Writing Between the Lines Poetry Challenge. Events 8 and 9: High Jump and Long Jump

It’s the final day of the Writing Between the Lines Poetry Challenge! Thank you for taking the time to join in with this week of stories, hidden histories and creative and sporting inspiration. I hope you’ve come away with some new drafts and ideas. I’ve certainly learned a great deal in the process of putting together these posts. When we first came up with the idea of a poetry ‘Olympiad’ I knew comparatively little about the 1921 event, or about the athletes who took part. It’s been a pleasure to discover more about their achievements and legacy.

Our final events are the jumps – high jump and long jump.

High jumpFrédérique Kussel
1.40Hilda Hatt
 United Kingdom
shared GoldMadeleine Bracquemond
Long jumpMary Lines
 United Kingdom
4.70Hilda Hatt
 United Kingdom
4.60Lucie Bréard

These were strong events for the GB team. Hilda Hatt won joint gold with Frédérique Kussel in the high jump, and in the long jump Mary Lines took gold, with Hilda Hatt taking the silver.

Rare footage and photos from these events shows the very different technique used by these athletes from today’s long and high jumpers.

There was no mat for the high jump, so competitors had to land on their feet or else risk serious injury. Variations of the scissor kick were really the only option!

Hilda Hatt in the middle of a high jump
Hilda Hatt in motion

For the long jump, competitors did, thankfully, have a sandpit to land in!

Mary Lines in mid-flight
Hilda Hatt

Mary Lines excelled in this event – she won gold in the long jump in almost every international and national championship up until her retirement from competitive sport in 1924.

Lines was twenty-seven years old in the 1921 Olympiad, the oldest competitor on the GB team. She had never run a race before the games. In the next three years she would set world records and win championships in events ranging from 50 metres to 880 yards, as well as in the long jump and the hurdles. She worked as a waitress in London and attended evening gymnasium classes at the Polytechnic (a 1924 article in the Dundee Evening Telegraph later has her as working for a ‘well-know mineral water firm’ [18th Jan, 1924]). Her success is an example of the fact that, unlike many other sporting activities open to women at that time, athletics at the Poly provided opportunities to keen sportswomen from a variety of backgrounds.

Unlike Florence Birchenough, who continued to compete at an international level after her marriage and the birth of her son, Mary Lines’s engagement to a man named ‘Mr Smith’ signalled the end of her international athletics career. Lines, the ‘famous Streatham lady’ slowly starts to disappear from the lists of competitors, her records gradually matched and beaten by emerging athletes.

After the death of her husband in 1946, Mary Smith (Lines) continued to live in London until 1971, when she moved to Worthing to live with her two unmarried sisters. She was killed in a traffic accident in 1978 at the age of 85 – she was running to post her Christmas mail, and was hit by an oncoming van.

There is so much left to learn about Mary Lines. The new plinth in the foyer of the University of Westminster’s Regent Street building is only the beginning in what will be a much longer process of discovery and re-writing her name back into the history of the University and of UK sport.

Legacies and Impact

On April 2nd, 1921, the GB team arrived back at Victoria Station, London after three days travelling. Hot, tired, and dishevelled (apparently they didn’t think much of the French train systems) the athletes weren’t greeted by fanfare. They went back to their homes and back to their regular jobs as teachers, dressmakers, typists and waitresses at Lyon’s Corner House. They resumed their studies and competed alongside and against each other at the weekends for their respective London athletic teams.

But they did change the conversation around women’s sport, provoking heated debate in sporting circles and beyond about women’s physical capabilities, modern femininity and of women’s status as sportspeople and competitors on the world’s stage.

The Women’s Amateur Athletics Association (WAAA) was formed in early 1922 at the Regent Street Polytechnic, now Westminster, with many of the early committee members coming from the 1921 team. The WAA would change the nature of women’s track and field, regulating, organising and supporting women’s athletics for the next sixty years. The members of the WAA would also champion the cause of women’s sport in the face of sexism and dismay at the apparent loss of propriety brought about by these new physical excesses.

This article from the April 6th 1921 edition of the Evening Telegraph is a little hard to make out, but it expresses the concerns shared by many in athletics and wider society about the ‘physical and nervous strain’ placed on the fragile female constitution by ‘excessive’ levels of exertion. It is interesting to note how athletics is compared with women’s football. The many links between these two emerging sports is fascinating, particularly given the parallel degrees of discrimination both sets of sportspeople faced.

The nature and level of participation in women’s football and women’s athletics changed dramatically during the First World War, and in many ways demonstrated the shifting role of women in British society and the workplace during that time. After 1918, there were some who sought to reverse these changes, including those in the sporting establishment. While the IOC chose to ban women from taking part in Olympic track and field events – leading to the 1921 Olympiad – in December 1921 the FA banned women’s football on the grounds of ‘unsuitability’. This ban would not be lifted until 1971.

The Bystander, 13th April 1921.

Yet while some publications were wary of the rise of these ‘unnatural’ women, there were also clear signs of the shifting attitudes towards women in sport, as this patronising but ultimately celebratory piece in the Belfast Telegraph from 2nd April 1921 highlights:

Change was on its way, and the 1921 athletes were at the head of the sprint.

Poetry Challenge

For the final challenge in the Writing Between the Lines Poetry Olympiad we’re going to think about the many ways that histories and achievements can be erased and censored, and what we can do as writers to address and alter this silence.

One technique that I turn to a lot in my own work as a poet is to engage directly with archival material. That might mean ‘finding’ poems in the text of a historical document (such as a letter, a census record, or a newspaper article of the time) or directly responding to images and objects to create a written ‘artefact’. Either way, poetry is a powerful tool for historical excavation. It can shine a light on forgotten stories, it can allow silent voices to speak, and it can interrogate ‘official’ histories.

Here for instance, is my light-hearted attempt at taking on a historical document. Using censorship, I have attempted to change and interrogate the original text of the 1921 Evening Telegraph article:

Today’s challenge is to have a go at your own censorship poem. Here is the article I used:

Why not print it off and get busy with a black marker pen. Or else download it and start highlighting the text in black. Or if you don’t want to use this article, head over to a particularly awful national newspaper and choose an article to copy and paste into word and then erase into something new. If you want to save time, you could even copy and paste your chosen text into a ‘blackout generator’ and have a go there. Then share the results!


I hope you have enjoyed these poetry challenges. It has been a pleasure to put them together. Happy writing, and get in touch if you’d like to learn more about the Writing Between the Lines project and the women of the 1921 Olympiad. I’m certainly going to be writing a lot more about them in the coming months!

Writing Between the Lines Poetry Challenge. Event 7: The Javelin

The penultimate challenge! We’re almost at the end of our week of poetry challenges and 1921 stories.

On April 2nd, 1921, the GB team arrived back at Victoria Station, London after three days travelling. Hot, tired, and dishevelled (apparently they didn’t think much of the French train systems) the athletes weren’t greeted by fanfare. They went back to their homes and back to their regular jobs as teachers, dressmakers, typists and waitresses. They resumed their studies and continued to compete alongside and against each other at the weekends for their respective London athletic teams.

In my final post tomorrow I’m going to talk a little about their impact; about how their trip to Monte Carlo changed the conversation around women in athletics and ignited debate at a time when women were being actively excluded from competitive sport.

But before that, let’s do a bit more throwing!

Violette Morris in training for the Olympiad in 1920. Via Gallica.

The javelin, like the shot put, was won by France’s star, Violette Morris. I have already written about Morris’s controversial life and career in the Shot Put poetry challenge. She is a fascinating and troubling figure, but her relationship with the French sporting authorities of the time also reveals a great deal about the anxieties surrounding sexuality, gender identity, and bodily ‘propriety’ that these athletes’ performances provoked.

In the UK, the GB athletes were met with similar derision. As I’ve explored in earlier posts, you can see this a little in the media focus on the ‘exhibition’ events rather than the athletes’ specialisms, as well as in the inevitable focus on their appearance and levels of attractiveness. Looking ahead to a subject I’ll cover in my final post, in the months and years after the Olympiad, the proof of their athleticism proved difficult to accept for certain journalists and athletes.

But let’s not let all this sexism distract us!

What is perhaps most remarkable about the 1921 javelin competition is that it was a two-handed event. That didn’t mean that the athletes had to lob a spear over their heads like a football from the sidelines. Instead, each athlete was required to throw using their right hand, then their left. Their final mark was the total of the best mark with their right-handed throw and the best mark with their left-handed throw. This was also the case for shot put. Looking at the footage from the 1921 and 1922 Games, there does not seem to have been a run up. Athletes would often throw from a stationary position, as depicted by Morris in the above photo.

Although she wasn’t placed in the finals of the 1921 javelin, Florence Birchenough again shone through as the emerging throwing star of the UK. More than Mary Lines, Birchenough would emerge as the household name of UK athletics in the decades to come. She played a vitally important role in women’s athletics in the 1920s and 1930s. She also made headlines for continuing to compete at an international level after marriage and children – an unusual and noteworthy occurrence at the time.

From the Daily Mirror, 28th March 1935. Via British Newspaper Archive.

The Daily Mirror have got it wrong in their caption. Florence Birchenough, or Mrs Millichap as she was then also known, was not the bare-headed woman in the picture, and her son was sixteen months old rather than sixteen years. But the fact that she was back in training, this time for speed walking, was enough to cause a stir.

Here’s another picture of Birchenough, this time competing in a cross-country match in 1928. If anybody knows why she might be carrying that large cross body bag, please get in touch!

Going back to the Olympiad, in this image Florence practices her right-handed javelin technique before the crowds arrived and took their places in the stands.

Compare her technique to that of her French rivals. She doesn’t bend into the throw as deeply. Look at the way she seems to hold the javelin almost like a pen. It looks staged for the cameras. It might not have been a winning throw, but it’s a stunning shot.

For her achievements in athletics, her coaching, her activism on behalf of women’s sport and her decades of active participation at the top of UK sport, Florence Birchenough deserves far more attention and celebration than she currently has. I came into Writing Between the Lines knowing nothing about her, and am still exploring. But there is so much more to say.

Poetry challenge

Today’s challenge is inspired by the trajectory and shape of the javelin, as well as the challenging technique involved in mastering the two-handed throw. We are going to have a go at creating a narrow poem that stretches down the page, and we are going to do it in a form that demands that you ‘hold’ the words in a way that might feel a little strange at first – syllabic poetry!

Syllabic verse is a poetic form that has a fixed or constrained number of syllables per line. It is not measured in meter, but instead on syllable count. If you fix on a syllabic rule, then you don’t deviate from that, even if it means breaking up a word over two lines. Often, syllabic poems will have a specific rule or patter that is decided upon by the poet before they begin. For instance 7/7/7/7 – which is a four line stanza, with each line totalling seven syllables. You can mix up your syllable count in any formulation you like, for instance 5/6/7/8/9 9/8/7/6/5, which would create a lovely ascending/descending pattern. You may also already be familiar with syllabic poetry. Haikus – or Hokku – with their (traditionally) 5/7/5 rule and 17 syllable total, are one of the oldest syllabic forms.

For poetic inspiration today, here is an extract from Caroline Bird’s poem, The Amnesty. If you count the syllables, you’ll see how every line is made up of 7. The poem never breaks from this rule:

I surrender my weapons:
Catapult Tears, Rain-Cloud Hat,
Lip Zip, Brittle Coat, Taut Teeth
in guarded rows. Pluck this plate
of armor from my ear, drop
it in the Amnesty Bin,
watch my sadness land among
the dark shapes of memory.

Syllabic poetry offers another way of engaging with form and poetic ‘rules’. It also creates a different sort of rhythm from free verse, or a poem in iambic pentameter. Abiding by a set syllable count (but not a set meter or rhyme scheme) can create an interesting and productive constraint. It can shape the language choice in ways you’re not used to, forcing you to either locate a new word that fits within the line, or else break up a single word over two lines – an act that draws attention to the phrase, giving it new significance within the piece.

With this new technique – and the technique of the two-handed javelin in mind – today’s poetry challenge is to write a narrow syllabic poem. Each line must be 5 syllables long – no more and no less. As for your starting topic/line, you have two options: 1.) things I’ve thrown away… or 2.) with my other hand….

Happy writing!