Friendships and some forceful personalities. That is what helped start the effort that led to the official inclusion of women’s races on the St. John’s Regatta program more than six decades ago.
The Bowring Brothers ladies crew, which won that first official women’s race at Quidi Vidi in 1949, was inducted into the Royal St. John’s Regatta Hall of Fame Tuesday during a luncheon ceremony at St. John’s City Hall. Joining them for entry into the Hall of Fame this year were Geoff Carnell Jr. and the late Charlie Cook, both as builders.
The Bowring Brothers crew included coxswain Pat Ring, stroke Olive Wiseman, Dinah Martin, Joan Dowden, Louise Wiseman, Elaine Noseworthy and Dallas Cornick. Ring and Olive (Wiseman) Andrews — the only known remaining members of the team — were on hand for Tuesday’s event.
Ring is a member of the famed family long associated with the Regatta and was already a member of the Hall of Fame, having been inducted as a coxswain in 1995. But in 1949, he was only a few years out of the army and still fairly early into his career on the waters of Quidi Vidi.
He was busy on the first Wednesday of August, steering a boat in every race, every year. Turns out, he would get one more for his list.
“We were great friends with all the girls and all the people that worked at Bowrings,” he recalled. “They had the grocery store and the clothing store. It was the great place to go shopping and you’d be there twice a week One day, some of the girls said to me they’d like to row, so I got them down on the pond and they began.
“Once they started it, some men (who worked at Bowring Brothers) decided they wanted to row, too. So I got another crew from the store out of it.
“It was the women first and then the men, and I steered both crews in ‘49 and ‘50.
“I enjoyed it right through. They were great people to work with, but they were great people to talk with, too, and that’s what I remember most.”
One of the women who had approached Ring was Louise Wiseman (later Louise Ringman), sister to Olive and aunt to Jill Andrews, who represented her at Tuesday’s ceremony.
“It was my Auntie Lou, that’s Louise Wiseman, who really spearheaded, along with others, to get women into the Regatta,” said Jill Andrews.
“She loved the Regatta and she was a very forceful woman, but that’s what was needed.
“They lobbied Aubrey White, who worked for Bowring Brothers at the time and a few others (on the Regatta Committee) and it was agreed they’d have a women’s race, that it would be on the program.”
There had been females rowing at the Regatta before, the first recorded instance being in 1856. And before 1949, there had been women officially rowing the four-oar boats of the Harbour Grace Regatta. But in St. John’s, female rowing had been an unofficial novelty, a sideshow really.
Until Louise Wiseman and some likeminded people decided it was time for a change.
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“It was quite a big deal at the time, from what I understand,” said Jill Andrews, “and I think it was a real sense of accomplishment for them to have actually won that race.
“But as Mom said, they didn’t realize how very important it was. Now, with more women than men in the Regatta, you can see where it was a really big deal.
“I just wish there was more than Mom and Pat Ring left today.”
Ring remember that ladies’ crew as being dedicated to new rowing duties — “two spins a day, every day for three or four weeks, early in the morning and after supper at night.”
They won their race against three other crews — two from Quidi Vidi and one from the East End were the others — in time of five minutes, 51 seconds, running a straight course from the buoys (the men’s kegs) at the foot of the pond to the finish line. There would later be a survey that led to the women’s buoys halfway down the course which have since marked the turning point for female races.
“But the big change has been the number of women rowing down there (at Quidi Vidi),” said Ring of a Regatta that now features over 100 crews, three-quarters of them female.
“I never thought you’d see something like that. Before, there would be 16 or 17 races and it would be all men.
“ Now look at it.”
When asked if any he or his 1949 female crewmembers were the objects of joking, Ring answered “No, my gosh no.” But when it was suggested other coxswains might have been a bit jealous of him, a twinkle entered his eye.
“That could be.” he said smiling.
“I think there were a lot of coxswains who wished they could steer them through.
“I’m glad it was me.”
Carnell, who spoke emotionally at Tuesday’s ceremony, is a honourary life member and former president of the Royal St. John’s Regatta Committee. He was instrumental in the purchase of new shells first used in races in 2005 and played a huge role in securing approval from Buckingham Palace to add the prefix “Royal” to the Royal St. John’s Regatta and in establishment of the Regatta coat of arms.
Cook was a member of the Regatta Committee for more than 20 years, and during that time, served as treasurer, first vice-president and captain of the course. His work helped lead to the Royal St. John’s Regatta securing an affiliation with Rowing Canada in the first fixed-seat rowing championships in Montreal in 1994.
Cook’s wife Una, represented him Tuesday,