'Our smallness in numbers limited physical recreations for some time. The first undertaken were tennis and boating, while walking quite long distances … was then popular in all Oxford colleges.'
The first tennis court had been made originally for croquet and was too small. It was not until 1901 that it was extended, Miss Beale agreeing to the enlargement provided it could be done for thirty shillings. There were also grass and gravel courts next door at Cowley Grange (now South Building) and the owner, Augustus Vernon Harcourt, allowed the students to use these. When he left in 1902 the building was taken over by Cherwell Hall, a training college for women teachers, and the arrangement was continued at first. In the summer term 'gentlemen friends' of the students were entertained for tennis on Tuesday afternoons. Unfortunately there came a time when the tennis secretary at St. Hilda's failed to explain this to her counterpart at Cherwell Hall, and the unexpected appearance of men in the garden resulted in a swift exchange of correspondence between the two Principals. Both sides apologised, but it was made clear that Cherwell Hall now had too many students to be able to share the courts in future.
St Hilda's did not distinguish itself in early appearances in the Inter-Collegiate tennis matches, and early internal tournaments were played in 'American fashion' ,with each player playing each of the others. In 1906 this was changed, as there was 'no record in the annals of the Hall' that the tournament had ever been finished: 'we hope to establish a precedent this year, and that some players will actually be proclaimed winners on the board'.
The proximity of the river made boating an inevitable attraction. 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 the Isis at 8.30 a.m. when there would be few, if any, to see us. We wore our every day clothing, blouses 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.
Netball is virtually never mentioned and lacrosse only rarely. Hockey was played, but numbers were a constant problem. With an annual intake of only 6-8 students in the early years it was necessary to combine with other teams, like the Oxford Home Students or the Etceteras, a local club. An intake of 17 in 1899 resulted in the formation of a St Hilda's Hockey Club in 1900, but the struggle to form more than one team, even for practices, was to hamper the club for many years.
An unusual feature of sporting life at the College was the Rifle Club. In 1909 a member of the Council, Miss Alice Andrews, presented a silver challenge cup for revolver shooting. She felt that 'if any of our students go to the Colonies they might find this art useful'. The Club was very popular, about a third of the students becoming members in the first two years. The outbreak of war in 1914 provided 'a great impetus'. However, it also signalled the end of the Club (apart from a brief revival in 1921) as the rifle range the members used was soon commandeered by the troops.
Although unusual in itself, the Rifle Club is typical of the way in which an activity occasionally became popular and then faded away. In the 1890s fencing enjoyed a brief vogue, one of the fencers being the (later) novelist D.K. Broster. In 1904 a weekly class was held in Drill, the military exercises and marching that many of the students would have done at school.
Occasionally the weather led to attempts at new activities. 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.' A paperchase in the snow was planned in 1917, but was 'unfortunately prevented by the thaw'. Winter weather also brought skating, first mentioned in 1912, when attendance at the Rifle Club was affected by this rival attraction. When the students were suffering from depression following the 'flu outbreak of 1918-1919, 'it was wonderful to see how a week of skating, in spite of bruised and bandaged limbs, sent us smiling upon our way'.
When an Inter-Collegiate Eight wanted to compete against Cambridge in the pre-war period, consent was only given by some of the women's colleges, and then only on the condition that there was no race, which might strain the competitors. The crews rowed the same course separately and, although timed, were supposed to be judged on style alone. However, as 'the race had Oxford and Cambridge judges, and as each usually preferred the style of his own University, the actual result did depend on time after all'.
By 1926 it was accepted that the women's colleges should form united and independent teams, and St Hilda's was clearly involved to the full:
'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. This term there are two St. Hilda's people in the United Hockey Team and two in the Lacrosse. The Captain of the United Swimming was last year, and is again this, from St Hilda's.'