“On Monday, March 21st, a team of 21 girls, drawn from the Regent Street and Woolwich Polytechnics, left Victoria Station, under the leadership of Miss J. H. Andrew, to represent England in the Women’s Olympiad at Monte Carlo, but although they were undoubtedly determined to do their utmost to perform in a manner worthy of our race and traditions, they could hardly in their most sanguine moments have hoped to gain eight first places and one second, out of the ten events in which they competed, this being a record which should stand for many years.” Polytechnic Magazine, April 1921

The 1er Meeting International d’Education Physique Féminine de Sports Athlétiques was organised by Alice Milliat after the International Olympics Committee refused to allow women to participate in athletics in the 1924 Olympic Games. It was the first in a series of events – described variously as the Women’s Olympiad Games and the Women’s World Games – that ran until 1934.

At the 1921 games 100 female contestants from England, France, Italy and Switzerland and Norway competed in track and field events, including 10 athletes from the Regent Street Polytechnic (forerunner to the University of Westminster).  This was the first international women’s sport event.

Prior to the Second World War, the Polytechnic was primarily an evening Institute. Its members would come from their day jobs to study, socialise and play sport after work and on weekends. The women in the 1921 team were teachers, dressmakers, typists and Lyon’s Corner House waitresses. Having arrived in Monte Carlo on Tuesday 22 March 1921, the competition began on Friday 25 March and concluded the following Wednesday with the prize-giving ceremonies. On the Thursday they were taken for a motor trip and lunch at the Hotel Royal, before a long journey home, arriving back on 3 April 1921. The success of this short event led to the founding of the Fédération Sportive Féminine Internationale (FSFI) and, in the UK, to the creation of the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association (WAAA) and the London Olympiades women’s athletics club.

Black & white photograph of a woman wearing a 1920s gym dress with block stockings and heeled shoes
Mary Lines (RSP/7/c/151)

While much has been written about Alice Milliat, there seems to have been little research into the athletes who took part. Mary Lines of the Polytechnic achieved three 1st prizes and one 2nd  at the 1921 Games and is described in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as “[t]he first star of British women’s athletics between the wars”. Florence Ethel Birchenough would later become the WAAA title-holder for discus 1924–8 and captain of the British team at the 1926 Women’s World Games. The Polytechnic Magazine identifies others in the team as “Misses… K. Jackson, …. Daniels, Newman, Becket, Fuller, Cast, Russell and Legel”.

Finding more information about the athletes within our archive has proved difficult. The reports in the Polytechnic Magazine of women’s sporting events at this time tend to identify the athletes as ‘Miss…’, with no first name given. The Regent Street Polytechnic had a large membership so the records often include several women with the same surname, including siblings who are similar in age. This makes it difficult to say definitively which of those women competed. 

While  women taking part in sports was controversial in the 1920s, it has long been an accepted idea at the Polytechnic. The first gymnastic classes for women were organised in autumn 1888, and their activities quickly expanded. Hockey and netball both proved popular, with the women winning a ‘Ladies v Men’ intra-Poly match in 1919. Photographs from this period are sadly few and far between, but we are fortunate to hold a large group of photographs of  women athletes in the 1930s.   We also have a small number of other documents relating to women who competed at the 1921 games.

Dymanic black and white photograph showing women starting a running race in the 1930s
Women athletes in the 1930s (RSP/7/c/49)

The most significant collection of material relating to the 1921 Olympiad is held at the University of Greenwich Archive and includes newspaper cuttings and photographs of the athletes. British Pathe also hold a rare film from the event (incorrectly described as taking place in Paris). From this footage we get a sense of the differences with today’s sporting events, such as the audience and the clothes that the athletes wore to compete in.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the historic 1921 Women’s Olympiad, we are proud to preserve a small part of this heritage in our archive. We would love to hear from any other institutions or individuals who hold archival materials relating to this event, so that we can learn more about our pioneering athletes.

Here at the University of Westminster we will be celebrating our athletes through a creative writing project and a new lightbox in the 309 Regent Street foyer.

March 2021

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