The 1975 World Championships took place at Holme Pierrepont in Nottingham from 21-24 August.
There were 69 entries across from 20 countries in the women’s events, which was eight crews down on the previous year. There were no entries this time from New Zealand, Switzerland or Sweden, which had all competed in 1974, but China and Ireland made their first appearances.
Setting the scene
1975 was a big year for British women’s rowing: not only was the women’s squad now in its second year, which meant that many of the athletes were starting the year with serious training base behind them, but the World Championships would be at home in Nottingham.
Rowing magazine carried detailed reports of the squad’s progress and assessments throughout the year, mostly written by squad members themselves; the sense of ownership of what they were doing is clear in these pieces.
A word about World Championships publicity
Although British rowers were no doubt pleased, exited and even honoured that the World Championships were coming here, an ongoing series of complaints rumbled on throughout the year about the nature of some of the publicity material produced for the event which was inappropriately raunchy even by the standards of the 1970s. A photo of the attractive female model in a tight-fitting World Rowing Championships t-shirt would probably have been OK for all but the most blustery of old bar-flies, but the fact that her jeans were unzipped and that her thumb was inserted in them, apparently on the point of pulling them down was generally going too far for almost everyone. Rowing carried one of these publicity shots on the cover of its January 1975 issue, and in response to a flurry of outraged letters it received, then included the actual shot which had been selected for the official Championship poster, which had her pulling her t-shirt up with her other hand (although only to reveal more of her stomach, I hasten to add).
Since you’re now dying to know, here is the magazine cover in question:
Training and assessment
Most of the 11 women who rowed at the 1974 Championships came back for a second year, the only exceptions being Chris Aistrop, Chris Grimes and Liz Monti who had returned to her native Australia.
The remaining eight (plus cox Pauline Wright) were joined by many new recruits from a number of clubs, most notably St George’s who had made a policy decision not to be involved the previous year despite having several excellent oarswomen. Two particularly promising newbies were Rosie Clugston, the 1974 Ladies Skiff Champion, and Gill Webb who was just out of juniors but who won the (senior) single sculls event for England at the Home Countries Regatta as well as ruffling feathers with her performances in senior singles at Nottingham International Regatta and the National Championships.
Training didn’t start again formally until the beginning of November, which seems somewhat late – especially for the new intake – as the World Championships had ended in early September. After a ‘kick off’ weekend in Nottingham which include baseline strength tests, a few races and video feedback, everyone got going on the training programme which involved three land training sessions during the week (up one on the previous year) and a single outing both days at the weekend.
First Nottingham assessment weekend (December 1974)
Initial sculling races at this important weekend had to be split into two divisions because of the generally low levels of sculling skill in the squad, with “those not quite so capable” using fibreglass boats from the Watersports Centre.
Amongst competent scullers, “The main rivalry between Ann Cork and Diana ‘Dink’ Bishop ended up in one win each,” Maggie Lambourn reported, adding that, “Pauline Bird and Gill Webb both sculled particularly well.” Given what she achieved later, readers will be highly amused that Beryl was in the fibreglass section (although she won all her races).
After this the trialists also raced in coxless pairs, which was a steep learning curve for the newcomers. “I was given a steering foot and I thought, ‘This is fun!’ Gill Webb recalls. “So off we went and it was the crews really that went in a straight line that were winning. Once I got the hang of steering I was fine – the younger you are the quicker you learn, I think.” Various combinations were tried. In a taste of things to come much later, Lin Clark and Beryl Mitchell were fastest in the first session.
The customary 1,500m run (done because the East Germans did it) was won by Beryl with Dink second, and everyone also did a Harvard Step Test to measure aerobic fitness.
At the end of the weekend Penny made two major announcements. First, she named 18 women (16 rowers and two coxes) who had been selected to continue in the squad. Second, she explained there would be a top boat which would probably be a coxed four, to be coached by her, and that she expected all 18 remaining members of the squad to fight for places in it. Other boats would be coached by Tony Lorrimer from Nottingham BC and Martin Pratt of Burway RC.
In addition to the 18 named, Ann Cork would train outside squad, coached by her husband John who had just started a new job as a boatman at Eton.
Diana Bishop noted in her training diary that, “Penny thinks I won’t beat Ann in summer. Might make it into a 4+ or 2- or 2x.” [Remember this for later! – Ed.]
The squad was:
Sue Bailey (Stuart Ladies RC)
Lorraine Baker (Derby RC)
Pauline Bird (Weybridge Ladies Amateur RC)
Diana Bishop (Wallingford RC)
Lin Clark (Civil Service Ladies RC)
Rosie Clugston (WLARC)
Jackie Darling (CSLRC)
Clare Grove (CSLRC)
Jean Guppy (Stuart Ladies RC)
Sue Handscomb (CSLRC)
Maggie Lambourn (CSLRC)
Liz Lorrimer (Nottingham BC)
Agnes Morrell (St George’s Ladies RC)
Beryl Mitchell (St George’s LRC)
Margaret Sayer (Bedford RC, formerly of St George’s LRC)
Sara Waters (CSLRC)
Gill Webb (Stuart Ladies RC)
Pauline Wright (CSLRC)
Land training (especially weights)
The squad all met twice a week for land training at a school in Paddington where Lin Clark taught PE. Gill Webb says of the ensuing weeks, “I just remember training really, really hard, just coming out of juniors and trying to keep up with Lin and Beryl who were about six years older than me and had done a [this kind of] training beforehand. I was suddenly doing weights that I’d never done before, doing quite hard circuits that I’d not really done before, and doing lots of running.” But, she adds, “Jean [Guppy] and I thought it was good fun. I thoroughly enjoyed it. There was lots of politics going on over my head. I was just quite happy to get on with it.” Diana Bishop was also impressed with Lin and Beryl’s strength, “I lifted quite good weights again for my size but nothing compared to what Lin and Beryl were able to lift. And Gill – she was a good weight lifter too.”
Jackie Darling recalls that, “We’d do a 2-mile run round the block and then we’d do our weights at Lin’s school. I seem to remember that it would take two people to lift this bar onto your back and the bar would almost bend. We always worked in threes on heavy weights so it was usually me, Lin and Beryl because we were lifting round about the same.” Gill also remembers doing weights with Lin and Beryl who encouraged her to work with them because they’d decided the she was likely to be in the top crew with them so they wanted to train as hard as them.
There were also fitness circuits at which young Sue Handscomb picked up an unusual injury on one occasion; “It was something like three laps round continuously – you were absolutely puffed out – all on body weight exercises at different stations, so 10 or 15 reps at various places. We had to do a press up onto a scaffolding bar, so it wasn’t a full press up you were just leaning forward onto this scaffolding bar. It got a bit crowded because people would move around at their own speed and I had to pull my elbows in and slipped and landed on my tooth and broke the edge off it. I was absolutely distraught and I couldn’t go to school next day as I felt dreadful that I’d parted company with part of my tooth!”
Second Nottingham assessment weekend (January 1975), eights races and golden gumboots
The squad headed to Nottingham again at the end of January but this time the objective was to try out various permutations rather than to cut the numbers down any further.
As a result, two eights were selected which then raced at Burway Head, the Women’s Heads and Kingston Head on consecutive weekends, coming first and second in all three.
While this is a racing schedule that is familiar to many crews today, the squad supersized their campaign – at least partly because they didn’t have a trailer – by rowing the boats the 28 miles from Staines to Chiswick after Burway, and then 16 miles back (in the rain, Diana noted) from the Tideway up to Kingston after the Women’s Head.
Their lack of trailer wasn’t their only equipment gap either as they were borrowing boats to train and race from Burway RC, Staines BC, St George’s College School and Walton RC. “It’s good to see small local clubs offering hospitality, boats and equipment to a national team,” Penny Chuter was quoted as saying in a local newspaper article, adding, “More is the pity that the team has few boats of its own, due to government cut backs.” Despite the clubs’ welcome generosity, Rowing magazine later noted that eight the first crew was using was 15 years old and built for 13 stone men with non-adjusting riggers set on a hard gearing.
Faced with the need to raise money for equipment – the women’s squad budget for it from the ARA for it was just £85 per person that year (although this was matched by the Sports Council) and to put this in context, a blade cost £35 – the whole squad became savvy about the importance of publicity which could not only raise their profile with potential donors but also increase their value to commercial sponsors. One of the ways they did this was by getting some coverage about gold-coloured wellington boots that some of them had bought. These had been spotted by Pauline Wright for a pound a pair in Biba’s closing down sale next door to where she worked at Marks & Spencer headquarters.
The Daily Mail picked up on the above photo and ran a story under its “Fair Play for Sport” campaign banner which quoted Penny as saying, “The boots attract a lot of attention when the girls are wearing them on the Tideway and at regattas. People want to talk to the girls about them… and that’s our cue to tell enquirers just how much women’s rowing in Britain is struggling financially to make the Olympic grade.”
The 1974 Scullers’ Head was a momentous occasion as women were to be included for the first time. Whether because she wanted to support this change, or simply because it was a good trial (or, quite possibly, both) Penny entered quite a few of the squad in it – in fact, they made up 13 out of the 17 entries.
As Maggie Lambourn reported in Rowing, Diana Bishop won by 23 seconds over Gill Webb although Gill points out that as she didn’t have her own boat, she was in an experimental aluminium one which the Amateur Rowing Association had been lent by the manufacturers, Plascraft, for promotional purposes. When she’d first used it, she had been concerned it would sink, and although she eventually worked out it wouldn’t, this was only because it the bow and stern were filled with polystyrene, although, she says, “The polystyrene crumbled and when you turned it upside down each time some of it fell out.”
Jackie Darling was, “A very creditable third using Penny’s ‘monster pitch’ sculling boat,” Liz Lorrimer and Margaret Sayer fourth and fifth, and Clare Grove, “In a borrowed boat with a 10.5 inch [that’s a LOT – Ed.] overlap was the first ‘non-sculler’ home in sixth place.” Beryl raced in a restricted boat (with a keel), and Thames club sculler Jean Rankine beat several of the squad members.
The occasion caught the attention of the Daily Mail again, who rang up Diana Bishop for a comment, but perhaps didn’t get quite the thrilled reaction they may have been looking for as she, “Shrugged off the achievement as ‘just another training outing for the world rowing championships this summer and the Olympics next year.'”
Third Nottingham assessment weekend (end of April 1975)
Taking place the weekend after the Scullers’ Head, and again reported on in Rowing by Maggie Lambourn, this involved a lot of 500m races designed to identify the fastest combinations for the top boat. An initial set of six pieces in coxed fours had Gill Webb, Clare Grove and Lin Clark in three of the seats, with Diana Bishop and Beryl Mitchel tying for the fourth spot.
Pairs in the afternoon then clocked Lin and Gill at just one second quicker than Clare and Dink.
The main group for the eight also did a lot of pairs races on the first day and then borrowed an eight from Nottingham High School for the second day to try out its own combinations.
Sue recalls that for the pairs trials, “You had to say whether you were bowside or strokeside when you turned up and someone had advised me that it was better to say that you were both because then you had twice the chances of getting in. And there was one race that me and Jean Guppy did where we’d been put down for me to row strokeside and her to row bowside and we actually prefer the other sides. So we did this race and didn’t do particularly well. And from that they were dividing the races then into small final and big final. And we were put into the small final. So we plucked up courage to say, ‘Penny, can we row the other sides?’ And she said, ‘Well, surely you’re on the side you want to row?,’ to which we replied, ‘No, we’re not actually.’ And she thought we were rather stupid! So we switched sides and then won the small final by a country mile, and then she said, ‘Right you two, turn round and go and do the big final.’ We didn’t win that one but it was a funny little thing.”
At the end of the weekend, Penny made more momentous announcements: the four would indeed be the top boat, and and there would be further trials to establish who should be in it out of Gill, Lin, Clare, Dink and Beryl, and this would culminate in further trials in mid-May; the Midlands duo of Liz and Lorraine would train together in a double and a pair in Nottingham as they had the previous year although they would also be tried out in the eight; and Sara Waters was dropped despite, “Performing equally as well as many other oarswomen in the trials” as Maggie put it.
Much of the men’s squad had also been at Holme Pierrepont during the weekend, which made the lake quite crowded at times, but it got the women noticed, apparently for the right reasons, with one of them commenting, “Haven’t the women improved this year!” which Maggie says she assumed was a reference to their rowing. Innuendo aside, the squad had moved on, though, and Penny was quoted in Rowing magazine as saying, “The standard of the top girls is higher than last season and that morale is good.”
Nottingham assessment for the coxed four (10-11 May)
With fewer athletes to test on this weekend, it was practical to do timed pieces could be done over the actual race distance of 1,000m. These started with a straight test of each of Beryl Mitchell and Diana Bishop in the bow seat and were followed in the afternoon by a test of Gill Webb against Beryl at bow.
Even with only five rowers, there were a lot of potential permutations as Gill and Dink were then tested against each other in the stroke seat the next day. Changing conditions meant that these the final set of six pieces were inconclusive, though.
At the end of the weekend, Dink wrote in her training diary, “Have resolved to scull if not in four – possibility of small boat entry at Montreal. Still, may be in four.” Later in the week, though, the four was announced as Clare, Lin, Gill and Beryl. A “disappointed but hopeful” Dink would go into the single scull as she had for the European Championships in 1972. Looking back on it recently, Diana can’t remember why she sculled rather than go into the eight, but feels it made sense because “I wasn’t big enough and I was good at sculling.”
At this point, though, Ann Cork was still training outside the squad system, and the two scullers would need to fight it out at early season regattas to decide who should go to the World Championships.
Early season racing
The crews for the summer season’s racing were:
|Double Scull||Single Sculls|
These were not the ONLY crews, though, as various people doubled up into small boats at various regattas for various reasons.
A word about the coxes
Pauline Wright was an experienced cox and had coxed the four the previous year.
Sue Bailey had done less but despite only being 14, Gill Webb is full of praise for her skills. “Sue was a great cox,” she says, “I’d known her since she was 12 and she had plenty of mouth. She coxed us to our gold medal (in Junior Fours) at Nat Champs in 1973 and she ran out of things to say in the last 250m and she was just screaming at us. ‘Get me a gold medal!’ And we thought we’d better or else! She only weighed about five stone and we used to have to take about a gallon of sand in the boat with her to make up the minimum weight even though that was only 6 stone 4 lb then. Sometimes I’d tell her to shut up but we took her up to the squad and looked after her.”
Sue was known as ‘Bunter’ pronounced with a glottal stop) by Gill and Jean Guppy her Stuart Ladies club mates, and the name took hold amongst the rest of the squad. She famously got the wrong end of the stick one day when the men’s lightweights were training at Nottingham one day when the women were there and someone said, “Oh look, there’s Dan Topolski,” to which Sue replied, “That’s a funny name, Danta!” Gill rolls her eyes, fondly. “‘No, Sue,’ we said, ‘It’s Dan… Topolski,” but it was a squad joke after that to say, “There goes Danta!” whenever they saw him.
Mannheim (31 May – 1 June)
The squad reached a new milestone when the coxed four won at Mannheim Regatta. In an unattributed newspaper clip, probably from The Times, the 1948 Olympic gold medallist and rowing correspondent Richard Burnell wrote, “A happy feature yesterday was the breakthrough by the British women, who have so long been struggling against lack of equipment and support. The St George’s, Civil Service and Stuart Ladies composite coxed four won handsomely, leading by two lengths at half distance and holding of all challenges. I believe that this was the first win ever by a British women’s crew in a foreign regatta [Which it wasn’t really as Stuart Ladies eight had won in 1952 at an international regatta in Amsterdam, a United Universities eight had won at the Bosbaan Regatta in 1963, never mind the multiple wins by the coxed four that toured Australia in 1938 – Ed.] and to underline it they bettered the world championship standard time by some 13 seconds. The eight too, although finishing third of three in a borrowed boat, were by no means outclassed.”
Geoffrey Page entitled his piece for The Guardian, “Penny’s girls make history,” writing, “The most encouraging win was probably that of the girls in the coxed fours. They made a significant breakthrough into European Rowing by defeating three German fours and although the time was wind-assisted, it was well inside the qualifying time for the world championships.” Clare Grove remembers them each being presented with a small rose.
It was a particularly impressive result for 19-year old Gill Webb, who was at her first proper international regatta. She recalls that their boat – one of only two that the women’s squad actually owned, the other being a second-hand double – was beginning to show the strain. “We were quite fast and the boat that had been built the year before, but because we were a lot stronger than the people that had it the year before, we started to pull the rigger bolts through the shoulders. It was built light because all they did was put it in a men’s frame and cut it down and try and make it as light as possible for women so they cut corners a little bit. We ended up having to borrow a boat to race in at the Worlds.”
Sue Handscomb remembers that, “It was the first time I’d ever been on an airplane! And the women’s squad hardly had any money so they charged us all a fiver if we were going. Our flights were paid for, but they said, ‘Can you pay £5 towards it?’ which was going to go towards buying the us new blades to go with our borrowed boat, and my aunt gave me a fiver so I could go.”
But Sue also tells the story of a much more serious incident. “The GB men were staying in the German barracks. We were fed at the German barracks, but then were transported to the American barracks and we were in a block on our own. The women’s eight were downstairs and Martin Pratt, our coach, came and stayed with us and we manoeuvred a wardrobe and tucked him behind the wardrobe towards the door. The four was upstairs. And as it got dark the American soldiers started driving their cars furiously around our block and then trying to get into the block – trying to get in the doors, trying to get in the windows. And I have this vivid memory of hearing Martin Pratt behind the wardrobe going, ‘No you don’t, sunshine,’ as he stopped an American soldier climbing in through the window. It was quite frightening. It was in the days before phones, of course, so there were no mobiles, no way of contacting anyone at all. We were just on this army site stuck in this building on our own. Under siege, basically.”
Ratzeburg (14-15 June)
“The women’s squad continues to improve, and the coxed four… in particular, with a second place behind a new Dutch crew on the Sunday,” Chris Dodd wrote in Rowing magazine.
The eight appears only to have had opposition on the Saturday when it was last out of four crews, and not particularly in contention, but some of its members doubled up in small boats.
The women’s doubles were won by the West Germans Astrid Hohl (later Ayling) and Regina Adam (daughter of the famous coach Karl Adam) but Pauline Bird and Jackie Darling were just nine seconds further back in fifth place.
Having double sculled together throughout the 1974 season, they had a lot going for them; “We got into the final which was a BIG step up,” Pauline says, “Because the previous year we weren’t doing brilliantly and it was all very new to us and then suddenly there we were racing at an international regatta. But now we got into the final rather than failing to make the final so there was a sense there of having learned a bit.”
“I think we actually wanted to do the double rather than the eight,” Jackie remembers, and Pauline agrees. “The double was, I think, a little experiment of Penny’s to see whether it would be worth doing the double rather than the eight [the Midlands double of Liz Lorrimer and Lorraine Baker had left the squad after Mannheim Regatta as they hadn’t done well there and Lorraine had got glandular fever],” she says, “And I think a lot of people in the eight were quite anxious about it because they thought that if we were off in the double, that would be the end of the eight.”
Jean Guppy and Sue Handscomb (steers) were seventh in the final on the Saturday but had veered into the next lane during the race. Sue remember that they switched seats for the Sunday because Jean was frustrated about the steering, “But she managed to put us into three lanes rather than two so I felt I succeeded there,” she laughs.
Dink was fifth in her single on the Saturday and sixth on the Sunday, noting in her training diary that her time of 3’49.9″ in the Saturday final was both a personal best and, more importantly, nine seconds inside the standard time required for selection.
Ann Cork didn’t race here and hadn’t been at Mannheim either but the two scullers would finally race at NIR two weeks later.
Nottinghamshire International Regatta (28-29 May)
The squad did a lot more doubling up at NIR. On the Saturday when there was no opposition for the eight, some of them appear to have done a coxed four which finished five seconds behind the main squad crew. On the Sunday the eight won easily ahead of a Derby RC crew, although the squad coxed four had a much closer race against an Irish boat.
Diana Bishop beat Christine Davies and Gill Webb in the final of the singles on Saturday in a howling tailwind: Ann Cork failed to arrive in time to compete. The tailwind had go so strong by the Sunday that Dink wrote in her diary, “Prime object of race was to stay afloat. No real work possible,” but she still won, finishing about two lengths ahead of Gill Webb who was followed by Christine Davies, Jean Rankine and Ann Cork.
Jean and Dink also won the doubles that day, less than a second ahead of Pauline Bird and Jackie Darling. “Two gold medals is a really satisfactory weekend, “Dink wrote in her diary, quite understandably, adding, “Sculling must be improving. Penny seemed pleased.”
Lucerne (12-13 July)
“The British girls also had a harrowing morning yesterday,” Richard Burnell wrote in an unidentified newspaper clipping (probably from The Times). “Only Clare Grove, of Civil Service, qualified for today’s single sculls final. Diana Bishop was unlucky to return a faster time in another heat, but she also finished fifth, which was one place too low. All our other women’s crews finished last.” While his summary has the admirable succinctness you’d expect of a national broadsheet journalist, it’s also wrong about Clare Grove sculling as it was actually Gill Webb. Since Desmond Hill also mentioned Clare sculling in another clipping (probably from The Telegraph), you can only assume that the programme just showed the scullers as ARA1 and ARA2, and the two correspondents were sat in the press box, squinting across the course, saying “Who’s that?” and got it wrong. Going down to the landing stage and talking to the oarswoman would have cleared the matter up, of course…
As Diana wasn’t in the singles final on the Sunday and Gill was, Diana swapped into the stroke seat of the four which, she noted in her training diary, came, “Closer to other three crews but still last.”
The eight had a bit of an off-water drama during the training day. Their boat belonged to UL and had originally been built in one piece and the UL boatman had had to saw it in half and add section bulkheads so that it could be transported to the continent. After their morning outing, Penny had them leave the boat on slings so she could make some rigging adjustments while the crew were at lunch. Having finished these, she then left the course to join them, leaving the boat the right way up because there was no one else around and she obviously couldn’t turn it over on her own. But it then rained before they got back, and the weight of the water in the boat pulled the new bulkhead out, leaving the boat in two unconnectable pieces. Amazingly, Jimmy the UL was quite chilled about it when they got back. He was Irish.
“We had to borrow a men’s wooden boat from the Lucerne Rowing Club which didn’t really help our chances!” Jackie Darling says, adding, “We were always borrowing kit – you could never get used to a boat. I can’t remember how many different boats we had.”
National Championships (18-20 July)
Nat Champs saw the squad’s biggest frenzy of doubling up. The four won its event; Lin and Gill also won pairs; and a Civil Service/St George’s pair – probably Clare Grove and Beryl Mitchell, the other half of the four – got bronze.
“Victory is mine at last,” Diana Bishop wrote in her training diary, after winning the singles by nearly 11 seconds from Ann Cork, “Despite fears that headwind would hamper progress.” Christine Davies was third with Margaret Sayer from the eight in fourth.
Dink also won the quads with Gill Webb, Jackie Darling and Pauline Bird, in a boat called Faerie Queen borrowed from Durham ARC, which she approvingly described as, “Very light.” The silver and bronze medals went to largely squad composites too.
Earlier, Jackie and Pauline won the doubles as well, with Dink and Jean Rankine third.
The eight couldn’t race as a unit as there was no event for them at the time.
Altogether Gill got three golds, Dink got two golds and a bronze, and several went home with two medals.
Gill recalls, “I did the four and they were waiting with the pair for me and Lin to get out of the four – with our blades – and jump in the pair. Then we came back in the pair, but we had to do the medal ceremony and everyone was shouting, ‘Gill, come back!’ The quad was waiting for me to come rowing back in and I jumped in that. I think they said, ‘Rest, Gill, just keep in time, we’ll get you up there,’ as we paddled to the start and then we turned and off we went again. That was great, I loved it. I was 19 years old. I just loved racing and the fact that I won was a bonus.”
Although the quad was clearly faster than the other four British boats which entered Nat Champs, this was its only appearance and it just a scratch crew designed to get those in it more racing, support the championships, and promote the profile of the squad. It was never in the running to be a crew for the World Championships where doubling up was impossible because all of the women’s finals were run very close together in the session when the 1,000m start was in place. So it’s faintly bizarre – or perhaps just an indicator that he hadn’t actually spoken to anyone involved – that Desmond Hill (probably in The Telegraph) should have written after Lucerne that, “Some pretty drastic rethinking and regrouping seems to be indicated if the host nation as is traditional, is to field a complete team in the last week of August.” Fielding a complete team was never on the cards. There weren’t enough people or boats, and the standard in the crew sculling events was also particularly high as women’s rowing tended to be sculling- rather than sweep-focused in many European countries.
At the end of the Nat Champs weekend there was a selection meeting. “I was nominated for selection in single sculls for 1975 World Rowing Championships,” Diana Bishop wrote in her training diary, adding, “Definitely can no longer be considered for the four so shall aim for Olympics in single.”
The context for Dink’s comment about the four was that its lineup had been opened up again a few days before Nat Champs following the appearance of Helen McFie, a Brit who had just got back to the UK after being away at college in the US all year. She had been captain of Cambridge University Women’s BC in 1971 (when the women’s boat race was in coxed fours because the universities couldn’t muster eights!).
Dink wrote in her diary:
15 July: Outing at Hammersmith in four. A new girl has appeared – Helen McFie. English, from USA, for consideration in team. Thus four – me at stroke, Lin Clark, Helen McFie, Gill Webb at bow. Rather lumpy. Also tested on ergometer. No results available but longer and stronger than Helen. Four therefore still not decided, and if asked I’d like to be in.
Straight after Nat Champs, Jim Railton wrote in an unidentified newspaper clipping (probably from The Times), “Only last Sunday the leading British women’s coxed four went on strike. National coach Penny Chuter, sizing up the likely opposition for the women’s world championships, came to the logical conclusion that the four might need strengthening. Helen McFay [sic], a Cambridge graduate, returned to this country from Pennsylvania University with glowing testimonials to her ability. Miss Chuter decided to try her out in the four but the crew decided otherwise. The strike lasted until last Tuesday when Miss Chuter concluded that perhaps Miss McFay would not improve the four which, by pure coincidence, happened to agree with the thinking of the four.”
It’s notable that Jim Railton seems much better informed about what was happening in the women’s squad than some of the other correspondents, but he had the advantage of an inside line as he was Lin Clark’s husband Jim’s coach.
Helen McFie was then put into the eight, as was Ann Cork, replacing Agnes Morrell and Margaret Sayer, who was listed as the official reserve.
Pauline Bird, who was stroking the eight, remembers appreciating Helen’s power behind her, but also says that the changes didn’t make a material difference to the speed of the boat which then competed at the World Championships without any race practice in their new lineup.
Agnes Morrell says, “Margaret and I were more than disappointed with the changes and with the lack of further trials to validate them,” to which Margaret adds that she remembers, “We were told at the start of the training season that anyone seeking selection had to be in [the squad] right at the start and that there would be no late changes. When the final selection was announced I was gutted to put it mildly.”
Munich (26-27 July)
Neither the Diana nor the eight competed at Munich – in the case of the latter, presumably because it was felt they were better off getting to grips with their new crew at home – but the four did while struggling with inadequate food which was just, “Cold meat, cheese and black bread,” according to an article on 6 August about the women’s team in the Daily Telegraph.
The GB team for the 1975 World Rowing Championships was:
At the Championships
The squad had a training camp at Nottingham in the week before the Championships. “The weather was absolutely beautiful that week beforehand,” Pauline Bird remembers, “And then the week of the competition it was absolutely hideous.”
It’s interesting to note that the finals of the women’s events were scheduled in the more popular afternoon sessions, while the lightweight men’s events (there were no lightweight women’s events at the time) were relegated to the less-attended morning sessions because women’s rowing was a more ‘senior’ event as it had Olympic status.
Coxed four (ninth out of 12)
Racing in a Karlisch boat borrowed from Carmel College, the four were fourth in their first-round heat of six, seven seconds off first place which qualified direct for the final.
Jim Railton was full of praise for this performance in an unidentified newspaper clip, probably from The Times. “Great credit should… be paid to the British women’s coxed four, who finished fourth in their heat in the seventh fastest time of the day. To boot, they also beat an Eastern block entry, Czechoslovakia.”
In their repechage, with two to qualify, the GB crew went through 500m in third place, three seconds down on second. After a stronger second half they held their position, finishing the same distance off the qualifying spot.
In an unidentified newspaper clip, probably from the Daily Telegraph, Desmond Hill wrote, “The was long odds against the girls’ coxed four reaching their Grand Final, but a different draw might have worked the miracle. Rowing the race of their lives, their time in third place would have won them the second repechage,” although Liz Lorrimer noted in he report on the Championships in the Almanack that, “Varying wind speeds made it difficult to compare times between races.”
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph on 24 August 1975, Geoffrey Page said, “The British girls can count themselves unlucky not to have reached at least one final. The coxed four have impressed everyone and were unfortunate to draw West Germany and the Soviet Union in their repechage on Friday. With only two to qualify their task was just too great, but by finishing third and overlapping the Russians they excelled themselves and placed British women’s rowing firmly on the international map. They must stand a really good chance of winning the little finals.” In an additional piece in the same article, John Moynihan quoted Penny Chuter as saying, “I think we are really beginning to see the light now, although we lost. A marvellous performance.” Chris Dodd further reported her as explaining that they had gone, “As fast as they were capable [of] at this point in time,” in a later article in Rowing magazine.
Sadly, the crew came third in the small final, giving them a placing of ninth overall. “We should have won the small final,” Gill Webb explains, “But what happened was, there was a cross headwind and we were told to point our bows into the wind which we did, ready on the start, and then we were waiting for the wind to blow us round and our cox had her hand up [hands up don’t make any difference after the roll call has started – Ed.], but the umpire said, ‘Go!’ and I went. I’d been taught to go on the ‘Go’. We went almost into the next lane and back again. So we came third but we knew we could have beaten two crews if we’d gone straight. We put a hand up at the end and there was no way they were going to give us a re-row. It was a little bit of inexperience because maybe in hindsight I should have just sat there and not gone, but you know, 19 years old you just do as you’re told really. And because I was stroking and it was all stern-loaders then, I remember Pauline’s eyebrows went up into her head off the start!”
“The World Championships were great,” Gill Webb says, “We really enjoyed it. It was good to be part of it and spurred you on for the next year knowing that there was going to be women’s rowing in the Olympics. And obviously all of us in the squad then were aiming for that the following year.”
Single Scull (12th out of 14)
Encouragingly, in terms of women’s rowing being taken seriously, Jim Railton led an unidentified newspaper clipping (presumably for The Times) with news of Diana Bishop’s performance. “In the single sculls was the only British competitor to make progress at the first attempt on the opening day of the men’s lightweight and women’s world championships… Miss [sic] Bishop, aged 27, from Wallingford, had only to beat one of the four competitors yesterday to qualify for the semi-final rounds… She sprinted off the start to take second place at 500 metres, losing ground only in the last phases of the race to Miss Ambroziak (Poland), but was never in danger from the Canadian [whom she beat by three seconds – Ed.]. Although Miss Bishop has made the first strike forward for the British team, she was the eleventh fastest overall yesterday from the three heats of 14 scullers. She will require at least three lengths more speed (and a tail wind would help her) to be in the final reckoning.”
Or, as Dink put it herself, “Had a real gut buster and crossed the line almost with blackout. Canadian girl faster off start than expected so never really settled. Everyone pleased, however now it’s all downhill. Have never rowed so near physical limit, though, and seemed to be sculling in a dream.”
By the time it was her semi-final two days later, the conditions were far from helpful for a lightweight like Dink, which made it very hard for her to approach the race with much of a positive mental attitude. “Still feeling the effects of Thursday’s race and have drawn difficult semi-final,” she wrote in her diary, “Intended to hold on to 500m and then relax for rest of course. Wind fairly strong cross-head so only managed to stay with field till 250m after which a struggle to finish only seven seconds behind next sculler. Hate coming last.”
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph on 24 August, Geoffrey Page, respectfully put it, “Diana Bishop, conceding weight and strength in her single sculls semi-final, kept her form well but found the headwind too much to overcome and could not get on close terms with her opponents.”
The conditions were still atrocious on finals day, but she had hopes of doing better than she did; “Really thought I’d get the Norwegian and have a go at the Belgian. But though leading Norway at 250m, by 500m she went through and wind prevented any retaliation.”
She summed up her thoughts:
So after 10 months of training, I finished 12th overall. Two down on my 1972 position and again beaten by conditions and size. A very disappointing end and I have severe doubts about Montreal prospects. Perhaps this is the end of the road – to small and too old!
Other theories for failure – performance peak past and already on way downhill; no coach to attend to gearing, pitch etc on the day; because I thought there was no chance of reaching the final therefore performance lowered instead of being raised.
Still, there’s always next year.
Eight (10th out of 10)
The eight had, “An unbroken run of last places in the heat, repechage and small final,” as Liz Lorrimer put in the Almanack. No time was taken in their heat, but they were 12 seconds behind the next crew in the repechage although just four down on the next boat in the small final. “We thought we had a chance of beating France, but they beat us,” Jackie Darling remembers sadly.
After the first round, Sue Handscomb, who had been progressively moved down the boat in the various reshuffles and eventually raced at bow, suggested that perhaps they should experiment with settling the rating more as they weren’t getting anywhere with their original high-rate race plan. “I remember it causing an almighty amount of fuss and hooha that I had dared say it!” she says, although she realised at the time that their main problem was a fundamental lack of speed and no rate changes would get round that.
Pauline Bird, who was at stroke, remained convinced that striding was not the thing to do in 1,000m racing and definitely, “Not in the company that we were racing in.” The crew had tried it at earlier regattas and “What would happen,” she recalls, “Is we would go off the start and everything would be going more or less OK and then we would stride and ‘bye bye everyone’ because they didn’t. So I got quite frustrated that other people didn’t seem to be learning the lessons or not learning them in quite the same way.”
Racing was postponed for over an hour during the finals, in the hope that the worsening conditions would improve (they didn’t) which meant that both Sue’s and Jackie’s parents were unable to stay. “My parents came up to watch,” Sue Handscomb remembers, “And this was the first time they’d ever seen me and had a chance to watch me race internationally and they’d had to leave my younger brother and sister with an aunt and uncle and travel up [from London] and they had to leave before we raced.”
The eight was very much about giving as many people as possible experience of international rowing at a relatively low cost, give it was a home Championships. In many ways it achieved that, with five of the eight rowers going on to row for GB again – mostly on several occasions – and of those who didn’t, Jackie Darling might well have had she not had a bad cycling accident.
Only two of the 18 medals available in the six wen’s events went to the West: the USA won the silver in the eights (Daniel J Boyne’s book about them, The Red Rose Crew, is well worth a read); and West Germany got the bronze in the coxed fours.
In general, the GB women’s team was rightly praised for having moved on from the previous year although it was also recognised that it had a long way to go.
The ARA Annual Report in the Alamanck said, “There was no success to report for our Women’s Teams but the standard of our team was noticeably higher,” while Chris Dodd wrote in Rowing magazine that, “The current British attempt to recover lost ground began only two years ago, and experience shows that more than five years is required to get anything really moving. These are not excuses: they are facts of life.”
In a similar vein, an article in the Daily Telegraph after Munich Regatta quoted Penny as saying, “We’ve been doing this for two years, and I estimate that it will take two Olympic cycles before we’re winning medals. But it took our men six years, and we’re spurred on by competing in the Olympics in Montreal next year. We’re at the bottom of a long climb, but we’ll make it.”
Chris Dodd also noted with amusement that the bandmaster, “Played ‘Thank heaven for little girls,’ as one particularly strapping Soviet crew rowed past,” adding that the tune could have been appropriately, “Applied to Diana Bishop whose slight figure had to keep the flag flying.”
Around the Championships
All nations’ teams stayed at Nottingham University during the Championships which led to various entertaining international incidents, mostly involving Russians. Pauline Bird remembers, “Seeing very large ladies running giggling down the corridors in inadequate towels,” while Jackie Darling helped out one of the Russian rowers who wanted to phone a friend in London which she wasn’t permitted to do. “I went into the phone box and pretended to make a call, while she was crouched down at my feet where her KGB minders couldn’t see her, actually doing the talking!” she explains. Gill Webb recalls spotting this going on and being told to shut up by her team-mates when she started asking what was happening.
Pauline also recalls being “picked up bodily” by the stroke of the Russian men’s coxed four (that won) while she was climbing over the stile between the boating area and the path alongside the lake. “He lifted me over the stile, and I wasn’t light and he must have been enormously strong! He was a well-known guy called Vladimir Eshinov. That was quite funny!”
Finance and sponsorship
Money continued to be very tight for the whole GB rowing team despite an increase in grants received by the government which amounted to £37,536 for the year to 31 March 1976 compared with £24,420 the previous year.
The Almanack reported that, “For the women’s squad more help was received from Marks and Spencer Ltd in the form of a donation [of £225] to pay for a rubber coaching dinghy which was named appropriately enough St Michael.” Along with this, M&S offered free tracksuits for the squad but as these were – understandably – from their own range, the colour options didn’t fit with the usual red, white and blue that all British teams wear. In fact, as Penny recalls, the choice was between purple with gold stripes and “muddy green”, of which she chose the purple ones as she thought they were the least revolting.
An article in Rowing magazine by Chris Aistrop listed several other sponsorships, mostly in kind, which had been arranged to support the women’s squad including: t-shirts, honey and barley water “to supplement the girls’ diets” before the World Championships from Robinson’s Barley Water, 20% discount at Sabre Sports of Staines; a 30% discount on an outboard and a 25% discount on the new [M&S] launch from University Marine Ltd of Hayes which also supplied a new outboard on six- month sale or return to replace one stolen from the ARA boathouse while the insurance claim was pending; and £20 from The International Paint Co. Ltd (of which Diana Bishop’s father had been President) towards cost of the outboard for St Michael.
Chris added that, “One of Selectors loaned £223 to go towards cost of new outboard which will therefore materialise quite soon.”
Most impressively, around 180 of the pupils at Rosie Clugston’s old school, Matthew Arnold Secondary School for Girls in Staines, did a sponsored walk that raised nearly £600 for the squad, with several of the rowers joining them (in their purple tracksuits) for part of the route.