Alice Woods: one of the first British women sprinters of renown

Alice Woods was one of the pioneering spirits of organised British women’s athletics and won one of the very first sprint events to be contested after the end of World War I. Her time of 11.4sec for 80 yards was of no significance, but she was to achieve rather better as a runner in later years – and is most notable in another sport entirely as a member of a precocious ladies’ football team which came to be described as “the factory girls who took on the World”.

An immense amount of biographical detail concerning Miss Woods is contained in a book about the team entitled “The Dick, Kerr’s Ladies”, written by Barbara Jacobs and published in 2004. Dick, Kerr’s was an engineering company in St Helens, which was then in Lancashire, and the business was later absorbed into English Electric. During the latter years of the First World War the Dick, Kerr’s owners set up a football team from among its female workers to play charity matches. So successful was the venture that for one fixture on Boxing Day 1920 there was a capacity crowd of 53,000 at Everton’s Goodison Park ground, and another estimated 14,000 would-be spectators were apparently locked out ! No doubt the very rare prospect of watching women run around in shorts (though not so very short) had something to do with the popularity of the occasion.

The circumstances of Alice Woods’s upbringing hardly suggested a sporting heroine in the making. She was born in 1899 in St Helens, which was at the very centre of the 19th Century industrial revolution and was appallingly polluted by the uncontrolled and noxious outpourings of the numerous chemical plants within its boundaries. She was the seventh child in the family, surviving a still-born twin, of elderly parents as her mother was then 48 years of age. Her father, 49, came from a family of miners and died when Alice was three. Yet her elder brothers, themselves also colliers, inspired in Alice an early sporting interest, marking out on nearby waste ground a football pitch and a 200-yard running track laid with cinders from domestic and industrial fires.

She won numerous local sprint races before war broke out in 1914 and then went to work at the Dick, Kerr’s factory, which had been converted to munitions manufacture. She played her first organised football match in April 1918, and it was in September of that year that she took part in an athletics meeting at Blackpool which Barbara Jacobs cites as “the first women’s race meet to be held under AAA laws”. Alice beat Elaine Burton, from Harrogate, at 80 yards but lost to the same opponent when falling in the 100 yards. The following year Miss Burton was proclaimed by her father in the “All Sports Weekly” publication as “World champion”, which prompted Alice Woods to write back heatedly, pointing out that she had beaten her rival on many occasions, and she audaciously challenged her to a race for a prize of £25 – perhaps equivalent to £5000 in 21st Century values. Liverpool University had played its part in pioneering women’s athletics by including a 100 yards for women students in its sports of May 1918, though no times were apparently taken.

As it happens, at the following year’s Salford Harriers Sports at Weaste, in Manchester on 24 May, Burton beat Woods by 1½ yards in a race advertised as the “North of England 100 yards Women’s Championships”, and the winning time of 13.0sec is recognised by the most eminent of historians concerned with women’s athletics, John Brant and the late Eric Cowe, as a British best performance. At the Salford Harriers’ meeting on 5 June 1920 the women’s 100 yards was again advertised as the “North of England Championships” and was won by Agnes Garton, of Manchester AC, in 12.4 (actually 12 5/16), with Woods 2nd and Burton 3rd in estimated times, according to Eric Cowe, of 12.7 and 12.8. There is a photograph in Barbara Jacobs’s book of the four competitors lined up at the start of this latter race, showing Woods, who was 5ft 6in (1.65m) in height, to be rather taller and sturdier than Burton. Incidentally, Burton was later to lead a distinguished public life as a member of parliament and was elevated to the peerage.

International athletics for women began in 1921, and a meeting was arranged for Monaco on 25 March. An English team was sent, and even though this consisted entirely of London-based members of physical education classes who had never competed before they still won six events ! There was also a France-v-England match in Paris on 30 October that year, in which Agnes Garton was one of the British representatives, and she has the distinction of being the first woman athlete from the North of England to be credited with a World record. Still no more than 17 years old (born in 1904), she ran in the 4 x 110 yards and 4 x 220 yards relays – times of 51 4/5 and 1:53.0. She owed her selection to again having run 100 yards in 12 5/16 in Manchester on 4 June.

As Alice Woods was by now playing as many as three football matches a week, and had herself already travelled to France with the Dick, Kerr’s team, it may not be surprising that her athletics activity seems to have fallen away. Yet Barbara Jacobs strikes an intriguing note when she says that the British team at the 1922 World Games “was mostly made up of the newly-formed London Olympiades”, and Woods was one of those “who might have welcomed the chance to show off their athletics’ skills at international level”. As is pointed out by John Brant, who has published annual ranking-lists for women from 1920 onwards, those responsible for organising British representation at the Games may simply have been largely unaware of achievements by women outside the London area.

In any case, a somewhat chaotic tour of Canada and the USA by the Dick, Kerr’s football team occupied Alice Woods’s attention in 1922, and as the players were paid it seems that she was either declared ineligible for further amateur competition or of her own volition did not test the system. In 1928 – the year in which women’s athletics events were first held at the Olympic Games, but without British representation – she married Herbert Stanley, who was an official of the Dick, Kerr’s team and they had four children. Alice Woods lived a long life, dying in 1991 at the age of 92, and therefore was able to vicariously enjoy an Olympic participation denied to her. A grandchild, Gaynor Stanley, maintained the family sporting tradition by winning international honours as a swimmer and placing 7th in the 400 metres individual medley at the 1984 Olympics.

Footnote: the first known timed track performances by British women date from 12 August 1891 and one of the participants was Liverpool-born. Handicap races at 100 yards and 440 yards were organised as publicity for the Hagler’s Circus troupe which was visiting Dublin, and 2nd place in the 100 yards was taken by Maud Francicso (born in 1870), who was a member of the circus’s quadrille horse-riding team. Among a number of girls’ schools which began to hold annual sports days from the early 1900s onwards were Bridlington School for Girls and Goole Grammar School in Yorkshire, and at Bridlington there was even a 440 yards race from 1905 – 59 years before the 400 metres for women was accepted as an Olympic event !

Bob Phillips

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