Hilda's Rowers in their first VIII+ in 1919

Student Life in the 1920s

Women had been allowed to matriculate as members of the University in 1920, but their contact with the male undergraduates remained very restricted. The College rules stated that ‘students must obtain leave from the Principal or Vice-Principal before accepting invitations for the evening, or for mixed parties’, and several students remembered that they had to be chaperoned if going to tea in a men’s college. However, one did note that ‘if you had no chaperone you didn’t sign the book, of course’. The students were not allowed to enter men’s rooms without leave, and had to have what the rules referred to as ‘a companion similarly approved’. Neither were they permitted to receive men (other than father or brother) in their own rooms. The restrictions meant that contact with the social life of the University was limited, and so the students concentrated to a great extent on their own clubs and societies. At this period the College News letter in the St. Hilda's College Chronicle reports the activities of the Debating, Literary and Musical Societies, Poetry and History Clubs and the Social Study Circle. College dances were held, and rowing was strongly supported; in 1927 it was reported that ‘St. Hilda's has distinguished itself recently in rowing, there being five Hall representatives in the boat that defeated Cambridge.’ (This article was written by the College Archivist Elizabeth Boardman, 2000-2001)

The beginning of women's rowing at St Hilda's and in the University

Early expeditions were in a randan, a boat with a pair of sculls in the middle and an oar each at stroke and bow. In 1898 this was replaced by 'a new and elegant outrigger', called the Wild Goose, and 'some regular coaching in the gentle art of sculling has been appreciated by several of our number'. In due course a Four was started and, as one member recalled, 'in 1911 we actually rowed in an EIGHT, a hitherto unheard of thing for a women’s college in Oxford … To do it we had to go down to Salter’s barge on the Isis at 8.30 a.m. when there would be few, if any, to see us. We wore our every day clothing, blouse up to our necks & skirts to our ankles, but we did use garters instead of our usual corsets. By 1913 when we had progressed to sliding seats we tied an elastic band round our knees, but even then there was at times a cry, ‘Stop, my skirt has caught! … In these circumstances there was no really hard rowing but occasionally we had "10 quick strokes" '.

A canoe, named The Ammonite, was acquired in 1900 and a punt in 1905. Proficiency with these was pursued as enthusiastically as with the oars. In 1906 it was reported that 'even among the less successful windmill sculling and bank-to-bank punting are steadily decreasing'. A Canadian Rhodes Scholar taught the 'really proper' method of canoeing, 'never taking the blade out of the water', and when a new canoe was purchased in 1913 poling with a bamboo pole became popular.

Flooding in February 1915 prevented boating: 'we have taken to paper-chasing, and had a very good run on Boar’s Hill …Though the Hockey Captain was heard to murmur that Saturday was, strictly speaking, hockey day, the cross country run was almost a good training for the team as a practice. Another chase has been arranged.'

'We are swollen with pride over our Rowing this year. Last Term we won an Intermediate Rowing Competition and now we provide the Captain, Bow and Cox, for the newly formed United Rowing Four which has just competed against Reading University.'

(Written by the College Archivist Elizabeth Boardman, 2004-2005)

'Our smallness in numbers limited physical recreations for some time. The first undertaken were tennis and boating.' [Christine Burrows' notes for a history of St. Hilda's.] The proximity of the river made boating an inevitable attraction. (C1913)
This article was written by the College Archivist (1990-93), Ellie Clewlow, who put together an exhibition of the history of the boat club. A selection of this was published in the alumnae newsletter, The Ammonite, in 1994.

Vandalism or Politics?: Damage to a St Hilda's boat in 1908

The first canoe was bought in 1902 and named 'the Ammonite', from the Hall emblem. After some Eights week undergraduate orgy, we found 'The Jebusite' had been painted by night on its other side.'

This account by Christine Burrows, the second Principal, records a comparatively inexpensive incident in the history of the Boat Club. However, on the evening of Friday, 12th June 1908 rather more serious damage was done to The Wild Goose, the half-rigger which had been 'proudly bought' by St. Hilda's in 1899. Curiously for a boat belonging to a women's college it was kept at Parsons' Pleasure 'owing to the difficulties of good rowing on the narrower Lower Cher'. The estimate from Salter Brothers for repairs to the boat gives an idea of the scale of the damage: a new back rail was needed, a pair of new sculls, repairs to the canvass cover and a new rudder. The culprits also broke into the dressing rooms at Parsons' Pleasure and left towels scattered on the grass.

As the cost of the repairs to The Wild Goose was to amount to £10 1s, Miss Burrows lost no time in trying to find out who was responsible. Letters survive from New College which show that suspicion had fallen on the occupants of two of their boats, but investigations proved that they had returned to their College before the damage could have been done. Subsequently one of these men, interviewed by his College, recounted a meeting close to Parson's Pleasure with 'a very noisy party of men in two boats, but he has no idea who they were.' Miss Burrows was assured that the man seemed 'perfectly frank and straightforward .. and anxious to give any information he could'; the Warden and the Dean testified as to his character, both of them believing that 'he would not deviate from the truth'.

The culprits were not identified. In September 1908 the Chief Constable replied to a letter from Miss Burrows, saying: 'enquiries have been instituted with a view to tracing the persons who did damage to the St. Hilda's Hall punt [sic] last June, but with no favourable result.'

The obvious conclusion is simple vandalism by a party of drunken youths, but there could have been other motives for the attack. St. Hilda's as a body made no bones about its enthusiastic espousal of the women's suffrage movement; the Debating Society was affiliated with the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, prominent campaigners visited St. Hilda's and Miss Burrows joined a suffragist march in London. It was said that the damage was caused by male undergraduates who disapproved of suffragists; alternatively it could have been an expression of the more general suspicion in which the women's colleges were held by many male members of the University.

The fact that the damage was caused in June may be significant, as Eights Week was one of the rare occasions when the sexes mixed in University society. In June the undergraduates were suddenly surrounded by female relations, women students and dons' daughters, all crowding on to the barges and eager to be present at dinners and balls. An editorial in the Isis in May 1897 gives an idea of some of the feelings prevalent in Eights Week: 'The ladies who visit Oxford at this period of the year come to enjoy themselves, and are unhampered by anything in the nature of an ulterior motive. They can see a B.A. without envy, and can converse with a M.A. without experiencing any desire to denounce him forthwith as a tyrant or a usurper ... The Ladies ought really to be satisfied; Woman is much nicer than Man, she is better looking, cleverer, more useful altogether. She is endowed with numerous and invaluable privileges, including the most constant companionship of that most useful of all implements, the hair pin. Why should she want more? Let her think of this, as she reclines picturesquely in a punt propelled by a panting male, as she adorns the barge and listens to hoarse male voices on the towpath, as she eats the cake and drinks the tea handed to her by nervous and trembling male beings.' Opinions took a long time to change in University society and it is not impossible to believe that, with such views continuing to be expressed, a group of male undergraduates might have taken exception to a women's boat in that ultimate male preserve, Parsons' Pleasure.

(Written by the College Archivist - Elizabeth Boardman in 1997-1998)

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