|Years||1951 International Women’s Regatta (2x 3rd)|
|Club||Alpha Women’s Amateur RC|
The photo at the top of this page shows Irene (right) with Pam Body and Irene’s father, Jack Helps, at the Women’s International Regatta in Macon in 1951 and is from Christina Forey’s personal collection.
Getting into rowing
Irene starting rowing at an early age after being introduced to the sport by her father, Jack Helps, a noted sculler who rowed from Tom Green’s boathouse at Barnes Bridge. Although he encouraged all three of his children to get involved in sports, it was Irene and her sister Jean who took to rowing more than their brother John. For Irene it became a lifelong passion.
She joined Alpha Women’s Amateur Rowing Club, also based at Tom Green’s, as a teenager and quickly became involved in all aspects of club life. She excelled at sculling and won the Women’s Sculling Championship of the Thames twice in 1950 and 1951, and the Senior Sculls event at the Women’s Amateur Rowing Association regatta from 1951 to 1953.
Rowing for England
In 1951 Irene and her clubmate Pam Body were selected to represent England in the double sculls at the first international regatta for women held under the auspices of FISA (rowing’s international governing body) which took place at Macon in France in 1951 immediately before the European Rowing Championships. This was one of three ‘test events’ which proved that women’s racing was a ‘viable’ concept, thus paving the way for the first official Women’s European Rowing Championships in 1954.
In 1952 Irene was diagnosed with TB and didn’t expect to survive, but eventually recovered after spending months in a sanatorium where she was treated with the then brand new ‘triple therapy’ antibiotics. However, her lengthy recuperation effectively ended her international rowing career.
Later lifelong rowing involvement
Irene remained extremely active in rowing – both on and off the water – until her early death in 1985.
In her obituary in Rowing magazine, her friend and clubmate Nina Padwick wrote, “She turned to rowing [sweep] after winning the sculling championship. Many eyebrows were raised when she – quite legitimately – rowed as novice and won.”
She also helped the next generation of crews by coxing, including the Alpha WARC crew (containing a 13-year old Pauline Sanson who had which was invited to race in at the Société Nautique de Compiègne’s regatta in 1954. In contrast with English regattas at the time which were almost entirely either for men or women but rarely both, the French event included categories for men, women, and children. The British eight just lost out to a local composite crew after an exciting tussle in pouring rain. The Oarswoman newsletter described how, “After losing ground in the early stages Alpha pulled up level, and thereafter first one crew and then the other gained a few inches lead until the very last few feet when the French eight just got in front to win by 7/lO second.”
She later returned to sculling after her three children were born and won the Women’s Veteran E (age 55+) Sculls event at the ARA Centenary Veterans’ regatta in 1982. When they were old enough, she in turn introduced her daughters to the sport as her father had introduced her to it. The eldest, Christina, went on to race for Alpha on several occasions, “Even managing to win a couple of spoons,” as she puts it, laughing.
Describing Irene’s behind-the-scenes work for rowing, Nina said, “She was on the Alpha WARC committee for many years, serving as Treasurer for a period in the 1960s and then taking on the Secretaryship. Her literary skills which were demonstrated in the periodic club circulars and Annual Reports will be long remembered.” Nina adds that she ran Borne Regatta “apparently effortlessly and single-handedly”, and that she was also involved in the running of the Pairs Head, Hammersmith Regatta, and the National Championships. She also worked part-time in an administrative capacity for the Amateur Rowing Association, now British Rowing.
Mortlake Anglian and Alpha BC (as her club had become after a merger with Mortlake Anglian and Chiswick Boat Club in 1984) named a boat after her in 1988 and then another one in 2008.
© Christina Forey and Helena Smalman-Smith, 2020.