Track Stats - Audrey Brown

How Britain was deprived of a European Championships relay medal in 1938

The Birchfield Harriers historian, Wilf Morgan, provided the “Track Stats” issue of November 2006 with a first-hand account by Audrey Brown of her controversial non-selection for the 1938 British Empire Games and of her participation in the European Championships for women later that year which were held in Vienna under the shadow of imminent war with Germany. Miss Brown, whose brother, Godfrey, had won the European 400 metres earlier in the month in Paris and had been a member of Britain’s gold-medal 4 x 400 metres relay team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, was the captain of the British women’s team in Vienna. Dorette Nelson-Neal, whose championing of Miss Brown’s cause is referred to below, was for very many years a Birchfield official. Audrey Brown. who died in 2005 at the age of 92, won an Olympic silver medal in the 4 x 100 metres relay in 1936.


The 1937 Women’s AAA Championships and the 1938 Empire Games

Basically I very rarely fulfilled my potential according to records and results, due not only to some deafness which affected my starts but because I had other health problems which caused difficulty. I was not fully fit on the day of the 1937 WAAA Championships and consequently did not do well enough for automatic selection (for the 1938 Empire Games), except perhaps I should have been selected 3rd for the 220 yards and on my record for the relay, but the WAAA argued that on health grounds I might not cope with the long sea voyage etc.

According to Dorette Nelson-Neal, this was not a fair argument – the real reason being that a London girl called Stokes was their choice (she had not, in fact, my performance record!). Nelson-Neal and others argued the case very strongly, but in truth I was very ambivalent about going away for such a long period just at the beginning of my working life (I left university in the summer of 1936). My brother, Godfrey, did not go to the Empire Games because he was in his final degree year.

The 1938 European Championships for women

Despite a serious political situation it was decided that the British women’s team should go. It was not a pleasant occasion and the political issue reared its ugly head even during these small championships. The 4 x 100 metres relay was a farce. For some reason we were held up for a time and as a result, warming up, Dorothy Saunders did some short runs round the bend because she was unhappy about this. I was, as captain, giving her hints and encouragement.

We ran rather well and came in a creditable 2nd to the German team, with Poland 3rd (some way behind even with the one and only Stella Walsh on the last leg). If I remember rightly, we were even announced as 2nd. Some minutes later I was told we were disqualified because Dorothy Saunders had run out of her lane on the bend, and the Polish team manager had registered a complaint (though not the “take-over” judge) which was immediately upheld without any question.

I was infuriated and frustrated by my lack of German (I only had the equivalent of “O” level) and the poor English of my opposites! In vain I took them to the offending place and pointed out that there were more than one set of marks, so how could the Polish manager tell she had over-stepped her lane in the actual race when he was not there? We were then awarded 6th-place medals as a consolation!

It was all very dubious and unprofessional even for those early days. We had a very strong impression that the incident was a very political one. It was quite clear that everything was being done to be as friendly as possible with the Poles (who were, of course, “attacked” soon afterwards) on all fronts, however small.

The team otherwise performed as well as was expected, if I remember correctly. It was still a German-dominated athletics occasion. In general circumstances none of the team was happy and really at ease in Vienna, which had only recently been taken over by the Germans (traffic was changed from left to right while we were there).

This was my “swansong” in athletics. I took up a post in Rowntree’s in York immediately afterwards and any further serious training was impossible.

Editor’s footnote: Audrey Brown’s absorbing account of the Vienna relay is at odds with the official results which show that behind Germany’s winning 46.8 Poland ran 48.2 and the disqualified GB team 48.3. War between Britain and Germany seemed imminent in 1938 and the circumstances under which the women’s team went to German-occupied Vienna were severely strained. The athletes were told on the eve of their departure that “you go on your own responsibility”. Despite this dire warning, it seemed that all the 13 women selected still made the journey, but research by John Brant, the leading expert on British women’s athletics, has revealed that the versatile thrower, Kathleen Connal, did not, in fact, go because she was Jewish and she made a public protest against Germany’s racial policy. Connal had competed reluctantly at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Oddly, a newspaper photograph was published in 1938 headlined “Girl Athletes For Vienna”, showing three women – and identifying them as the Misses K. Connal, A.K. Brown and D.A. Cosnett – en route to Vienna.

None of the Britons won medals, but it seems clear from Audrey Brown’s account that the relay team was unfairly (and maybe wrongly) disqualified, and one can only wonder why the British team management seemed to play no part in the protest proceedings. There was, in addition, another significant factor which indicates that in historical respective Britain deserve three bronze medals in the 100 metres and 200 metres for Dorothy Saunders and in the long jump for Ethel Raby. The double sprint winner, Stanislawa Walasiewicz, of Poland (referred to under her subsequently adopted US name of “Stella Walsh” by Audrey Brown), was revealed after her death 42 years later to have male characteristics, and had she been retrospectively disqualified Britain would have won the bronze the 100 and the long jump. The 4th-placed athlete in the 200 metres was Ida Ehrl, of Germany, who was then unmasked as a man. In the high jump the two British competitors were promoted by one position soon after the Championships when the German winner, Dora Ratjen, was revealed to be a man and the result was amended.

The names of the British women who went to Vienna under such trying circumstances are well worthy of being recorded in full, as follows:

Betty Lock (Mitcham AC), born 7 May 1921, set her first British record for 60 metres in 1936 at the age of just 15 and added three further records at the distance in 1936 and 1938. She won the 1938 WAAA 100 metres in 12.2 from Dorothy Saunders and Audrey Brown and retained the title the next year, again in 12.2. In Amsterdam on 31 July 1938 she achieved her personal best for 100 metres of 12.1 and beat the then 20-year-old Francina Koen (who was to become World-renowned under her married name of Fanny Blankers-Koen). At that time the British 100 metres record was held at 11.9 by Eileen Hiscock from 1935 and 1936, and this would remain unbeaten for 21 years. Lock was a non-qualifying 4th in her 100 metres semi-final in Vienna in 12.5 and ran the anchor stage in the 4 x 100 metres relay.

Dorothy Saunders (Spartan Ladies’ AC), born 22 January 1915, won the World Student Games 200 metres in Paris in 1937 in 24.8, which was to stand as a British record for 12 years. Placed 2nd to Betty Lock in the 1938 WAAA 100 metres, she won the 200 metres in 25.0 that year and was 3rd in both events in 1939. In Vienna she was 4th in the 100 metres in 12.3, won by Walasiewicz, and 5th in the 200 metres in 25.0 and also ran the third stage in the relay.

Lillian Chalmers (Portsmouth Atalanta AC), born 5 December 1911, set a British 200 metres record of 24.9 in winning the 1937 WAAA title, and was 2nd to Dorothy Saunders in 1938, and won again in 1939. She was 6th in the 200 metres in Vienna in 25.0 (the same time as for 4th and 5th places) and ran the lead-off stage in the relay.

Audrey Brown (Birchfield Harriers), later Court, born 24 May 1913, did not take up athletics until she went to Birmingham University and was 3rd in the WAAA 100 metres in 1936 and 1938 and also 3rd at 200 metres in the latter year. She competed in the 1936 Olympics and was a member of the 4 x 100 metres team which set a British record of 47.5 in the heats (not beaten until 1950) and was 2nd to the USA in the final in 47.6. She was a non-qualifying 4th in her 100 metres semi-final in 12.4 and 3rd in her 200 metres heat in 25.6 in Vienna and ran the second stage of the relay.

Kate Robertson (Spartan Ladies’ AC) is one of the least known of British internationals, with no recorded birthdate, but she was nevertheless 3rd in the 1937 WAAA 80 metres hurdles and won in 1938 and 1939. She was a non-qualifying 3rd in her 80 metres hurdles heat in Vienna in 12.3.

Evelyn Matthews (Essex Ladies’ AC) is another of whom little is known, though she had been 3rd in the 1935 WAAA 80 metres hurdles and 2nd to Kate Robertson in 1938. Matthews was also a non-qualifying 3rd in her Vienna 80 metres hurdles heat in 12.3.

Dorothy Cosnett (Birchfield Harriers), later May, born 2 June 1918, was 3rd in the WAAA high jump in 1935, 1937, 1938 and 1939 and won eight Midlands titles from 1933 and 1940 and again in 1947. She was 4th in the high jump in Vienna at a personal-best 1.58 and 11th in the long jump at 4.97.

Dora Gardner (Middlesex Ladies’ AC), born 6 May 1912, was 2nd to Dorothy Odam (later Tyler) in the WAAA high jump in 1937, 1938 and 1939, and like Odam resumed her career after the disruption of wartime, winning the title in 1945 and 1946. She was one of Tyler’s team-mates at the 1948 Olympics, placing 8th. In Vienna she was 5th at 1.58.

Ethel Raby (Middlesex Ladies’ AC), born 8 October 1914, won the WAAA long jump for five successive years, 1935-39, and again in 1946. She was 4th in the Vienna long jump at 5.44, three centimetres behind the bronze-medallist, and was also 3rd in her 80 metres hurdles heat in 13.2.

Vedder Schenk (Mitcham AC), born 10 August 1920, was 2nd to Ethel Raby in the WAAA long jump in 1936-27-38 and also reappeared after the war, placing 2nd again in 1945 and 3rd in 1947. She was 6th in Vienna at 5.34.

Bevis Reid (Mitcham AC), later Shergold, born 13 June 1919, won the WAAA shot in 1938 (aged 19) and 1939 and then again in 1947-48-49 and 1951. In 1952 she was a close 2nd. She set seven British records from 1938 to 1949 (including 12.10 for 5th place at the 1938 European Championships, where she was also 8th in the discus), holding the record for 18 years. She also won the WAAA discus in 1938, 1939, 1948, 1949 and 1951 and was 2nd in 1952. She held the British discus record from 1937 to 1947 and was also 2nd in the WAAA javelin in 1938 and 1939 and was the winner in 1948 and 3rd in 1949. She was 8th in the shot and 14th in the discus at the 1948 Olympics.

Kathleen Connal (Leeds University), later Stukeley, born 8 June 1912, was WAAA javelin champion in 1936, 1938 and 1939 and was 2nd in 1945. She set two British records in 1936 and 1937 and her best of 120-9¼ (36.81) was unbeaten for 12 years. She was also 2nd in the WAAA discus in 1938 and 1939. She is listed as a non-starter in the Vienna results for the shot, discus and javelin.

Kathleen “Kitty” Tilley (Mitcham AC), later Dyer, born 8 November 1914, placed in successive WAAA shot finals from 1933 to 1947 3rd (aged 19), 1st, 1st, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 1st, 1st, 3rd … and in 1950 she was 2nd again at the age of 35. She set four British records from 1933 to 1936, with a best of 35-2¾ (10.73). In Vienna she was 12th and last in the shot at 10.49 and 10th of the 11 competitors in the discus at 33.18.