Blog, Women's History

Diane Leather and the sub-five-minute mile by Katie Holmes

In another special women’s history month blog we hear from Katie Holmes about the remarkable Diane Leather, the first woman to run a sub-five-minute mile

Diane Leather made athletics history when, on 29th May 1954, she ran a mile in 4 minutes and 59.6 seconds at the Midlands Women’s Amateur Athletics Association Championships at Birmingham’s Alexander Stadium. Diane Charles (née Leather) died on 5th September 2018, aged 85. Obituaries appeared in British newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post. A common theme was the lack of recognition of her achievement.For over 50 years after her retirement from athletics in 1960, her achievements were rarely remembered except in the pages of the athletics press.

A stark contrast

Twenty-three days before Diane Leather’s sub-five-minute mile, Roger Bannister had become the first man to run a sub-four-minute mile at Oxford University’s Iffley Road track. The breakthrough had been eagerly awaited with much coverage in the press over the preceding months. The race was broadcast live on BBC radio and Bannister’s success made headlines worldwide. Bannister’s achievement have been praised in the highest of terms. His UK Athletics Hall of Fame entry describes it as “arguably the most seminal day in the history of athletics” and Bannister as “the man who believed he could achieve the impossible – and did”[i].Why was Bannister eulogised and Leather almost forgotten? Why aren’t stories like hers told and re-told, becoming the stuff of legend?

Early life

Diane Leather was born in 1933 in Streetly, Staffordshire, one of six children, to James Leather, a surgeon, and his wife, Mabel (nee Barringer). After school – where she enjoyed playing netball and lacrosse – she studied chemistry at Birmingham College of Technology, then working as an analytical chemist at the University of Birmingham.

Watching the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games sparked Leather’s interest in athletics and she joined her local athletics club, Birchfield Harriers. Her potential was soon spotted.

Elite athletics career

Diane Leather’s best performances came between 1953 and 1958. In 1953 she was part of a British relay team which set a world record for the 880 yards (half mile) relay. In 1954,  she set three world records:  quickest mile (May); 880 yards (June), and in September she was part of a world record setting 880 yards relay team.

In 1955, Leather ran faster mile races on two occasions, both world best times. The time she set on 21st September, 4:45:00, stood as the world’s best time for more than seven years.

She won silver in 800 metres in the European Championships in 1954, and again in 1958. Leather won the National Cross Country Championships in four consecutive years from 1953 to 1956, and national titles for the mile in 1956 and 1957 and 880 yards in 1954, 1955 and 1957.

Diane Leather did not have the opportunity to compete in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, because her best distances, the 800m and 1500m, were not included in the women’s programme. The furthest track distance for women at the Olympics was 200m, whereas men competed at every distance from 100m to 10,000m, and the marathon. Her opportunity to compete at the Olympics came too late; towards the end of her elite athletics career. At the 1960 Rome Olympics she did not progress beyond her heat in the 800m. The women’s 1500m was not added to the Olympics programme until 1972.

Contemporary media coverage

In the 1950s, both the local and national press and media gave considerable coverage to athletics. Diane Leather’s athletics career was written about and celebrated at the time. Searches of The British Newspaper Archive show that in the 1950s whilst there were twice as many articles mentioning Roger Bannister as mentioned Diane Leather, there were still over 1,000 articles naming her. She appears in Pathé News clips, including one entitled “Almost the 5 minute mile” which was filmed at a mile race three days before her sub-five breakthrough. But after the 1950s, whilst Bannister’s name continues to appear, Leather’s is hardly mentioned.

Later life

Diane Leather retired from athletics in 1960. She married Peter Charles in 1959 and had the first of their four children in 1961. She later re-trained as a social worker and worked in child protection. In retirement, she volunteered on a fostering committee and for three charities.

After over 50 years of relative obscurity, Diane Charles was inducted into the England Athletics Hall of Fame in 2013. This led to a renewed interest in her story. As the 60th anniversary of the mile breakthroughs approached in 2014, she was interviewed by Athletics Weekly and articles appeared in the UK press. The Vitality Westminster Mile marked the 60th anniversary by awarding trophies named after Leather and Bannister to the winners of the elite races and Charles was there to present her trophy.

Lack of recognition

A major difference between Bannister’s and Leather’s milestone performances is that her mile time was not recognised, and is still not recognised, as a world record. World Athletics ratifies world records in athletics. It didn’t recognise the women’s mile until 1967. Men’s mile times were recognised as world records from 1913. Diane Leather’s sub-five-minute time can only be described as a “world best” whereas Bannister’s sub-four is a world record.

As Leather’s example shows, women had fewer opportunities in athletics than men and were excluded from distance running. At the time it was believed that women did not have the stamina for running, and that in extremis running might even make them infertile.

Leather, in common with many young women at the time, didn’t expect acclaim or glory. As her daughter Lindsey noted, “She wasn’t bitter ever. She just accepted that was the way life was in those days.[ii]

When Diane Leather broke the sub-five-minute mile barrier, unlike Roger Bannister, she had no pacers to help her, she raced, and she led from the front. Leading from the front was what female athletes had to do to break down the barriers of social prejudice and inequality.

Katie Holmes is an independent researcher from Nottingham. Her research interests are the history of women’s endurance running and gathering contemporary experiences of older female runners. She has published a longer article about Diane Leather on her website: www.RunYoung50.co.uk

[i] https://www.uka.org.uk/ba-home-straight/hall-of-fame-athletes/sir-roger-bannister/

[ii] Lindsey Armstrong, interviewed on The Last Word, BBC Radio4, 21st September 2018 https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bkgzvz

Image credit: Wide World Photos.

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