Everybody acknowledges world record holder Paula Radcliffe’s place at the top of the pile, of course, but very few people have heard of the feisty South London woman who I believe is right up there alongside her.
Between the two world wars, Violet Piercy (pictured) became the very first woman to run a marathon – a feat not repeated by anyone of her sex for almost 40 years!
Over the years the details of Violet’s remarkable story remained sketchy and vague, so it was welcome news when a group of distinguished athletics historians of my acquaintance recently put their heads together to research her life and times. The facts that emerged from their efforts were even more strange and fascinating than expected.
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, who seems to have spent much of her time pursuing court action against people who upset her.
Women’s athletics had first been recognised and regulated in the UK in 1920, but the rulebook deemed distance running was unsuitable and possibly even dangerous for females. It was thought the strain would adversely affect child-bearing ability, so the maximum distance for a women’s race was set at 1,000 metres.
This was all tosh and piffle 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.
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. And the reaction to Violet’s great feat was mixed, to say the least. 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.
Over the next few years she completed a series of remarkable runs, including three more marathons, but the 1939-45 War seems to have ended this and she quickly sank into obscurity. It’s now been confirmed she lived in the Streatham area in the 1940s and 1950s, but after that the trail went cold.
Thirty-seven years after Violet’s pioneering first marathon, a second woman (American Merry Lepper) completed 26 miles, and shortly afterwards Dale Greig was the second British woman to take the plunge and chalked up a time of 3:27:45. It is sad to think both these women had probably never heard of Violet Piercy. And nobody in the media was able (or interested enough) to track down Violet to ask her about Greig and Lepper following in her footsteps at long last.
If that was sad, the story has an even sadder ending. The newly-gathered 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 well-known novelist Peter Lovesey has written at length about her in Track Stats magazine.
Violet Piercy, marathon icon - at long last – we salute you!
* Rob Hadgraft's books on running legends of yesteryear are available via Amazon in paperback or e-book via the link http://amzn.to/1C2BjUK . See also www.robhadgraft.com