The 1957 Women’s European Rowing Championships took place on the purpose-built Wedau rowing course in Duisburg, West Germany, from 23-25 August, a few days before the men’s championships which ran from 20 August to 1 September.
30 crews competed from 11 countries.
As Duisburg required, “A shorter and less expensive journey than was possible in the previous two years [Bled and Bucharest], the WARA determined to find the means to send any entry put forward reaching the requisite standard,” (British Rowing Almanack, 1958).
Compared with 1954, this was all rather straightforward and reverted to the approach used in 1952 and 1953. Club crews put themselves forward, and a ‘trial’ was held over the 1,000m course on the Desborough Cut in Weybridge on 27 July (and yes, that is less than a month before the event).
Disappointingly, competition was far from hotly contested, with only one eight and two fours entering.
The eight, from United Universities WBC, rowed over in a time of 3’56”, while a Stuart Ladies four beat a crew from Weybridge Ladies ARC by two and a half lengths in 4’26”.
The selectors (Amy Gentry, Eleanor Lester, Maud Cann, Margaret Barff and Marjorie Lutz) felt that these times were sufficiently fast, in comparison with times taken at the 1954 Championships in a similar headwind although on still water instead of the upstream Weybridge course (3’53” for an eight and 4’16” for a four), to merit selection.
|Eight (United Universities WBC)||Coxed Four (Stuart Ladies RC)|
Sylvia Harper (Weybridge Ladies ARC)
Dorothea Newman had also rowed in the eight at the 1954 Championships, and Gill Perry and Barbara Philipson had taken part in the 1953 ‘test’ regatta in Copenhagen which had at least given them one race’s-worth of multi-lane experience, but the rest of the eight were new to International competition and, in fact, to rowing as several of them were still students.
The Stuart four contained only one member – Barbara Benzing – from the bronze medal-winning crew of 1954. As Barbara explained, the rest had, “Got married, retired, there was just me left and [the rest of the 1957 crew] were all new people. And not very big, I must say. Not big enough really.” Their average weight was 9 stone 3 lb or 58.5kg.
Coach and eight, coach and four
As in 1954, the eight accepted the kind offer of Reading University WBC’s boat, again on the condition that it was accompanied by the Reading University boatman ‘Happy’ Haslam who drove the team’s boats out to Germany along with Jack Arlett. The four used one of the sectional coxed fours that the Women’s ARA had commissioned the previous year and which was delivered in June.
The eight was coached by Quintin BC stalwart Frank Harry, and the Almanack records that they did the last two months of their training on the Kingston reach (the best available training venue given that Britain didn’t have a dedicated rowing lake until 1971 although not for want of many discussions at the Amateur Rowing Association about where one might be built and how it might be paid for), which must have included a month up to the selection trial as well as the time after that.
The Stuart Ladies crew was coached by Ronnie Lutz as they had been in 1954.
Training at Arsenal FC (yes, really)
Training methods for the eight had moved on since 1954. As Dorothea Newman explains, “We didn’t have… a proper programme, but between us we did discover there was a [circuit training] course which the Central Council for Physical Recreation were running in London. It was a six-week course, once a week, so we went to that, and Arsenal Football Club, through a connection, allowed us to use their grounds for running of different kinds, and also St Thomas’s Hospital, where I trained [as a physiotherapist], had a good gym and we were allowed to use that whenever we wanted in the evenings.”
Race practice at home
Both crews had plenty of domestic race experience that season. The core of the eight won at the Women’s Head, the Women’s Amateur Rowing Association Eights Regatta and the St George’s Lady Fletcher Regatta. After a few crew changes to replace those who couldn’t attend the Championships, they won from a field of five at the News of the World Regatta on the Serpentine on 7-10 August, beating a Dutch crew from De Amstel R&ZV in the final.
Meanwhile the Stuart Ladies four had won at Weybridge Ladies Regatta, the Women’s ARA Barnes and Mortlake Events and the Women’s ARA Fours Regatta, as well as in an eight at the Alpha Women’s RC Regatta. “We raced quite a lot in this country and we did well,” Barbara Benzing recalls. But, she continues, “Out there we were outclassed as it happened. Just weren’t good enough,” although she adds, “I think the standard had gone up [since 1954].”
Out at the Championships
Accommodation and facilities
The British team (men and women) were hugely impressed by “the magnificent boathouses and associated premises [that] were all newly constructed at a cost of £85,000 paid for by TOTO the state sports lottery” (Almanack) at the rowing course which had been built in 1935.
Barbara Benzing, writing in The Oarswoman, added that for her crew, “The outstanding memory… is the Sports School where competitors of all nationalities were encamped. An ultra modern building set in the middle of a park with the rowing course one mile away, a huge swimming pool across the road, two stadiums, many running tracks and football pitches… In the school the dormitories, showers and drying rooms all helped to make life very easy for competitors between hard training spins. Food, which is always interesting, was very plentiful at each of the three meals provided daily. This we felt was most important in the last week of training, for eating the correct food is something that cannot be demanded at home.” The complex also had a cinema where the teams were shown a film about the previous year’s Championships in Bled and another one – which was notable for being in colour – about Henley Royal Regatta.
The team arrived in Duisburg on Monday, 19 August, tired after a long boat and train journey, but as racing in the three-day regatta didn’t start until Friday, 23 August and as both GB crews had straight finals (there were six entries in the fours and only four in the eights) this meant they had five full days to train before their races.
A piece of bad luck
Unfortunately, Frances Bigg, one of the strongest and most experienced rowers (she had also been in the eight that raced at the test event in Copenhagen in 1953), who was in the five seat of the eight, was taken ill on the journey to Germany and went straight to bed with flu-like symptoms as soon as they arrived. Although the nature of her illness isn’t mentioned in either the Almanack or in the report on the Championships in The Oarswoman, the October 1957 issue of Rowing magazine describes how one crew member went down with polio, and this is clearly the same case. Today, polio only exists in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, according to the World Health Organisation. But immunisation of children in the UK only started in 1958, and as those who are infected can pass it on through poor hygiene, back in 1957 it was all too easy to catch, especially on public transport.
Although it was still unbelievable bad luck for Frances, fortunately, her crew mate Dorothea Newman was a physiotherapist who had worked with polio victims and so was familiar with the subtle differences in symptoms between the disease and ordinary flu. Critically, she knew that it was essential not to exercise if you have it, as this greatly increases the chances of permanent damage. Dorothea immediately arranged for Frances to have a single room separate from the crew’s dormitory and took her to a doctor the next day, who confirmed the diagnosis. Frances flew straight home and as it turned out to be only a mild form of the disease, she was able both to row in the GB eight again in 1960 and 1962, and to have a successful career as a dentist.
For the crew, there was at least a solution at hand as the team had traveled to Duisburg with subs for both the eight and the four so Bridget Gilbert was put into the three seat instead of Gill Perry, who was moved to seven, with the original seven, Denise Holford, moved to five to take Frances’s place in the ‘engine room’.
Results and analysis
The eight came fourth out of four, finishing some 13 seconds behind (East) Germany who were in third place behind the winners Russia and silver medalists Romania. The first three crews finished within four seconds of each other.
The four was fifth out of six after passing the half way mark in fourth place. They beat France by nearly 11 seconds but were 7.3 seconds down on the Danes who had rowed through them to take fourth. As in the eights, the medals went to the USSR, Romania and Germany.
Russia, in fact, won every event again, setting new records in the eights, fours and quads. The unidentified writer of a report on the Championships in The Oarswoman commented that, “It was interesting to note that in many of their races the Russians did not lead at the half way mark but were much faster over the second half of the course.” However, this analysis is not supported by the actual times: in the seven races in which USSR competed, they won them all, and were leading at half way in all but one (the final of the singles where the USSR sculler, Emilia Kukhina was 0.2 sec down on the Austrian Eva Sitka at half way, though she went on to beat her by 1.4 sec).
The Australian sculler Stuart ‘Sam’ Mackenzie, who lived in the UK for many years and won the Diamond Sculls at Henley Royal regatta on numerous occasions, commented on the crews’ performances in the September 1957 issue of Rowing magazine.
“The English eight were a poor last and it was obvious they lacked both style and strength. It was bad luck they were missing their best member, who was ill. Still, I feel one member would not compensate for the distance they were behind.
“The other English crew was a happy and determined little four. They put up a great fight rowing at 42 all the way, but in the fast conditions they were too short forward and never got their work on effectively. The Russian crews all looked very much the same and with their style they had fitness which was of equal importance. I was told by their interpreter that they start two months before the rowing season begins with physical exercises, and keep it up as well as rowing during the season.” – Stuart Mackenzie, Rowing magazine, September 1957
The contrast between his damning summary about the eight and his compliments about the four should be taken in the context that, “The Stuarts got on with Mackenzie; UU did not,” according to Pauline Baillie Reynolds, a Reading University WBC oarswoman who was a spectator at Duisburg in 1957 and went on to represent GB five times as part of the United Universities crews of the early 1960s.
Neither Pauline nor others who felt that Mackenzie’s piece was biased were in any way detracting from the four’s performance, which was particularly admirable given their light weight as there was a headwind on finals day. As Amy Gentry wrote in The Oarswoman, the four, “Did remarkably well to gain fifth place out of the six crews in the final, due, I would say, to their fitness produced by training four times a week from last Autumn to this August.”
In some ways, a more worrying feature of the Championships than the level of the British performance was the lack of entries overall (30, compared with 34 in 1954), which could have endanger the very existence of this newly-created event. Amy Gentry speculated that, “The high standard of crews from Eastern Europe is frightening off crews from other countries, which is a tremendous pity… their high standard should be a challenge to be accepted, not avoided.” However, she acknowledged that there was also little point in sending lambs to the slaughter (especially given the costs of doing so). “These Championships must not fail for lack of support but, and I hate having to say this, we would to wise to keep our representation to smaller units until the rise in standard [in our women’s rowing] is sufficiently pronounced for us to look for an eight again.” Her advice, which has been echoed many times over the years since (remember the value of learning from history and avoiding the constant reinvention of the wheel?) was not, in fact, heeded, with an eight being sent to four of the next seven Championships at which GB was represented.
Amy’s report in The Oarswoman concluded with her saying, “I desperately long to see Great Britain win some of these events before I am too old, and too poor, to be there when they do!” Sadly, she never did as she died just before the 1976 Olympics, long before GB women’s first gold medal was won by Beryl Crockford and Lin Clark in the Lightweight double in 1985.
The cost of sending the two crews to the Championships was mostly met by the Women’s ARA from their International Fund. The Oarswoman records two painfully small initiatives that contributed to this; “The sweepstake on the 1957 Derby produced £39.7.5 for the International Fund. The raffle of a colour print of Henley by Mr K Vernon (presented to the Association by Mrs K Vernon) made £7.12.6. We send our warmest thanks to all Clubs which have helped in the sale of tickets and have achieved these results.”
Fun stuff and international relations
The social and ceremonial aspects of the Championships almost dominated the programme of races (of which there were only eleven): on the Saturday evening (yes, the night BEFORE the finals) there was a boat trip for all the teams to see a firework display entitled ‘Fire on the Rhine’. After the finals and the closing ceremony on the Sunday there was a dance at the town hall where each competitors was presented with a silk scarf, and the following day there was a tour of the port with tea after at Duisburger Ruderverein (Duisburg Rowing Club).
On the way to the fireworks the British team shared a coach with the Russians who got everyone singing, with folk songs traded in a sort of multi-lingual sing-off. As Barbara Benzing observed, “At least here we could hold our own.” When the Brits struck up ‘There is a tavern in the town’ (no, I don’t know that one either – maybe it was better-known back then?) everyone was amused to discover the Russians knew the tune and joined in with their own words.
Today, international competition is entirely about winning, but back in the 1950s, just 12 years after the end of the Second World War and with the boom in holidays abroad only just getting going, it is understandable that even Amy Gentry felt that there was more to the Women’s Championships than the racing. “Surely these meetings between women interested in the same sport should serve a double purpose,” she wrote in The Oarswoman, “Not only to foster a feeling of friendly rivalry, but also to help all of us to understand each other and our ways of life.”
Dorothea Newman, who spoke good German, was able to get talking to some of the others crews, although when it came to the Russians “it was a silent kind of thing”. The cox of the Russian quad gave her one of her white hair ribbons as a parting gift, and two of their eight gave her a half-used bottle of perfume. Writing in The Oarswoman, she said, “The fact that we were not successful in our rowing did not in any way effect our relationships with other competitors.”
She became particularly friendly with Cornelia Pap, the Hungarian sculler who won the bronze medal, and who “almost apologetically explained about their training camps”. After the Championships, Dorothea, Pauline Baillie Reynolds, Barbara Philipson and Bridget Gilbert stayed on in Duisburg to watch the men’s racing as guests of Germania Ruderverein. Evading her minder, Pap joined them and the five women had a fun time staying on a converted Rhine steamer which was moored outside the club and was used in term time as a dormitory for young men training to become merchant seamen. There seemed to have been a fair amount of dancing at the club in the evenings as well as beer drinking. Dress standards were, however, maintained to the highest levels even when doing the touristy bit.