Pulling together - a history of women's rowing in Cambridge

Pulling together - a history of women's rowing in Cambridge

  • Jane Kingsbury, photographed by Alun Callender
    Jane Kingsbury (Murray Edwards, New Hall 1969), CUWBC alumna
  • Recent crew
    Recent crew
  • 2013 crews at Eton Dorney
    2013 crews at Eton Dorney
  • 2012 race at Henley
    2012 race at Henley
  • Victorious Blues, 2012
    Victorious Blues, 2012
  • Rowers congratulating each other
    2012 winners
  • Cover of the new history of CUWBC
    New history of CUWBC, 1941-2014

Image of Jane Kingsbury by Alun Callender for CAM
Other images courtesy of CUWBC
About the book

This year, the Women's Boat Race will at last take place on the same course as the men's contest and with equal funding. It's the culmination of a long battle for equality, writes William Ham Bevan

In 1927, a Newnham College eight travelled to the Isis to take on an Oxford women’s crew.

It would not be a race in the accepted sense. Heads of the women’s Colleges had ruled that lining up side-by-side was unladylike, so the sides took it in turns to row, and according to The Times, were judged on “steadiness, finish, rhythm and other matters of style” over the half-mile course.

The Times goes on to report “large and hostile crowds gathered on the towpath”. A New York Times correspondent credited the spectators with more benign intentions, writing that “a crowd of fully five thousand persons was on hand as a willing cheering section”. But whichever report is the more accurate, Oxford’s victory is a matter of record. The umpires could not agree on style marks, so the Dark Blues’ superior pace carried the day. These women were true pioneers – the Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club (CUWBC) would not be formed until 1941 – and they struggled to gain acceptance for women’s rowing.

Troubled waters

By 1935, the crews were allowed on the water at the same time to race over a 1000-yard course, and rowed on the Cam and Isis on alternate years (save for two contests on the Thames in the early days). However, one important matter – whether women should be awarded a Blue, a Half Blue or nothing at all – was to remain unsettled for much of the race’s subsequent history. No race took place in 1953, after the Oxford women were banned from the Isis for rowing over a weir and their club collapsed from lack of funds. The fixture fell into abeyance until it was revived by a pair of engineering students in 1964, but not everyone at the University was ready to hail its return. It was only a few years before that a College boat club captain had written to CUWBC: “I personally do not approve of women rowing at all. It is a ghastly sight, an anatomical impossibility and physiologically dangerous.”

Such attacks were not taken lying down. Jane Kingsbury (Murray Edwards, New Hall 1969), co-author of Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club 1941-2014: A Struggle Against Inequality (Trireme), says: “At one point the CUWBC cox, a feisty Canadian called Ruth Kidd, declared that if attempts were made to ban the women from rowing on the Cam, she would register their boat under the Liberian flag of convenience.”

Chumpa chariots and Sweaty Betties

Sarah Barstow (Hughes Hall 1964) rowed in the 1965 Blue Boat on the Cam, winning comfortably after Oxford caught a crab. “I don’t think there were more than a dozen or so [members] in CUWBC,” she says. “Rowing was not regarded as very feminine – after all, it was the 1960s. We had two coaches, engineering students from Corpus Christi and Emmanuel Colleges, and also Canon [Noel] Duckworth, chaplain of Churchill College. He had not only coxed the Blue Boats in the 1930s but also the British VII in the 1936 Olympics.”

At a University not short of eccentrics, Canon Duckworth stood out. Having helped found a boat club at Churchill, he turned his attention to coaching CUWBC – something he continued to do well into the 1970s. His enthusiasm was such that he would often ride his bicycle into the river during races, and he developed a unique rowing vocabulary. A boat was a “chumpha chariot”, oars were “chumpha sticks” and CUWBC were the “Sweaty Betties” or “Perspiring Persephones”. But the Canon’s dedication to women’s rowing was absolute. He often used his influence against more reactionary forces on the river, most notably seeing off an attempt to have the women’s boat banned from the Bumps.

Ad hoc affair

Nonetheless, Varsity women’s rowing remained an ad hoc affair, with primitive equipment and facilities. Marian Marland (Newnham 1969) remembers preparing for the Boat Race in a traditional wooden “clinker” boat that required an exhausting effort just to carry it from the boathouse. “We boated out of the ‘99 Club [a city rowing club] in which we had a cloakroom with some hooks and no showers. There was nothing very official at all, but we were such a happy bunch. We weren’t trying to win the Olympics; we were amateurs doing well and having a wonderful time.” 

Marland rowed in the Blue Boats of 1970 and 1971, winning on both occasions; but just as memorable were the other races in which Cambridge competed. “We were taken off to a few Head of Rivers, things like that, and they were very cold winters. I remember Bedford in particular, which had very low bridges. As we rowed under them, the person at the front had to break the icicles as we went under.”

Seeking an even keel

CUWBC was not yet on an even keel, as Vicky Singh (Newnham 1971) discovered when she came up. Though keen to try out rowing, she noticed that the women’s sport had no presence at the Freshers’ Fair, and that few members of the College were rowers.

It was only when a third-year came knocking at her door in search of new blood that she had the chance to register her interest.

Singh ended up becoming CUWBC president almost by default. “Women’s rowing at Cambridge was on the point of extinction again. A meeting was held in the summer term and it was made clear that if our lot didn’t pick up the baton, it would all die out. So three of us became the new officers and I became president. It wasn’t because of my rowing skills.”

The Boat Club’s nomadic existence continued to present problems. “We kept our equipment at the Trinity boathouse. We had nowhere to change, though, and used their bike sheds. Later they allowed us upstairs to their cloakroom where the spare beer barrel was stored and we could use the loo. I can’t remember washing kit much, and the men never did. Theirs always stank.”

This slight edge over the men in matters of hygiene was instrumental in gaining the women a coach. “Somehow David Maxwell agreed to coach us,” she recalls. “He was a European youth medallist and won silver at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. He never rowed or coached for his College, Jesus, but coached our Blue Boat. He said it was because we tried harder and smelt better than the men.”

Ramping up

As more Colleges became co-educational in the mid-70s, competition for Varsity places became fiercer – and was accompanied by a more structured training regime and visiting coaches of international stature dropping in to select crews. In 1975, a contest between the Oxford and Cambridge reserve eight started to take place annually (though there had been two such races in 1966 and 1968, both of which Cambridge won).

Rosie Johnston (Churchill 1973) made it into the 1975 reserves crew “by a whisker” and realised something was lacking – a name for its boat. She says: “Not long before the day of the race, we were at the boathouse having our weigh-in. Goldie rowed past looking smooth and impressive, and somebody said we should have a name too. “It was in the very early days of Blondie, before their first album, and I’d noticed Debbie Harry as a stand-out talent among the punks of the time. Goldie and Blondie – it felt right to me and I started singing one of her songs. Everybody agreed and we were Blondie. I’m pleased it has stuck.”

Her crew went by some less flattering names, too. As well as the Sweaty Betties, the women were known as the “Rumpo Express” by some University sportsmen. “We trained at Fenner’s gym – an innovation in those days and quite a shock to the men,” says Johnston. “What would now be seen as sexist teasing was regular during our outings and every time we went for a jog together, we’d gather a following of overexcited men.”


In 1977 the women’s race ceased to take place on the Cam and Isis, joining the men’s lightweights contest at Henley. The move was marked by the conferring of Blues rather than Half Blues on the Varsity crew (though alumnae recall the regulations were complex, with other conditions attached to the award).

It also coincided with CUWBC getting a better standard of equipment, an urgent consideration after their old clinker lost against a sparkling new Oxford boat in the previous year’s contest. But with sponsorship unforthcoming, the crews had to do their own fundraising. Anita Mills (née Crafts-Lighty, Churchill 1974), who rowed in the 1976 and 1977 Blue Boats, says: “I actually organised an event to raise money to help purchase a shell for the first boat, which we rowed in in 1977. My grandmother donated some money so we bought a set of aluminium oars, which were all the rage at the time. That boat was called Evenden – I named it after her.”

The vogue for aluminium oars caused its own problems in the bitterly cold Cambridge winters. “I remember doing a sponsored row for CUWBC,” says Penelope Vincent-Sweet (née Sweet, Clare 1976). “You had to be careful not to put your hand on the shaft because the skin stuck to the aluminium.”

Sweet smell of success

As the 70s drew to a close, CUWBC enjoyed success beyond the Boat Race. Like many of her contemporaries, Vincent-Sweet had never rowed before coming up to Cambridge. Within four years she had not only beaten Oxford in Blondie and the Blue Boat, but had rowed in boats that won the Southern Universities Regatta and become Head of the Cam and the Ouse.

This success led to Vincent-Sweet’s selection for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, where Great Britain came fifth in the coxed eights. It was a far cry from the experience of her mother, who had almost rowed for Oxford in the late 40s. “She was first reserve, but the race was on the Cam and they couldn’t afford her rail ticket. She waved her friends off at the station, who actually had to carry their oars on the train to Cambridge,” she says.

The addition of a women’s lightweight contest in the 80s (which will remain at Henley in 2015, along with the men’s lightweights) and yet more strenuous training schedules marked a growing seriousness among competitors. “We certainly put in the hours,” says Joanna Busvine (Murray Edwards, New Hall 1982), a veteran of the 1985 Boat Race. “My recollection is sort of doing three to four hours a day, six days a week: an outing every day and usually a gym session in the afternoon.

“The river froze over in January and we found all sorts of weird and wonderful things to do. We had a very gruesome aerobics teacher who came in and did the men as well as the women. The men found it very difficult, which was quite entertaining.”

Pasta inequality

On occasion, they would face reminders that they were still not accorded the status of the men’s club. During her book research, Jane Kingsbury was told by a late-80s crew member about a café that the women would frequent after training sessions in Ely.

She says: “They were quite pleased that they had negotiated a special price for their drink and snack – until they discovered that the CUBC men not only had tables specially laid for them, but also that their pasta meal was provided free of charge!”

For graduates who had already rowed at other universities, the set-up at Cambridge could seem very basic. On arrival at Cambridge, where she was to gain a place in the 1995 Blue Boat, Siobhan Cassidy (Homerton 1994) had already represented Great Britain. “Cambridge was a shock, with a narrow stretch of river, very limited training opportunities and a different coach every two weeks – and I’d always rowed at clubs where the men and women trained together,” she says. “But I was rowing with some fantastic women, and it was amazing that so many people gave up so much of their time.”

Ups and downs

After winning all but one race in the 90s, CUWBC has found victory elusive in the 21st century; Oxford has notched up 10 wins to Cambridge’s four. Now working on a PhD in mathematics, Anna Railton (Pembroke 2007) was part of the losing 2009 and 2010 crews before finally beating the Dark Blues in 2012.

She says: “Losing the first time was something I got over quickly, but 2010 was properly awful. It’s such a binary thing – your entire season is shaped by one race. Two years later, we tried very hard to lose by catching a crab, but it was a crew that deserved to win. I was so glad that we pulled it off.”

And after all the ups and downs of the previous 80 years, Railton’s time at Cambridge has seen the greatest leap forward for women’s rowing – not just the impending move to the Tideway but access to world-class equipment and the use of newly constructed women’s changing facilities at Goldie Boathouse. Soon, all three of the University’s elite boat clubs – men’s, women’s and the lightweights – will share a new boathouse on a 12-acre site at Ely.

London ahoy

For those outside the two Universities, though, the spectacle played out on four-and-a-quarter miles of the Thames will be all that matters. “I think it is going to be a big story for equality,” says Helena Morrissey (Fitzwilliam 1984), CEO of Newton Asset Management and the driving force behind her company’s sponsorship of CUWBC and the move to the Tideway.

“Women who were at Cambridge or Oxford a long time ago get in touch and say how they never thought this day would happen and how it means a lot. It’s one of those things they think is long overdue but are happy that it’s finally happening – so we have to seize the day and make it as good as it can be.”

This article first appeared in CAM - the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, edition 74. Find out how to receive CAM.