Racing Past

The History of Middle and Long Distance Running

Bob Phillips Articles / Profile

The Life of Valerie Winn (née Ball)


Presto! Presto! Prestissimo!!!

The concert violinist with another vibrant sporting string to her bow


Valerie Ball, the leading British woman quarter-miler and half-miler of the late 1940s and early 1950s, would no doubt have been at complete social ease with the aristocratic president of the sport’s ruling body, theWAAA, who was the Countess of Derby. Miss Ball was the daughter of an eminent botanist, Sir Nigel Gresley Ball, and her grandfather, Sir Charles Irwin Ball, had been the most senior member of the Royal Academy of Medicine of Ireland. An uncle of her father’s was the Royal Astronomer in the 19th Century. One of her two brothers, also named Sir Charles Ball, was a director of numerous prosperous companies, including Barclay’s Bank and Sun Alliance insurance. Her ultra-fashionable address in later married life was close to her parents at Broadlands Court, alongside Kew Gardens, in south-west London. 

Among a generation of British women athletes who thrived in top-level competition – Dorothy Manley, Maureen Gardner, Dorothy Tyler, Sheila Lerwill most prominently – Valerie Ball achieved much with very little international opportunity. During the years from 1948 to 1953 she won 74 of her 81 races at 400 metres, 440 yards, 800 metres and 880 yards, and in all that time she competed abroad on only three occasions, winning against France in Paris in 1950, at a low-key International Student Games in Luxemburg in 1951, and on a club tour to Holland in 1952. Not until her final season of 1954, by which time she had been surpassed as Britain’s No.1, was there at last a European Championships to suit her.

This was an era in which the more popular British newspapers gave women’s athletics plenty of coverage but very largely in a distinctly male chauvinistic manner in which the attractiveness of the competitors was remarked upon as often as their achievements. Blonde, shapely, and with the features of a typical “English rose”, Valerie Ball fitted the bill perfectly so far as lascivious press-men were concerned, and even “The Times” cast aside restraint to describe her as “beautifully proportioned”, but her life style was rather different to that of most of her track colleagues. Her engagement in 1952 to a famed England rugby union player, Christopher Winn, was announced in the society magazine, “The Tatler”, and the wedding took place at St Mark’s North, in Audley Street, in the socially-distinctive heart of London’s West End.

Valerie Margaret Ball had been born in Colombo, in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), on 31 August 192, where her father was Professor of Botany at Ceylon University College. She was sent to an exclusive girls’ boarding-school at Talbot Heath, Bournemouth, which was (and still is) a chic seaside resort on the south coast of England, and it was no doubt there that her interest in sport and in what she was to invariably describe as her greater love, music, was aroused. The school had been founded in 1886, soon gaining some notoriety in the town for its progressive educational policies, and from 1924 to 1947 the head mistress was Miss Cicely Fridewides Stocks, known as “Aunt Frida” to her numerous nieces who were also pupils there. 

Miss Stocks had played hockey for England, as had three of her five brothers, and the widely-read “Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News” in 1912 had carried a full page article headlined “A Remarkable Hockey Family”. So that game, together with cricket and tennis, featured prominently on the Talbot Heath School curriculum, as did music and dance. The school also had the first full-scale gymnasium in the locality, and even in Victorian times the well brought up young ladies were exercising with bar-bells. Future pupils would include two of Britain’s most famous sports-women, Pat Smythe, an equestrian bronze-medallist at the 1956 Olympics, and Virginia Wade, Wimbledon singles tennis champion in 1977.  Other “old girls” of note would be eccentric TV chef Fanny Cradock, film critic Dilys Powell and politician Shirley Williams (later Baroness Williams of Crosby)

When the 60th anniversary of the school was celebrated in 1946, just as Valerie Ball was about to go on to the Royal School of Music, in London, Miss Stocks was eulogised by a former head girl, who wrote, “The whole life of the school – its scholarship, its games, its new buildings, and above all its faith and ideals – were permeated by her influence and her intolerance of anything that was shoddy or second-hand”.

Valerie Ball did some high jumping at school and did not take up running until 1948, by which time she was too tall to fulfil her ambition to be a ballet dancer and so instead had become a student of piano and violin. At college she practised an average of five hours a day, and her inclination so far as athletics training was concerned was for only a couple of sessions a week with the Spartan Ladies AC coach, E.H. (“Teddy”) Knowles. This was a quota she would never exceed throughout her entire competitive career.

A club with a multiple national champion already in its ranks

Spartan Ladies’ had been founded in 1930 with at its helm one of the foremost administrators in the history of British women’s athletics, Vera Searle, and “Teddy” Knowles, as president and secretary respectively. Also serving with the club in 1948 was the future “grande dame”, of the sport, Marea Hartman, and the foremost member was Sylvia Cheeseman, who had won the WAAA 200 metres in 1946 and 1947 and would do so again in 1948, 1949, 1951 and 1952.

At the age of 17 in 1945 Sylvia Cheeseman (born in Kew, 19 May 1929) had taken very much the same path to success that Valerie Ball was to follow. While still at grammar school, Miss Cheeseman (the future wife of Olympic steeplechase medallist and London Marathon co-founder John Disley) had joined Spartan Ladies and within a year was a national title winner and European Championships finalist. Her mother was a classical pianist and her father a founder member of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, to provide a further musical connection with Valeria Ball. 

Maybe Valerie Ball was inspired by the forthcoming London Olympics, though she later said she took up running merely to keep her weight down. There was, of course, no 400 or 800 metres for women at the Games that year, and nor would there be until long after she had retired to concentrate on married life, her three young children and her music teaching. However, the Spartan club, which had its training headquarters at Old Deer Park, Richmond, in Surrey, had also provided the WAAA 400 metres champions of 1946 and 1947, Margaret Walker and Joan Upton, and it was at 440 and 880 yards that Valeria Ball made her tentative debut in competition. .

Her first outing in 1948, aged 18, was a half-mile for the club against London University and Cambridge Harriers at Charlton Park on 1 May, and it lasted 2 minutes 39.8 seconds but still got her 1st place. At the Southern Championships at Chiswick on the afternoon of 5 June she took on a mammoth task, running in the heats and final of both the 440 and 880, and placed 3rd in the 440 to Patricia Gunn, of Mitcham AC and Reading University (62.5), and Dorothy Born, of Exeter University, and 2nd in the 880 to Eileen Garritt, of Ilford AC (2:35.0). Even the male competitors at the AAA Championships were not required to take on such a demanding schedule.

At the WAAA Championships on 26 June, again at Chiswick, she won the 400 metres in 60.8, which caused no stir of excitement among the onlookers – after all, the meeting record stood to the formidable Nellie Halstead at 56.8 since 1932. Yet a wider perspective, which might just have been taken by the few enthusiasts in the know, would have noted that only 10 women in the world were to run 59.0 seconds or better in 1948, and eight of these were from the Soviet Union and the remaining two from Australia. Amongst other WAAA champions that day, Maureen Gardner and Dorothy Tyler went on to win Olympic silver medals at Wembley. Sylvia Cheeseman reached the 200 metres semi-finals and Margaret Walker, missed a 4 x 100 metres relay bronze by seven one-hundredths of a second. No such exalted challenge would be offered to any woman half-miler for another six years.

A world -holder in her second season

The official Women’s AAA “notes”, published in the monthly magazine, “Athletics”, and contributed by a Mr W.T. Hitchin, contained the apt comment in November of that year regarding Spartan Ladies that “this club is one which goes after new members and they have been amply repaid for their efforts”. Athletics for women at London University, with which the Royal College of Music was associated, was also thriving, with wins in seven events and the team title at the Universities’ Athletic Union Championships in May before Miss Ball’s arrival there. One among that London student body, Elspeth Whyte, had even enterprisingly switched from the 440 and 880 in 1947 to compete modestly but valiantly in the Olympic shot and discus.

By 1949 Valerie Ball was a world record-holder, but she would have surely been among the first to admit that the circumstances were odd. A Southern Counties’ team of Dorothy Born, Eileen Garritt and herself ran 7:07.8 for the 3 x 880 yards relay in a staged record attempt during a London-v-Gothenburg match at the White City on 6 August watched by a 30,000 crowd. This relay event would continue to be officially recognised by the IAAF until 1969, and the previous mark on their list was 7:15.8 for 3 x 800 metres by a French national trio in 1943. However, a Moscow club had run an unratified 6:55.7 the next year. 

To provide further twists to the tale, the Southern Counties ladies had narrowly beaten the WAAA team of Hazel Spears, Audrey Stanley (Coventry Godiva Harriers) and Mary Webster 

(Appleby Frodingham Sports Club, in Lincolnshire), who had finished in that order in the first three places at the WAAA Championships the previous month, where Valerie Ball won the 400 again in 59.4, having run her qualifying heat only 35 minutes before!. She and her relay colleagues were naively credited by the IAAF with 7:06.6 for the metric distance, and it was not until the late Bob Sparks pointed out on behalf of the world-wide and UK statistical experts, the ATFS and the aptly-named NUTS, that this latter time had been registered only on the anchor stage – and thus for 2 x 880 yards + 1 x 800 metres (!) – that the mistake was rectified. In any case, the Soviet Union soon retaliated with a 6:54.0 metric time by a Moscow district team the following month, and numerous further improvements were made by various selections from the same country through to 1966, though the last word was to be said by a Dutch trio with 6:15.5 in 1968.

Even two years later in 1951, answering an “Athletics Weekly” questionnaire, Valerie cited this as her most personally satisfying race”. “Starting several yards behind, the feeling of running for a team and determination to beat the National team demanded all the ‘guts’ I possessed, and it eventually gained me a place in my first international”, she declared.

“Beauty takes the field for Britain”  

The press gave the relay record fervent coverage, and an imaginative “Sunday Mirror” reporter labelled a full-length photo of Valerie Ball finishing the relay with a distinctly flowery caption: “Valerie Ball will get there. You can see that in her eyes. And if determination won’t work all the way, there’s a feminine pleading in those hands”. Not many readers, surely, would have grasped the meaning of such a remark, but in the “Daily Herald” an opinionated columnist, Clifford Webb, described Miss Ball in terms the average man or woman in the street could well understand as “our latest girl track discovery”.  The “Daily Mirror” burbled, “Beauty takes the field for Britain”.  

Valerie Winn was often featured in very much more reasoned terms by Susan Noel in her column concerning women in the highly influential monthly magazine, “World Sports”. They lived less than five miles apart in the west of London and often exchanged confidences – maybe even on occasions sharing afternoon tea and cakes! t

Back at the White City. Valerie Ball made her GB debut in a triangular match against France and Holland, with a crowd of  7000 which may have been some sort of post-war record for a women-only meeting in Britain. She and Hazel Spears scored maximum points, finishing 1-2 in a close race against the French champion, Francine Voisin, who had led by 10 metres on the closing back straight – “voisin” appropriately means “neighbour” in French. Sylvia Cheeseman lost both sprints to a Dutchwoman named Foekje Dillema, who was described in the report in “Athletics” magazine as “very strongly built”. This may have been a coded message because “Miss Dillema” was later identified as a man, which would already have been blatantly obvious from the photo of the 200 metres adorning the cover of the next month’s issue. The editor, Jimmy Green, astutely making his point in an age which was reticent about such matters, perhaps? 

There was something of a controversy about Valerie Ball’s inclusion in the GB team, though it was no fault of her own. The Birmingham-based “Sports Argus”, defending a Midlands cause, proclaimed on 13 August, “Many people will not be too kindly disposed towards the dropping of Coventry Godiva girl Audrey Stanley for the match with France and the Netherlands. Valerie Ball, who supplants her, has certainly performed well in the half-mile events but only since the selection was made”. This was true because prior to the world-record relay Miss Stanley, aged only 18, had a time three seconds faster than Miss Ball’s, but even the “Coventry Evening Telegraph”, referring to the WAAA’s “harsh treatment” in relegating Miss Stanley to reserve, admitted that she had not run well in the relay. Unfortunately, the promising teenager, particularly noted for her long stride, who was employed at the GEC telephone works in Coventry, received no further call for international duty. 

The times of 2:18.2 for Ball and 2:18.3 for Spears ranked them 8th and equal 9th in the world, The leader was Yevdokiya Vasilyeva, of the USSR, who would set a ratified world record of 2:13.0 the next year. All the others in the leading 20 in 1949 were also from the USSR, except for Madame Voisin and a Hungarian and a Rumanian. 

With no event for women further than the sprints at the 1950 British Empire Games and European Championships and the 1952 Olympics, Valerie Ball’s next four seasons followed a familiar pattern: Victories each year in the WAAA 400 metres, or 440 yards to bring her total to six in succession by 1953, with best times of 57.5m in 1950 and 57.6y in the last of those years.. No one had won so many consecutive WAAA titles in any event since Florence Birchenough had done so in the discus from 1923 to 1928, and no one else would do so until Shirley Strong completed such a sequence at 100 metres hurdles in 1984.

A first international medal, but at 100 metres!

1n 1950 Valerie’s one foreign venture was another win against France at 800 metres at Colombes in 2:17.4, with 20-year-old Margaret Hume, of Essex Ladies, completing the double in 2:17.7. All the eight fastest of the year were again from the USSR, followed by Anna-Liisa Kurki, of Finland. Of the 32 women who broke 2:20.0, there were 22 from the USSR, two each from GB and Hungary, and one each from Austria, Finland, France, Italy,  Rumania and Yuugoslavia. At 400 metres, again dominated by Soviet women, Valerie Ball’s WAAA winning time ranked 6th, but the event would not be recognised by the IAAF until 1957. The best time in existence was still the 56.8 (actually 56 4/5) for 440 yards by Nellie Halstead from1932. 

In October Valerie appeared again in public in an entirely different role, giving a well appreciated violin performance at the Central Hall, Westminster. 

A rare foreign venture in 1951 was to the International Student Games in Luxemburg from 19 to 26 August, but this was, frankly, no grand occasion, and Reg Kerslake, reporting for “Athletics Weekly”, put it in perspective, “The ladies events were poorly supported. Germany, Austria, Great Britain and Luxemburg providing the majority of the competitors, and only the 100 metres requiring heats”. So maybe it was simply the novelty of travel abroad that appealed at a time when this was beyond the means of most Britons, and Valerie certainly must have enjoyed herself, finishing 2nd to a Scotswoman, Isabella (“Quita”) Shivas, of Aberdeen University, in the 100 metres, 12.5 to 12.6 (nevertheless both beating the meeting record), and qualifying for the shot final, which might have been the motivation for Valerie to enter the WAAA pentathlon (shot, high jump, 200 metres, 80 metres hurdles, long jump) the next month, in which she placed 5th as the title was won by Dorothy Tyler. In Luxemburg the only other women’s track events were an 80 metres hurdles and a 4 x 100 relay in which GB, including the 100 metres medallists, was 2nd to Germany.  

Later in September another relay race provided a highlight, albeit again somewhat artificial and brief in its existence. A Spartan Ladies team of  Valerie Robins, Bettie Turner, June Foulds (later Mrs Paul) and Sylvia Cheeseman had run 1:43.9 for 4 x 220 yards at a White City evening meeting on 17 July, and then in September, with Foulds, Robins, Valerie Ball and Cheeseman in that order, improved to 1:43.4 for another world record . These times, though, bore no comparison to the metric best of 1:40.6 by the Dinamo Moscow club earlier in July. In any case on successive days, 26 and 27 September, England, including Cheeseman, ran 1:41.4 for the 4 x 220 and the USSR 1:39.7 for 4 x 200.

The emphasis in 1952 was, of course, on the Olympic Games where the British women did rather well on the closing day, taking silver in the high jump (Sheila Lerwill) and bronze in the 4 x 100 metres in a British record 46.41, with Spartan’s Sylvia Cheeseman and June Foulds running the first two stages. Valerie was meanwhile engaged in rather lower key competition that same weekend, winning the 880 at the Waddilove Trophy inter-club meeting in Birmingham. She would not have given too much thought to missing the Olympics – her engagement to be married to Christopher Winn was announced in “The Tatler” in September alongside that of Lady Caroline Childe-Villiers, daughter of the Earl of Jersey. The future Mrs Winn was photographed alongside her fiancé in Hyde Park. 

Complications and confusion in the record books 

Had there been an Olympic 800 metres for women, the USSR would most probably have taken gold – Nina Pletnyeva had just set a world record of 2:08.5 – but Great Britain, Germany, Hungary, Rumania and France would have offered some worthy opposition. The USA had not held a half-mile at their national championships since the Olympic year of 1928 and would not do so until 1958. Australia could reasonably have been expected to present a challenge here, judging by their profusion of sprinters and hurdlers, but their 1951-52 national title had been won in only 2:27.8.

Valerie Ball was actually usurped as No.1 half-miler in Britain by Enid Harding, aged 20, from the neighbouring London Olympiades club. She, too, had started in athletics as a high jumper, at Drayton Grammar School, in Middlesex, but she trained harder than Valerie, with short-interval sprints of 150 and 300 yards and 660 yards time-trials four times a week in summer and serious cross-country throughout the winter, including a county title win and a 6th place in the National championships. She was an accounts clerk by occupation, and at 5ft 6in (1.68m ) tall and weighing 8st 5lb (53kg) very much the same build as Valerie Ball.

As is explained by Mel Watman in his 2012 “Official History of the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association”, “There was a rather complicated situation regarding the 880 yards world record … the IAAF record stood at 2:15.6 (worth about 2:14.8 for 800 metres) by Sweden’s Anna Larsson in 1945. There was some excitement, not to mention confusion, when Enid Harding was timed at 2:14.4 off scratch in an 880y handicap race at the White City in August 1952, while on the same track in cold and wet conditions the following month Valerie Ball ran 2:14.2 to out-kick Enid (2:15.3). Officialdom decreed that Valerie’s time was a world record but not a British record, while Enid’s mark was accepted as a British record but refused recognitions as a world record because the IAAF would not consider a performance made in a handicap race!” 

Remarkably, it would not be until 1954 that Diane Leather conclusively resolved the situation by running 2:09.0 and thus bringing the 880 yards record for the first time since 1922 nearly into line with the metric record, now reduced to 2:07.3 by Nina Otkalenko (née Pletneyva). Keeping this account of the development of women’s 800-metre running in chronological order for the while, more about Diane Leather’s record later. A lot was beginning to happen in the event!

Enid Harding had actually been beaten at the WAAA Championships, though by less than a yard, by Margaret Taylor, of Birchfield Harriers, who was still only 19 years old but had already previously twice finished 2nd to Valerie Ball in the WAAA 400 (the latter winning her fifth successive title at that distance in 1952). The Olympian heights for the youthful Misses Harding and Taylor that year were confined to the match against France at the White City on August 23-24, and they kept up the standard by finishing 1-2. The British women also scored maximum points in the 100 and 200 metres, the 80 metres hurdles and the 4 x 100 relay and won overall by 60pts to 43.

Oh dear! The record is beaten but by the “wrong” team

Not much changed internationally at 800 metres for women in 1953. Of the 31 athletes at 2:16.0 or faster, 18 were from the USSR, led by Otkalenko’s world record 2:07.3, and of the rest five were from Hungary, four from GB, two from Germany and one each from Czechoslovakia and Rumania. Still no one from outside Europe slipped into the rankings in the ATFS Annual, and no one would do so until Brenda Jones, of Australia, in 50th place in 1957, signifying a sea-change which would be obvious by the time she won the silver medal at the 1960 Olympics. 

There was a change at the top in Britain because the WAAA title was won by Anne Oliver, who was starting another trend – though again unbeknown to us at the time – as a middle-distance runner of fine talent from the North-East of England. Only 17, she was a member of Gosforth Harriers, in Newcastle, and she won comfortably in 2:15.0, while newly-married Valerie Winn was just managing to beat 19-year-old Betty Loakes, from Kettering, by a yard in the 440 and Enid Harding was winning the mile in a British record 5:09.8. Valerie asserted herself by beating Miss Oliver in the home-ground matches against France in August and Holland in September. Even so, the GB rankings at year’s end were 1 Oliver 2:15.0, 2 Loakes 2:15.3, 3 Winn 2:16.0, and in 4th place Diane Leather, aged 20, at 2:16.7.  

Relay racing also provided yet another surprise. On the second day of the GB-v-France match, held on August Bank Holiday Saturday and Monday, a 3 x 880 yards relay was added to the schedule as an unashamed British-biased record attempt and duly obliged. Rather to the embarrassment of team manager Jack Crump, though, it was the “B” team of  Norah Smalley, Christine Slemon and Diane Leather which won in 6:49.0 ahead of the Oliver-Harding-Winn “A” team, with Leather hanging on to a three-yard lead throughout the last lap. Crump had anticipated wrongly, alerting            the “A” team to be ready for a TV interview after the race, but when the cameras came to roll the surprise winners had already gone home.[b1]   

It might seem bizarre that the previous record of 7:00.6 had been set by Ilford AC in June 1952, but the circumstances were entertainingly explained by Warren Roe in his history of the club, published in 1998. Though the three young ladies concerned – Muriel Critchley, Joan Dryden and Phyllis Green – were inexperienced half-milers and after a trial at 660 yards the week before had all claimed that they could not possibly manage the distance, they did so unopposed. Warren Roe concluded feasibly that the authorities “were not too pleased that a club team should hold a world record and the following year nominated a National team for a successful attempt”. There had been a first such bid at the White City on 20 May but between them Valerie Winn and Enid Harding managed to drop the baton and missed the record by half-a-second. Much more would very soon be heard from Miss Green, who by the age of 19 was already twice National cross-country champion. 

Despite the emergence of this younger generation (though  only younger by five years or so), Valerie Winn still attracted the headlines and when she was beaten it was regarded as a major story. This had happened in an invitation event at Chiswick at the start of the 1953 season, 9 May, and a “Daily Mirror” reporter, George Harley, got very excited about it. “The thin crowd was jolted from apathy into excitement by an exhilarating finish to the special half-mile race”, he wrote on the following Monday. “Valerie Winn, the World record-holder, was beaten by about 0.00001 of an inch by Phyllis Green, 19. The time, 2min 23sec, was ordinary. The race was sensational”. 

The “Daily Mirror” dreams up an Iron Curtain confrontation 

Having suffered her first loss at the distance since 14 May 1949, when Hazel Spears had beaten her on the same track, Mrs Winn remarked philosophically, “It will do me good. I was taken completely by surprise”. Valerie and Christopher Winn had married only six weeks before and so, perhaps, she could be forgiven for her inattention. The surprise packet, Phyllis Green, was described in the press as “a petite Hornchurch typist”. 

The same George Harley then got it into his head that there was some sort of “Cold War” going on between British and East European women athletes. Having won at 880 yards against France in a match record 2:16.1 at the beginning of August, Valerie made a record attempt at the London Fire Brigade meeting at the White City three weeks later and equaled her 1952 time of 2:14.5, narrowly beating Anne Oliver and Diane Leather. However, the circumstances had changed very late in the day, as George Harley had reported that morning with a surprisingly deft touch of irony:

“Great boys (and girls) for timing, our friends beyond the Iron Curtain. It was known that British girl athletes would attack the world record for the half-mile at the London Fire Brigade Sports today. So on Thursday Ulla Jurewitz, a fraulein from East Germany, runs a half-mile at a Budapest meeting – and returns 2m 12.6s. That is 1.9s faster than the record set up by our own Valerie Winn last year. So Mrs Winn and her rivals will have a new target to aim at today – and the latest figure should be bettered”. Whether or not the Budapest race had been deliberately fixed up at short notice, the half-mile record was broken again the following May in the same Nepstadion by a Hungarian, Aranka Kazi, with Jurewitz a close 2nd.      

Valerie Winn’s final season of 1954 is best summed up by the late Michael Sheridan in that customary deft manner of his in a remarkably comprehensive “Who’s Who” of British international athletes which he published in 2010. “Her four British international appearances were all over 800 metres/880 yards”, he wrote. “She won the first three, and if the final one, when she finished 6th in the 1954 European Championships, looks like a failure in comparison, it certainly was not in reality as she recorded her career best time for the distance of 2:13.3. She was probably beyond her peak at that point, but even whilst at international level she only trained two days a week. Her approach was illustrated by her comment ‘keep athletics in its proper place – an enjoyable recreation’ “.

An athletics career is over as training ideas change

Michael Sheridan had chosen his words carefully because he was well aware that Valerie Winn had run much faster in a scintillating WAAA 880 yards final at the White City on 19 June. It was here that Diane Leather elevated the World half-mile record to true international standard, winning in 2:09.0 from Anne Oliver (2:11.4), Valerie Winn (2:11.7), Norah Smalley (2:12.4) and Betty Loakes (2:13.0). Then at the European Championships in Berne Nina Otkalenko proved herself to be, in the words of the McWhirter twins in their iconic monthly magazine, “Athletics World”, “the supreme mistress of two laps”, winning in 2:08.8 from Diane Leather, 2:09.8. Six of the nine finalists were from Iron Curtain countries and the other three were British (the third of them being Anne Oliver in 7th place). 

Valerie Winn finished off her career in October with 2nd to Diane Leather in the Hungary-v-GB match in Budapest and an understandably unnoticed 4th at the White City on the night of the palpitating Chataway and Kuts World-record 5000 metres. Even for women half-milers stamina was now of the essence, as was being proven by Phyllis Green, who later married National cross-country champion Alan Perkins and won the WAAA 1500 metres in 1954 and 1955, and by Diane Leather, her successor in 1956 and 1957. 

Now Mrs Charles, the latter was also National cross-country winner every year from 1953  to 1956 and was assured of lasting renown by becoming the first woman to break five minutes for the mile in May of 1954, three weeks after Bannister’s historic sub-four. Anne Oliver’s first major title was as National junior cross-country champion. Norah Smalley was also a miler and ran in the first post-war cross-country match between England and Scotland in 1954 (Diane Leather 1st, Anne Oliver 2nd). Betty Loakes, returning to athletics after marrying a club colleague, became European veterans’ 5000 metres champion in the over-40 age group and ran close to three hours for the marathon. Natural ability and a modicum of training was rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

In 1954 one of Britain’s most experienced coaches, George Pallett, wrote a series of articles in “Athletics Weekly” directed at aspiring young women athletes, and in the issue for 23 January his opening words of advice were expressed in typically forthright manner. “They tell me you like running 440 yards and 880 yards. Brave girl! I hope you realise what you are up against. Writing to sisters of yours on the sprints, I mentioned the high world standard in those events, and the standard is no less in these middle distances. You are fortunate in that it is generally believed that the range of improvement can be greater in the middle distances than in the sprints, but the conditioning period is longer and the peak of performance more distant”.

Diane Leather and Phyllis Perkins persevered long enough within their “range of improvement” to run in the 1960 Olympics, when the women’s 800 metres returned after 32 years, but both were eliminated in the heats. Also among those competitors in Rome (27 from 15 countries) was the East German who had set that opportunistic 880 yards record back in 1953. Ursula (“Ulla”) Jurewitz had become the first athlete from her country to set a World record earlier that year, with 55.7 for 400 metres, though the event was not yet recognised by the IAAF, and she married Dr Rolf Donath, who had himself been national 800 metres champion in 1952. More significantly for Frau Donath’s athletic future, her husband became one of the four supreme officials deciding which East German athletes would receive full state aid and he was instrumental in administering to them whatever was deemed necessary. She repaid the considerable investment with the bronze medal behind Lyudmila Shevtsova, of the USSR, who equaled her world record of 2:04.3, and the aforementioned Brenda Jones. 

The British team manager, Jack Crump, paid Valerie Winn a fulsome tribute in his “World Sports monthly “Gossip” column in December. “She has graced the track for the entire post-war period”, he wrote. “This pretty girl, with her intelligence, charm and impeccable demeanour, has converted many people who at one time opposed women’s athletics”. Mrs Winn took up tennis coaching for 25 years and thought little about athletics, but back in 1951 she had come up with some enterprising ideas which would take the various ruling bodies  some years (in one instance, 68 years, to be precise!) to put into effect. Asked in 1951 by “Athletics Weekly” about any reforms she would like to see, she responded, “More women’s events included in men’s meetings. Then, perhaps, the public might appreciate more our true worth. What about mixed relays?"   

Christopher Winn died in 1990. Valerie Winn is 92 this year.       




Leave a Comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.