by Richard Pooley
Henley Royal Regatta, 2014. Great Britain's Women's Quadruple Sculls passing the Stewards Enclosure to win the Princess Grace Cup. Photo: Ben Rodford
“I didn’t think you were the type.”
Zu Henry, our neighbour in Bath, was looking through the passenger window of our car and addressing me. My wife had just told her that we were on our way to Henley Royal Regatta, Britain’s premier rowing event and one long regarded as the last bastion of the English upper classes. There was no reason for Zu to know that I had rowed at my secondary school – Westminster, one of the oldest ‘public’ (in fact, private and fee-paying) schools in the country, dating back at least a thousand years and re-founded both by Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth I in the 16th century. Nor does she know that I had rowed at Exeter University and was going to Henley on the fiftieth anniversary of my being a losing finalist in the Visitors Cup, an event for coxless fours. We were beaten by a crew from Trinity College, Cambridge. One of the four men in the Trinity boat had also rowed in the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race and had been my best friend at Westminster. Like me, the other three men in my boat had been to public schools - two to Radley and one to Eton*. The British rowing world in the 1960s and 1970s was a tiny one, consisting almost entirely of boys and men who attended public schools before going on to Oxbridge and a few other top universities.
Having rowed at Henley I was entitled to become a member of the prestigious (and expensive) Stewards Enclosure during the annual Royal Regatta, which then lasted four days but which is now a six-day event. I did so and went every year in my early and mid-twenties, taking girlfriends (in dresses or skirts, which covered their knees; trouser-suits were banned), seeing old rowing mates, drinking too much Pimms, and always dressed in jacket and tie (as required by the rules). I'm sure I looked and sounded like the "type" who went to Henley. But I soon tired of it. It’s seldom exciting to watch – two crews rowing against each other for 2,112 metres (1 mile 550 yards) who start side-by-side but hardly ever finish so – and my jobs often meant I was not in the UK in late June. I had loved the sport and was good at it but once I was only a spectator saw and heard little that I liked. Snobbery and misogyny ruled, as it had done almost from the regatta’s inception in 1839.
Actually, in 1839 any man could enter what was supposed to be an amateur competition. But soon those whose profession involved rowing, a large number of men in the days before motor engines, were shut out. Was it because they were beating the public schoolboys and university men? By 1879 Henley excluded anybody who had competed for money, who had earned money from teaching “athletic exercises of any kind”, who had “been employed in or about boats for money or wages”, and who had “been by trade or employment for wages a mechanic, artisan or labourer.” Clearly even these strictures were not enough to keep the hoi-polloi** from trying to compete with their betters. In 1886 any person “engaged in any menial activity” was banned. British rowing’s governing body, the Amateur Rowing Association, adopted these same rules. Although a rival organisation was set up in 1890 which allowed manual labourers to be amateur rowers, the ARA and Henley RR continued to effectively exclude all but the upper classes from rowing in the UK up to the beginning of the second world war. And little had changed by the time I had stopped going regularly to Henley in the late 1970s.
I had been twice again since then, the last time some twenty years ago. I noticed some changes. Most important, there were events for women. Henley’s chairman, Peter Coni, had allowed women to race in “exhibition races” (what were they exhibiting?) in 1981 and 1982. But he thought the experiment a failure and women did not row again at Henley until 1993. Coni’s comment on the anger this ban caused is worth repeating: “the women’s squealing is more noisy, stupid and harmful to their cause than anything I can think of.” A Single Sculls event for women was started in 1993 over the full course. The winner, a Swede, was handed her prize by Coni, a few weeks before he died.*** By the early years of this century there were many more women’s events. Now, there are almost as many women rowing at Henley as men.
In 2023 Henley Royal Regatta (and British rowing) has utterly changed from even twenty years ago. Yes, there are the same trappings in the Stewards Enclosure – the immaculate marquees and stands (and loos), the champagne bar, the military band, the men in rowing blazers and caps (not me, guv), the women in long dresses and hats. But the feel of it is so different. For a start it’s become so much less old male. No longer are the spectators mostly paunchy men of middle age and beyond recalling their days of youth in over-loud voices baying of privilege.
No sooner had we walked though the entrance to the Stewards Enclosure than our host, Mark Venn, with whom I rowed at university, introduced us to Beth Rodford a member of his boat club, Gloucester. Beth won a gold medal representing Great Britain at the 2010 World Championships as well as winning many events at Henley (she is the stroke - on the right - in the photo above, taken by her brother). She was a finalist in the Olympic Games of 2008 and 2012. Henley was full of athletic, confident, no-nonsense women like her. No squealing women here, Mr Coni. For a paunchy old public school male like me it was a delight to behold. The glass ceiling which once consigned women to a lowly position in rowing’s hierarchy has been smashed.
And by breaking through the glass ceiling, women rowers have in turn helped break the class ceiling which stopped people who did not go to public schools and universities from getting to the top in the sport. When I was at Exeter University fifty years ago there was not a single woman in our boat club. The same boat club today has almost as many women members as men. Hardly any of these women had stepped into a rowing boat before they arrived at Exeter. It’s the same at universities across the country. I would guess that most of these women went to state schools, not public schools.
As well as the women, one man can justifiably claim to have also helped break the class ceiling in British rowing. Sir Steven Redgrave won gold medals at five consecutive Olympic Games from 1984 to 2000, as well as winning three Commonwealth Games gold medals and nine World Rowing Championship golds. He also won seventeen times at Henley, where he has been Chairman of the management committee since 2015 (2024 will be his last year). Yet Redgrave, son of a builder, went to a state school, Great Marlow, by the river Thames. He has dyslexia and had to have extra tuition from his English teacher, Francis Smith, who happened to be the captain of Marlow Rowing Club. Smith saw his potential and encouraged him to row. Redgrave left school in 1978 with a single GCSE (in woodwork) but went on to be a role model for countless others who have taken up rowing in the UK whatever their education and background.
Mark, our host at Henley, had a similar entry into rowing as Redgrave, though his was several years earlier: “As you know, when we learned [to row], rowing was really the preserve of public schools and universities. I was fortunate, going to a state school, in that our deputy head was a bigwig in Reading Rowing Club, so took pupils down and taught them from 3rd/4th year. Since that time more state schools have taken up the sport and many clubs also started offering facilities for junior rowing...We now see an enormous breadth of activity across the country. At Gloucester [Rowing Club], for example, we have (or had, until Hartpury College Boat Club was set up) a big junior section, all drawn from local state schools.” Mark continues to shame me by rowing into his seventies. And he attends almost every day of Henley Royal Regatta every year. Its thanks to people like him and Beth Rodford that rowing has moved from being one of the most hidebound sports in the UK to becoming one of the most egalitarian.
*Eton’s rowing blades are painted in ‘Eton Blue’ (actually a shade of green). For much of the 19th century there was an annual Westminster v Eton boat race on the river Thames. In the first few years both crews wore pink, a fashionable colour at the time, regarded as very masculine (think ‘Hunting Pink’… which is actually red). In order to distinguish between the crews, the Etonians wore blue-green ribbons. In 1837 the schools rowed for the honour of having pink as their school colour. Westminster won. I hated the colour but found it useful when I wanted to watch a particularly interesting debate in the House of Commons across Parliament Square from the school. The school’s Queen’s Scholars were allowed to go to the head of the queue to get in. I wasn’t a Q.S. but, wearing my pink blazer, I was never stopped.
**From Greek, meaning “the many”. It was an expression I heard a lot at Westminster along with “plebs” and “the great unwashed”, although we used it sarcastically: these were terms for the working class used by Etonians and other public school boys, not us London liberal cosmopolitans. We did not consider ourselves to be the hoi oligoi (“the few”). After all, none of the seven British prime ministers (and one deputy prime minister) who had gone to Westminster had been Tories.
***It was Coni who had insisted that short skirts were prohibited in the Stewards Enclosure. In 1988 he was quoted in The Times as saying: “If you go with fashion you get middle-aged women showing thighs that should have been kept secret for years. What is the next stage? You start having people stripping to the waist because it’s hot. It will begin to look like Lord’s or Wimbledon; God forbid we should get down to their level.” For more on Coni (and his "type"), read: