Jeanne Rathbone

Violet Piercy Marathon runner and Notable Woman of Lavender Hill

Posted in Violet Piercy 1889-1972 first Britsh marathon runner record setter by sheelanagigcomedienne on April 1, 2019

Violet Piercy female marathon record setting runner is an addition to my roster of Notable Women of Lavender Hill walk. Violet Stewart Louisa Piercy lived, in the early thirties at 21 Leathwaite Road which overlooks Clapham Common. Derrick Johnson of the Clapham Society brought her to my attention when he came on the first walk I led  and I promised I would include her along with the motley of significant women who lived in this area around Lavender Hill. It starts at Battersea Arts Centre and finishes at 53 Battersea Rise. There are now 15 women included in this walk. https://wordpress.com/page/sheelanagigcomedienne.wordpress.com/12081

Of the sixteen EH/LCC blue plaques in Battersea none commemorate women. Since I started these walks we now have three plaques – one to Caroline Ganley CBE MP 1945-1951 at 5 Thirsk Road, Charlotte Despard socialist, suffragette and Irish nationalist on 177 Lavender Hill and Pamela Hansford Johnson novelist and critic at 53 Battersea Rise.

Between the two world wars, Violet Piercy  became the very first woman to run a marathon – a feat not repeated by anyone of her sex for almost 40 years! Women were excluded from the Olympics when Violet was running.

Violet piercy

Violet is recognised by the International Association of Athletics Federation was an as having set the first women’s world’s best in the  marathon on 3 October 1926 with a time of 3:40:22. She was reported to have run unofficially and her mark was set on the Polytechnic Marathon course between Windsor and London and finishing at Battersea Town Hall. However, the Association of Road Running Statisticians includes Violet but notes Marie Louise Ledru of France  as the first woman to run a marathonmarie-louise_ledru__1918 According to the ARRS, Ledru ran 5:40 at the Tour de Paris Marathon held on 29 September 1918. According to the IAAF, Violet Piercy’s mark stood 37 years until Merry Lepper’s  3:37:07 performance at the Western Hemisphere Marathon on 16 December 1963.

Violet Stewart Louisa Piercy was born at 15 Clarendon Road, Croydon, on Christmas Eve, 1889, the daughter of a property owner who died before she was born. She attended Old Palace of John Whitgift School and in 1911 was living in Croydon with her widowed mother.

Here is a link to the silent Pathe clip from 1927 http://www.britishpathe.com/video/camera-interviews-the-runner/query/Violet

Before we look at Violet’s story we need to bear in mind that before the 1980s, there were no women’s distance races in the Olympics. http://www.marathonguide.com/history/olympicmarathons/chapter25.cfm

In the Moscow Games, the longest race for women was the 1,500 meters, which had been instituted in 1972. Women had been excluded from track and field competition altogether until 1928, when the longest race was the 800 meters. Despite a world record by winner Lina Radke of Germany, many of the competitors had not properly prepared for the race and several collapsed in exhaustion. This led Olympic organizers to consider the race too strenuous for women. The president of the IOC, Count Henri Baillet-Latour, even suggested the elimination of all women’s competition from the Games. Such a drastic move was not taken, but until 1960, when the 800 meters reappeared, no race over 200 meters was contested by women in the Olympics.

Before 1972, women had been barred from the most famous marathon outside the Olympics – Boston. That rule did not keep women from running, though. In 1966, Roberta Gibb hid behind a bush at the start of the Boston Marathon, sneaking into the field and finishing the race in an unofficial time of 3:21:25. She was the first woman known to complete the arduous Boston course. Gibb had been inspired to run by the return of her race entry with a note saying that women were not physically capable of running a marathon.

On August 31,1971 Adrienne Beames of Australia became the first women to run a sub-three-hour marathon, smashing that barrier with a time of 2:46:30.On October 28, 1973, the first all women’s marathon was held in Waldniel, West Germany.The first women’s marathon officially sanctioned by the IAAF was the Tokyo International, held in November of 1979. IAAF officially recommended to the IOC that a women’s marathon be included in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Lost in the headlines about the end of amateurism at the Olympics and the selection of Seoul and Calgary for the 1988 Games was the fact that women had finally won the right to compete in an Olympic Marathon.

Joan benoit 1984 olympic marathon gold winner1984 – Joan Benoit. Almost a century after Melpomene was denied the opportunity to run in the first modern Olympics’ marathon, Joan Benoit, USA, won the gold in the field of 50 women from 28 nations who competed in the first Women’s Olympic Marathon.  (Summer Olympics in LA.)

Now back to Violets story.  I got most information from the piece written by Derrick Johnson which appeared in the South London Press. https://claphamsociety.com/Articles/article22-a-fast-lady.html and from   http://clappedoutrunner.blogspot.com/2015/08/violet-and-paula-englands-gift-to.html

It seems Violet had a number of natural talents ahead of her time, one of which was a gift for public relations. Over a period of around 12 years she gained much publicity for her various runs and became well known across the land and beyond. She was widely regarded as an eccentric and feisty character.

When she got started the maximum distance for a women’s race was set at 1,000 metres. This was ludicrous according to Violet. Aged 31 she boldly marched down to the London Olympiades club and signed up as a member – although still had to do her training alone. To demonstrate to the world that women could be good at sport and endurance events, she decided to run a solo marathon along the Windsor to London route.

Violet Piercy 1934This appeared in the South London Press in 1934 and spelt her name with an extra e.

To the amazement of onlookers, she set off at 4.20pm on Saturday 2nd October 1926 from near Windsor Castle. She made good steady progress early on, reaching Hounslow well before 6. After this suburban traffic slowed her down and she finally finished outside Battersea Town Hall around 8pm. Her time was recorded at 3 hrs 40 mins.

She told reporters: “I did it because I wanted to show the Americans what we can do and to prove Englishwomen are some good after all!”  Presumably this was a reference to the recent efforts of Americans Gertrude Ederle and Amelia Corson, who had stunned the people of Britain and France by successfully swimming the Channel.

Although cross-Channel swimming became popular in subsequent years, women’s distance running certainly didn’t. The reaction to Violet’s great feat was mixed. The Westminster Gazette wrote: “It must be hoped that no other girl will be so foolish as to imitate her.” All Sports Weekly were equally firm: “The marathon should be cut out by the women.”

Violet scoffed at all this and appeared on BBC radio telling listeners that doing athletics would help produce a race of women “capable of and suited to motherhood” because the sport was based on rhythm, co-ordinated movement and clean living.

There is a quirky Pathe video entitled Mary had a little lamb from 1930. https://www.britishpathe.com/video/mary-had-a-little-lamb-1

Thirty-seven years after Violet’s pioneering first marathon Dale Greig representing Scotland was the second British woman to take the plunge and chalked up a time of 3:27:45. There is no record of whether Merry Lepper or Dale Grieg had  heard of Violet Piercy and nobody in the media was able (or interested enough) to track down Violet to ask her about the women who followed in her footsteps at long last.

In the next few years Violet claimed a series of records for road running but as this was new for a woman and she had no competitors she was able to do this with fairly modest performances. She also finished her runs at locations where she would get maximum publicity. In 1933 she completed a third solo run from Windsor past thousands of cheering spectators and finishing on the stage of the Shepherds Bush Empire. Two years later she ran five and a quarter miles from the Whittington Stone in Highgate and up the 311 steps to the top of the Monument in 43 minutes 2 seconds. ‘I did it to prove that a woman’s stamina can be just as remarkable as a man’s’ she told the South London Press (2 April, 1935).

It was not until 13 June 1936, with the connivance of the organisers of the Polytechnic Harriers race from Windsor to Stamford Bridge, and setting off ahead of the male runners, that Violet completed a run over the official distance of 26 miles 385 yards (42.195 km). Her finishing time of 4 hours 30 minutes is extremely modest by today’s standards but her record lasted until 1964. She was also 46 years old and as she said: ‘I only wanted to prove that women could stick the distance’.

The 1939-45 War seems to have ended her running career and she quickly sank into obscurity.  Little is known of her life after 1938 except that electoral registers show a woman of her name living in lodgings in Battersea and Wandsworth up to 1958. Apparently, she was involved in a court case when she was a medical secretary for a Dr Coplans of Leathwaite Road and they had a disagreement which ended up in court.

Violet Piercey Lady champion liong distance runner in training

Violet was a symbol of female strength between 1926 and 1938 as the first British female long-distance runner. She ran long distances “to prove that a woman’s stamina can be just as remarkable as a man’s,” (South London Press, 2 April 1935), and is now often credited as the inspirational figure behind modern female long-distance runners.

However, it very sad that recent evidence suggests that an elderly woman of no fixed address who died in a London hospital in April 1972 was the once-famous Violet Piercy. She had suffered a brain haemorrhage, hypertension and chronic kidney-related infection. The death certificate mistakenly gave her surname as Pearson, which ruled out any chance of her being immediately recognised as the former celebrity runner.

Violet languished in obscurity for something like 70 years but recent developments have changed all that  . . . . there’s now a clip of her running on-line at the British Pathe archive, she has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the novelist Peter Lovesey has written at length about her in Track Stats magazine.https://www.nuts.org.uk/trackstats/piercy.htm

However, there is no doubt that Violet set a trend which is still with us as so many women are found running especially on Clapham Common when I go for my regularly walkies.

Leathwaite Road

21 Leathwaite Road

Violet Piercy female marathon icon,  one time neighbour of the Lanchester family on Leathwaite Road, I will happily include you on my walk of the inspiring Female Lavender Hill mob.  So, Violet Piercy we salute you as you join the other inspiring Women of Lavender Hill!