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 3 – 250m

Usually run over a curving track, the 250m demands that its runners think about their turn as well as their speed. Taking the bend requires that you adjust your style, re-balance and then regain the momentum. And don’t forget to stay in your lane!

The 250m race was won by Mary Lines, the star of the English team and the Regent Street Polytechnic. Lines would go on to achieve three 1st prizes and one 2nd  at the 1921 Games. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes her as “[t]he first star of British women’s athletics between the wars”.

Mary Lines

That this ‘star’ would fade from the official narrative and history of UK sport, and would never appear alongside the names of The Polytechnic Harriers and male cricket stars engraved on the Studd Trophy and mounted on the wall of Westminster’s 309 Regent Street, is the reason that Writing Between the Lines first came into being. Her story demands to be (re)written.

As for adding her name to those celebrated already, Guy Osborn has been busy taking care of that:

He’s an extract from his own blog, Dispatches from the Frontline of Law and Popular Culture:

Our foyer is a beautiful space but there is a further specific absence. If you look carefully in the room there are three plinths, on two on the ‘Gallery’ side you will see busts, of Hogg and Studd, very important figures in our history …

Above the entrance to the cinema on the other side there is a third plinth, but this has been empty for years Drawing on the concept of the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square we mark the centenary of the 1921 successes of our Polytechnic women at the Womens’ Olympiad by recognising Mary Lines, on behalf of all Polytechnic women, on the third plinth in the Regent Street foyer. This will be lit on 21 March 2021 to mark the centenary of the departure from Victoria station and remain lit for the period of the competition and until the centenary of their return.

Guy Osborn

The Poetry Challenge: Celebration

My first instinct for the 250m challenge was a sonnet. Both are still relatively short, but involve a vital turn (or volta) that demands a different sort of balance. However, while I was planning this out, I thought instead about Mary Lines and the (previously) empty third plinth, and what a privilege it is to be able to use research and writing to help to shed new light on this previously under-appreciated athlete.

So in honour of Mary Lines and the third plinth, today’s poetry challenge is all about celebrating someone who doesn’t receive the credit they deserve…but feel free to do this challenge as a sonnet too!


In his gorgeous poem ‘Unsung’, Kei Miller ‘sings’ the quiet, everyday praises of his father:

There should be a song for the man who does not sing

himself – who has lifted a woman from her bed to a wheelchair

each morning, and from a wheelchair to her bed each night;

a song for the man recognized by all the pharmacists, because

each day he has joined a line, inched forward with a prescription

for his ailing wife; there should be a song for this man

who has not sung himself ...
Kei Miller reads ‘Unsung’

The poem offers up the actions of love and care as a way of showing the reader more about the ‘man who does not sing himself’ than any list of qualities could.

For your own poem, choose someone you admire – sporting, historical or relative – and celebrate them!

Tip: Try and focus on representative actions rather than attributes. If you look at the extract from ‘Unsung’, you’ll notice that Miller never directly tells us of his father’s patience, kindness and love. Instead, he shows us by listing his daily tasks. If you’re struggling, make a list of the things that you admire about your chosen subject, and then ‘translate’ each of these into a single event or action.

Happy writing.

To catch up on previous poetry challenges and learn more about the project…

Day One: 60m sprint

Day Two: Shot Put

About the Westminster archives and the project to celebrate the athletes of 1921

About the Writing Between the Lines creative project

Or get in touch on here if you’d like to find out more.

Writing Between the Lines poetry challenge: Event 2. Shot Put.

Yesterday, for the 60m sprint, the name of the game was ‘speed’. Today, we’re dealing with heavier matters…

Florence Birchenough

Today’s poetry event is the shot put competition, which was won in 1921 by the French athletics star and controversial sportsperson, Violette Morris.

Violette Morris

Morris was a gifted athlete. She excelled at shot put and discus and also played football and water polo at a national level. She was a boxer, a motor car and road bike racer, motorcyclist, wrestler, archer, swimmer, tennis player – just to name a few of her sporting interests. She also played on the French women’s national team.

In 1928 the French Women’s Sports Federation refused to renew her licence amid complaints about her lifestyle and she was therefore barred from participating in 1928 Summer Olympics. The agency cited her lack of morals, in particular, Morris’ penchant for wearing men’s clothing. Her homosexuality was clearly the major factor in the decision…although she had also punched a football referee. Afterward, Morris decided to undergo an elective mastectomy, which she said was in order to fit into racing cars more easily.

After her ban from sport, Morris’s life didn’t quieten down and she became a controversial figure in a different, altogether more sinister way. Courted by the Nazis and personally invited to Berlin by Hitler, Morris likely became a Nazi spy and collaborator, although the extent of her crimes and involvement are debated. She was assassinated by the French resistance in 1944.

The Polytechnic star – Florence Ethel Birchenough

Representing the English interests in the Shot Put was Florence Ethel Birchenough – a Polytechnic student who would go on to become a hugely influential figure in shaping women’s athletics in the UK.

Birchenough was a pioneer in the throwing events, representing her country several times in the javelin, shot and discus. Although she didn’t win the Shot in the 1921 Olympiad, she would go on to become a British and Olympic champion in future events, becoming the WAAA title-holder for discus 1924–8 and captain of the British team at the 1926 Women’s World Games. The 1921 games were her first taste of international competition, and a chance to learn amongst the best.

Here’s Florence in action in 1922 – along with some extremely questionable captions…


‘The new theory that “sport may kill sex” does not worry them!’

Yep – you read that right. Pathe, 1922 Olmpiad. Monte Carlo.

Florence continued her work in athletics throughout her life, working as a coach, official, committee member and staunch advocate of women’s athletics. Although Mary Lines was the medal star of the 1921 team, Birchenough’s name is more well-known in the history of UK women’s athletics, due to her long involvement in championing women’s sport.

The Poetry Challenge

To celebrate the incredible balance, technique, precision and strength of Florence Birchenough and her fellow Shot Put competitors, today’s poetry event is all about manoeuvring heavy things.

First, some inspiration. Here’s an extract of ‘Scale’, by the poet and keen sportsperson Helen Mort:


My weight is
four whippets,

two Chinese gymnasts,
half a shot-putter.

It can be measured
in bags of sugar, jam jars,

enough feathers for sixty pillows,
or a flock of dead birds

but some days it’s more
than the house, the span

of Blair Athol Road.

Here, Helen takes on the heavy topic of body image and individual and societal expectations and skilfully uses the list form to subvert the measurements by which we calculate our relationship to the bathroom scales. Measuring herself through pets, household objects, childhood homes, streets, and strange, uncanny images, Mort converts lbs into lived experiences and in doing so creates an effective litany of the self.

Just as ‘Scale’ uses the list form to explore both physical and metaphorical weight, today’s poetry challenge is all about making a list of shot puts and other heavy items.

Using the title: ‘The heaviest thing I’ve ever carried’, make a list of all the weightiest things you can think of…including shot puts. Why not start realistic/small and grow more and more outlandish, so that by the end of the poem you’re taking over from Atlas. Or, why not move between the concrete/object and the metaphorical, so that your poem becomes a list not only of bulky Ikea cabinets and boxes of books, but also the burdens and expectations that you might want to pick up and hurl away in the style of Florence Birchenough.

Let me know how you get on.

Follow the links to find out more about the Writing Between the Lines project, the sporting records and resources available to explore at the University of Westminster, and how poetry can help to celebrate the legacy of the Poly athletes. for the Regent Street Polytechnic Athletics Team