The images in this article from the Crowther Family Archive are copyrighted to Playing Pasts and cannot be reproduced without the express permission of Playing Pasts
Article first published 6th June 2019
The campuses of Crewe+Alsager College of Education, part of ManMet University since 1992, have attracted several Olympians over the years, keen to access the expertise provided by sports science academics. Athletes such as Steve Backley, Paula Radcliffe and Sarah Storey as well as international rugby and football players, swimmers and world-class boxers were and are frequent visitors to the faculty. But I wonder how many students who attended the Alsager Campus back in the 60s and 70s knew that the unassuming and quietly spoken lady who was appointed as Physical Education lecturer in 1963 was in fact Britain’s first female international combined-event medallist and 1948 Olympic high jumper and hurdler. Her well-merited pentathlon success in 1950, very poorly documented in the popular press, is made even more remarkable because it would not be emulated by any British man until Guyanan-born Clive Longe won decathlon silver for Wales at the Commonwealth Games of 1966.
Born in Wembley on 9th December 1921, the youngest child of wholesale butcher Robert Piggott and his wife Daisy, Bertha married Denys Crowther just before the end of World War II in 1944. She grew up in the shadow of the Empire Stadium, home to the 1948 Olympic athletic competitions and as a schoolgirl was determined to be an Olympic athlete, cycling to the local park after school for training sessions, complete with two hurdles strapped to the back of her bike. In 1937, at the age of 15, she competed in the high jump at the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association [WAAA] annual championships, finishing 4th to the previous year’s Olympic silver medallist Dorothy Odam, a rivalry that would continue into the 1950s.
Bertha attended Wembley County School, where in later years she would become the Physical Education mistress, and won many local and county competitions in her favourite events, 80m hurdles and high jump, she was also very proficient with the javelin, an excellent long jumper and played hockey to county level. Bertha was 5 ft 9 in tall and of slim build, not so tall compared to modern high-jumpers perhaps but still able to clear 1.6m using what today would be considered the rather ‘primitive’ scissors kick technique, clearing the bar in a sitting position and later it’s eastern cut-off variation. High jumpers in those days vaulted into sand and injuries were commonplace, landing in wet sand could prove especially painful and Bertha’s family recall the many bruises she sported while in training.
As a member of Middlesex Ladies Athletics Club Bertha would have benefited from rubbing shoulders with Dora Gardner, one of the leading British female high jumper of the time. The club held three training sessions a week at the tracks situated at Parliament Hill Fields and Paddington, so even if the women were regarded as something of a novelty with both the press and the public, they certainly trained seriously and on a regular basis. On the back of hard work Bertha triumphed at the Southern Counties and eventually came to national prominence when she took the WAAA 80m hurdles title in July 1946 as well as coming third in the high jump. At this time Bertha was employed as a Physical Education mistress at Barking Abbey School, where pupil Christine Wheeler, under Bertha’s tutelage, was the English schoolgirl champion high jumper for 3 consecutive years from 1945. In 1947 the WAAA championships, staged at the Polytechnic Stadium in Chiswick, rather than White City, attracted about 150 athletes, a good number of who were considered potential candidates for the following year’s British Olympic team, observers were also present to select a team for a continental tour due to take place that summer. In defending her title Bertha faced foreign competition from Czechoslovakia and Denmark as well as home interest from 18-year-old Maureen Gardner. After setting the fastest time in the heats, 12.3 secs, she finished third in the final behind Maureen who ran a new English record of 11.8 secs. Bertha also came second in the high jump, and, as a result was chosen as one of eight female athletes to represent Britain on the European tour against France, to be held in Paris on September 7th, and against Luxembourg a few days later.
Men’s sport, as perhaps is still the case, received by far the biggest share of the press coverage and these international matches were no different. The British women beat their French counterparts 25 points to 23, with Bertha coming second in the high jump, clearing a respectable 5 ft ½ in. However, apart from Birmingham newspapers, who were ecstatic about the performance of the local girl Winifred Jordan in winning the 100m event, the press generally where far more concerned with the men’s result, a thumping 73-56 loss and the complete failure of the star sprinter, Bailey. The women continued to impress two days later with a win against Luxembourg by 44 points to 26, with Bertha being triumphant in the high jump with a leap of 5 ft 1½ in.
By 1948 Bertha was teaching at her alma mater in Wembley, which at the time of the Games provided accommodation for some 60 competitors and officials from counties such as Bermuda, Jamaica, Malta, Singapore and Trinidad. Medallists Arthur Wint, Duncan White, Rodney Wilkes and Herb McKenley bedding down in classrooms which had been converted into makeshift dormitories with Bertha’s school gymnasium becoming a training base for boxers, weight-lifters and wrestlers. Bertha added another Olympic connection for the school when she was nominated as part of the British Olympic contingent as the team masseuse. However, following another excellent performance in the WAAA and the Southern Championships, she was selected to represent her country in both the 80m hurdles and the high jump, meaning that, ironically, she lost the post as masseuse. The 1948 Olympics were a far cry from those of today, the picture below shows athletes in a pre-Games training session on Clacton beach where they had been housed in post-war austerity splendour at the local Butlins Holiday Camp.
With no funding 26-year-old Bertha travelled from her nearby home in District Road, Wembley, to the stadium on local London transport. At the Games she failed to reach the second round of the 80m hurdles and after reaching the high jump final was placed 6th overall. Bertha later recalled being moved when she realised she had her very own cheer-leading group, formed by girls from her school, who wildly applauded her every attempt. The event was won by Alice Coachman, who was the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal, with Tyler claiming the silver.
1949 turned into a very busy year for Bertha, as something of a local celebrity, she was in demand from many sports clubs and schools for prize-giving duties. For instance, in July, referred to as the Olympic hurdler and high jumper, she distributed the prizes and various trophies at the Harrow Youth 5th annual athletic sports.
Bertha continued with her own athletic career as well as undertaking coaching of female athletes and when, with an eye to the future, the WAAA staged its first multi-event competition for women in the 1949 Championships, she was keen to enter. This Pentathlon event consisted of high and long jumps, 80m hurdles, 200m and the weight, Bertha won the title, thereby becoming the first British national Pentathlon champion and record holder. She also competed in the individual hurdles event, long jump and high jump, placing third in all three competitions. Later in the year she won the Southern Counties senior women’s sprint hurdles title and thus was chosen to represent the WAAA team in a five way contest against Sussex, Dorset, Hampshire and Wiltshire. More acknowledgement of her abilities were demonstrated when she was one of the first of a select group of female athletes to be invited to represent England at the 1950 Empire Games, held in Auckland, New Zealand.
Bertha’s career in education was also on the rise, she was now working as an assistant lecturer in physical education department of Birmingham University and had relocated to live in the Harbourne area of the city. Chosen to contest the sprint hurdles, high jump and javelin at the 1950 Empiad, Bertha opted to travel by air rather than with the majority of the team and her husband, who travelled to New Zealand by sea. Bertha was one of only two women athletes among a contingent of 40 who left London for Malaya en route to Auckland, via Darwin, the other being the fencer Mrs Glen-Haigh. Shortly after their arrival in Singapore the team put in some light training, facilities for such having been prepared in advance, however Bertha, along with the marathon runner Holden, was reported as being slightly airsick and did not train.
This minor episode did not seem to greatly affect Bertha who won silver in the high jump behind her teammate, reigning Empire Games Champion and perennial rival Dorothy Tyler, in fact both women cleared 5 ft 3 ins, equalling the Games record, with Bertha losing the gold on count-back. This led to the unusual position of the Games record being shared by three jumpers, Tyler as Dorothy Odam, was the previous title holder, which she won jointly with the South African Majorie Clark. However, things did not go quite so well in the 80m hurdles a few days later, when none of the English women survived the heats, which was described as a ‘dismal display’ by the British press. It might be that both Dorothy Tyler and Bertha had some extenuating circumstances as both women were also competing in the javelin, which was taking place simultaneously with the hurdles, finishing fourth and fifth respectively behind Australian Charlotte McGibbon, who threw a new Games record of 127 ft 5¼ in.
After the Empire Games the WAAA were keen to develop a women’s coaching scheme by providing a panel of female athletic coaches throughput the country. The very first national coaching course was held at Bisham Abbey in April 1950 with Bertha among the honorary instructors taking part. Later that year Bertha successfully defended her WAAA Pentathlon title, easily retaining it over Miss P Gunn by 187 points. In August she represented Britain at the White City stadium in a triangular match between Great Britain, an American team and representatives of the Benelux countries. Taking part in the long jump, high jump and pentathlon, she was second in the long jump, registering 17 ft 4½ in and as a result was selected to compete, as a pentathlete and high jumper, in the Great Britain and Northern Ireland team for the European Games.
Bertha made a rather inauspicious start on her European Games debut, throwing only 28 ft 5 in in the first event, the shot put, scoring 366 points and lying in last place, as opposed to over 40 ft and 1024 points, registered by her Russian opponent, Klavdiya Tochenova, however, the press may have been slightly harsh on Bertha as Klavdiya was a shot put specialist, who set a new world record in 1949 and would claim bronze in the 1952 Olympics. After winning the third event, the high jump, Bertha was lying fourth with 1736 points, just 38 behind the leader. A strong performance in the hurdles saw her moving up one place to third and finally she eased herself into silver medal position with a long jump of 16 ft 10¾ in and a final score of 3048 points. The winner was Arlette Ben Hamo from France who scored 3204 points with the early Russian leader finishing out of medal contention in seventh place. In the individual high jump competition Bertha jumped 5 ft 1 in which was good enough for fifth place. So, Bertha returned from Brussels as Great Britain’s very first female international combined-event medallist.
1951 saw Bertha once again taking part in the WAAA coaching scheme, an initiative that caused interest as far afield as Australia. Furthermore as ‘honorary WAAA coach’ she was entrusted with delivering the inaugural three-part coaching course held in Leamington, which was open to women over 17 who were ‘interested in athletics and concerned with coaching in schools and clubs’. The three sessions included theory and practice in the fundamentals of sprints, relay, long and high jumping and hurdling. Bertha returned to White City in September to defend her WAAA Pentathlon title but failed in her attempt, coming second to Dorothy Tyler, at the time Bertha was recovering from an injury to her knee caused by an accident while on a skiing holiday, even so, her total score was only one point less than the previous year.
The following summer Bertha resigned from her position at Birmingham University and moved with her husband to Calveley, near Nantwich in Cheshire. Although it was reported that she would not be likely to resume a post elsewhere nor to enter many athletic competitions, she did in fact take up a post at Tarporley Grammar School, where she stayed for six years before moving to Alsager Teaching Training College as senior physical educational lecturer in 1963. Whilst in Calveley, Bertha added a new string to her bow and, along with Denys, joined the local amateur dramatic society. Her stage debut, in November 1952 playing the part of Mrs Charles Pentwick in the farce ‘Love’s a Luxury’, was very well received. Obviously bitten by the acting bug Bertha appeared on stage with the group on many an occasion over the next few years.
Sport and athletics were still very much part of Bertha’s life and she became involved with the Crewe and Nantwich Athletic Club, where as a coach she was instrumental in training many an athlete to success. She was also, over the ensuing years, elected President of the Cheshire Women’s AAA, vice-president of the Northern Counties Women’s AAA and sat as a member of the national executive. In 1970 she was one of only three candidates that were awarded the Northern Counties Hockey Association ‘B’ grade qualification, which allowed the umpiring of matches to county championship level. During her 14 years as senior lecturer at Alsager College she helped numerous students and local youngsters to enjoy sport and successfully guided many college teams to glory. However, she enjoyed most of all working at the grass roots of athletics clubs, which was the most important aspect of the sport in Bertha’s mind and one that she was keen to concentrate on in her retirement.
Bertha died on 8th August 2007, just a few short years before the Olympic Games returned to London. In her will she left a £500 legacy to Cheshire Athletics Association and to this day many of the association’s individual clubs award an annual ‘Bertha Crowther Trophy’ to the most outstanding newcomer of the season. In the numerous retrospects of the 1948 Games that were produced to celebrate the 2012 edition Bertha tends to be relegated to the shadows, just a short mention, if that, as an also ran in the high jump to Dorothy Tyler. British female high jumping went through what was effectively a golden era during the late 1940s and early 50s, with Tyler and Shelia Lerwill [nee Alexander] both breaking the world record, which meant that Bertha never won the WAAA title in her favoured event, however, she was still ranked in the British top 10 in 1950/51.
Bertha was a versatile and determined athlete who was devoted to passing on her knowledge to the younger generation and during her time at Alsager Training College very few would have known about her distinguished athletics career. Sadly, the arc-light of publicity that shines brightly on Britain’s successful Pentathlon and Heptathlon history, rarely settles on Bertha. While the likes of Katarina Johnson-Thompson follow in the highly documented footsteps of Jessica Ennis-Hill, Denise Lewis, Mary Peters and Mary Rand, winning international honours and setting new records, Bertha Crowther, the first British national Pentathlon champion, record holder and Britain’s very first female international combined-event medallist is almost lost to sporting memory.
Article © Margaret Roberts
I would like to thank Mr & Mrs A Crowther for their kindness in allowing me access to their family records and John Brant for his generous time in confirming various facts and finally acknowledge information from Track Stats magazine.