Picture the scene. It’s July 1983 and Henley Royal Regatta is on it’s lunch break. Everyone is enjoying the spectacle, and anyone who is paying attention can see the organisers setting up a new start line half way to the finish. A few minutes later, some women’s crews are heading up to the makeshift start and racing back, but only those that can fit in around the men’s timetable. Before you know it, they’re done and their start line is taken down ready for afternoon racing.
In the 1960s, the number of women elite rowers was less than 1000, but through the 1970s clubs began admitting more and more, copying the increase in women attending the Oxbridge Colleges and Boat Clubs. Unlike the men, women were only permitted to race at national events across 1000m and, because there were so few opportunities, most crews were fairly obscure. Even though women were permitted some racing time at Henley Royal in the 1980s, it was restricted to the natural breaks in the men’s schedule because of the shorter course requirements. The women quite literally raced during tea breaks when there was space on the river. After the 1983 edition, the HRR stewards decided the haphazard women’s events were casting a bad light on the prestigious organisation of the event, and so they were abandoned.
Four years later at the National Championships, Rosie Mayglothling proposed women organise their own event, and gained more support throughout the rest of the 1987 season at the World Championships in Copenhagen. Thanks to her commitment and the persistence of the first Chairman, Christine Aistrop, they finally got permission from the HRR stewards to hold the inaugural Henley Women’s Regatta in the June of 1988. Of course there were strings attached to this agreement, in that they were not allowed to use the HRR enclosures or boat tents, it was to be held three weeks in advance of the men’s event- and, if the weather delayed installations for the course, tough luck, they would have to cancel the event.
The whole reason they had to get the permission of the stewards was not because they owned the river, but rather most of the land either side. So the organiser of the new Henley Womens Regatta had to make the Remenham Farm (now Temple Island Meadow) the focus of the course. To accommodate for this they decided to run the women’s course backwards, using the full 2000m as permitted by the rule change of 1985. This prompted the stewards to allow the use of the HRR floating stands and raft for the boating area, but still no grandstand - this would not be incorporated until 2004.
The Committee had hoped to attract good crews and international competition (if sponsorship permitted), a wish borne out in the scheduling of 97 races; the 1988 event was a great success with crews from Ireland and the Netherlands arriving to have a stab at victory. In 1989 the number of events increased with three more categories for lightweights, the 1990 edition running races every four minutes to accommodate the sheer number of crews. This provoked the National Rivers Authority to rule that the gathering of waiting crews at the bridge was a safety hazard, which led to the Committee changing the direction of the course back to the men’s route. The increased entries from the 1989 event led Chairman Margaret Adams to propose a two day schedule, but again this was rejected in favour of the men’s tradition from Marlow racing, the stewards conceding in allowing them to run time trials to trim the crews down on Friday evening.
By 1992, the HRR stewards and the National Rivers Authority finally gave in and gave Sunday afternoon over to the women, but only in the version of the shorter course. They also trimmed down the number of events, dropping the Invitation fours and eights in favour of Open Coxless fours, but this didn’t put off crews from South Africa, Canada and the US making their way over.
Since 1992, the racing format has remained the same, with qualifying time trials on the Friday, racing on Saturdays and then more heats before semi- then finals on Sunday. From 2003, the organisers held a reception for international crews and the River and Rowing Museum in the town, and from 2004 the College and Club categories were combined to reflect the changes to women’s rowing.
The cancellation of some of the National Schools’ Regatta in 2008 (and the subsequent neglect of Eton College to replace the girls’ events as well as the boys’) led to HWR hosting special J16 singles and eights events. These proved so popular that in 2009 they offered trial events for J16 coxed quads and fours, which since 2010 have been full events with their own trophies. There was a new trophy for the university fours event donated by the Cruikshank family in honour of Cathy Cruikshank, who’d been the regatta secretary for many years, and in 2009 Sarah Winckless came out of retirement to race in a special charity event she hosted for research into Huntingdon’s disease. In 2013 Miriam Luke took over from Diane Graham as Chairman, and withdrew the lightweight coxless 4s from the event, reducing the entries for the lightweight coxless pairs as well.
Whilst the history of HWR is significantly shorter than that of its HRR counterpart, it is nonetheless littered with success and optimism for the future of the event, with the women taking to the river towards the end of June.
words by Junior Rowing News
photo by Rosie Percy