Hidden Histories ‘Rowing for Women’

We have very little in the Ulster Transport Museum’s maritime collection that directly connects to women’s involvement on the water but recent research into some of our boats has revealed a hidden history amongst the clinkers and the carvels.

Two of our clinker built specimens looked unassuming enough when we began our assessments of them as part of our larger storage project. One was a long rowing skiff painted in green with a black hull. The other a wooden gig with a blue hull. As curator, part of my role is to explore our archives as well as research what I can through books and digital content to discover more about the significance of an object. I didn’t expect to find out too much about these ordinary looking boats but I was in for a surprise.

A recent publication has proven invaluable in this research. Felix McKillop’s ‘Rowing on the Antrim Coast’ is a study of the sport of rowing along that stretch of coastline and is a fascinating read.


Image: Flora

Our first vessel is the Flora. A recreational rowing skiff, she was donated by the Larne Rowing and Sailing Club in 1965. Being a double ended design these boats were secure and manageable in the water when rowed by a four man crew. With their sharp bow and stern they were relatively easy to pull up a beach and be launched again.

It turned out that the Flora was involved in many races but is most famous for her female crew namely Miss Jean Heggan. In Felix McKillop’s book ‘Rowing on the Antrim Coast’ he describes Jean as a skilled oarsman in mixed race pairs races in Bluebell. She worked with fishermen as well as rowing alongside them. Jean had a strong competitive streak and was rarely beaten in any races she entered. For example, Jean and her fellow oarsman, Miss P. Haddon won the Ladies two-oared race at the 1930 Cove regatta. The regattas drew a large gathering of people throughout the early part of the 20th century particularly in the 1930’s and 40’s when the rowing races were in their heyday. There was a decline after the end of the Second World War but a drowning incident in 1943 where two young men tragically lost their lives in Glenarm Bay may also have contributed to this.

Image: Bluebell

The second boat from our collection is Bluebell. This racing gig was built in 1892 in Ballyclare by Hugh Service, who with his brother, built and hired pleasure craft in Whitehead. The two brothers first raced her at Whiteabbey Regatta. Bluebell dominated the local races for the next two years until the brothers were finally beaten by the donor’s uncle. Ironically it was the latter who eventually acquired the boat after she spent some time in Greenisland Rowing Club before it was disbanded in 1910 and he kept her until she was donated to the museum in 1973.

Image: Bluebell

During its time in competition, Bluebell was also raced by our now infamous Jean Heggan, who often rowed this boat with Isa Irvine in the Whitehead Regatta. In conversations with Jean later in life, she stated that she was only beaten at one Regatta. This happened at Portmuck, when her partner 'gave out' and they came second to a Larne boat. She recalled that in later years, money prizes were awarded, but formerly other prizes were given such as butter prints, lace pins and items of jewellery. She also remembered that in the early years of Whitehead Regatta there was a 'shovel race' in which men used two navvy shovels.


The local provenance of this boat is an important aspect of its significance reflecting vernacular boat building and the existence of a racing culture along the north coast for this particular type of rowing craft. Equally important though is the connection with Jean Heggan and how this demonstrates how some women were using the water recreationally along our coast in the early part of the 20th century. Highlighting this aspect enables us to celebrate local women in Irish maritime history in a more tangible way.

This can only be achieved through the research being carried out by local historians such as Felix McKillop. If you have any information or stories related to these objects or the people highlighted, please get in touch.