The Clapham Society Local History Series — 22

A Fast and Mysterious Lady from South London
by Derrick Johnson

This article first appeared in the South London Press on 21 April 2017
(Entitled: ‘Violet ran to show women were the equal of any man’)

Violet Piercy Marathon runner
Violet Piercy

Nowadays we are used to the sight of ladies of every shape and size running along the streets and around the parks and commons of South London, even competing in marathons. This was not always so – indeed running was once considered injurious to women’s health and, later, one of the rules of the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association was that no race should exceed 1000 metres. A lady who challenged this idea was Violet Piercy, the first British female marathon runner.

Violet Stewart Louisa Piercy was born at 15 Clarendon Road, Croydon, on Christmas Eve, 1889, the daughter of a property owner who died before she was born. She attended Old Palace of John Whitgift School and in 1911 was living in Croydon with her widowed mother.

In 1926, probably in response to the acclaim received by an American, Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel, Violet ran from Windsor to London finishing at Battersea Town Hall. Although not along the official marathon course this feat gained her a great deal of publicity. In 1927 she was filmed by Pathe News running in rather unsuitable shoes and if you wish to see her in action go to www.britishpathe.com/video/camera-interviews-the-runner/query/Violet and, more amusingly, www.britishpathe.com/video/mary-had-a-little-lamb-1.

Violet Piercy 1934
Violet Piercy in the South London Press 1934

In the next few years Violet claimed a series of records for road running but as this was new for a woman and she had no competitors she was able to do this with fairly modest performances. She also finished her runs at locations where she would get maximum publicity. In 1933 she completed a third solo run from Windsor past thousands of cheering spectators and finishing on the stage of the Shepherds Bush Empire. Two years later she ran five and a quarter miles from the Whittington Stone in Highgate and up the 311 steps to the top of the Monument in 43 minutes 2 seconds. ‘I did it to prove that a woman’s stamina can be just as remarkable as a man’s’ she told the South London Press (2 April, 1935).

It was not until 13 June 1936, with the connivance of the organisers of the Polytechnic Harriers race from Windsor to Stamford Bridge, and setting off ahead of the male runners, that Violet completed a run over the official distance of 26 miles 385 yards (42.195 km). Her finishing time of 4 hours 30 minutes is extremely modest by today’s standards but her record lasted until 1964. She was also 46 years old and as she said: ‘I only wanted to prove that women could stick the distance’.

Despite her flare for publicity Violet Piercy remains an enigmatic figure in many ways – she certainly never gave her age to the press. There is still uncertainty about her dates of birth and death. She lived at 21 Leathwaite Road, SW11, just off Battersea Rise, between 1930 and 1933 and seems to have resided in South London for much of her life. There is no record of anyone of her name marrying. Perhaps one of our readers may know something about her? If so please let the Clapham Society know Email: history@claphamsociety.com. However, there is no doubt that Violet Piercy set a trend which is still with us today.