1955 and 1956 Women’s European Rowing Championships

In summary, we didn’t go. In either year.

“At an Extraordinary General Meeting of the [Women’s Amateur Rowing] Association held on the 26th October [1954] to receive a report on the 1954 Women’ European Rowing Championships and to discuss the Association’s policy for 1955 and 1956 the following resolution was passed: ‘In general clubs should work on a two year plan in view of the European Championships in Yugoslavia in 1956.’ It was, however, agreed that if an outstanding crew should emerge in time they should be considered by the selectors as a possible entry for the European Championships in Rumania in 1955.” – The Oarswoman, October 1954

The 1955 Women’s European Rowing Championships were held in Bucharest, Romania (but the men’s Championships were in Ghent in Belgium, so there wasn’t even scope to save on logistics by sending men’s and women’s boats on the same trailer), and the 1956 Championships were at Bled in what was then Yugoslavia where the men’s championships were also taking place (in addition to the Olympic Regatta in Melbourne because it was outside Europe).

1955 badge women

Competitor’s badge from the 1956 Women’s European Rowing Championships. Something no British woman ever owned. The lower of the two flags is the then FISA flag.

The main reason for not sending crews to either was financial. In early 1956 an interview with Frances Bigg, who had rowed in the University of London eight which represented GB at the 1953 FISA test regatta, that there had already been a, “Warning by the WARA that they are unable to finance any crews for this year’s European Championships in Bled, Yugoslavia. But they will give all the help they can to any crew of a sufficiently high standard who wishes to compete.” [You do have to wonder what the nature of such help might be and whether it would have involved anything more than encouraging telegrams had crews actually gone there – Ed.]

The key phrase here, of course is “sufficiently high standard”. By now GB was under no illusions about quite how high this needed to be. That year the United Universities WBC four of which Frances Bigg was now a member initially put itself forward to represent GB but despite “making a big dual effort,” as Frances put it in the newspaper interview, “To become good enough to gain official recognition and rich enough to pay our own way,” they, “Eventually decided they were not good enough to ask to be sent officially and withdrew their application,” according  to a note in The Oarswoman.

Frances and her UL and UU friend Barbara Philipson, along with two others attended as spectators while on a motoring tour of Europe.

Reading University WBC having fun after the UWRA IVs regatta in Southampton, 1955

Reading University WBC trying out a new boat design after the University Women’s Rowing Association IVs Regatta at Southampton in 1955. Bow is Pauline Baillie Reynolds who represented GB five times in the 1960s, 2 is Valerie Dolman who rowed at 4 in the the 1957 GB eight, and the gent in the blazer is Happy Haslam, Reading Uni’s legendary boatman who completely revarnished a four at the 1954 Championships after it was damaged in transit. (Photo: Pauline Churcher’s personal collection.)

The 1956 Championships were notable because they were the first ones in which East German crews competed (although FISA only accepted a single German entry so East and West German crews had to race off separately in advance to determine which country got each slot). They got two bronze medals that year which established their winning ways from then on.

1956 badge

Competitor’s badge from the 1956 European Rowing Championships. Another one that no British woman ever had.

Fundraising for the future

Wonderful initiatives continued apace to raise funds for future international competition, as well as to clear the debts from 1954. The April 1955 issue of The Oarswoman reported, “One new suggestion was that members might get their mothers to hold bring and buy teas for their friends.” Later in 1956 though, the question of fundraising took on a whole new meaning with the launch of a quiz in aid of international funds. Entries were 6d each (that’s 6 pence, youngsters), and 53 completed quizzes were submitted, “Plus a completely foolish one from Davy Jones, Esq., The Locker, Southsea, which caused us a lot of amusement.” The newsletter does not relate how many sixpenny question sheets were actually sold, but those that were filled in raised a mere £1.7.0 after what was clearly HOURS of the editor, Joyce Sagar’s time spent devising the questions and marking the answers. The winner was Grace Harvey, a stalwart of Alpha Women’s ARC.


Despite these only being drops in the fiscal ocean, the WARA was busy spending money in preparation for future international involvement:

“Hope of a crew good enough to represent this country in the four-oared event at Bled in 1956 were not realised. As one of the main difficulties in preparing possible crews for Championships has been the lack of suitable boats for training and racing in this country, the Women’s ARA has decide to spend all it has and mortgage a substantial portion of the income it looks forward to receiving in 1957 to order two coxed sectional shell fours, both to be capable of being rigged for four-oar rowing or as quad scullers. These boats will be available for shell four racing in this country and for the training of crews seeking to reach Championship standard. A reasonable charge will be made to Clubs using the boats.” – British Rowing Almanack, 1957

The reason for buying a brace of boats was so that two crews could compete against each other in matched boats. The WARA appealed to clubs for funds “to enable the Association to provide these two boats as soon as possible, so that genuinely constructive work can go ahead in helping British oarswomen to reach championship standards in the very near future.” (The Oarswoman). One of these boats was used by the Stuart Ladies four that raced at the Women’s European Rowing Championships in 1957.

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