Obituary – Dame Di Ellis, 1938 – 2017

Dame Di Ellis, Honorary President and former Chairman of British Rowing passed away on Thursday, 18 May after a short illness


(c) John Shore

It is with great sadness that British Rowing reports the death of Dame Di Ellis who passed away peacefully on Thursday morning (18 May) following a short illness.

Dame Di was an instrumental figure and stalwart of British rowing for over 60 years. During her life, she was an inspiration and champion to so many, both within rowing and across the wider British sporting landscape. Her enduring love of rowing, her grace and fortitude will never be matched; she will be dearly missed by all.

A private funeral for family only will be held. Details regarding the memorial service, which will be held at St Mary’s, Henley, will be shared in due course. The family asks that any messages of condolence are sent through British Rowing – 6 Lower Mall, London, W6 9DJ.

Dame Di Ellis, 1938 – 2017, 79 years old

Dame Di Ellis had a special gift; no matter who you were, how old you were, or how long you had been involved in rowing, Dame Di made everyone feel like they were part of something special.  It was this gift that made her such a beloved figure within rowing for more than 60 years.

Dame Di had a rather unorthodox start in rowing, having first been introduced to the sport by ‘messing about in whalers and cutters’ as a Sea Ranger. Keen to follow in her sister’s footsteps, who was rowing with Harrods at the time, she joined St George’s Ladies RC rowing out of the Civil Service boathouse in 1960. From this point onwards, Dame Di flourished in rowing and started on a path that was to change the course of British rowing.

Competitively, Dame Di rowed for Great Britain, coxed for England, won national championships gold and won the Women’s Eights Head of the River Race seven times both as a rower and a cox. She was a club member of St George’s RC, a qualified umpire, secretary of events and Chairman of a number of committees and commissions. Dame Di was Chairman of British Rowing (formerly the Amateur Rowing Association) for 24 years and was a FISA (World Rowing) delegate, representing Great Britain’s position on the international stage.

Dame Di Ellis on the cover of Regatta magazine in 1988 (c) John Shore

She was the first woman Steward of Henley Royal Regatta and a founder member of Henley Women’s Regatta. During her time within sports administration, she won numerous awards from the International Olympic Committee and FISA, amongst others, and was recognised for her services to rowing by the Queen, being made a Dame of the Order of the British Empire in 2013.

Dame Di touched every part of the sport from grass roots participation to elite rowing. Throughout her time in the sport she opened, named and unveiled just about everything rowing related, in every region from North to South and East to West. She was ever-present on the towpath and was a constant presence at national and international events, always listening, cheering and, on occasion, consoling rowers, with dignity, pride and a great sense of perspective and humour. Dame Di was a huge advocate of volunteers and would always make time to personally thank all those who had given up so much time for the sport they loved.

One of Dame Di’s greatest legacies within rowing was her tireless work to grow and develop women’s rowing. When she first took up rowing, St George’s Ladies RC became one of the first clubs to be affiliated to the Women’s Amateur Rowing Association. From this moment onwards, Dame Di’s passion, enthusiasm and commitment in support of women’s rowing never wavered. So many women who have taken up rowing, or have been involved in the sport in some way, were inspired and championed by Dame Di. It would not be an understatement to say that without Dame Di’s involvement, women’s rowing in the UK, and arguably globally, would not be where it is today.

Outside of rowing, Dame Di was hugely respected within British sports administration, serving on a multitude of boards including the British Olympic Association (BOA), Sport & Recreation Alliance, British Confederation of Sport, Skills Active, Sporting Equals and Sports Resolutions. Dame Di paved the way for so many others as a leading light in the field of sports diplomacy. In all her years of service to rowing she continued to set new standards.

Dame Di was an outstanding character, much loved by so many. She will be sorely missed by everyone. She leaves behind her husband John, daughter Claire and two grandsons.

On Dame Di Ellis

Annamarie Phelps CBE, speaking following the sad news of Dame Di’s passing, said: “Di was an incredible lady: genuine, wise, reflective and truly inspirational. Hers was truly a life to celebrate. She was a mentor and confidante to so many, always quietly shaping opinion and thinking ahead. Di will be missed across the breadth of British sport but particularly across British Rowing to which she was entirely devoted.”

Sir Hugh Robertson, Chairman of the BOA, said: “This is a sad day for the entire Olympic Movement in this country. Anyone who worked with Di would know that she was not only passionate about sport and its role in society, but driven to see greater opportunities carved out for all, especially for women in sport.

“Her family can be proud of her wonderful contribution to sport in this country and can reflect on the fact that Di enriched the lives of so many around her. She will be dearly missed, not least by her friends and colleagues on the National Olympic Committee.”

Dame Katherine Grainger, remembers Dame Di: “Di was one of a kind. I’ve never known anyone with such experience and wisdom, who could steady British rowing with a calming hand and also advise numerous other sports because of the high respect she was held in, whilst at the same time having such a light touch and ease of manner with everyone from novice athletes to members of the Olympic team. She always had a ready smile and story to share and time to give. There is a Di Ellis shaped hole in all of our lives now, but we are all the better for having known her.”

Jean Christophe Rolland, FISA President and Denis Oswald, Honorary FISA President said on hearing of the news of Dame Di’s passing: “An exceptional and prominent figure in the world of rowing has passed away. While faithfully and successfully fulfilling her mission for British Rowing, Di also worked tirelessly for the sport of rowing on a global scale, demonstrating her passion and inspiring generations. She was highly appreciated and respected internationally by so many.’’

Rowing achievements

1960 – Started rowing at St George’s Ladies Rowing Club

1966/67/68/69/71/72/73 Winner of the Women’s Eights Head of the River, seven times (three as a rower, four as a cox)

1966 – Stroked Great Britain’s Women’s Eight at the European Championships

1972 – Coxed the England women’s four to gold in the Home Countries match

1972 – Won gold at the first national championships at Holme Pierrepont

1978 – Qualified as an umpire

1988 – GB Team Manager

1989-2013 – Chairman of Amateur Rowing Association (name change to British Rowing in 2009)

1997 – Elected as the first woman Steward of Henley Royal Regatta

2010 – President of the Organising Committee for the 2013 World Rowing Cup

2014 – Honorary President of British Rowing

Sports administration

British Olympic Association – Life Vice President

Sport & Recreation Alliance – Vice President

British Olympic Foundation – Trustee

Torch Trophy Trust – Trustee

Sporting Equals – Trustee

British Olympic Medical Trust – Trustee

British Confederation of Sport – Board Member

Skills Active – Board Member

Sports Resolutions – Board Member


Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year, Administrator of the Year

Sports Journalists’ JL Manning Award

International Olympic Committee, Services to Women’s Sport

FISA, World Rowing’s Award for Distinguished Services to International Rowing

Commander of the British Empire (CBE), Services to rowing

Dame of the Order of the British Empire (DBE)

Freeman of the City of London


Photography credit: John Shore