|Years||1953 FISA ‘test’ regatta (8o 2nd)
1960 (8o 4th)
1962 (8o 5th)
|Clubs||University of London Women’s BC, United Universities Women’s BC|
|Height||6ft or 183cm|
|Racing weight||13 stone 2 lb or 83.5kg (in 1960)|
|Died||2017 aged 86|
Frances is third from the left in the photo above of the ULWBC eight in 1953 (Photo: Frances Bigg’s personal collection.)
Getting into rowing
Frances was born and grew up very near the River Thames in Hampton where she attended the Lady Eleanor Holles School, although rowing was not a sports option there at the time. She got her first taste of rowing when she was a teenager, and already very tall. “When I was a Sea Ranger – from the age of 15 to 17 – I became interested I rowing,” she was later quoted as saying in an interview published in the London Evening News in 1956. “I found that with my strength I did better than the others. So I became really keen.”
She took up rowing properly when she went to University College, London in 1950 to study dentistry.
For some reason she only went along to the boat house for the first time three weeks into the autumn term, but this actually worked to her advantage – as she recorded in one of her many, wonderfully detailed rowing scrapbooks – because the Novice crew was already fixed by then and so she was put straight into the Junior IV (not an age status at the time, but rather an ability indicator, one level above Novice), and at stroke because of her “being the least likely to keep time with others.”
Her first external win was at Weybridge Ladies ARC Regatta on 23 June 1951, where her University College ‘A’ crew won Novice Fours, from a field of six.
She was awarded a half purple at the end of that season, and full colours the following year.
That summer, she was in a UL eight that went to the Netherlands as part of a regular exchange with the University of Leiden. The plan was that the two universities’ women’s crews would race each other the day after a men’s regatta there. ‘Non-ideal’ is probably the best description for what Frances noted happened next:
We went for four days as guests of Leiden. Their shell eights were easy to sit – very pleasant. We watched the regatta and went to the party that evening. Unfortunately, the university told us the next day that they couldn’t race us and had arranged for someone else to do so! They hadn’t been to the party!!
Alison had got separated from us as she knew someone there and she didn’t appear again till we were due to race (we didn’t know where she was either!)
We raced on a canal and had to lie flat on our backs in the boat to get under the swing bridges to get to the course.
Unfortunately the boat they provided – a very nice, flat-bottomed shell – was not long enough for me and I rowed with my legs permanently bent (slightly) and no shoes either – most uncomfortable.
We lost very definitely.
She and the crew were wowed by the purpose-built rowing course at the Bosbaan, where they were taken for an outing. This proved somewhat of a revelation because despite the Dutch course having opened in 1937, Britain didn’t get its first 2k course until 1972. Frances noted that, “It has everything. A grandstand by the finishing tower, restaurants, and a semi-circular pool at the end with landing stages and… changing rooms for each country (with showers).” Women hadn’t even started competing at the European Rowing Championships and we were already behind…
As well as rowing in crews at university, she learned to scull and did some singles races in her final year as a student, winning her first race in an internal UL regatta against a diminutive fellow dental student, Nina Shotts (now Padwick who continues to scull on a weekly basis in her 90s).
In 1955 she was one of nine competitors in the very first Women’s Head of the River Sculls, about which she recounted:
It was decided to start a sculling head to increase the sculling events in the year. Hammersmith Pier to Putney is the course.
The start was alphabetical with best boats going first. Myrtle [Harrison-Handley] and I entered in University of London rumtums [wide, clinker sculling boats].
We went to within sight of Battersea the week before as a training trip with the last of the tide. But our information as to the turn of the tide was inaccurate. It didn’t till we got back. Were we exhausted! Several times we lay down in the boat.
On the day Dicky [Franckeiss] guided me [Though you do wonder HOW – Ed.] Unfortunately he didn’t allow for my weaker left arm. I passed No.4 (I started No.5) under Hammersmith Bridge but soon after my forearm (left) partially seized up – and I was near the left bank – and there was a left hand bend to come! So I was reduced to a crawl for the rest of the way and had to watch No.4 catch up and pass me. We finally tied for second clinker place [5= overall].
International rowing career
Frances first represented Great Britain in 1953 when her ULWBC eight was selected to compete in Copenhagen at the last of three ‘test’ regattas run under FISA auspices to investigate whether the concept of international women’s regattas was viable. By then it was clear that it was, and the first Women’s European Rowing Championships took place the following year.
After graduating in 1954, Frances and her UL crewmate Barbara Philipson joined United Universities Women’s BC, and both played key roles in the club – as competitors and in its management – as it became the dominant force in British women’s rowing until the mid 1960s. Frances went on to row in the GB eight twice more – in 1960 and 1962.
Full details of Frances’ international racing years can be found here:
Frances was also selected for the eight in 1957 but had the incredible bad luck to contract polio on the way out to the Championships in Duisburg. The disease was rife at the time (her brother happened to have had a mild form the previous year), and Britain didn’t start mass immunisation against it until the following year.
She recorded what happened in her rowing scrapbook:
We left Victoria at 10am on Monday, August 19th. The boat had left on Wednesday via the longest sea route.
We were all beautiful in grey skirts and navy blazers (begged, borrowed or bought – mine tailor-made – the factories were closed for August bank holiday) and feeling fine.
By the time we got off the boat I was no longer feeling fine!
By the time we got to Duisburg I felt lousy!
I retired to bed as soon as we arrived, telling Bridget [the sub] to row the next day and that was that.
The German doctors’ diagnosis – gastroenteritis, cholescystitis and acute rheumatism!
A car was procured so I could see the final (just about) and some of the boat house – we swept right past the check points.
All my lovely food was completely wasted.
On the following Monday I staggered home [by train] with Valerie [Dolman] and Deirdre [Holford]. We went first class to make things easier – it did and they coped admirably.
I had sent the parents a postcard midweek without mentioning being ill so the first they knew was when Filk [Joan Filkins, one of the Vice-Presidents of the Women’s ARA] phoned on Monday and asked them to collect me at Victoria that evening.
Next day doctor came and I went into Mogden [isolation hospital] for seven weeks (polio). [You’ve got to admire the casual way she puts “(polio)” there – Ed.]
An unidentified press clip reported, “She was described in Germany as the perfect patient, never once betraying the pain she was suffering or the disappointment she felt. Now she has left hospital and hopes to start work again soon as a dentist. All that is left is a certain amount of paralysis of some muscles but even this is making steady progress.”
Frances’s stoic attitude seems to have meant that only her family were really aware of how much this terrible illness had affected her. For, although she did recover enough to represent GB again twice more, her younger brother Malcolm remembers that for a long time she was far from sure that she’d be able to row at all, never mind at a high level. “She had lots of physiotherapy from an orthopaedic surgeon who specialised in getting polio victims back on their feet, and that made a big difference,” he recalls. “However, that she got well enough afterwards to row again at the level she did is a credit to her guts and determination. She had significantly reduced lung capacity and paralysis in some of the muscles of her hand.”
“After the polio,” he continues, “She initially thought that she would never row again and looked for other sports to take its place. She tried golf and scuba diving – as well as ballroom dancing, where she got to gold standard! – but was never excited by these activities as she had been with rowing.”
It was also touch and go whether she’d be able to continue her career as a dentist. “Fortunately, she had specialised as an orthodontist, so her relatively poor manual dexterity, which affected her for the rest of her life, was manageable. She always said she would have had a problem as a normal dentist,” Malcolm adds.
Retirement from international competition
“Frances announced her intention of retiring at the end of last season ,” her UUWBC and GB team mate Ann Sayer noted in her training diary, adding that in comparison with some others she, “Managed it at the first attempt.”
Frances’ involvement in rowing was far from over, however.
Cake fit for a President
But before going into ‘What Frances Did Next,’ the role that her mother’s cake in international women’s rowing deserves to be recorded [For once, I will concede that this has hitherto been a ‘hidden history’ – Ed.].
In the fine tradition of rowing mothers everywhere, Mrs Bigg provided her daughter with a large fruit cake for her crew to enjoy whenever they went to an international regatta. However, as UU cox Margaret ‘Mac’ McKendrick remembers, they didn’t get it all to themselves as, “Somehow the Swiss President of FISA found out about this and used to come for a slice because he liked English fruit cake.” This, however, had its benefits in terms of power relations, or as Mac puts it, “Very useful it was too to be on good terms with the President of FISA.”
Team management, umpiring and more
As Frances didn’t row in 1958 while she was still recovering from her polio, she got her first taste of team management when the University of London women’s eight asked her to join them as coach/manager on their bi-annual trip to race Leiden University in the Netherlands.
She described the crew’s first training outing with her customary entertaining style:
We went to the course in the afternoon and after changing in a cheese store (they had moved the cheeses) took the boat they were borrowing off the temporary racks and had an outing. Gloria and I had bikes and cameras and tried to get some photographs and do some coaching – my photographs were rotten.
Next morning the army (who were providing the launches for the regatta in the afternoon) very kindly loaned a launch and drivers so that I could coach more easily.
There was no GB eight for the Women’s European Rowing Championships in 1961 and Frances wasn’t in the UU four that did compete there along with a UU double and single sculler Penny Chuter.
At some point in the planning, it had been decided that the cheapest and simplest way to get the small team and its boats across Europe was to hire a bus. Many of the details of their extraordinary journey to the other side of the newly-built iron curtain can be found in the report on 1961, much of which was arranged by Frances who went with them as Team Manager.
She recorded all sorts of near-squeaks that just managed to come off:
I was asked to take over the organisation of the trip half way through, when Nevil [Miroy, Penny Chuter’s coach] found he had no chance of coming too.
He had done a great deal of preliminary spadework and tentative arrangements had been made for most things. Unfortunately the errors and omissions only became apparent at the last minute and, not having been in from the start, I failed to spot them in good time.
We hired a coach, and their engineers made a suitable rack, with paid advice from Edwin Phelps – who then let us down over loading [apparently by not turning up at the appointed hour – Ed].
At the very last minute I discovered that nothing had been done about carnets for the boats – or their passage across the channel. Panic!! Hasty phone calls to Freddie [Page, Hon. Sec. of the Amateur Rowing Association] and he sorted out the cross channel and I went up to the AA with details. They couldn’t do it there and then and mother nobly went up next day for me and got them. Catastrophe averted at the eleventh hour.
The East Kent Bus Company provided two drivers whom we promptly christened Bill and Ben. ‘Bill’ was an experienced courier as well – fortunately for me, and guided me through beautifully. He even had the kindheartedness not tell me that the company had failed to book a passage out – until we were safely underway and he continued in this manner right through the trip.
On one of the training days in Prague, Frances subbed for Pauline Baillie Reynolds who had a suspected fractured rib (possibly as a result of having to hold the boat up hard to avoid hitting the unexpected fishing dinghy in training). She described the experience in a typical self-deprecating manner; “Blister! Did ½ minute at 40!! Could only keep up if my knees together and ¾ slide.”
Although she mostly stayed at the course with the crews while they were practising as well as racing, Frances managed to fit in a bit more sightseeing than “the combatants” as she put it. She captured the atmosphere at the time:
Prague is a lovely city but dirty and half-deserted. Virtually no cars were on the roads which made things very pleasant for pedestrians. Wenceslas Square was the only really busy shopping street with plenty of dairy and bakery produce but little greengrocery or meat. Clothes were very expensive, the cheaper being poor quality. We were told that good quality thing (e.g. nylon macs) did come in but in small quantities and very expensive and went immediately. Cars could be had in 3-5 years at a reasonable price if you had a suitable record and need – or in a year at twice the price on the black market. Ice cream and yoghurt were popular (with me too!)
Frances took on the role of Team Manager again in 1964 when the team comprised a UU eight, a University of London coxed four and Penny Chuter in the single scull.
Other major volunteer roles in rowing
As well as doing some coaching of beginners at University College, London, Frances qualified as an umpire in 1966, the first of the 1960s UU racing group to do so, and only formally hung up her flags in 1992.
She served as a Selector for the GB women’s rowing team from 1969-1972 and in 1976 [both the men’s and women’s GB rowing teams were chosen by Selection Boards at the time, a practice that was abandoned after the 1984 Olympics – Ed.].
Frances was Vice-Chair of the Women’s Amateur Rowing Council (part of the Amateur Rowing Association) in 1968-1969, and later returned to rowing’s governing body as a member of the ARA’s Women’s Rowing Committee 1976-1983. She stopped only when it was restructured into the Women’s Rowing Commission in 1984.
Rowing events at all levels rely on armies of volunteers taking on all sorts of behind-the-scenes roles. She took on many of these. One such was as a timekeeper for the Women’s Eights Head of the River Race, which she did for many years. Rowing stalwart David Biddulph was grateful to have her on board for ten years he ran it from 1988-1997, and thinks she may have been on it before and even after that too.
Her enormous contribution to rowing is best summed up by Mac McKendrick, her UU cox, who says, “Frances was the sort of steady reliable person who you hardly notice is there, because they always are.”
Frances’s entire rowing life is also littered with occasions when she went out of her way to help others and the sport itself to develop. One particularly selfless example was the 1956 London Evening News interview mentioned earlier which had the extraordinary headline, “Life’s one big pull for 13 stone Frances.” Although the all-too-familiar failed attempt at a pun was doubtless entirely the journalist’s doing, the reference to her weight seems to have been with her consent, even encouragement for later in the piece she is quoted as saying, “It’s my size which has helped me most [in rowing]… I’m 6ft tall in my socks and I’m happy if I can keep my weight down to 13 stone,” and later adding, “I don’t mind you mentioning my size. It might encourage other girls who think they are too big and clumsy for sport to take up rowing.” It’s a message that is as true today as it was then, but still brave of her to put it in words.
Frances had also been a member of the Skiff Club, then based in Kingston, since 1953, racing ladies doubles with Dinah Gibson, and mixed doubles with various partners. Like most skiffers, she clearly found the club and this form of mid-summer racing a tremendous amount of fun, and she was also pretty successful at it. In 1956 she achieved the ‘triple’ by winning all three skiff championships; the Ladies Singles, Mixed Doubles (with Basil Gray) and Ladies Doubles (with Dinah – their second consecutive title).
Travel and other interests
Starting with first trip to Copenhagen in 1953, Frances developed a lifelong passion for travel, visiting almost every country in Europe – particularly the hotter ones – as well as Egypt, Kenya, Jordan and Sri Lanka amongst other destinations. “After her Sri Lankan trip in 1981 she became very interested in tigers,” her brother Malcolm says, “And went several times to Sri Lanka and India to watch and photograph them.”
Her UU cox Mac McKendrick also remembers her “enthusiastically running an allotment,” in her ‘spare’ time.
Not surprisingly for someone who was so used to leading such a full and active life, “Her last few years were a bit of a trial for her as around 2010 she developed Polymyalgia Rheumatica which affected her legs,” Malcolm explains. “This meant she was a bit unstable and had several bad falls.” Frances was finally died of a heart attack in hospital after breaking her second hip. True to her lifelong habit of ‘not making a fuss’, she stipulated that she didn’t want a funeral; her many friends from UUWBC and the wider rowing world mourn her all the same.
This biography has been compiled with the kind and enthusiastic help of Frances’s younger brother, Malcolm Bigg.