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 jump||Frédérique Kussel|
|shared Gold||Madeleine Bracquemond|
|Long jump||Mary Lines|
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!
For the long jump, competitors did, thankfully, have a sandpit to land in!
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.
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.
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!