seat of both the four and the eight, she picked up several more wins, including the inaugural Schools’ pennant at the Women’s Eights Head.

After several years out of rowing whilst she trained as a dance and PE teacher in Eastbourne, she returned to west London and joined St George’s Ladies RC where she enjoyed a string of wins in the 1972 season including the coxed fours at the first British National Championships in 1972, which led to her crew, coxed by Di Ellis, to be elected to represent England at the Home International, which they won.

Beryl (front left) after winning at the National Championships in 1972.

In 1974 women’s events were included for the first time in the World Championships but for various reasons, the St George’s Ladies RC coach decided that the club would not participate in the new GB national squad. However, in 1975 this policy changed, and for the next 12 years, Beryl would be one of the key figures in GB women’s international rowing.

Note: Beryl’s maiden name was Beryl Martin, which she changed to Beryl Mitchell on her first marriage, and kept following her divorce shortly afterwards until she became Beryl Crockford when she married Duncan Crockford in 1985.

International rowing career

Crew years

For the first three years of her international career, Beryl rowed in crew boats; first in the coxed four, and then in a coxless pair with Lin Clark, including at the Montreal Olympic Games, which were the first to have women’s rowing in the programme. Full details about this time can be found here:

1975 | 1976 | 1977

1 women rowing a pair

Beryl (left) training with Lin Clark shortly before the 1976 Olympic Games. (Photo © Syd Burke.)

Beryl and Lin continued to row their pair in 1978, and raced at the early season international regattas, but were ultimately not selected to go to the World Championships in New Zealand.

Single sculling years

In 1979 Beryl switched to the single scull in which she competed for the next six years (including two more Olympics), famously winning GB women’s first World Championships medal, a silver, in 1981, and becoming the first British woman rower to compete at three Olympic Games.

Looking back in 2016 on her decision to go it alone, Beryl said, “In many ways it’s easier to train in a smaller group. You spend a lot of time waiting for an eight to get its self ready. Also I think I developed a ‘bloody minded’ attitude [so she had control over who coached her]… It was the single or nothing. I discovered that with focus, training and sheer determination I could make a difference. Back then it was expected that women would not be ‘too’ competitive. I blinkered myself to [that kind of] negative and revelled in the surprise factor. I do believe I trained more and harder than the girls in the crew boats, because I was setting my own agenda. I think you could also say I was obsessive, but then anyone who wants to be an international has to be obsessive.”

Full details of Beryl’s sculling years can be read here:

1979 | 1980 | 1981 | 1982 | 1983 | 1984

Beryl Mitchel celebrates

Beryl celebrates her achievement as the three single sculls medallists gather on the podium at the 1981 World Championships. (Photo © John Shore.)

In 1981 Henley Royal Regatta had introduced two ‘experimental’ women’s events – coxed fours and double sculls – to test the practicality of including short-course races (until 1984 women’s international racing was over 1,000m and the Henley Stewards presumably felt that any women’s races at the regatta could not be over the full 2,112m because this didn’t fit in with the distance that international women were training for and/or because they shared the ill-informed views which had led to the international distance being set at 1k in 1950). Following her historic medal at the Worlds in 1981, 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 women’s programme, which Beryl duly won. This was the only time she competed at Henley as the women’s events were discontinued thereafter until 1996.

Lightweight years

In the final two years of her international rowing career, following the introduction of the new lightweight women’s category, Beryl was finally able to compete against athletes her own size (although she had to lose weight well beyond the bounds of healthiness – more on this shortly) rather than against Eastern bloc women who towered over and greatly outweighed her. In 1985 she and Lin teamed up once more, and won the lightweight double sculls in stunning style, the first GB women’s World Championships gold medal. Full details of her lightweight seasons can be found here:

1985 | 1986

She retired from international racing after competing in the lightweight single sculls in 1986. In an interview shortly afterwards, Beryl explained her decision, saying, “I’m a glutton for a challenge and I don’t have any regrets but rowing has ruled my life for long enough.”

Throughout almost all of this period she worked full time as a school PE teacher and later as a college lecturer in the subject, only giving up work in 1986 to focus on her training for one last season.

Team mates’ tributes

As most readers will know, Beryl tragically died following a cycling accident in 2016. Formal obituaries were published in The Guardian by the journalist Christopher Dodd, who knew her well and reported on her races throughout her career, and on the British Rowing website.

A strong character on and off the water, Beryl made a great impression on many of her team mates during her 12 years in the GB women’s rowing team. Here are just a few of their memories of her:

We used to all worship Beryl because she’d got the medal and she was a real icon for us, She was incredible. She was so professional in her approach. We’d do gym sessions with her, and she had an amazing physique and was someone for us to look up to.

She was a REAL inspiration for us through that period, because she’d achieved something that was so amazing compared with where we were. We were struggling to do that and she was a real shining light and kept a lot of women going during that period, thinking she’s done it.
Kate Holroyd (GB team 1982-1986)

The thing with Beryl was that she really did have that fearlessness and that real determination to be a single sculler which requires a very specific personality.
Jo Toch (GB team 1980-1990)

Beryl getting her medal in 1981 really raised the morale of the whole squad.
Pauline Janson (GB team 1980-1982)

Lin and Beryl were very much our heroes. We were so insignificant I don’t think I actually spoke to them in 1985 when they won their gold and it was my first year in the team, but I was very much aware of who they were.
Tish Reid (GB team 1985-1992)

However it’s Beryl’s friends Lin Clark and Gill Webb whose memories reveal the most about Beryl the person at the time.

Lin and Beryl’s paths first crossed in the autumn of 1974 when the GB women’s squad was starting its training for the season. These sessions began with a timed 2-3 mile run and Lin, who had been a county-level runner as a teenager, found it pretty easy to finish first, until one day, a few weeks in, when someone new turned up. “Usually I’d run along chatting with the other girls and then just sprint in at the end, but on this particular day I think I needed space in my head, so I was running on my own in front, and this girl came alongside me and she started to chat and I thought, ‘Oh this is interesting!’ So we chatted a bit, got to where we had to turn round and she was still with me. But I thought, ‘I’ll get rid of her in a minute,’ so I pushed on. But she pushed on too, so I pushed on and so on. By now I’m getting uncomfortable, and I thought, ‘I’m actually having to work!’ My breathing was laboured but I couldn’t even hear her labouring. And I thought, ‘This is not nice!’ When we finished I turned to her and said, ‘Who ARE you?’ And she said, ‘Well who are YOU?’ And that’s how we met.”

This highly competitive approach to land training was a constant throughout all the years that they trained together, and they also drew others in, including Gill who joined the squad aged just 18 at the same time as Beryl. “Lin and Beryl’s view was that I was going to be in a crew with them so they wanted me to train as hard as them, and I just remember that being really, really hard, with me just out of juniors and trying to keep up with them when they had really long backgrounds as athletes and I was doing weights and circuits that I’d never really done before,” she recalls.

After double outings on Saturdays, Beryl and Lin sometimes treated themselves to tea in Harrods, which sounds genteel, but they found a way to get the most out of the experience. “Harrods had a wonderful deal on where you bought a ticket in the cafe and could eat as many cakes as you liked and drink as much tea for as you like. The cake buffet was incredible – a long table covered in the most wonderful cakes you’ve ever seen in your life. Now it was expensive if you didn’t eat many cakes., but if you’d worked up an appetite rowing all morning, and got to Harrods before the cut-off, you could eat cakes for maybe two hours. We studied how to eat that many cakes and knew if we started off with nothing too sweet and sickly we could keep going,” Lin explains, laughing.

On one occasion the German women’s eight came over to race at the Women’s Head and Lin and Beryl arranged for them all to come and try this quintessentially English experience. “The Germans were much bigger women than us, so they decided they would out eat us. But Beryl and I took exception to this and said, ‘You might be able to beat us in a pair but you’ll certainly not beat us eating Harrods cakes.’ So the challenge was laid down. It became quite a thing – there was cheering each time another cake went down!”

Their enthusiasm for drinking tea was an issue when they went abroad to race because this was long before the days of complimentary tea and coffee making facilities in hotels, or maybe it was the type of hotels the GB women were booked into. Whatever the reason, Lin and Beryl took to bringing not only teabags, milk powder and sugar with them but also a heating element and a just to boil water in. “We noticed that the fuses tended to trip in our hotels but we thought that was just chance until we realised that it was our water heater,” Lin explains. “In the end other people in the team would just come out in the corridor and shout, ‘Beryl, Lin, put the fuses back!,’ because they all knew it was us by then. But we insisted on having our cup of tea. We also sometimes had trouble getting all the gear through the airport. The heating element looked a bit like a branding iron, so we had to explain that, and once the bag of dried milk that was in the bottom of Beryl’s bag burst, and this white powder started trailing out of it so the police grabbed her because they thought it was drugs! But the Germans can’t make a decent cup of tea so what can a woman do?”

Younger readers may not be familiar with the concept of ‘a happening’, which was a term coined in the 1960s for a party at which people would take LSD and do whatever they felt like while under its influence. “When we were away on training camps, Beryl would frequently say ‘I’m bored, let’s have a happening,'” Lin remembers. “Nothing to do with drugs, but she liked to make crazy things happen. On one occasion we put talcum powder outside someone’s door because thought someone was sleeping with them and we wanted to know who it was. We found out when there were white footprints back to another room! We did quite a lot of hitch hiking to explore the area too. Once we went to a market in Italy and we bought 12 spaghetti dishes which were really heavy, and we had to walk all the way back with them because we couldn’t get a lift. Beryl was in the single so she was OK, but I was in the eight and I thought I was going to miss my outing! In the end someone did pick us up, but only just in time so I got straight out of the car in the clothes I was wearing and got straight in, picked my blade up and went for the whole outing.”

Beryl was a woman who had ‘a streak of fun a mile wide’ as another of her team mates put it, and liked to party as hard as she rowed. At Beryl’s memorial service, at the Bandstand in Duke’s Meadows, just along from where St George’s Ladies BC had been, Lin spoke movingly – am very amusingly – about the many fun times she’d had with Beryl, and summed her up very well by saying, “I’m quite sure that Beryl is not resting in peace, because she’d absolutely hate that!”

Beryl the weightlifter

Beryl had a body type which meant that she put on muscle very easily and this, combined with the good technique that coach Penny Chuter taught her from as soon as she joined the squad, meant that she could lift very heavy weights, very well. “Both Lin and Beryl were really good lifters after a couple of years, and Beryl in particular was a real expert,” Penny remembers, while her team-mate Sue McNuff recalls, “A lot of the time Beryl would be lifting 20lb more than the next best person.” After she retired from international rowing Beryl briefly considered trying to compete at the 1988 Olympics as a weightlifter.

The rowing photographer John Shore took a series of photos for a Regatta magazine article of her demonstrating various lifts typically used in rowing land training:

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Building the muscle bulk she needed to be a successful rower created a psychological tension for her, though. “Being feminine was as important to us as being tough,” Lin explains. “That’s why neither of us ever raced without jewellery or Beryl never raced without her makeup. But she once said to me, ‘If I start looking like a man you would tell me, wouldn’t you?,’ and then the night before her World Championships final in 1981, we were in the hotel room, and she was looking at herself in front of the mirror and said, ‘Do you think I look like a man?’ And she’d done so much weight training that year her arms and shoulders did look quite masculine, so I replied, ‘You’ve got muscles that some of those guys in the squad could only dream about. So if you’re going to look like a man you’d better go and win like a man because there’s no point in having those muscles unless they’re useful.’ And after she’d won her silver medal she said, ‘Well, there’s one good thing about having muscles!,’ and we laughed till we cried. But it was a trauma for both of us. She did show her body off and she was proud of it in a way but she had to cross that barrier about it looking masculine.”

Getting sponsorship

Beryl was a pioneer in getting sponsorship or at least support in kind. “I wrote begging letters,” she explained. “They were always short, just one side and hand written, and emphasised that I was an Olympic athlete. I tried to find out the name of the right person to address them to as well.”

Companies that supported her included Coca-Cola which she used to collect trays of from their head office in Shepherd’s Bush, and remembers that, “I drank so much of it that I went off it!” Paynes not only supplied her with their chocolate-covered brazil nuts but also took her on a guided tour of their factory in Southend, while Johnson & Johnson gave her so much shampoo, talc and baby lotion that she had to pass some on to her sister.

Johnson & Johnson was just one example of Beryl’s strategy of targeting companies which marketed women’s products or general products to the female market, and this approach also led to her first actual cash sponsor, the lingerie-maker Berlei, where she found a contact who had rowed at the University of London. “He had a ‘slush fund’ which could be used for things like supporting rowing, though I got some free bras too. At that time I was between a size 12 and 14 and they brought out a size 13.” Later, all the members of the GB women’s rowing team were given Berlei bras. In 1985, when they’d gone lightweight, Beryl and Lin Clark were sponsored by Berlei’s rival Playtex, which conveniently happened to be launching a line for ‘smaller-busted woman’.

Beryl also struck a cash deal with British Home Stores in 1976 which initially provided the boat which she and Lin raced at the Montreal Olympic Games in 1976, and was then expanded to include financial support for the whole GB women’s rowing team through to the end of the 1984 Olympic Games, as well as promoting grass-roots women’s rowing through their stores. This was a really significant contribution to the development of the GB women’s team, and landing it was entirely down to Beryl, even though the Amateur Rowing Association later took on the management of the relationship.

Duncan and the ergo

While the rowing machine is an object of hatred for most rowers, in Beryl’s case it led to love. In the mid-1980s the ergo scene wasn’t yet dominated by Concept 2 as it is today, and a new entrant in the market was the Crockford Rowtest, developed by Duncan Crockford who was an engineer and also Captain of Leander. One of the GB women’s squad heard abut the invention through her boyfriend, who was a Leander member, suggested to her training group, which included Beryl, that they go and check it out. “Begrudgingly, they all agreed and came round to my workshop,” Duncan recalls. “They all had a go but Beryl asked to come back, again and again. Naively, I thought, ‘Blimey, she must really like my rowing machine!’ Ultimately, what clinched it was my cooking but she had to endure months of pretending to be enthusiastic about my ergo first.”

Three rowing machines

The Crockford Rowtest in bowside, straight-pull and strokeside modes. (Photo: Rowing magazine advert.)

Beryl and Duncan were married in Gibraltar in April 1985, a location they chose for being the only place that was both British and warm at that time of year. Their wedding day included a quick rowing outing courtesy of Mediterranean RC, so at least part of their plan was entirely predictable.

Coaching career

Beryl’s second career in rowing – as a coach – had at least as much impact as her time as an oarswoman. By 1989 she was in charge of rowing at Lady Eleanor Holles School (known as LEH) in south-west London which had been started rowing a few years earlier, and she took the club on from its sound beginnings to be the dominant force in junior women’s rowing for many years.

As well as coaching, she also had to be politically skilful as LEH didn’t have a boathouse of their own until 2000, and until then boated from Molesey BC. “When I first took over at LEH I was told the girls could not row until 2pm at weekends, particularly on Sundays, ‘Because the older members who came to the club on Sunday morning for a social drink would find the noisy girls in their way and find it difficult to get to the bar,’ she explained, exasperated. “I worked very hard at chipping away at that. 30 minutes by 30 minutes I managed to get them to give more leeway. The change in attitude to women that has occurred after all these years is breath taking.”

Typically keen to do something different, Beryl and Duncan emigrated to Australia in 2002 under a ‘Distinguished Talent’ visa which paid testament to her coaching. She continued to work with juniors, mostly at Sydney Boys High School where she was Head Coach. After her death, he commissioned a Beryl Crockford Memorial Medal, with slightly different versions for LEH, Sydney Boys High School, and British Rowing, each to be awarded annually to someone who displays five qualities that Beryl felt were essential. For the two school medals, these are imagination, commitment, initiative, empathy, and humility – words which are cast on the reverse of the medal – while the British Rowing medal urges recipients to imagine, inspire, educate, collaborate and innovate.

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The image of Beryl sculling that features on the medals is taken from a photograph by Eamonn McCabe of the Observer when she’d been named as the paper’s Sports Personality of the Month. She’s wearing quite casual rowing kit, “Because I’d actually forgotten he was coming, and it was a hot day!,” she remembered, adding that the title brought with it a large bottle of champagne.

The first woman at Leander Club

Beryl became the first female Full Member of Leander Club when it voted to admit women in 1997. Duncan Crockford was at the meeting when the vote was taken and gave the Secretary Beryl’s application straight afterwards.

And just Beryl all over

The video below, casually filmed by LEH coach Nick Leigh, of Beryl demonstrating a start during an LEH training camp at Henley RC in the 1990s, provides a surprisingly good illustration of everything that Beryl was and believed in. Not afraid to put herself and her skills on the line in front of children (who can be the harshest critics), in non-denial conditions (the water may be near perfect, but the boat isn’t), it shows her doing whatever she can to nurture the next generation of rowers and also contains glimpses of the focus and determination which she used to such great effect in her racing career.