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Girl Athletes in Action
F[rederick] A[nnesley] M[ichael] Webster."Girl Athletes in Action", 1934.
F.A.M. Webster is one of the most important names in the history of athletics in the 20th century in Britain. His significance does not lie merely in the fact that he wrote more than thirty books on athletics, the Olympic Games, and related topics, nor in the Amateur Field Events Association, and the Loughborough Summer School, both of which he created, nor because he wrote about, taught, and generally championed the field-events in Britain at a time when others didn’t, but because he is an enduring example of how one person, by the power of their own enthusiasm, energy, commitment and persistence, and in the face of the indifference and even hostility of 'official' bodies, can inform, motivate and inspire others, and so leave behind a legacy that lasts long after their own day.
The place of Webster’s “Girl Athletes in Action” in the history of Athletics literature:
This is a twin to Webster’s Athletes in Action (1931); he uses the same format, and the two volumes were published with the same pocket-book page size, and with the same coloured cover and printing. The two look identical when placed side by side, except for the addition of the word Girl. This is the second time that Webster had repeated a winning formula and applied it to women; he published Athletics of To-Day in 1929, and followed it up in 1930 with Athletics of To-Day for Women.
Girl Athletes in Action is intended to meet the needs of those who did not have a coach. In those cases, he wrote -
two girls should train as partners. While one is working, the other, with book in hand,
can watch and correct her companion’s faults, and vice versa. . .
Because of their similarity, the positive comments about Athletes in Action, in the Athlos collection, also apply here.
Webster dedicates Girl Athletes in Action to his daughters, Joan and Peggy, hoping that they would always enjoy their athletic careers. There is a picture of them hurdling in the Athlos biography of F.A.M. Webster. At the time of writing, however, Peggy was only 16. Joan, however, was 18, and Webster uses photographs of her to illustrate aspects of Discus technique (pp. 156, 158, 164,166, and 170); he also relates how he started her on her throwing career with a tiny discus at the age of five. She entered her first shot and discus competitions at the age of eight, and competed for Bedford County at the age of 15; and at 16 represented the South of England against the North and Midlands. She was 3rd in the 1933 Women’s AAA Championship Discus Throw, at the age of 17.
As with Athletes in Action this book’s strengths lie in its pictures. There are 73 full page photographs, with 49 of them repeated to show them in sequence. In addition, there are 8 rapid-sequence shots of the Western Roll, Eastern Cut-Off, and Discus Throw, and 12 rapid-sequence shots of the Shot Put and Javelin Throw. In most cases, a full-page photograph fills a page, faced by a page of text that explains it.
Webster’s purpose here is to provide images and information to help the athletes improve their performance, perfect their technique, and aim for the top. He covers the sprints (starting, and the technique of sprinting, but, strangely, does not mention the 200m or running on a turn), 400m, 800m, Relay Racing, Hurdling, Walking, High Jump (Western Roll, Eastern Cut-Off), Long Jump, Throwing the Discus, Putting the Shot, and Throwing the Javelin. In all his writing, Webster pays women athletes the compliment of considering them as athletes alone, and makes no concession to them being women. That, of course, was not always the case in 1934. For example, he treats the Shot Put as seriously as any other event though it would not be included in the programme of the Olympic Games until 1948. He also comments that Ruth Christmas showed no sign of fatigue or loss of form when finishing the WAAA 800m - a significant comment at a time when the 800m had been removed from the list of women’s Olympic events after 1928 and the apparent distress of the runners at the finish. Webster even went further, and used a photograph of Lina Radke-Batschauer and Kinuye Hitomi from this very race (1928 Olympic Games, Women’s 800m) to illustrate good technique (knee-pick-up).
We need to understand Webster’s use of the word “girl” here; he does not mean children. He means women. For example, he refers to the “eighteen girls” who represented England in the First Women’s International Athletic Meeting in Monte Carlo in 1921 but, although a few were in their teens, others were in their 20s, and one was 34. He meant nothing disparaging in referring to them as “girls”, and readily acknowledged that they had been much more successful than the men in international competition for more than a decade, and “I should say”, he wrote, “that the general standard of running and hurdling [for “girls”] is still higher in Great Britain than in any other country.” (p. 7). He could not say the same about the Field Events though.
Although books on women’s athletics were few and far between at this time, this was not the only one to appear in 1934. A.M.A. Williams’ Improve your Athletics: A Book for Modern Girls (London: London University Press, 1934) not only appeared in the same year, they both appeared at the beginning of August and Williams’ book was much more widely reviewed than Webster’s. London University Press was clearly much more active than John F. Shaw & Co., at alerting the press and providing review copies. Williams’ Improve your Athletics was directed at “young women and girls”, but primarily at girls still at school, and so its focus is quite different from Webster’s. The schools clearly needed some advice and information on the technical side of athletics - at a County School Championship meeting in 1933 there were 50 false starts in the first 76 heats!
The title page of Improve your Athletics, tells us that the author, A.M.A. Williams, had earned a Diploma from Bedford Physical Education College, and was a Lecturer and Games Coach at The Bergman-Österberg Physical Training College (in Dartford); and so held the highest qualification available in her field in Britain, and was on the staff of one of the leading educational institutions; little wonder that her book is directed at school girls, and stresses the educational values of athletics. It additionally tells us that she was formerly Coach to the Polytechnic Ladies’ Athletic Club, but what it doesn’t tell us is that she was the Anne Williams who had won the first WAAA Cross-Country Championship at Luton, in 1927, in “terrible weather” (it poured incessantly and the course was a sea of mud) and with a field of 108 runners. She was also runner-up in the 1927 WAAA Championships 880yds, behind Edith Trickey who won it for the fifth consecutive time. Anne Williams was, therefore, one of the leading middle and long-distance runners of her day.
There is a link between these two books; because F.A.M. Webster knew Anne Williams, and because she knew the leading British women athletes personally, he approached her in the hope that she could gather together some of the best women athletes so that he could arrange for them to be photographed for his forthcoming book.
She agreed, and got together some of the best women athletes in Britain, at Paddington Recreation Ground. They were, Daisy Ridgeley (sprinter and 400m runner), Ruth Christmas (800m runner), Violet Branch (400m runner), Violet Webb (sprinter and hurdler), Marjorie Okell (High Jumper), and Joan Webster (Discus Throw); and F.A.M. Webster sent “Mr. Fletcher” to take the photographs. Sadly for Violet Branch and Marjorie Okell, none of their photographs made it into Webster’s book. Paddington Recreation Ground, by the way, was a special place for women athletes at the time, for it was the place where the British women’s team trained in 1921 before their triumphant appearance in the first Women’s Olympics, held in Monte Carlo in March. There were ten events, and they won five, were second in four, and third in two.
Although Williams’ book is more restricted than Webster’s (it includes no throwing events, and no running Long Jump - only the Standing Long Jump), it does include an appendix giving “average standard” performances for girls aged 12, 13, 14 and 15, for various sprint and hurdle distances, High Jump and various relays, plus records for Under-14 girls in a club, a school, a county, inter-schools contests, and for All-England Schools, as at 1934, for which I know of no other source. I wonder what the 2017 equivalents would be.
Reading the two books together throws light (admittedly, only a dim light) on what was one of the great athletic issue of the day - how far should women run? When the International Olympic Committee decided to drop the 800m from the women’s programme after 1928, it would not return for another 36 years, and in the interim women could not run further than 200m in Olympic competition. The decision proved very controversial; in Britain, for example, the WAAA continued to hold championships over 440yds, 880yds and Cross-Country, and Belgium and France held the first unofficial international Cross-Country event for women in Brussels in 1930. By 1934 Violet Percy was organising unofficial 3-Miles events for women in London. Where were the young women of Britain to turn to for advice on this? Webster is less than clear. When giving advice on running the 800m, he writes that “stamina is a primary requisite” and advises “cross-country running during the winter” but goes on to write that it “is unnecessary to train at the racing distance [800m], and a mistake to work beyond it.” Anne Williams is unclear too. “No schoolgirls should be allowed to take part in long-distance or cross-country races, but cross-country runs can be taken with care and strict supervision as a normal activity,” . . . and this from a woman long-distance runner and cross-country champion!
It seems that women in the 1930s were not denied long-distance races by over-protective or authoritarian men alone; women could think very similarly, even women who were endurance runners themselves. Both writers (Webster and Williams) seem to be hedging their bets - they seem to be saying that running a longish distance was not in itself undesirable for women and girls, but racing it certainly was! The debate was to rumble on for generations to come.
We learn from the credits under Webster’s name on the title page of Girl Athletes in Action that he had been Honorary Field-Events Coach to the Canadian Women’s A.A.A. in 1925; this must have been one of Webster’s first “appointments”. The occasion would have been the match between Great Britain, Canada and Czechoslovakia in London on 1st August 1925; the Canadian Field Events athletes gained four 3rd places, three 4th places, one 5th, and three 6ths.
Girl Athletes in Action cost 5/- (five shillings) when it was published in 1934; equivalent in purchasing power to £16.29 in 2016. Anne Williams’ Improve your Athletics: A Book for Modern Girls cost 3/6 (three shillings and six pence - equivalent to £11.40). At almost the same time Webster also published The Games Masters’ Handbook, also published in London by John Shaw & Co., Ltd., and also retailing for 5/-.
One additional, but very minor, but curious, point about Girl Athletes in Action, is that Webster wrote in it that he was reproducing Gottfried Hofer’s sculpture, “Discuswerferin” by “kind permission”; but it does not appear.
The book's owner:
This book is posted on the Athlos site courtesy of Stuart Mazdon, but its original owner was Ruth Christmas. She signed her name - Ruth Christmas-Paysant - on the otherwise blank fly-sheet inside the front cover, and then again wrote - Christmas - across the mddle of the title page.
Ruth Christmas was one of Britain's leading 800m and Cross-Country runners, who we can see in action on pages 54, 56, 60, 62, 64, and in a composite photograph on page 66. The image on page 64 shows her winning the Women's AAA 800m title in 1933 at the White City. She was also runner-up in the National Cross-Country Championships on three occasions, and third on another. Ruth Christmas came from Cambridge and competed for London Olympiades, often alongside her sister Esther, who was also a runner of distinction. Ruth Christmas married in 1935 and became Ruth Christmas-Paysant, though she continued competing under her maiden name for a while. In 1936, however, she moved with her husband to France where she continued to compete until war broke out; and then she drove ambulances in France as part of her contribution to the war effort. In mid-July 1940, just after the Battle of Britain had begun, she returned safely to Britain with her husband, an event that was widely covered in the newspapers; but her running career was over.
She died in 2001 at the age of 96.
Girl Athletes in Action
John F. Shaw & Co., Ltd.
Place of Publication:
Date of Publication:
General Reference Collection D-07912.e.136.
"An Athletics Compendium" Reference:
L377, p. 187