Track Stats - Alice Woods

The factory girl who was one of the first British women sprinters of renown

Alice Woods was a pioneering British sprinter of the early 1920s and a member of a leading women’s football team. Profiled by Bob Phillips. Published in “Track Stats” March 2009

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 context 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. The odd name came about because “Dick, Kerr's” was an engineering company in the Lancashire town of St Helens which was later absorbed into English Electric, and during the latter years of the First World War the owners set up a football team from among its female workers to play charity matches, which then continued in peacetime. 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 14,000 would-be spectators were apparently locked out!

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, 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 sprint races at local sports meetings before war broke out in 1914 and then went to work at the Dick, Kerr's factory, which had been converted to munitions production. 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, who herself was brought up in St Helens, 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.

As it happens, at the following year's Salford Harriers Sports in Manchester on 24 May, Burton beat Woods 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 an inaugural 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 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 there was a France-v-Great Britain match in that year, in which Agnes Garton was one of the British representatives, and then an enterprising “Women's World Games” in 1922, both staged in Paris. As Alice Woods was by now playing as many as three football matches a week, and had already travelled to France with the Dick, Kerr's team, it may not be surprising that her athletics activity seems to have fallen away. Barbara Jacobs strikes an provocative 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”. However, John Brant points out the following: “The 1922 Games selection is not a mystery. Whilst I do think the Women’s AAA in London did not go out of their way to particularly support Northern athletics they did select Alice Garton for the 1921 Paris match on her Manchester performances. Quite simply, Woods was not as good a sprinter as Barbara Jacobs believed, and Woods’s claim that she was never beaten by Burton is untrue. I doubt that she would have made the team for the 1922 Games as Mary Lines and Nora Callebout were the British sprinters, and they were rather good!”

It is said that Elaine Burton ran 12.0 for 100 yards which would have equalled the World record, but John Brant has found a number of newspaper reports about Burton chasing this time during 1920 and recording 12 1/5 on a few occasions. According to Eric Cowe, in his 1999 publication, “Early Women’s Athletics: Statistics and History Volume One”, a Miss F.M. White, who was an employee of the Darracq aircraft and motor-car manufacturing company in Surrey, was reputed to have twice achieved 100 yards times of 11 4/5 during the First World War. On 15 May 1920 Phyllis Scarlett ran 12.0 at the University of Birmingham championships at Bournbrook and this was equalled by Mary Lines at a Polytechnic Harriers’ meeting on 16 July 1921. Then at the France-v-England match referred to above, which was held at Stade Pershing, in Paris, on 30 October 1921, Lines won the 100 yards (not 100 metres) in 11 4/5 by two feet from a French opponent, Cécile Maugars, with Alice Garton 3rd. In the heats of the 1922 Women’s World Games both Lines and Callebout had times to their credit of 11 3/5.

This was a level of performance which was very much better than that of Alice Woods, and in any case during 1922 she would surely have been preoccupied with a prolonged and somewhat chaotic tour of Canada and the USA by the Dick, Kerr's football team. As the players were paid for their appearances it may be that she was either declared ineligible by officialdom for further amateur athletics competition, or of her own volition she did not test the system, because she does not seem to have competed on a track again. 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 for which the opportunity had been 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 Games in Los Angeles.

Alice Woods was clearly not in the very front rank of British women sprinters of more than 80 years ago, but thanks to the industrious research of Barbara Jacobs – though it was her subject’s footballing skills which were of more relevance to her book – we now know more about the background of this pioneering athlete than we could have ever otherwise have hoped for.

“Now, girls, that’s quite enough sentimentality for one day, thank you”

There was apparently no shortage of athletics competition for women in the North of England during the early 1920s, as the Liverpool newspapers, for example, carry numerous reports of local sports meetings at which races of a more or less formal nature for women were held. Support for such activities came from the Association of Headmistresses, no less, even if the reasoning now seems quaintly naïve. When they held their annual conference in Manchester in June of 1921 a Miss Hovey, from Colwyn Bay, enthusiastically told the assembly of her confident belief in “the value of games for girls as an antidote to sentimentality and undue thinking upon embryonic love affairs”.

The month previously in Manchester a surprisingly strenuous event had been held for women in the form of a 15-mile race walk described as the “girls’ first annual walking championship”. It was won by 15-year-old Lillian Salkeld in a respectable time of 2hr 58min 15sec, with the even younger Barbara Halliday, aged 14, not far behind in 2nd place in 3:02:28. Both of these girls came from the Manchester district of Moss Side.