|Years||1964 European Championships (4+ 7th)
1966 European Championships (1x unplaced)
1969 European Championships (1x 7th)
1970 European Championships (1x 9th)
1971 European Championships (2x 13th)
1972 European Championships (2x 11th)
|Club||Royal Free Hospital Women’s BC, University of London Women’s BC, Jessamy Scullers, Runcorn RC|
Margaret is second from the right in the photo at the top of this page of the University of London Women’s BC 1st four in 1963 along with, from left, Liz Powell, Margaret Denne, J Packham (cox) and Jean Rankine. (Photo: Jean Rankine’s personal collection.)
Getting into rowing
Margaret took up rowing when she was a medical student at the Royal Free Hospital which was part of the University of London. Her first success at an open regatta came in the summer of 1961 when her RFH Women’s BC coxed four beat nine other crews to win the Ladies Novice Clinker event at Durham Regatta. Her crewmate Lisa Wilkinson remembers, “Even though we had been together for a while, we were still counted as novices because we had not won anything. We managed to win there despite my seat getting stuck in the middle of the race!”
She soon progressed to rowing for the University, notching up a string of wins over the next two years, mostly in fours but also in eights, including the University Women’s Rowing Association Eights Championships in 1963 when she rowed at seven. She was at three in the ULWBC first four that year too, and was also Captain, and awarded a Purple.
One of her university friends remembers that, “Margaret had a minivan (none of the rest of had transport). After one very successful rowing event, we pulled up outside the Medical School, parked the van and went inside. There were a couple of silver cups and other trophies in the back of the van. We were then aware of a suspicious, somewhat dishevelled, character looking inside, and then trying the door of the van. From the library window, we shouted at him and he ran away. We both gave chase – initially he was over a hundred yards ahead of us, but we gradually gained on him, chasing him for over half a mile (and shouting at him to stop) until we were just a few yards away. Unfortunately, he escaped at the corner of Tavistock Square when we were impeded by a double decker bus, and he vanished into the traffic. We were elated by the chase, and celebrated with a welcome cup of tea!”
Somewhat unusually for the time, Margaret also learned to scull, and won the clinker division of the Women’s Amateur Rowing Council Scullers Head of the River in 1963 as well as coming fourth behind the GB scullers Penny Chuter and Zona Howard at the Weybridge Ladies ARC Sculling Head in October.
In 1964, Margaret was re-electd as Captain of ULWBC and the club’s top coxed four – which she was now stroking, and which was described the in the British Rowing Almanack as “the outstanding crew” that year – was selected to represent Great Britain at the European Women’s Rowing Championships in Amsterdam. Her crewmate and later international double sculls partner Christine Davies describes Margaret as “a real driving force” as Captain, and believes that she was instrumental in persuading the selectors to give this young crew a chance to race internationally.
With the demands of being a junior houseman making crew rowing logistically impossible, Margaret focused on single sculling for the 1965 season. She entered the top domestic events, but was beaten at all of them by Daphne Lane, who was selected as the GB sculler for the European Championships that year.
Rowing the Boston Marathon
At the end of the 1965 season, Margaret and Jean Rankine decided to tackle the 31-mile Boston Rowing Marathon in a double scull. Jean and Margaret were good friends, having been stern pair of the ULWBC crews in 1962 and 1963 before Jean went abroad with her studies in 1964 when Margaret’s four represented GB, and had been housemates in 1965. They’d also done quite a lot of single sculling together, and had been coached on a couple of occasions by 1962 European silver medallist Penny Chuter. Crew sculling hardly existed at that time, but they managed to borrow a converted men’s pair from St Mary’s Hospital BC, and persuaded someone to drive the boat to Lincoln, where the race started, and then collect it at the finish in Boston. “It wasn’t a fast boat, but we didn’t know that at the time,” Jean muses now.
Jean had also arranged for a rowing friend called Janet Collins to come along to take photographs. Janet mostly coxed but as Jean puts it, “could scull competently”. This turned out to be handy as Margaret was held up travelling to the event from somewhere in the North that she’d been visiting. Realising that she wouldn’t make it to Lincoln in time, Margaret arranged to meet them at the lock which is a third of the way into the race, and Janet (who had been ill and had been strictly forbidden by her mother to take part) was persuaded to row the first section.
Marathon rowing is very different from international 1,000m sprint racing and as Jean rightly says, “You have to settle into a comfortable rhythm, which I think Margaret and I did.” Their time of 5 hours 14 minutes isn’t particularly quick, but isn’t bad given they were in a heavy old boat and half the crew for a third of the race hadn’t done any training at all. They were almost certainly the first women’s double to do the race, and possibly the first women at all.
By 1966, Daphne Lane was no longer sculling, and with Margaret going faster too, she won all of the top sculling events including the Women’s Amateur Rowing Council Sculls Regatta and the Women’s Sculling Championship of the Thames, which she retained for the next five years too. She was selected as the GB sculler for the European Championships although she didn’t make the final.
Less seriously, she also stroked a (coxed) ULWBC quad which enjoyed an all-expenses-paid trip to Enghien les Bains (described by Jean Rankine, who was also in the crew, as “a pond near Paris”). Jean recalls, “It was an invitation international event for women’s crews at what was otherwise just ordinary provincial regatta for men, which was memorable for a three-hour lunch break with a slap-up meal including wine for all competitors!” Each crew member was presented with a “curiously-shaped plaque” together with a cheese-board (still in daily use, in Jean’s case) – well, it was a FRENCH regatta.
This type of international invitation was quite common at the time, when travel was more of a ‘treat’, and perhaps with people realising the importance of understanding other nations in the aftermath of the Second World War; international rowing events were seen as being as important for making friends in other countries as for the racing itself. Margaret was obviously rather good at international relations as one of her flatmates remembers being somewhat surprised one day when she got in from work only to find that Margaret had invited a whole crew of Dutch oarswomen to stay who were, “huge and filled the flat.”
In the Autumn of 1966, Margaret won the Women’s ARC Sculling Championship – a title she would hold for four consecutive years. She also took part in Chester Long Distance Sculls in October, which seems unremarkable except that she was the first woman to be ‘allowed’ to do so. Although she came 30th out of the 65 (otherwise male) scullers in the race, her time is not included in the official results.
The Women’s ARC declined to send a team to the 1967 or 1968 European Championships as no crews or scullers were deemed fast enough, but Margaret and Jean decided to go to the 1967 Championships in Vichy as spectators, driving there in Margaret’s minivan in which she kept her weights as well as various items of medical equipment (Jean describes the van as “an indispensable aid to pursuing her two careers on a very restricted budget”). “In order to see the Sunday finals and get back to London in time for me to report for work on my first day at my new job on Monday morning,” Jean remembers, “We spent a night in the van on the way back, curled up between sharp-cornered boxes and various sized weights.”
In 1967 Margaret had worked at Booth Hall Children’s Hospital in Manchester but, as her daughter Gill explains, she found working with children who had cerebral palsy heartbreaking and this led her to specialise in physiology and to move into the academic side of medicine instead. She never lost sight of the need for research to contribute eventually to patient care outcomes though, and even after her official retirement was conducting practical research in schools on a science-based therapy to help improve motor function in children suffering from the condition.
When she consequently embarked on a PhD in Liverpool in 1968, she joined Runcorn RC where she was coached by fellow club member Eric Caldwell.
At this time the Amateur Rowing Association was not a membership organisation; clubs and regattas were affiliated to it but there was no relationship between individual rowers and the ARA until 1987. Consequently the only communication channel from the ARA was to club secretaries, and as a single sculler doing her own thing in Manchester, and then Liverpool and Glasgow, Margaret was out of the loop. Her simple solution was to register her own club so she could get the information she wanted. She called it Jessamy Scullers after Jessamy Road, the access road to Weybridge RC, as she had fond memories of training camps in Weybridge when she was at ULWBC, as well as liking the pretty name. The club’s official colours were pink, white and grey which were those of her favourite nightdress, according to Christine Davies, which fits with the memories of one of Margaret’s university flatmates who recalls that she always wore a very frilly nightdress as a counterbalance to her sporty side.
Margaret trained out of Runcorn RC which rows on a canal near a chemical factory, and at that time the water was reputed to be rather acidic because of the plant’s discharges into it. It was not a good environment for wooden boats (never mind the rowers) – Christine Davies remembers that, “Your riggers went green!” and Christine Peer recalls that Margaret actually had two sculling boats as a result, one that she trained in, and one that she kept for racing elsewhere which had undamaged varnish.
She was selected as the GB sculler again in 1969 when she was, in fact, the sole member of the GB women’s rowing team – the only time there has ever been just one person in it.
A local newspaper clip from shortly before the Championships noted that she had clocked up more than 600 miles in training on the River Weaver since April. Although she didn’t make the final this time either, the European Championships now included ‘small finals’, which she won in rough conditions, placing her seventh overall, which Jean Rankine rightly describes as, “A brilliant result for someone who was almost entirely self-taught, self-motivated and training on her own, while pursuing a demanding career.”
A few weeks later Margaret and Eric finished seventh in a double scull at the Boston Marathon.
Training in the snow in Chester
Margaret was selected as the GB sculler for the third time in 1970, and then in 1971 and 1972 in the double scull with Christine Davies (who had also been ULWBC GB four in 1964), but her seventh place in 1969 remained her best international result
Christine was a lecturer in mathematics, which made this the only GB crew ever to have been entirely composed of people with the title ‘Dr’. They won the double sculls at the inaugural National Rowing Championships in 1972, and Margaret also won the single sculls, finishing 2.5 seconds ahead of Christine who took the silver medal.
Training with Christine Davies 1971 or 1972
Chrstine remembers that Margaret called her single scull, which was made by Edwin Phelps, ‘Sain Dwr’ which is Welsh for ‘sound of water’ because she said it was such a beautiful boat to row in, and told her friend, “When I’m sculling, all I can hear is the sound of the water.” Margaret seems to have appreciated nature. Her 1970 GB team mate Christine Peer, who was probably her main challenger as Britain’s top single sculler in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and was in the double with Christine Davies for the 1970 European Championships in Budapest, remembers the long journey out there. “It was then that we got to know each other as friends rather than rivals on the way to Hungary. Margaret also introduced us to her ‘rowing garden’ made up of plants from each regatta, each a cherished memory.”
Full accounts of each of the years when Margaret represented Great Britain can be found here:
Margaret had got married earlier in 1972, and was actually just pregnant when she raced at the European Championships in August, but although she wanted to have a family and continue to pursue her scientific career, she was also keen to carry on rowing, especially because it had been announced immediately after the 1972 European Championships that women’s rowing would be included in the Olympic Games from 1976 and she really wanted to compete there. However, her daughter Gill recalls her father explaining that he’d advised his wife that it was only practical to try to do two of those three things and Margaret never raced again. She did, however have four much-loved children and an extremely prestigious career as a neurophysiologist, becoming a Reader in the then Institute of Physiology at Glasgow University in 1991.
Although no longer actively rowing herself, she contributed her professional expertise in physiology to the sport. Her friend Adrian Grant remembers, “When she came to Glasgow, I was manager of the Scottish Rowing Team and she helped me greatly by educating me in the subject of physiological testing of athletes, making university testing facilities available, and helping with actually setting up and running the testing sessions. Over dinner to thank her, she watched me cutting up a chicken and told me that with those dissection skills I would never make a physiologist!”
Many of Margaret’s friends speak of her modesty [always somewhat of a challenge for biographers – Ed.] and consideration for others; Jean Rankine, who was eventually the Deputy Director of the British Museum, remembers one occasion when Margaret mentioned that she didn’t usually tell people – even to her old university friends – what her position was at Glasgow University because they hadn’t done quite as well in their careers as she had in hers, but she could talk to Jean about it as she had also been a high-flyer.
She died suddenly in 2010, after having an unexpected but major stroke.
After her funeral, her daughter Gill sent packets of poppy seeds (her mother’s favourite flower) to Margaret’s friends all over the country. “I liked the idea of poppies spreading in little patches from the Isle of Harris to the Thames!,” she says. Jean has cultivated a patch of them at the bottom of her garden, just along the road from the University of London boathouse where they used to row together in the 1960s, which successfully self-seeds every year.
This biography has been compiled from documentary sources and memories supplied by Margaret’s daughter Gill Womersley, her good friend Jean Rankine, and her crewmate Christine Davies without whom it would not have been possible to tell her rowing story.
© Helena Smalman-Smith, 2019.