1960 Women’s European Rowing Championships

The 1960 Women’s European Rowing Championships took place on the Welsh Harp Reservoir (thought to be named after a nearby pub) at Willesden in north-west London from 12-14 August 1960. Entries were hugely up on previous years with 36 crews from 12 countries taking part in 25 races.

It was a rare opportunity for the UK to host a FISA event “in the birthplace of our sport” as The FISA Centenary Book put it: without the 2,000m multi-lane course that men’s racing required, Britain had never been able to host a European Rowing Championships (and they’d been going since 1893). But as 1960 was Olympic year, there were no European Championships for men, and we could – just – fit a 1,000m course (the distance over which FISA had ruled women should race) onto the Welsh Harp (now called Brent Reservoir) where there was already a well-established regatta.

The staging of the championships was heavily subsidised by Willesden Borough Council, and the Amateur Rowing Association also contributed £290.12.8, most of which went on “hospitality to FISA delegates”.


Boosted by the excitement of a home event, and doubtless aware that it was therefore the most affordable Championships to which to send crews, the Women’s ARA committed to entering all five events, making this the only occasion in the history of GB women’s international rowing when we sent a full openweight team (up to the time of writing in early 2017, excluding World Championships in Olympic years, and recognising that there were only five events in 1960 compared with more later).

Competitor's badge

Margaret McKendrick’s competitor’s badge

Bearing in mind that ‘selection’ not only involves identifying which is the fastest crew in a non-squad system, but also determining whether that crew is fast enough to be selected, the WARA Selectors arranged two trials on the upstream 1,000m Desborough Cut at Weybridge, and another on still water as part of the regular Welsh Harp Regatta.

Sadly, only the coxed fours and single sculls were actually contested so the eight, quad and double just did time trials to gauge their speed, with pace boats where possible. At the Welsh Harp regatta it had been arranged that a men’s crew from Regent Street Polytechnic would act as pace boat for the women’ eight but unfortunately they hit a submerged milk crate during warm up which ripped their boat open and they sank, although only after gamely trying to row her back with several of their shirts plugging the hole.

The competing crews in the fours were from Alpha Women’s BC/Harrodian Ladies RC, Bedford Ladies RC, Stuart Ladies RC, Reading University Women’s BC, Norwich Union Ladies RC and half of the eight from United Universities Women’s BC. The sculls was a straight contest between Penny Chuter of Laleham Skiff and Punting Club, and Jean Wilshee of Alpha Ladies RC.

The answer to the question ‘Which crew is fastest?’ turned out to be straightforward: the Alpha/Harrodian four won all three trials with Bedford second, while 17-year old Penny Chuter beat Jean Wilshee on both occasions they raced (having won two out of the three, they didn’t do the final trial).

The Alpha/Harrodian four was actually a sort of squad crew, having been encouraged to get together some months earlier by the WARA. Initially there had been two such crews training together, but as people dropped out it rapidly became a five of Alicia Arthur, Helen Black, Judith Robinson, Betty Francis. and Betty Milward. Betty picked up a foot injury so coxed the crew whilst continuing to do what training she could that didn’t involve using her feet. However, she was really too large to be a racing cox and shortly before Easter, Frances ‘Widgie’ Sells agreed to become the four’s cox (and in case you’re wondering, according to various online dictionaries, ‘widgie’ was a term in use at the time for “A young woman belonging to a subculture characterized by a liking for American fashion and rock-and-roll music, and associated with antisocial behaviour” so perhaps there was more to Miss Sells’ life than her work in the Skirts Department of Harrods and rowing activities suggest). Widgie had originally applied to row in the ‘two fours’ squad but had been rejected because she was too small and then declined the coaches’ suggestion of coxing because “like a sulky child [I] did not want to take second best as my preference was for rowing”.

The times recorded at the three trials are far from impressive, even bearing in mind that those at Weybridge were rowed upstream and at least some of the European Records were set in tailwinds. Whilst I’m far from up to date on the percentage gold medal speeds (since crews are realistically expected to achieve percentages under 100%, we’re talking about gold medal SPEEDS here not gold medal TIMES as it is so often incorrectly said) that crews are expected to achieve before their country will send them to a Championships these days, I’m pretty sure that it’s in the 90-100% region, rather than under 80%.

Crew Weybridge
(21 May)
Welsh Harp
(6 June)
(25 June)
European Record Best time
as % of

Eight 4:01 3:57 3:54 3:06.30 79%
Coxed quad 4:37 4:47 4:33 3:18.04 73%
Coxed four 4:26 4:25 4:31 3:23.98 77%
Double 4:35 4:40 4:49 3:27.98 76%
Single 4:39 4:41 3:40.10 79%

But the WARA wanted to send a full team and, combined with the fact that the committee appears to have been optimistic about the level of improvement that crews could make in training (and hey, there were over six whole weeks between the final trial and the Championships), all crews were selected. Perhaps, then, the fact that 1960 was the only time we’ve sent a full heavyweight team was therefore largely just to do with being prepared to send our best crews whatever their standard, but it is still an interesting fact.

After the trials the selectors did try to bolster the quad’s speed a little (and as their trial times were actually slower than those of the coxed fours, this was all too necessary) by replacing two of its members with Jean Wilshee and well-known skiffer Rosemary Gale.

This move particularly pleased the young Penny Chuter who recalls, “I’m really glad that Jean was selected because she had been the British singles champion for several years but previously hadn’t been allowed to represent her country abroad as she had epilepsy and they wouldn’t take the risk of her flying. So the one year that the Championships were here which was therefore her only chance to represent her country, along came this young whippersnapper out of nowhere, and beat her.”

The final team was:

Eight (United Universities) Coxed Quad
Marrian Yates
Pauline Ballie Reynolds
Jill Ferguson
Ann Sayer
Frances Bigg (Capt)
Vivien Roberts
Zona Howard
Barbara Philipson
Margaret McKendrick
Elizabeth Ballinger (UU)
Olive Dolling (Bedford)
Kathleen Skinner
Patricia Lomas
Diane Denton (cox: Bedford)
Christine Dennis (WLARC)
Patricia Button (WLARC)
Jean Wilshee (Alpha)
Rosemary Gale (Laleham)
Pamela Field (WLARC)
Barbara Benzing (Stuart)
Hazel Freestone (Alpha)
Coxed Four Double Scull (Alpha)
Alicia Arthur (Harrodian)
Helen Black (Alpha)
Judith Robinson (Alpha)
Betty Francis (Alpha)
Frances Sells (Harrodian)
Betty Milward (Harrodian)
Margaret Smith (Bedford)
Diane Denton (cox: Bedford)
Pauline Horan
Pam Body
Single Scull
Penny Chuter

Training and preparation

The eight was coached by retired Quintin BC stalwart Frank Harry, assisted by Dick Frankeiss of Vesta RC, and trained four times a week. Following their selection on 25 June, they returned to training on the Tideway, but had a mostly pretty torrid time. Ann Sayer recorded their rollercoaster of emotions in her training diary:

Tuesday, 5 July: Unhappy; soggy; rushed; short; etc. Most of crew felt like resigning. All Dick’s work [he had been coaching them since 7 June] appeared to be of no avail.
Thursday, 7 July: Discouraging again.
Saturday, 9 July: Much, much happier! [These last three outings had been with a Quintin coxless four which Frank Harry was also coaching]
Tuesday, 12 July: Good outing; hopeful and happy; did 4 minute course against stream – quite good; many bandits – successful. [‘Bandits’ were the UU’s name for an unsuspecting (invariably male) crew whom they found themselves in the vicinity of and could overtake – we’ve all done it.]
Saturday, 16 July: Personally awful outing because Mr Harry went on at me from launch therefore lost temper, but revived for trial course.
Sunday, 17 July: Mrs Howard [Zona’s mum] taking cine film. Demoted to 4 [from 6] because lost temper yesterday; enjoyed outing because actually felt rowing in a VIII not a III; could follow Barbara far more easily at distance.
Thursday, 21 July: Saw Zona’s cine film of rowing on last Sunday – devastating; plenty to think about.

Aware that their eight, ‘Quarry,’ was built to last rather than for speed, they arranged to borrow a lighter boat (possibly from Reading University WBC) and rented ‘Quarry’ out to the Czechs. Remember this for later when we get onto the results!

Realising that they needed even more intense training, the crew arranged to spend a week at Weybridge on a training camp (conveniently many, though not all of them, were teachers). Having rowed the boat up from the Tideway, they slept and ate breakfast in Walton Youth Club and trained twice a day (which must have been quite a shock as they didn’t even usually do that at weekends) under Frank Harry’s watchful eye. They were joined by Pam and Pauline from the double scull who couldn’t stay overnight as they were both married with small children.

1960 training at Walton

At training camp. Note the cox’s amplification cone on the far left. (Photo: Zona Hardy’s personal collection.)

As Pauline Baillie Reynolds wrote at the time, “This did the trick; we at last began to get together and to move quite fast… the  improvement was about 100%. Our final full course was 3’35”, nearly half a minute faster than our time for the first official trial (4’01”). We also turned in a 500m time of 1’32”, which Mr Harry said was one of the best bits of rowing he had ever seen a women’s crew do.” Frances Bigg recorded the same incident in her rowing scrapbook, but qualified her coach’s comment by adding with her usual wry humour, “He hadn’t seen Russia then.”

In between outings, Vivien Roberts took on the thankless task of painting Union Jacks onto their blades, “A task that was doubled by the FISA order for emblems on both sides of the blade,” Frances Bigg noted at the time,  “So she was very glad that the four and the quad didn’t take her up on her offer to do theirs. She did a pair for Penny, though.”

1960 training breakfast

The eight stayed abreast of current affairs during their training camp in Weybridge. From left: Zona Howard, Marrian Yates, Margaret ‘Mac’ McKendrick (in Great Britain top) and Viv Roberts. (Photo: Zona Hardy’s personal collection.)

The double had only started training in March as Pauline had had her first child the previous December and Pam’s second child wasn’t much older. They used a 1,000m training course on the Tideway from the petrol pump above UL to the Quintin flagpole, but had no real coaching input. Their boat was borrowed from Quintin BC where Pam’s husband Dennis was Captain at the time.

After taking on the role of coxing the four, Widgie Sells remembers that she, “Immediately was given a skipping rope and some springs to use and exercises to do at home, to keep myself mentally alert and reduce any excess weight. I had to train as completely as the rest of the crew, for if I was excused in any part of the training it might have had a bad psychological effect on the others.” The crew was coached by Alpha stalwart Margaret Barff and Freddie Page, the Honorary Secretary of the ARA who was also a schoolmaster/rowing coach at St Paul’s school.

Meanwhile, young Penny Chuter’s preparation in the single scull was at a whole different level: although she had only taken up sliding seat sculling the previous autumn, she was already an experienced boat racer, despite her tender years, having won the Ladies Single Skiff Championships in 1958 and 1959, and the Ladies Doubles in 1959 (with Rosemary Gale who was now in the quad). As what she needed most was multilane experience against tough competition, in the middle of May she headed, on her own, aged just 17, by plane and train to a regatta in Macon where she beat the French champion Renée Camu who had been fifth at the Women’s European Championships the year before.

In early July she spent two weeks training in Henley where she got advice and help from Jack Beresford, a famous oarsman who won five consecutive Olympic medals in the 1920s and 1930s, and from Stuart ‘Sam’ Mackenzie, a British-resident Australian who had won the Diamonds five times. The weekend before the European Championships she entered the News of the World Serpentine Sprint Regatta but didn’t get any opposition. However the organisers allowed her to row over against the men’s coastal champion (who was in a heavy coastal boat, which made it a reasonably matched contest).

Despite mostly hailing from Weybridge the quad trained from Putney where Ted Phelps, three-times winner of the World Sculling Championship, a member of the famous boat-building dynasty and a professional coach in the UK and abroad since the 1920s, had offered to coach them for the final six weeks before the Championships.

1960 in Putney large

The quad boating in Putney, helped by a formally-dressed Ted Phelps. (Photo: Christine van der Mees’ personal collection.)

1960 e large

Christine Dennis looks on from the stage as coach Ted Phelps takes her seat in the quad (why the cox is missing isn’t clear) on a training outing to check some aspect of their rig. Check out all the planks floating in the water by the raft! (Photo: Christine van der Mees’ personal collection.)

The course

The Welsh Harp reservoir was only used regularly for sailing at the time, but the Council used to allow it to be used once a year for Willesden Regatta which included rowing, sailing and canoeing races as well as – astonishingly – ‘hydroplanes’ which were small motorboats. So much for trying to keep umpire launch wash down.

Even though there were therefore plenty of people around who knew how to organise a four-lane regatta on the Welsh Harp, it still wasn’t easy. As Penny Chuter explained, “To get 1,000 metres in, on the first stroke your blades were literally in waterweed [at the edge] – horrible green slimy stuff.”

In contrast to the multi-lane courses we’re used to today, the lanes were not buoyed, but overhead steering markers were set up at 500m and at the finish. The technicalities of erecting these proved to be no mean feat, but in the best British fashion, the Territorial Army saved the day in the form of 302 Parachute Field Park Squadron of the Royal Engineers.

1960 GB and Romania with overhead balls Copyright Keystone Press Agency Ltd

Romania finish just in front of GB in either the heat or the repechage of the eights. The different-coloured overhead lane markers can be seen strung above the course. Photo © Keystone Press Agency Ltd.

Frances Bigg from the eight was impressed that, “The boats were guarded at night by Alsatian dogs.”

At the Championships

The whole GB team came together at the course for final training on 7 August, a few days before the Championships began.

Practicalities: Sleeping, slurping and sewing

Milk voucher

Did the Russians assume our milk was unpasturised and therefore too risky to drink before racing? Or contrary to their nutritionists’ advice?

Classrooms at the nearby John Kelly School had been turned into dormitories for the competitors with beds and mattresses supplied by the War Department. As Widgie Sells noted, “Needless to say, they were hard as boards!” Great Britain had the top floor to itself, with the UU eight “carefully segregated from the others” as Pauline Baillie Reynolds recorded at the time, an arrangement she felt was “very wise, especially when it came to drowning our sorrows after it was all over,” although the crew can’t have got up to much as Amy Gentry was billeted with the competitors, “generally looking after their welfare” according to a local paper. A young man did, in fact, make it into the GB dormitory, but this was entirely above board as it was Pauline Horan’s baby son Nicholas, whose cute looks and enthusiasm for guzzling his bottle of milk led Pauline Baillie Reynolds to describe him as “the most popular male at the championships”.

Talking of milk, Home Counties Dairies provided sponsorship in kind, although this wasn’t universally welcomed. According to Pauline Horan, “There were these vans like ice cream vans where you could go and get a glass of milk. But the Russians thought we were totally mad – they didn’t think this was right for us at all. Don’t ask me why! They wouldn’t drink it.”

GREAT BRITAIN lettering on the back of a track suit

Neat needlework by Mac McKendrick

The competitors also had a considerable amount of needlework to do, not only sewing Union Jack badges to the fronts of their racing shirts but also the twelve separate letters of GREAT BRITAIN onto the backs of their track suits. The busy mums in the double scull didn’t get round to putting the badges on their race tops, “I never put mine on – I’ve still got it in my sewing basket,” Pauline Horan admitted recently. “I didn’t have time. I had a baby to look after, and a husband!” The eight were on top of the task, although stroke Barbara Philipson started sewing the letters on in the order GRATE, at which point her cox, Margaret ‘Mac’ McKendrick took the job over from her. Which was possibly Barbara’s plan in the first place.

Final training

Barbara Philipson caused more concern in the final days of training, having somehow got an infected thumb which was very painful. Meanwhile, Pauline Baillie Reynolds recorded that, “I had lost so much weight by this time that Sir (the UU’s name for Frank Harry) was really worried, and cut down the amount of work we did in training.”

Frank Harry with baby Gillian Body

Frank Harry literally left minding the baby (Pam Body’s daughter Gillian). (Photo: Ann Sayer’s personal collection.)

On about the third day of training, Pam Body from the double had her baby daughter Gillian down at the course and Mac McKendrick remembered how, “One of the Russians who spoke English came across and said. ‘When you’re out on the water, could we look after the baby? We’ve all got children and we’re missing them.’ Because of course, in those days they only picked people who had got families so they wouldn’t defect.” Young Gillian Body was a hit with Ann Sayer too who listed “the double’s delightful children” amongst her abiding memories of the Championships.

She went on, “The other thing of course, was that the Russians offered us their vitamin pills. They were all on it. We were more streetwise than they were, poor dears. They really thought that they were vitamin pills.”

The quad’s coach, Ted Phelps, travelled to Willesden each day to supervise their training but also, “As the food wasn’t great at the Championships, he’d take us out for a decent meal,” Christine Dennis remembers.


Penny Chuter (fourth out of eight)

1960 Penny collapses exhausted

“Penny collapses exhausted after the race.” (unidentified newspaper clipping)

GB’s best performance came from Penny Chuter in the single sculls, who delivered the closest race of the championships in her first round, coming from behind to beat Gisela Jaeger of East Germany by just 0.05 seconds and qualify directly for the final.

Unfortunately, despite then having a day off while the repechages were rowed, Penny explained, “I was so absolutely shattered because I was relatively inexperienced at racing full slide and all the rest of it, that I just never recovered from that race for the final.”

In the final she reached the half way mark in third place, 1.4 seconds ahead of the Austrian Eva Sika, who then rowed her down and she finished fourth. Penny’s tired legs were doubtless not have been helped by a false start requiring her to meet the physiological demands of starting a second time.

1960 photo finish and boating

Left: Penny Chuter’s first round Photo finish. Right: Getting ready to race © Daily Express.

Despite missing out on a medal, Penny’s performance was widely praised. A report in the British Rowing Almanack (not written by any of the team or a WARA official), described her season as “quite outstanding”, and added, “It is to be hoped that we shall hear more of her sculling in the future,” and this was typical of the general tone of reports. The Times – entirely accurately – described her as “The best woman sculler yet produced in this country.” And as an encouragement for the future, “To have beaten the current East German Champion in my first Europeans, that was a big fillip.”

Eight (fourth out of five)

1960 programme autographed by VIII

Ann Sayer’s copy of the programme, autographed by the rest of the eight.

The eight was the only other of the five British crews to reach the final. In the first round they were third out of three, but only a respectable 3.38 seconds behind the winners, Germany, and 1.05 seconds behind second-placed Romania. As Frances Bigg noted at the time, this was the only day when there was the tailwind, and they hoped they might have beaten their previous best time, but “For some infuriating reason the timing apparatus failed to function.”

They were then second in the repechage the next day, finishing 2.42 seconds behind the Romanians but well clear of Czechoslovakia who, you’ll remember, were rowing in UU’s heavy eight, Quarry, “And didn’t much like her, I gather,” according to Frances.

However, as Pauline Baillie Reynolds wrote shortly after, “We had good rows in the heat and the repechage, but not such a good one in the final,”  in which they were fourth (out of four, of course), 2.56 seconds behind the third-placed Romanians. Ann Sayer recorded in her diary that, “[Someone] caught a crab on the second stroke therefore GB [were] fourth all the way. Rowing got better until at end [we were] rowing well.” Pauline’s main memory of the the final is of sitting on the start alongside the Eastern bloc crews, “You don’t know what fear is until you’re in that situation,” she says, adding wistfully, “We were with them for about two strokes,”

Analysing their performance, Pauline adds, “Unfortunately we never rowed quite as well at the Harp as we had done at Walton [Weybridge]. It was partly nervousness, and partly the prevailing conditions, which were almost continuously head or cross winds.” However, she and the crew, whose average weight of 10 stone 11 lb (68.5kg) was moderate compared to the opposition, were fairly happy with the result, “Penny Chuter was the only other Briton to reach the final so we were pretty bucked, particularly as the Selectors wrote us off early on in the proceedings, and went round chuntering about the four and the quad.”

Zona Howard was motivated by the experience. “[It was] hard work, very hard work. And they always sort of slipped away from us! Which was maddening but it gave us an appetite and that’s why we went on. We wanted to do it again.”

1960 VIII

The 1960 GB eight. Back row from left: Marrian Yates, Pauline Baillie Reynolds, Ann Sayer, Jill Ferguson. Front row from left: Zona Howard, Vivien Roberts, Frances Bigg, Barbara Philipson. Cox Margaret McKendrick is in front of the blades – note the orientation of the Union Jack is different from today’s. (Photo: Ann Sayer’s personal collection.)

Coxed quad (unplaced from nine entries)

The coxed quad came second out of three in their heat, beating Romania by 1.25 seconds, but finishing nearly 15 seconds behind the Hungarians. With nine entries, this was the only event to have semi finals as well as finals, so the GB crew’s second place was enough to get them straight to the semi on the Saturday without having to go through the repechage earlier that day.

However, despite the fact that the Romanians had had quite a tough race to get through the repechage, they then beat GB in the semi by nearly 15 seconds, and actually went on to win the silver medal in the final. The British crew were last.

1960 European Champs quad

The 1960 GB coxed quad. From left: Pam Field, Rosemary Gale, Jean Wilshee, Pat Button, Christine Dennis. (Photo: Gerry Cranham © Offside Sports Photography.)

The quad races caught the eye of the male rowing establishment, though. Although not talking about the GB crew specifically, a report about the Championships in the September 1960 issue of Rowing magazine commented, “[An] example to the men was the racing in quadruple sculls, which is not only a delightful form of boating, but is never seen at men’s regattas, for reasons which are difficult to understand.”

Coxed four (unplaced from eight entries)

The coxed four was last in its heat (over ten seconds behind the next crew) and then last in the repechage (eleven seconds down on the next crew). Their cox, Widgie Sells, described what happened, “Our start [in the first race] was perfect but another crew jumped the command so we all had to go back and be re-started. The second time we were not quite ready because the wind kept blowing us off our station… We were last and most disappointed… On Saturday there was a repechage where all the losers had a second chance… We were once again beaten.”

1960 coxed four

The 1960 GB coxed four, from left: Alicia Arthur, Helen Black, Judy Robinson, Betty Francis and Widgie Sells. (Photo: Alicia Arthur’s personal collection.)

Double scull (unplaced from six entries)

The double of Pam Body and Pauline Horan were last in their heat of three crews, finishing just under eight seconds behind the Belgians in second and the Romanians, who eventually won the bronze, out in front. In the repechage they got a lot closer to the Belgians, finishing just 1.75 seconds down on them, but both crews were eliminated after finishing a good way behind the two that got through.

Pauline, at stroke, remembers getting a telling off from the official at the start, “I had a false start and Grace Harvey, who I raced with in the eight many a time, was holding the boat and she glared at me and said, ‘Don’t you dare false start a second time!'”

One of the eight admits that her crew used to joke about the double really being a quad because both Pauline and Pam were pregnant at the time.

1960 GB double

Pam Body (left) and Pauline Horan didn’t get round to sewing their Union Jacks onto their racing tops. (Photo: Pauline Rayner’s personal collection.)


The Russians won three of the five events – the eight, the four and the double. Germany won the quads, and Cornelia Pap from Hungary won the single sculls.

This short film from Pathé News shows highlights of the finals. there’s no sound, but you can lipread the starter saying “Partez!” (As the official language of FISA was French at the time, the starting command was “Êtes vous prêtes? Partez!”). Penny Chuter is on the far side in white in the singles race.

Although this film shows a good crowd watching the finals, Rowing magazine reported that the number of spectators had been disappointing on the previous two days. This was despite the fact that the games included that very British entertainment stalwart the military band (in fact TWO – the Scots Guards and the Coldstream Guards), a firework display “to honour our European visitors”, a ‘licensed buffet’ (though not on the Sunday, of course) and a “gigantic funfair” that you’d think would have proved irresistible.

1960 poster

What’s not to like?! (Photo © Christine van der Mees’ personal collection.)

Despite carrying the strapline ‘The magazine for oarsmen everywhere’, Rowing, was enthusiastic about the racing at the Championships, although it’s a shame their reporter had to sound so surprised about it; “Women’s rowing has no great following in this country. It is likely to have more in the future. The form of these girls… was such that it showed up the relatively low standard in some men’s events on the river, particularly the Wyfold fours at Henley. Nobody disagreed with the clear opinion that these championships proved that women can be as elegant, energetic and exciting to watch as men, when top-class events are being staged [which IS quite a caveat – Ed.], just as they have been at skating and show jumping.”

Pushing the boundaries?

Two areas of questionable practice were notable during these championships. The first was described in an unidentified newspaper clip in Penny Chuter’s personal archive:

“One bad feature of this regatta was the number of false starts, mostly caused by deliberate attempts to beat the fall of the starter’s flag. There were more incidents of this kind at the Welsh Harp than I remember in the whole of the Thames amateur regatta season.”

As mentioned earlier, the start procedure at the time was, “Êtes vous prêts? Partez” (or “prêtes” for women’s races, of course), with the starter’s flag dropped on the “Partez” (a long, two-syllable word) which came after a pause that should have been of a variable length, but generally was easily-predictable. With so much at stake (literally in the case of many of the Eastern bloc athletes who could be given attractive flats to live in if they won), it’s really not surprising that some competitors were seeking to ensure they didn’t start even a fraction late by anticipating instead of reacting.

The issue of ensuring a perfect, fair start in rowing was really only solved around 2010 with the introduction of ‘clogs’, or plastic boxes attached to a grid at the bottom of the lake that locks over each crew’s bows and drops very, very fast when the start traffic light goes in. This has the additional advantage of holding crews straight in a cross wind. Before this FISA made various other changes which led to improvements in starting accuracy: “Êtes vous prêts? Partez” was still used at the World Rowing Championships in 1991, but this changed to “Are you ready? Go” in 1992, “Attention, set, go” in 1994 and then with the introduction of red/green ‘traffic lights’ in 1995, it became just “Attention” followed by the light changing from red to green with a beep.

The second piece of questionable practice seen at the 1960 Championships was more of an own goal for FISA and related to the draw for the repechages (which not only ensured – as it does now – that no crew was eliminated before a final until it had raced at least twice, but also separated crews from those they had raced in the first round, as much as possible). The draw for repechages was published in advance so crews racing in their first round could know, as their race was progressing, which heat and also which lane in that heat their current position in the race would take them to. At regattas where the weather conditions seemed reasonable, the lane was less important, but even then, if you were reasonably aware of who the likely contenders were in your event, there could be an advantage in making sure you didn’t finish up in a repechage with one of them. For example, imagine that it was well known that Russia and Romania were the top crews in an event and because the first round draws were random back then (which they’re not now), it was quite possible that these two crews raced each other in the first round. If the progression from this round was “one to final, rest to repechages” and, say, Russia won and Romania was second, if you’d started off in a different heat, you’d much prefer to finish up in the repechage that Romania wasn’t in. And if the progression pattern from your heat was that the crew who was second would go to the same rep as Romania, but the crew that was third would go to the other rep, if you were lying in second place as you approached the line, you would actually have a greater chance of getting to the final if you slowed down and came third instead. Of course, there was a rule that required all crews to complete the course ‘at racing speed’, but this can be hard to prove.

All of this led to a quite ridiculous situation in the second heat of the single sculls at the Welsh Harp. With Zossia Rakistkaya of Russia having established a commanding lead, the Hungarian sculler Cornelia Pap stopped about 100 metres from the line, with the expectation that Marian Luderus of Holland or Eva Sika of Austria would pass her. But these two were equally aware of the consequences of finishing second and, according to an unidentified newspaper clipping, “All three sat stationery within inches of the finishing line until Luderus took the final stroke.”

The young Penny Chuter watched this pantomime whilst still on the water recovering from her gruelling photo finish in the previous race. “I couldn’t understand why the Dutch girl was backing it down just before the finish line, then afterwards I learned that that was because of the repechage draw. Of course I hadn’t been briefed about any of that, so I’d got no idea, but you learn pretty fast,” she says, although adds that it was not something she ever did herself in her sculling career. “Soon after that, FISA introduced a double system where there were two alternative progression options and once the heats had been rowed a coin was tossed (until the 19902 when it started being done by computer) to select Option A or Option B so no one can ever work it out in advance.


With typical meticulousness, Ann Sayer recorded the costs of competing at the Championships in her training diary:

Track suit: £3.0.0
Blazer: £4.15.0
Blazer badge: 12/6
Shirt: 12/6
Shirt badge: 3/6
Accommodation at Welsh Harp: £10.0.0 (£2 per day)
Training camp accommodation: £1.10.0
Training camp food: £1.10.0
Training camp dinners: £2.7.0

She notes about the training camp that “extras” were paid by Mr Howard (Zona’s dad).

Christine Dennis remembers the quad having to pay for their kit in installments as they could afford it.

1960 quad standing large

The quad show off their GB kit. Christine Dennis is on the far left. (Photo: Christine van der Mees’ personal collection.)

International relations

Other countries’ rowing programmes

The British competitors were all too aware of the gulf between their approach to rowing and that of the Eastern bloc countries. Alicia Arthur remembers, “They had better boats, they had doctors, dentists, they had managers, all sorts of things, physiotherapists with them… a whole entourage of people. I suppose their facilities and their approach to it was quite different to ours. We were quite new to what was really needed to get to that point where you were at that level.” Zona Howard agrees, “We tried to find out more about how they trained but they all went off to training camps and things like that and of course there was no money behind the women.”

On the subject of doctors, however, even though the GB team didn’t have specialists in sports medicine supporting it, The FISA Centenary Book records that, “25 local doctors, some of them bilingual, offered their services during the championships.” They made use of a team of four physiotherapists who were working there, one of whom was the lead physio for the overall Rome Olympic team that year. “They brought a couch down to the changing tent on the race days and went over us after the races,” Frances Bigg wrote at the time, adding, “We were very glad of them although I think in many cases it was a luxury.”

Better funded sport, but worse off in so many other ways

The contrast between East and West was obvious in the other direction too, of course. Ann Sayer says, “I remember that the foreign crews, say the East Germans and what have you, being amazed by displays outside in shops that would be like fruit and veg shops – with a great display of fruit and veg that we that we would regard as ordinary but wasn’t ordinary to them.”

The kindness of other countries

Nevertheless, many of the Eastern athletes were grateful guests. Back at the dormitories at the end of the Championships, the Russian coxed four presented their British opponents with matrioshka dolls, commenting, “A big doll for a little cox,” when they gave one to the diminutive Widgie Sells.

1960 Russian Doll given to crew

Alicia Arthur still has the Russian dolls given to her by the USSR coxed four. (Photo © Alicia Arthur.)

Frances Bigg admitted that her crew, “Had bought some whisky to demonstrate our national drink to the Romanians with whom we had struck up a friendship and continued the drinking later in the dormitory [after the finals]. They went down to dance ‘strip the willow’ in a somewhat gay state during the dancing after the presentations. The Russians gave us a present each and so did the Germans and the Poles gave us a pennant. We wished we had something to give them.”

Zona Howard was struck by “the strangeness of all these foreign people”, but she also remembers, “How nice they all were and they were very friendly. In particular we got to know the Romanians because they spoke quite a lot of French and our French was as good as their French almost and so we were able to converse with them. We didn’t really talk to the Russians at all.”

GB and Romanian rowers

Some of the GB eight (in the darker track suits) with members of the Romanian team. (Photo: Margaret McKendrick’s personal collection.)

And their rowing kit

Widgie Sells, who – as mentioned earlier – worked in the skirts department of Harrods at the time  and so can be considered the closest the British team had to a fashion expert, was quite taken with some other team’s racing kit. “Unlike the traditional baggy shorts we British were used to wearing for this sport, the Eastern countries… wore dark-coloured, close-fitting knickers and singlets. The double scullers from Belgium were wearing one-piece costumes with off-the-shoulder necklines and low backs. The Dutch girls carried their boats down to the water wearing wooden clogs.”

Russian eight 19660

Some of the gold-medal Russian eight in their ‘knickers’ (unidentified newspaper clipping)

 After the Championships

After the Championships ended, Penny Chuter and Rosemary Gale introduced the Hungarian sculler Cornelia Pap and the Dutch sculler Marian Luderus to the traditional English boating practices of skiffing and punting at their club, Laleham Skiff and Punting Club on the Thames.

And also in a highly English manner, the WARA held a ‘thank you’ tea party at Weybridge Ladies ARC in October. According to The Oarswoman, “Inscribed plaques were presented to Willesden Borough Council, John Kelly School, and to Mr Page [Hon. Secretary of the ARA], and inscribed tankards to the Willesden Entertainments Manager and the Willesden Building Manager.” No reason for the different types of item is given, or the even more bizarre (by today’s standards) choice of a cigarette box which was given to the Willesden Entertainments Manager’s Secretary.

The Mayor of Willesden gave a short speech thanking the WARA and remarked that, “The receipt of the commemorative plaque will no doubt remind the Council of the hole in their budget, but I feel sure they will find a prominent place for it to hang in the Council chamber,” but added that, “Willesden have no regrets for the opportunity allowed them to sponsor these championships which were an unqualified diplomatic success and have fostered strong bonds of international friendship which our Borough will remember for years to come.”

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