Olympics 2012… takes me back…. way back… to discover a working class woman, welder and Olympian

It’s a muggy, grey day in London town and life has somehow returned to normal.  Having worked full-on for 4 weeks on the Word Sound & Power: Reggae Changed My Life exhibition –  including a week in the O2 – the Olympic Games definitely provided an adrenaline filled after-party.

The O2 was host to an array of Olympic activities including the ever popular gymnastics. That led us to partake of numerous tube rides with carriages full of vibed up volunteers and spectators, and undergo the venue’s airport style security manned by a sensible squad Royal Marine Commandos. By the time our installation at the British Music Experience officially opened I was stoked and ready to settle into an Olympic groove that promised some serious action.

Basically, during the final week  I took in just about everything. How could anybody resist the athletics… long distances, short distance, relays, hurdles…. mind blowing stuff… Usain Bolt & the Jamaican posse, the American women’s relay team… Mo Farah,  David Rudisha and Jessica Ennis?  The velodrome was intense and the carnage on the BMX track shocking. I got sucked into the boxing,  taekwando, diving… even the dancing horses. I was clear that Olympic athletes don’t need drugs, sport is their drug, and what we got on or TV screens was the culmination of  hours, weeks, months, years of devotion, hard work and sacrifice . No pain no gain combined with the thrill and energy of the moment.

However, two events threw me back in time. Firstly, I was blown away by Danny Boyle’s vision for the opening. It was a wild ride and his version of this island’s history definitely resonated with my own experiences of being British. Boyle and I grew up in the same northern mill town. A town where England’s green and pleasant land gave way to dark satanic mills. And those chimneys! How did he do that?  I was impressed.

RADCLIFFE – 1902 – CHECK THOSE CHIMNEYS!

The second event was a BBC report on women in the Olympics which  suddenly conjured up the vague childhood memory of a neighbour who’d been in the Olympics. Radcliffe is a working class town and it’s had its fair share of sportsmen. My old man was an FA coach. It’s cricket Club featured West Indian legends Sir Frank Worrell and Garfield Sobers. Paul Gascoigne played for the local Borough football club. On the snooker table it gave us John Spencer. So who was this Olympian? As kids we knew her as Nellie. She was well respected but Nellie Halstead was a bit different. She was quite manly and I recall she was a welder. She had  a rep as a famous runner and that was it. Basically,  I knew nothing about Nellie so I googled her.

Nellie Halstead: Olympic Champion, footballer and master welder.

Turns out that in her day Nellie Halstead  was known as “Britain’s greatest woman athlete”. Born in Radcliffe in 1910 , the teenage Nellie joined the Bury and Radcliffe Athletic Club. At the age of twenty, she competed at the English Championships and broke the world record for the 220 yards sprint. She then went on to break the world record for the 440 yards race in 56.08 seconds – a record which stood for 22 years.

True to the legend, in 1932,  she joined Team GB and set off for  Los Angeles to compete in the Olympic Games where she won a bronze medal in the 4×100 relay. In 1934, at the Empire Games, she represented England and won gold in the then 3×110/220 yards, silver in the 4×110/220yds and a bronze in the 220 yds. Nellie also raced in Berlin (Jesse Owens blitzed Hitler’s Arian race in Berlin 1936 – wonder if she was there? ) , Prague, and San Francisco.

Dick Kerr’s Ladies Football Team

In line with another highlight of the 2012 Olympics – the women’s football –  it transpires that as Nellie’s running career came to an end an end, she signed up for for the Dick Kerr Ladies Football Team as their centre -forward. It was the popularity of this women’s football team that prompted the FA to ban them from playing on registered pitches! In later life she became an excellent golfer.

A working class woman, Nellie Halstead, did what most people only dreamed of. She began her working life as a weaver but when her running career took over she was given part time work in a local brewery. During the war years she became a highly skilled welder, a trade she maintained until retirement (which meant working on the egg  stall at Radcliffe Market). Nellie came from an era of radio and newspapers – pre-Television –  and not surprisingly vanished into obscurity and despite today’s huge media attention maybe that what happens to the majority of Olympians. They take home Gold, Silver and Bronze and slip quietly into history.

Uncovering Nellie Halstead’s pioneering role was touching. As kids one of our heroes was Alf Tupper, a tough working class runner who took on and beat the toffs, week in week out, in The Victor comic. Little did we know that the real life women’s version lived a couple of doors away.  We’ve come a long way in terms of women’s participation in athletics and respect is most definitely due to women like her. I’d like to know more. However, right now as our Olympic heroine Nellie only merits a one line mention on Radcliffe’s pretty comprehensive Wikipedia page I need to see that’s boosted up!

Don’t you just love people’s history.  It’s the best!

About Paul Brad

Freelance journalist / Publisher Editor - Straight No Chaser magazine & From Jazz Funk & Fusion to Acid Jazz: A History Of The UK Jazz dance Scene by Mark 'Snowboy' Cotgrove / Music Fan: Interplanetary Sounds: Ancient to Future / Cultural Event Consultant & Activist / Nei Jia practitioner
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8 Responses to Olympics 2012… takes me back…. way back… to discover a working class woman, welder and Olympian

  1. ann Hodges says:

    My heart filled with pride as i watched the opening ceremony – it was inspired and brave. made me proud to be british. Then the athletics began, mixed in with Jamaica’s 50th celebration and a general air of celebration and euphoria set in throughout Jamaica. Proud to be Jamaican! I wonder how long it will last – so much joy has not been in the air for a very long time.

  2. peter craven says:

    hi i was just reading your story about nelly halstead . and i have a silver medal left to me by my mother whos good friend was nelly halstead it was won in 1930 for 200 metres england v germany. she always said nelly gave her it and as they lived about 4 doors away on holborn ave i find it hard not to believe its not true .i was wondering if you were interested in finding out if this is true fact

    • Paul Brad says:

      Hi Peter.. You’ve probably checked Wikipedia but here’s her Medal record

      Women’s athletics Representing Great Britain

      Women’s World Games
      Bronze medal – third place 1930 Prague 200 metres

      Olympic Games
      Bronze medal – third place 1932 Los Angeles 4×100 metre relay

      Representing England
      British Empire Games
      Gold medal – first place 1934 London 3×110/220 yd
      Silver medal – second place 1934 London 4×110/220 yd
      Bronze medal – third place 1934 London 220

      Been trying to convince some people to a documentary on her.

      Best… Paul Bradshaw

  3. Mark Evans says:

    Hi I am interested in sports history and Bury Athletic Club, I train with them. I have recently been looking through old Bury Times in the Bury archive library and there is an article about Nellie in the Wednesday September 10th 1930 edition about the Women’s World Games but it concludes with ‘After the games the team will go on to Berlin to run against Germany and Japan’. This could be where Nellie won the medal you have. There are a number of articles in the paper about Nellie and Bury A.C. I would be interested in a picture of the medal and any other information you have about Nellie. I could them put something together and maybe get the archive library to put up a display/information board about her achievements.
    Mark Evans.

    • Paul Brad says:

      Hi Mark… I don’t have a medal of Nellie’s…. see Peter Craven’s words in the comments below the piece for more info… I also put more info re. what medals she won and where (there are lots!). As I said in the piece I grew up a few doors down from Nellie in Radcliffe.. She was very Lancashire and solidly working class. Her story is remarkable. She was world record holder and I’m fascinated how a working class girl who bottled beer in a local brewery got into an Olympic team which, I suspect, would have been mostly University educated, middle or upper class… think Chariots Of Fire. Best, Paul B

  4. Mark Evans says:

    Hi Paul Yes many athletes at the time were university educated but there was a lad from Salford, Bill Roberts who won a gold medal at the 1936 Olympic Games in the 4 x 400 relay. Bob Phillips wrote a book about him called Iron in his Soul, well worth a read, a similar story to Nellie’s working during the week and on Saturday mornings. Hopefully one day someone will write a book about Nellie. I am going to continue my research at Bury and see if I can get a display about her in the archive section of Bury Library.

  5. Paul Brad says:

    A touch more info via http://www.sports-reference.com..

    Full name: Nellie Halstead
    Gender: Female
    Born: September 19, 1910 in Radcliffe, Greater Manchester, Great Britain
    Died: November 1991 in Bury, Greater Manchester, Great Britain
    Affiliations: Bury Athletic Club, Bury (GBR)

    Biography

    A weaver at a local cotton mill, Nellie Halstead was a Northern Counties Champion, had broken the 220 yards world record, and won her first Women’s AAA 220 yards title before she was selected for the 1930 Women’s World Games in Prague where she the 200 metres bronze medal behind two of Europe’s outstanding sprinters of the day, [Stanisława Walasiewicz] of Poland and [Tollien Schuurman] of the Netherlands, and all this was before Nellie’s 20th birthday.

    Halstead won an unprecedented WAAA treble of 100 yards, 220 yards and 440 yards in 1931 and in the latter event she set a new world record of 58.2 seconds. She retained her 220 and 440 titles the following year and in retaining her quarter-mile title she broke her own world record by a further two seconds with a record that stood 22 years. For the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, Halstead was chosen only for the sprint relay but was a member of the Great Britain team that won the bronze medal. When she returned home, 10,000 fans lined the streets of her home-town, Radcliffe, to welcome their hero home.

    In 1933 Halstead won the AAA quarter mile, which by then, was then the 400 metre. She won the 200 in 1934 and in 1935 she captured the 800 metres title in what was her first competitive race over the distance. Victory meant she was only the second woman after Mary Lines to win the 100-220-440-880 (800m) at the WAAA. She took her tally of national titles to 11 when she won the 400 in 1937 and 800 in 1938. In addition she won a gold medal in the 440 yards relay at the 1934 British Empire Games in London, a silver in the 660 yards relay and a bronze in the individual 220 yards She was to add two more national titles to her collection – at cross country. Three weeks after taking up the sport in 1935 she easily won the National Cross Country Championship at Morecambe, maintaining that she only entered the race to keep her Radcliffe Harriers team-mates company. Also in 1935, she won the individual race in the first ever international cross country meeting between England and Scotland, and the following year she retained her National title. Halstead was also a fine footballer in the late 1930 and was a centre-forward with the Bolton Ladies team. She was also an excellent golfer, and for many years before her death, was equally as well known in Radcliffe for the cheese stall she ran in the local market as for her running achievements. Her sister Edith was the AAA javelin champion in 1932, and a silver medalist at the 1934 Empire Games. She was later sexually re-assigned and became known as Edwin, or “Eddie”.

  6. Paul Brad says:

    I also found an article/interview in a US paper after she ran in the Olymoics in LA…. interesting…

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