The following history is © Pauline Churcher (née Baillie Reynolds) who joined UUWBC in 1958 and remained a member until its merger with Thames in 1973, with additional comments by the Editor.
“Ex-University oarswoman would like to meet others with view to forming a club.”
Those who responded to this advertisement, placed in the agony columns of the Times and Morning Post by Marjorie Last in May 1932, became the founder members of United Universities Women’s BC (affectionately known as UU). The early members came from London, Liverpool, Oxford and Cambridge, with ex-University of London Women’s BC and London colleges providing the largest proportion.
According to an article in The Oarswoman that was almost certainly written by Eleanor Lester, the London branch had 16 members by the end of the first year, although “The beginning was not easy for styles were very mixed and a coach was hard to find but lack of skill was compensated by enormous enthusiasm.”
For the first two years or so, boats were hired from Tom Green’s boathouse (close to where Thames Tradesmen’s RC stands now), but in December 1934, the Civil Service Sports Association granted the club associate membership, which gave UU access to all the Civil Service boathouse facilities. From then on, the club started to become a force to be reckoned with.
Having bought their first boat (a second-hand eight from Westminster School), UU won the Women’s Amateur Rowing Association Eights’ Head of the River for four years in succession from 1935-1939. Meanwhile, Eleanor Gait embarked on a successful sculling career when she won the Women’s Sculling Championship in 1936 and retained the title in 1937. In 1938, Eleanor and Violet Cyriax were members of the crew which, as part of the 150th anniversary celebrations of the founding of Australia, was invited over there to row and won all their races.
The club also enjoyed annual ‘Henley weekends’ during these years with the women hiring skiffs in Maidenhead on Friday evenings, rowing up to Marlow, camping, and then proceeding up to the regatta in time for the first race. “We… spent an enjoyable day on the booms and pitched camp before inspecting the fair and the fireworks,” according to the report in The Oarswoman, which adds that another regular pre-war trip was to Dartmouth Royal Regatta, to which UU later presented a Challenge Cup for Women’s Championships Fours.
At the same time, Marjorie Last formed a sister club in Liverpool but there do not seem to be any records of its doings and, when the boathouse they used was bombed during the war, the club effectively closed.
After the Second World War
The London-based UU revived itself in 1949, largely through the efforts of Dr Cyriax but, apart from supplying the stroke and cox of a representative eight which was invited to an international women’s regatta in Macon in 1951, the club, although active, won very little until the arrival of a number of successful oarswomen in 1954. That same year, two members of UU were selected for the eight which competed at the first Women’s European Rowing Championships in Amsterdam.
From 1955 onwards, the club gradually moved up the rankings and won the Head again in 1956, but it became clear that, if they were to win consistently, they must have their own shell eight. The proceeds of many jumble sales were carefully saved and in November 1956 UU took delivery of the first new boat they had ever owned, which was named ‘Quarry’, after the club coach, Frank Harry, a member of Quintin BC. It was built to last and certainly did so but her regular crews always said that she did not actually move until the third stroke of a racing start. UU retained the Headship in 1957 and, after various regatta wins and time trials, a composite UU/University of London crew was selected to represent GB at the European Championships in Duisburg that year. Disaster struck when one member of the crew was taken ill on the outward journey with what turned out to be polio (fortunately, only a fairly mild form) and the travelling reserve came into the crew. In the circumstances, it was not surprising that the crew did not do very well.
In 1958, there was another influx of new blood and, after a poorish season in 1959, UU began winning again in 1960. Since women’s rowing had not then been incorporated-in the Olympic Games, there was thus an opportunity for the European Women’s Rowing Championships to be held that year in Great Britain; on a 1,000m course on the Welsh Harp reservoir. This may seem an unlikely international venue but it provided an eye-opener for British rowing men who got their first glimpse of oarswomen from Eastern Europe. The Women’s ARA was anxious to field as large a team as possible, on home waters and the UU eight was selected. Frances Bigg had recovered from polio and was rowing again and there was a core of experienced people in the boat. Having taken the precaution of borrowing a light boat and lending ‘Quarry’ to the Czechs, UU reached the final at their expense, where they came fourth, while a young Penny Chuter also came fourth in the single sculls final. More on these Championships can be found here.
Having tried international competition, the club was anxious to continue. Two members of the eight took up double sculling, and concentrated on that from 1961, 1962 and 1963 while Penny continued in the single. The others rowed in a coxed four in 1961 (Prague) and 1965 (Duisburg) and the eight was reconstituted with some new members in 1962 (East Berlin) and 1964 (Amsterdam).
Throughout this period, the Women’s ARA had virtually no funds to support international crews and so UU had to pay for themselves. They could just about afford to go to the Championships (apart from 1963 when they were in Moscow and only Penny Chuter and the double took part) but had no other top level competition. Consequently, their first sight of their opponents was usually at the start of the heats (if any) and, although UU certainly improved during the period when they were competing, everyone else improved still more. The regular pattern was one excellent row to reach the final, followed by an inability to repeat it the next day, which was extremely disappointing.
The only medal achieved during the 1960s was the silver won by Penny in Berlin in 1962. Nevertheless, UU did derive some satisfaction from knowing that when they embarked on international competition, Great Britain was the only Western rowing nation even to try to take on the Eastern bloc women and when they finished in 1965, several others such as France and the Netherlands were beginning to mount a serious challenge.
UU at home
Domestically, UU won almost everything they entered between 1960 and 1965. These victories were, however, rather hollow as the other clubs were not in their class. Although they did race at pre-Championships regattas in Amsterdam on a few occasions, they could not afford to go abroad as much as they would have liked to seek competition at an appropriate level. Moreover, the concentration on international rowing had its drawbacks.
But needing a new home
When aiming for Prague in 1961, the club bought a shell coxed four but could not get another rack in the Civil Service boathouse. Ibis RC very kindly accommodated it but trying to row from two boathouses was not a good way of getting or keeping new members; when any turned up, UU would invariably be out in the other boat. Throughout its most successful period, UU consisted of no more than a dozen or so regular members and after several of these retired in the late 1960s, it became more and more difficult to keep the club going. Meantime, Civil Service LRC were expanding and had their eyes on the rack space occupied by UU and the other lodger club, St George’s Ladies RC. Finally in 1972, the Civil Service Boathouse Executive intimated to both clubs that they should start looking for new homes and gave them notice to quit.
As was their custom when they had a problem, UU consulted J H (“Freddie”) Page. A Vice-President of UU, Secretary of the ARA, and a considerable influence in English rowing, he had coached the eight in 1962 and was a firm supporter of women’s rowing. His advice was that his own club, Thames, might be able to offer them lodging and suggested that they write to the captain. The reply was to the effect that Thames was not looking for lodgers but was contemplating becoming a mixed club and, if UU would agree to sink their identity in Thames they could find a new home at Putney. After an impromptu committee meeting on Duke’s Meadows in June 1973, these present agreed that no other option was feasible. After some negotiations, UU rowed ‘Quarry’ down to Putney one Sunday morning shortly thereafter to form the nucleus of women’s rowing at Thames and in time for some of them to represent their new club at the National Championships in 1973 where they won a gold medal in the double sculls, and another, in a composite with Warwick, in the quads. It is hardly necessary to state the position at the forefront of women’s rowing consistently occupied by Thames RC ever since.
According to Rowing magazine, The Thames second crew at the Women’s ARC Eights Head in 1975 contained six members of the UU crew that represented GB in 1964.
Off the water, the old members of UU kept the club affiliated to the ARA, partly for old times’ sake and as a way of making a small contribution to the ARA, but also because it occasionally proved useful to have a club within a club; for example, it enabled the club to boat an additional crew in the DAF Power Sprints in 1988. From the early 2000s, it became a dormant club.
Two of the early UU members are still associated with Thames; Jean Rankine and Pauline Churcher are Vice-Presidents. Several UUs had significant roles in the running of rowing after their own competitive careers had ended: Grace Wilkinson was for many years the indefatigable WARA Regatta Secretary’ until the number and size of regatta events for women made the post redundant, and Eleanor Lester (née Gait) was the first woman to join the ARA Council and became Chairman of the Women’s Rowing Committee before being succeeded in both capacities by Pauline Churcher. Eleanor, Grace and Pauline have also been recipients of the ARA Medal of Honour for services to rowing. All in all, not a bad record for a very small club and its members like to feel they have made some contribution to the progress of women’s rowing in this country.
UU’s colours were initially red and black, but white was added later when it was realised that it was easier to follow a blade that was white on the back. This colour scheme can just be seen in the photo at the top of this page of Pauline Churcher’s commemorative blade (Photo © Helena Smalman-Smith).