Women Students and Boat Racing

The women’s FA Cup final on December 5th 2021 was a reminder that the Football Association had effectively banned women’s football a century earlier by denying access to its pitches, a ban that remained in place until 1969. Football was felt to be an unsuitable activity for females.

It was thanks to the social historian Carol Dyhouse, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Sussex, that I became aware of a related sporting controversy at University College Reading. It concerned women and boating.

Dyhouse, who had been an undergraduate at Reading, included the College/University in her sample of higher education institutions for her book ‘No Distinction of Sex‘ (1995), an analysis of the place of women students and academic staff in British universities between 1870 and 1939. This in-depth research draws on an impressive range of sources including the archives of colleges and universities across England, Scotland and Wales.

In a section titled ‘Boat-racing, women and sport‘ (pp. 202-6), Dyson recounts how in 1917 W. M. Childs, Principal of University College Reading, set up a committee to investigate whether racing in boats was an appropriate activity for women students. Her account was so intriguing that I asked the Special Collections staff if they could track down the sources. Dyhouse’s original reference (Box no. 253) was no longer active but Sharon Maxwell, Archivist at MERL, discovered its location.

The first relevant document is an undated memo containing an extract from the minutes of the Academic Board of July 2 1917. It stated that a motion had been passed concerning boat racing and women students:

That a Committee be appointed to inquire into conditions which obtain in other colleges, as to the practice of rowing, racing and sculling, and as to the safeguards which are adopted in those Colleges in the interests of women students.

The Committee was to consist of:

  • Edith Morley, Professor of English Language;
  • Mary Bolam, Warden of St Andrew’s Hall;
  • Lucy Ashcroft, Censor of Women Students.

The first step was an explanatory letter and questionnaire from Professor Childs seeking opinions from eight colleges and universities. The letter, which I referred to in my previous post about the Women’s Sculling section, worded the issue as follows:

The question has arisen here as to whether our women students should be allowed to have rowing races. …. This is a question which obviously is not free from difficulty and about which more than one opinion has already been expressed.‘ (Dated 19th October 1917)

Among other things, the accompanying questionnaire asked:

  • whether women students were allowed to take part in rowing (as opposed to sculling or boating);
  • whether they were allowed to race;
  • if forbidden, for what reasons;
  • if permitted, whether medical certificates, certificates of swimming proficiency or ‘a special costume’ were required;
  • whether the boats had sliding seats;
  • the length of the course;
  • whether there were competitions against other colleges;
  • whether there was any annoyance from attendance by the general public;
  • and, finally, ‘whether in your opinion rowing or racing by women students is, or would be, prejudicial to health and welfare.

A memo from the Principal of 2nd November 1917 summarised the responses. Of the eight institutions canvassed, four were  positive and four were negative.

Even those expressing positive attitudes often required safeguards such as medical inspections (Bedford College) or other knowledge of the student’s good health (Westfield College). Westfield and Bedford Colleges sculled on Regents Park Lake which was so shallow that swimming proficiency was said to be irrelevant. A positive reply was received from University College, London that concluded, ‘..there is nothing prejudicial to their health or general welfare.‘ All three of the above colleges favoured shorter courses for women.

The most reassuring reaction, however, was from Dr Aldrich Blake, Dean of the London School of Medicine who pronounced rowing healthy and harmless and suggested that rowing clubs should be trusted to decide their own regulations.

The views of those opposed to racing included:

  • sculling and punting were fine, but for recreation only – attaining competitive standards would be bad for women (Royal Holloway College);
  • rowing is acceptable but, ‘I am inclined to think that rowing racing might occasionally be prejudicial to the health of women students’ (the Principal of Somerville);
  • rowing is allowed but, ‘racing would be prejudicial to the health and welfare of women students‘ (Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford).

Of the negative responses, a supplementary letter (see below) was returned by Sir Isambard Owen, Vice-Chancellor of Bristol University, using his status as a physician to reinforce his opinion that female students should not be racing in boats.

Reply from the Vice-Chancellor of Bristol University, 12th October 1917 (University of Reading Special Collections)

At this point, the papers from 1917 concluded without any indication of the final outcome (no doubt a record exists somewhere but I haven’t found it). Nevertheless, if we jump to 1921, a letter to the Principal from an E. Verity, Secretary of the Women’s Sculling Section, provides some clues. In it she requests ‘permission for us to include racing amongst the other activities of the section.’ The key section is as follows:

We understand that in 1917 this was refused by the Academic Board but we beg to ask that this decision be reconsidered. We are not aware of the grounds upon which the previous refusal was based….‘ (Dated 28th February 1921)

The letter produced an unambiguous result: two months later a memo was circulated headed ‘Boat Racing for Women Students. Regulations of the Academic Board.‘ Written in pencil on the copy in the Special Collections is, ‘Copy sent to Miss Verity‘. The requirements in brief were these:

  1. A medical certificate attesting fitness for such exercise.
  2. Written permission from parents or guardian.
  3. Competing against a male crew was forbidden.
  4. The racing course for women should be no longer than half a mile.
  5. The certificate and written permission were to be submitted to the Censor of Women Students (Lucy Ashcroft) who would notify the relevant hall wardens.

These regulations, formulated during the era of the University College, were still in place after the Charter had been granted. Thus in 1931 Franklin Sibly, who had succeeded Childs as Vice-Chancellor, felt obliged to remind women boaters of the first two rules in a memo addressed to the Secretary of the Women’s Sculling and Rowing clubs and copied to the wardens of women’s halls. According to the final paragraph:

These conditions must be strictly observed. The rowing and sculling captains in each Hall will in future be responsible for collecting the certificates and permissions, and for handing them to the Warden of the Hall.‘ (Dated 11th November 1931)

The suggestion of hall teams in this extract is reveaIing. I don’t know when inter-hall competition started, but the image below of the St David’s crew shows that it was in place by 1924. According to Smith and Bott’s pictorial history of university education at Reading, St David’s were narrowly defeated on this occasion by Wessex Hall in the final of the Challenge Fours.

St David’s Women’s Rowing Crew, 1924 (University of Reading Imagebank)
Sources

Dyhouse, C. (1995). No distinction of sex? Women in British universities, 1870-1939. London: UCL Press.

Smith, S. & Bott, M. (1992). One hundred years of university education in Reading: a pictorial history. Reading: University of Reading.

University of Reading Special Collections, Uncatalogued papers, Reference UHC AA-SA 8.

Rowing and Sculling: a Difference of Gender?

When I bought my copy of Edith Morley’s reminiscences from Two Rivers Press, I never expected it to contain so much humour. Among the most amusing anecdotes are tales of Morley’s early sporting experiences playing hockey or ‘bicycling’.

This is yet another area in which Morley was a pioneer –  the 1890s was still a time when women were discouraged from taking part in sport or vigorous exercise. As she said herself:

‘[We] were … perpetually instructed that women’s bodies were not adapted by nature to strenuous exertion. Nor had it altogether ceased to be considered a mark of refinement to be “delicate” and to possess feet and hands that were disproportionately small and correspondingly useless…’ (‘Before and After’, pp. 60-61).

Although Morley gives an account of her membership of the King’s College Hockey Club and the Bicycle Club, she never mentions boating in any form, whether rowing or sculling. So when I noticed in the College Calendar of 1905-6 that the Secretary of Women’s Sculling was a certain Miss Morley, I doubted whether it was THE Miss Morley. But the following year initials were included (see image) and there was no mistaking her. Further investigation revealed that she held the post from 1904 until 1907.

The College Calendar 1906-7, p. 267, showing Edith Morley as Secretary of Women’s Sculling.

But why in the above extract is rowing for men and sculling for women? Surely the difference lies not in the matter of gender, but in whether a single rowing oar or two sculls are used to propel the craft.

Reports from the Athletic Club submitted regularly to the  College Magazine show that, while the men’s rowing reports between 1904 and 1908 gave lengthy detail about names and weights of crews, training, technique and competitions, the corresponding Women’s Sculling Section had extremely brief entries containing none of the above. Rather, they were preoccupied with membership, swimming tests and even picnics by the river. There is even a mention of punting.

The early ups and downs of Women’s Sculling can be traced in the Magazine like this:

  • 1904, Spring Term, Issue 1, p. 17:  Edith Morley records the founding of the Women’s Sculling Section. She notes that, ‘Regular practices will begin as soon as swimming tests have been surmounted, and schemes for picnics and river parties are also under discussion.
  • 1904, Spring Term, Issue 3, p. 18:  Morley complains that, ‘There has been so much slackness about submitting to the swimming test, that the captain is beginning to have doubts whether the proposed picnic will be able to take place this term.’
  • 1904, AutumnTerm, Issue 2, p. 16:  things are looking up! There are now 18 members and Morley states that, ‘some pleasant pulls have been had on Thursday afternoons.
  • 1905, Winter Term, Issue 2, p. 22:  between 10 and 12 women turn out every week. However, ‘It is rumoured that many people would like to join the club, but are unable to swim.‘ Swimming tests are planned for early next term (this entry is by B. M. Willmer, the Captain).
  • 1905, Autumn Term, Issue 1, p. 23:  a large number of students sign up for the club but unfortunately few can swim. Prospective members are urged to learn as soon as possible.
  • 1906, Winter Term, Issue 2, p. 23:  ‘The club has been unable to meet this term on account of the rule that members must pass a swimming test….’ The rule is amended so that a letter from ‘someone in authority‘ can attest to swimming prowess.
  • 1906, Spring Term, Issue 3, p. 24:  a successful swimming test has taken place and there are now ‘twelve quite enthusiastic members‘.
  • 1907, Spring Term, Issue 3, p. 21:  a daring development! ‘Some members are to vary sculling by occasional punting. This will prove a lively diversion as no one is efficient at present.
  • 1907, Autumn Term, Issue 1, p. 32:  the Sculling Section welcomes a Miss Ashcroft as a member. As no other new members were mentioned by name, I believe this was Lucy Ashcroft, Lecturer in Mathematics, who became the Censor of Women Students in 1911.
  • 1908, Spring Term, Issue 3, p. 30:  progress! There are now 30 members. Flooding of the Thames is the only problem.

From the above, which includes all the references to the Women’s Sculling up to Spring 1908, it is clear that racing played no part at all in the early days of women’s boating at Reading. This was confirmed nearly a decade later by a letter from Professor Childs to fellow college principals and vice-chancellors in which he wrote that, ‘such competitions as have taken place among women have been confined to tests of style and general efficiency‘.

Surprisingly, there is no mention of the ability to swim or of swimming tests in the notes from the Men’s Rowing Section!

In the next post I will show how Edith Morley’s expertise in this area was put to good use a decade later when the Principal set up a Committee of Inquiry into whether boat racing was a suitable activity for women students.

By Contrast:  Sculling in 2011 (University of Reading Imagebank)
Sources

Childs, W. M.  Letter to college principals and vice-chancellors, 9th October 1917. University of Reading Special Collections, Uncatalogued papers, Reference UHC AA-SA 8.

Morley, E. J. (2016). Before and after: reminiscences of a working life (original text of 1944 edited by Barbara Morris). Reading: Two Rivers Press.

The Magazine of University College Reading, issues from Spring Term 1904 to Spring Term 1908. 

University College Reading, Annual Report and Accounts, 1911-12.

University College Reading. Calendar, 1905-6, 1906-7 & 1910-11.

The College Boat Club at Reading 1902-3

The recently published booklet ‘A History of Sport at University of Reading 1992-2018‘ was designed by Chris Lewis with research by Dr Margaret Houlbrooke. It records the foundation of the College Boat Club in 1895 that later became the Reading University Boat Club, and documents outstanding achievements in rowing and sculling by its many distinguished members, male and female.

As this and the following two posts will show, the history of boat racing at Reading was a gendered one from which women were excluded for many years. For the men, on the other hand, the foundations of competitive success were in place relatively early, although sometimes it may have been necessary to provide a bit more motivation.

In the ‘Spring’ Term of 1902 (our Summer Term: see note below), the section of the Reading College Magazine devoted to men’s rowing lamented:

‘Where are the Wet-bobs of the College, those who urged the need of a Rowing Section, and gave the scheme real support? Four boats—a Four, two Pairs, and a Tub-pair, are at the service of all who aspire to aquatic fame, and yet some half-dozen is the total of those who register the attendance at the river, and, to some of these, a slight cold, the prospect of a shower, or a little stiffness in the joints is sufficient excuse for shirking.’ (p. 17)

By the following autumn things had obviously improved because the newly titled ‘Magazine of University College Reading’ reported (p.17) that there was a prospect of a viable ‘four’, and that:

‘a goodly muster of enthusiastic men pay their tribute to Father Thames.’ 

‘Rowing Notes’ for Spring 1903 mentioned that a Coxed Four was in training and making good progress. Competitive events were planned and there were hopes of obtaining a coach from Oxford. Progress continued in the Summer Term with the news that coxed pairs and coxed fours were now racing, and culminated with the publication of the image below.

From the University College Magazine, Summer Term 1903 (final page)
  • Back Row:  W. H. Fearis (Hon. Sec.); J. H. Sacret (Coach)
  • Middle Row:  G. Canham (Captain) (Bow), 10 st. 1 lb.; C. H. Laver (Stroke), 11 st. 3 lbs.; T. M. Forster (no. 3), 11 st. 12 lbs.; A. F. Sandys (no. 2), 10 st. 4 lbs.
  • Front: H. Lloyd (Cox).

The next post will take a look at women’s boating at Reading at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Note

Reading College documentation divides the academic year into the Autumn Term, Winter Term and Spring Term (the Autumn, Spring, and Summer Terms of today) .

University College Reading officially adopted the modern system, but there are some documents that still use the original classification.

This has caused me some confusion.

Sources

University of Reading (2021). A history of sport at University of Reading 1892-2018.

Reading College Magazine, 1902, Spring Term, Vol. III.

The Magazine of University College Reading, 1902, Autumn Term, Vol III.

The Magazine of University College Reading, 1903, Spring Term, Vol I.

The Magazine of University College Reading, 1903, Summer Term, Vol II.