Oxford University Polo Club’s latest success in the London Challenge at the Metropolitan Polo Club in Tianjin, China was the cherry atop a record-breaking season. The team, consisting of Heather Winsor, Sally Schwartz, Louis Maddison, Charlie Hitchman, and Lizzy Hamilton as reserve, competed against Harvard, Cambridge, Cornell, London, and Skidmore the week of July 10 to 18. Oxford was the only undefeated team and was crowned champion.
Many of the other teams had higher handicaps than Oxford. However, Oxford had one large advantage: their girls Winsor, Schwartz, and Hamilton were used to playing with the boys. Oxford is a co-ed team and club all year round. This gave Oxford an advantage against the U.S. teams, which combined their best players from their women’s and men’s teams individually to compete in the co-ed tournament in Tianjin.
The Oxford Girls
“You played well, but God you better thank your girls. They played outstanding, working hard for you clearing the way for you to make beautiful goals,” remarked one of the other coaches to captain Maddison after Oxford’s win over Cornell in the finals. Spectators noticed from the sidelines the important role that strategy and teamwork played in Oxford’s success. The Oxford girls played front, taking their opponent’s opposition off the pitch to make a clean hitting runway for their boys in the back.
Oxford University Polo Club (UOPC) and women are by no means a novelty of the 21st century. Lord Cowdray, a former OUPC Captain from the 1930s, is regarded as the man who single-handedly held the England game together after WWII’s enormous death toll. He achieved this by inviting two women, Judy Forewood and his sister Daphne Lakin, to compete with him and Mr. John Lakin, another former OUPC captain of the 1930s, as Britain’s international Polo team. Having women competing amongst men at such a high level on a mixed team was certainly a novelty for the world of Polo.
Lord Cowdray and Mr. Lakin’s openness to women stemmed from the fact that both OUPC captains had seen women training with them at Oxford during their time at university, competing against them on a club level. The descriptions of photographs left in the archive of OUPC from the 1930s stress that these women were training members of OUPC and one can see them mounted in full gear, ready for a chukka. However, at that time, not a single varsity team member was female.
It was not until 1964 when Oxford’s captain Jeremy Taylor was in desperate need of a fourth player that a woman stepped in to play in the Varsity Match against Cambridge.
That woman was Claire Tomlinson, the highest handicapped woman player ever to play achieving a 5 goal handicap in 1986. Tomlinson was not a Polo player at that time, but captain Taylor knew her to be a great horse rider and athlete.
Her participation in the 1964 Varsity Match was a milestone in the history of Oxford, Cambridge and the Varsity Match. However, that first year, the club was still unsure whether it would be acceptable to have a woman player. So OUPC entered her under the name of Mr. Lucas and had her tuck her long hair under the helmet just in case. By 1966, Tomlinson became the first female captain of OUPC, and by her final year at university, she was already rated at 0-goals.
When her daughter Emma Tomlinson joined the ranks of the Cambridge Polo players three decades later, another milestone was reached in the history of the Cambridge and Oxford University sports clubs. With Tomlinson as Cambridge captain and Jacqui Broughton as Oxford captain, both teams were headed by women—a milestone for a mixed sports club at both universities.
Oxford’s girls’ contribution to OUPC continues today and extends far beyond the pitch. OUPC’s past two chairmen, or rather chairwomen, have been Lizzy Hamilton and Elli Gilje, who have created the strong foundation for OUPC’s current success. Under their leadership, OUPC increased membership from 30 to 100 playing members, secured sponsorship, and held its first-ever White Tie Polo Ball at Blenheim Palace, one of Oxford’s largest social events of the year. Girls make up over half of the current committee, holding the positions of secretary, social secretary, press and IT officer, treasurer, and ball president.
OUPC’s biggest victory off the field was perhaps the partnership with La Martina and Guards Polo Club, made possible by the hard work of Hamilton. It is up to the students to find sponsors and partners for the different tournaments and the club more generally, and without sponsorship, the club’s expenses come out of the students’ pockets. “OUPC’s goal is to make Polo accessible to all students so they can get a taste of this fantastic sport,” explains ex-chairwomen Hamilton. “That is why sponsorship is so important. We try to find as much funding as possible so that we can subsidize the sport for any student who wants to play.” Part of the success of OUPC’s season is in realizing this goal: Oxford fielded 18 teams throughout the year with students of levels ranging from complete beginners up through its 2-goal varsity team.
OUPC is more than just an athletic club. For many of the players, both male and female, it is the heart and soul of their social life at Oxford. “The types of girls and guys this sport attracts are fantastic––always looking to have the best time possible, laughing at any drama that comes their way,” explains Winsor, the club’s social secretary. “It doesn’t matter if we’re dead focused on winning the final, out clubbing, or just hanging out in someone’s room––we’re having the best time. We’re okay on the pitch, but OUPC members are definitely 10 goals off the pitch.”