The first official Women’s European Championships organised by FISA were called the Women’s European Games and took place at the multi-lane Bosbaan course in Amsterdam on 20-22 August 1954 ahead of the men’s event on 26-29 August.
34 entries from 13 countries raced in five events (coxed quads having been added to the programme) – a big increase on both counts from the test regattas.
The GB team consisted of an eight, a coxed quad, a coxed four and a single sculler. We didn’t enter the double sculls, largely because double sculling hardly existed in the UK at the time (for women or men) and so there were practically no boats. That said, women’s quads were virtually unheard of too (even men’s quads were a rarity – sculling more or less meant single sculling in the UK at that time), so our entry – amongst other challenges, of which more later – didn’t get any race practice.
Preparation and selection
Plans for the GB campaign were put together by the Women’s Amateur Rowing Association which was at that time separate from the Amateur Rowing Association. The WARA’s Chairman was Amy Gentry, Eleanor Lester was Vice-Chairman and Hazel Freestone was the Hon. Secretary.
The Thamesis composite
The eight was a composite put together by the WARA Selection Committee from the best individual oarswomen and coxes who put themselves forward. This approach was another policy U-turn as it had been tried in 1951, then abandoned for 1952 and 1953 largely for practical reasons – as well as the challenges of putting together a crew from individuals with the differing techniques that were common at the time, travel was harder in the 1950s, with private cars a lot less prevalent. Many office workers also had to work on Saturday mornings, so there wasn’t even time at weekends to make a long journey to row.
There was an ideological objection to composites too. The tension between clubs and national teams is one which vexes most team-based sports the world over, and if there were a simple solution, someone would have come up with it by now. But in the 1950s and 1960s clubs really did reign supreme. For example, writing in the WARA’s newsletter The Oarswoman about selection policy for the 1953 International Women’s Regatta to which a club eight was sent, Eleanor Lester said, “It did not seem fair to rob a number of clubs of their best oarswomen for the whole summer,” which seems an astonishing attitude today, but actually makes a lot of sense in the context of the time: women’s rowing was still very much struggling to get established in the UK – “well under 500” according to a comment by Amy Gentry in the October 1954 issue of The Oarswoman – and British men’s international rowing was entirely based on club crews.
However, with entries for the WARA Head of the River Race (what we’d call the Women’s Eights Head of the River Race today) numbering only 12, it was clear that no women’s club really had the strength in depth to provide an eight that was competitive, and at an Extraordinary General Meeting of the WARA in October 1953, “It was decided by a two thirds majority to send a composite eight, and a club four and scullers if suitable representatives presented themselves.”
Earliest selection ever
The WARA held a selection day at the University of London boathouse using UL boats, on 13 December 1954, over eight months before the Championships. Their initial plan was to select enough women to run two eights so that they could train competitively together. Disappointingly, only 16 women and two coxes put themselves forward, so just one crew was selected:
|Valerie Pope (Weybridge Ladies ARC)
Pauline Grudgings (Civil Service HQ Ladies RC)
Mary McLennen (University of London Women’s BC)
Audrey Smith (University of London Women’s BC)
Crys Webb (Reading University Women’s RC)
Dorothea Newman (Barnes Ladies ARC)
Shirley Campbell (United Universities Women’s BC)
Elizabeth Drummond (United Universities Women’s BC)
Rita Sheldrake (Weybridge Ladies ARC)
Valerie and Rita were sisters.
Crews racing at the European Championships had their clubs named, even though they wore National colours and were representing their countries. Because the GB eight included women from five different clubs, it would have been too much of a mouthful and so they were entered as Thamesis Women’s BC because they all rowed on the Thames.
Training arrangements including ‘Help, we need a boat’
The eight’s winter training programme comprised rowing on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings (and no one should be under the impression that these were double outings) and ‘tanking’ on Monday evenings at the long-gone West End Amateur Rowing Association (at Hammersmith, just upriver from where Auriol Kensington RC is now), which was done more for the practical and physiological reasons that we do ergos today (rowing-like exercise when it’s too dark to get on the water) than for the technical reasons we now use rowing tanks. Crew member Dorothea Newman also remembers that, “We always had a good run along the towpath whenever we had the opportunity.” Amazingly, as they only wore “ordinary soft gym shoes,” no one seemed to get shin splints.
The crew initially borrowed a boat from Chiswick School which they used from the Civil Service boathouse. For the Championships, Crys Webb (rowing at 5), who was Captain of Reading University Women’s BC, arranged for the GB crew to use RUWBC’s brand new eight on the completely reasonable proviso that their boatman, ‘Happy’ Haslam, travelled with it (and had his work cut out when he got there, it transpired).
Eleanor Lester persuaded Harold ‘Jock’ Lane, a silver medalist in the eight at the 1928 Olympics from Thames RC, to take on the challenge of pulling the crew together. As Dorothea remembers, “We all had different styles of rowing, so we needed a good coach.”
The crew raced at the WARA Head of the River Race in April but were sixth, which must have been somewhat embarrassing for all concerned. They then didn’t race again until the Championships because, as Amy Gentry wrote in the October 1954 issue of The Oarswoman, there were no eights races throughout July “which would have been invaluable to the eight at that stage. Earlier than this they were not ready for short races because nearly half the crew needed instruction in rowing as well as coaching for racing and at least three of these were also doing finals.”
Was composite the right policy?
The composite crew approach had turned out to be more challenging in practice than in theory which, as described earlier, was a lesson learned in 1951 but apparently then forgotten (if only this website had been around then there would have been no excuse for them not knowing the lessons of history). After the Championships Amy commented that, “Unless we are offered experienced but adaptable oarswomen for a composite crew the policy is not altogether practical unless we keep them together for two years (the time we frequently hear the good continental crews take to prepare their championship crews). The simplest solution will be for our clubs to make much more determined efforts to build up their club crews to a higher standard and it should be possible for them to keep them together for two years.” Simple to say, certainly, but also much easier said than done.
Coxed four and coxed quad
The selection of four and quad was much more straightforward than the process for the eight. Four Club crews put themselves forward: Stuart Ladies BC (which amalgamated with several men’s clubs to form Lea RC in 1980), University of London WBC, King’s College (Newcastle), and Weybridge Ladies ARC.
Stuart Ladies, UL and WLARC first raced each other in Senior Fours at the WARA Fours Regatta on 12 June (the Newcastle students couldn’t attend as they were doing exams at the time). The Stuarts won, but only by 1/4 length after UL had led almost the whole way. As the course for this race was a mile (1,609m) on the Tideway, compared with the 1,000m over which the European Championships would be rowed, the selectors understandably felt that a more appropriate trial was needed to choose between these two closely-matched crews. This took place on the nearly-straight, 1,000m Desborough Cut at Weybridge (a location which features heavily in GB women’s rowing trials until Holme Pierrepont was opened in 1971) and involved a time trial, followed by a side-by-side race between the two fastest crews. Stuart Ladies won the time trial and the subsequent race in challenging conditions, and were duly selected.
The Stuart Ladies four then won at the News of the World Serpentine Regatta in early August.
Multi-lane race practice in France
The majority of the Stuart Ladies four had had the rare opportunity of getting some multi-lane experience earlier in the summer when they had raced at a regatta in Compiègne in France which had invited British crews to enter. It’s not entirely clear who paid for their visit, but it appears that the competitors paid for their own travel and they stayed with various families around the town. The Stuart Ladies crew for Compiègne was Iris Simpson, Bette Shubrook, Madge Button and Marjorie Lutz (Madge was in the quad for the European Championships, with Barbara Benzing as the fourth member of the four) and they were coxed by Hazel Freestone of Alpha.
Racing on an unbuoyed course on the River Oise, the four won a four-boat straight final against crews from Compiègne, Verdun and Marseilles. According to a report in The Oarswoman, “Verdun were the French national champions in 1953, and Compiègne in 1952, but the Stuart crew began to establish a lead early in the race which they steadily increased to beat Compiègne by 5.4 seconds. The Stuart crew received many well deserved congratulations on their vigorous and determined rowing.”
How to fit the cox in
Stuart Ladies’ coxed four had started life as a (men’s) coxless four to which a cox’s seat was fitted. As a result the boat was lighter than your average coxed four but on the down side the coxing cockpit was very short and the overall area occupied by the five crew members was further to the stern than in a purpose-built coxed four. The significance of this emerged later.
The ‘quadruple sculler’ or ‘sculling four’
Barbara Benzing from the Stuart Ladies crew remembers that her crewmate Marjorie Lutz wanted them to do the quad as well as the four, but it was clear from early on that the timetable wouldn’t allow this; with only five events, even the first day’s racing programme was hardly extensive.
However, the Stuarts had another crew that was keen to race in this boat class, and they’d also invested in a set of quad riggers. However, doubling up the boat was no more feasible than doubling up the crew. This impasse was solved by Weybridge Ladies offering to lend the Stuart quad one of their coxed fours, to which the Stuart riggers were fitted, and after the crew posted times of 3’29.5″ on 12 July and then 3’23.4″ on 4 August (the course record for women’s coxed quads was 3’41”, the only indicator of speed that anyone in the UK had to go on) at trials conducted on the river Lea, the selectors agreed that this crew could go to the Championships.
|Coxed Four||Coxed Quad|
Elizabeth (Bette) Shubrook
Rowing training in the 1950s for men and women alike seems to have been largely limited to rowing, tanking, running and maybe a bit of circuit training for better-informed clubs. In general, land training was not a big thing, and this is reflected in the architecture of rowing clubs which were built before this time, most of which have boat bays, changing rooms, a social club room and bar, but no original gym space.
It was only in 1963 that the ARA created the role of Director of Training (Jim Railton, the first post-holder had a background as a PE teacher and was not then a rower) to tour the country teaching clubs about the benefits of and how to go about circuit training and weight training in order to improve the general fitness of rowers feeding up into national crews, a lack of which was perceived to be a major cause of Britain’s declining successes in international men’s rowing.
However, the river Lea clubs already knew all of this and years of disappointing international results might have been avoided if only the WARA and ARA had found out what was going on there and spread the word. In the October 1956 edition of The Oarswoman, successful sculler Pam Body (who went on to represent GB at the Women’s European Rowing Championships in 1960) commented, “With the exception of Stuart LRC, I don’t believe any crew in this country trains seriously enough, either in or out of the boat,” so the Stuarts’ (as they were known) approach was no secret, which makes it all the more wasteful that it was ignored, only to be reinvented in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Stuart Ladies were coached by the Lutz brothers – Ronnie Lutz was Marjorie’s husband – who were “fitness fanatics” and had the crews doing training similar to what club crews would do today with weights, circuits and ergos, albeit without erg scores.
As Barbara Benzing explains, “So we were the first ones that went into training in the gym. We made up things to do. Someone made us a rowing machine that’s the first rowing machine which was two bicycle wheels, one above the other, coming down and a pulley and a seat that moved. And with a great weight on the end of it. The bicycle wheels collapsed with the weight when it got bigger. It made a racket! We were so much fitter because whatever your weight, you pulled your weight. I was so thin so I was lucky! Poor Bette Shubrook, she was over 11 stone and she had to do great big weights but I didn’t.”
Pam Barber of Barnes Ladies RC had not been beaten over any race of the approximate distance of the Championships so her position as the best candidate for the single sculls was unchallenged.
However, as all her experience was on the Tideway she did some additional training at Weybridge to get used to ‘heavier’ water and posted a time of 3’37.5″ on the upstream 1,000m course which was deemed fast enough to merit selection.
The Women’s ARA took responsibility for the cost of sending the team to the Championships including boat transportation, travel costs and accommodation.
In the May 1954 edition of The Oarswoman, the editor, Joyce Sagar wrote, “It is estimated that we shall need £500 to get the crews and their boats to Amsterdam – perhaps more if the date does not immediately precede that fixed for the men’s events – in addition to the money required to buy a set of blades to be used by international crews. At the moment of going to press the International Fund stands at some £102 odd. Clubs are being asked to do all they can to raise money, so what about it? What is your club doing? Are you organising a Jumble Sale, a Dance, a Garden Party, a Bazaar or just imposing a levy on your members or on club funds? Let me know. Your ideas may help other clubs.” At this point the inclusion of the coxed quad hadn’t been factored into the budget: its later addition it added to the total bill.
The final cost of sending the crews to the Championships came to £658. The competitors contributed £10 each, and the International Fund had been reached £375 (that’s quite a lot of garden parties) by the time of the Championships. This left an outstanding debt (to whom is not clear – perhaps the WARA had an understanding bank?) of £142 by the autumn of 1954.
By April 1955 The Oarswoman mentioned that, “The association still needs nearly £100 to cover the cost of sending crews to the European Championships at Amsterdam in 1954” and this was despite the facts that; “The News of the World has returned the entrance fees for the Serpentine Regatta – £9.14.0* – to the Association for the International Fund”; there was a further donation of “just over £29 as a result of the Old Time Music Hall produced by the Desborough Players at the Twentieth Century Theatre, W11 on Saturday 13th November 1954; and a ‘Grand National Draw’ paid for new blades for the eight.”
* For the benefit of youngsters unfamiliar with the pre-decimalisation money world, £9.14.0 is 9 pounds, 14 shillings and no pence.
At the Championships
The crews flew to Amsterdam from London Airport a couple of days before racing began.
When they arrived, they discovered to their horror that the varnish on the Weybridge Ladies boat that Stuart Ladies’ quad was using had been ruined by the sun (yes, really) on their journey out by road. However, disaster was averted by Happy Haslam making the most of the fraternity of skilled craftsmen everywhere and recruiting several Dutch boatmen to help with stripping the boat back to the wood and revarnishing it. Meanwhile some Dutch women lent the crew a quad to practice in so that the new varnish could get the optimum hardening time between coats.
Although 13 countries entered, the USSR won every event. The minor medals were shared between the Netherlands, Austria, Romania, (West) Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, France and, yes, Great Britain.
With only single-digit entries in each of the five events – there were five crews in the eights and quads and nine in the single sculls – the racing used only four out of the Bosbaan’s six lanes (the course had been expanded from five to six that year) in order to ensure that each event had heats, repechages (plural) and a final (singular – there were not petite finales for crews that didn’t make it into the four-boat finals).
Coxed four (Bronze! 3rd out of 8)
The Stuart Ladies four’s training paid off handsomely; the crew was the star of the GB team, by a very large margin. They were second in their heat, just 0.5 seconds behind the winners and eventual silver medalists from the Netherlands. The next day they won their repechage by over six seconds in a time just 0.2 seconds slower than the other rep winners, Czechoslovakia.
By finals day the wind had got up; the Bosbaan course is famous for having been built so that the prevailing wind would be directly behind the racing crews and this is how it was that day. As women were only racing 1,000m, they started from temporary pontoons in the middle of the course where the wind had already had 1,000m to whistle up the course from the woods (or ‘bos’ in Dutch) that shelter the 2,000m start.
Barbara Benzing, who was at two in the four, remembers how everything nearly went very wrong in the final. “The wind was blowing down the course and when they said ‘Go!’ the wind caught me and bow and we went up in the air and the stern went down because the coxwain was sitting there [further back than was normal because their boat was the converted coxless four]. We went through air! And that was our first stroke!” They rapidly got it all back together and they finished in bronze medal position, with just a length separating the Russians and the Dutch for gold and silver, another length separating the Dutch and Brits for silver and bronze, and even less than that between GB and Czechoslovakia who finished fourth.
The Stuart Ladies’ bronze medal was an excellent result in its own right, and is possibly not as well remembered as Penny Chuter’s silver in the single sculls at the Women’s European Rowing Championships in 1962. It was certainly less well publicised at the time. But its significance takes on gargantuan proportions if you consider that GB didn’t win another medal in a crew boat at a major Championships until 31 years later when Beryl Crockford and Lin Clark won the gold in the Lightweight double sculls at the World Championships in 1985, and didn’t win another sweep medal until Miriam Batten and Fiona Freckleton took bronze in the pair at the Worlds in 1991, 37 years later.
But back to a windy day in the Netherlands in 1954 for five women dressed in white tops they’d bought themselves from Marks and Spencers; “Everyone was thrilled, but we as a crew we were disillusioned,” Barbara explains. “Marj’s thing was you never lost, you always won. We were used to winning. We’d never lost in all that time. So it was a bit of a come down. But we got over it.”
In 1955 Bette Shubrook married the racing driver Graham Hill whom she’d met at a Boxing Day Regatta at Auriol RC in 1950. Their son Damon won the Formula 1 World Champion in 1996. Rowing was Graham Hill’s first sporting passion and both he and Damon famously wore helmets painted in London RC colours.
The eight, quad and single sculler Pam Barber all came last in their heats and repechages. Pam paid a visit to the reeds during her repechage which led to an official time 17 seconds behind the next sculler which didn’t truly represent her abilities.
The October 1954 issue of The Oarswoman suggests that Pam and the eight might have done better over a longer course, such as the 1-mile (1,609m) distance usually raced over in the UK at the time, although without backing this up with reasons why this might be so. The quad was praised for making a “good attempt” whilst recognising that they were young and light and had had no race practice at home.
As Barbara Benzing explains, going into the Championships, “We didn’t really even realise what the competition was going to be like, not honestly,” a view echoed by Amy Gentry in The Oarswoman, who said, “The racing at Amsterdam proved to be of a very high standard… [and] and we also learned that the European sculling standard is exceptionally high.”
Recognising that that the Russians were well-financed and well-equipped, Amy went on to suggest that “all those who follow sport in Great Britain” should pay a shilling a head into a National Sports Fund to support national teams [National Lottery, anyone?]. With typical optimism, she concluded, “This time we found we were not as good as we must be, but I see no reason why, from now onwards, we should not make a determined effort to improve our standards now that these have been set and in future produce crews which will bring us some winners’ medals, and perhaps the ‘Silver Windmill’, the trophy for the most points scored throughout the championship.”
Fun stuff and international relations
Barbara Benzing remember that, “The Dutch were all very friendly, [but] all the other countries in those days weren’t allowed to talk to anybody.” Dorothea Newman agreed about their hosts, saying, “We got to know several of the Dutch girls particularly because they then came over to England to race for special events,” but her photo album also shows that the eight at least tried to surmount the language barriers and strike up conversations with other crews.
“At the end of the racing,” Amy Gentry wrote in The Oarswoman, “The President of FISA [Gaston Mullegg] (who between you and me had had his doubts about the need for women’s championships) was really delighted… and said so in no uncertain terms – he praised the Russian girls for their wonderful achievements in winning all events and yet he said without losing their femininity (suggesting that his doubts were also partly fears that to achieve sporting success women might sacrifice this – he knows now that it is neither necessary nor usual).” Or, as The FISA Centenary Book put it, “Sunday, 22 August [finals day] saw a true triumph for women’s rowing and the confirmation of its final acceptance before a crowd of about 20,000 people.”
On the Monday morning following the racing De Hoop rowing club organised a tour of the capital’s canals on board the two water buses (the original plan had actually been to use touring rowing boats, but it was pouring with rain) carrying representatives of nearly all the competing countries and the Mayoress of Amsterdam. As Amy Gentry wrote in The Oarswoman, when the boats “stopped outside her home, she presented everybody with a pennant of Amsterdam. In no time at all these pennants bore signatures from London to Moscow and Bucharest! There may not have been a common language but girls will always find a way of communicating with each other – we swapped badges or coins (I shall never be penniless in Moscow myself) or anything else our friends took a fancy to and sealed our friendships. The morning concluded with a splendid lunch given to all competitors, delegates and the FISA president by the De Hoop club in their beautiful premises on the Amstel (literally – as it is built on pontoons).”