It’s a muggy, grey day in London town and life has somehow returned to normal. Having worked full-on for 4 weeks on the Word Sound & Power: Reggae Changed My Life exhibition - including a week in the O2 – the Olympic Games definitely provided an adrenaline filled after-party.
The O2 was host to an array of Olympic activities including the ever popular gymnastics. That led us to partake of numerous tube rides with carriages full of vibed up volunteers and spectators, and undergo the venue’s airport style security manned by a sensible squad Royal Marine Commandos. By the time our installation at the British Music Experience officially opened I was stoked and ready to settle into an Olympic groove that promised some serious action.
Basically, during the final week I took in just about everything. How could anybody resist the athletics… long distances, short distance, relays, hurdles…. mind blowing stuff… Usain Bolt & the Jamaican posse, the American women’s relay team… Mo Farah, David Rudisha and Jessica Ennis? The velodrome was intense and the carnage on the BMX track shocking. I got sucked into the boxing, taekwando, diving… even the dancing horses. I was clear that Olympic athletes don’t need drugs, sport is their drug, and what we got on or TV screens was the culmination of hours, weeks, months, years of devotion, hard work and sacrifice . No pain no gain combined with the thrill and energy of the moment.
However, two events threw me back in time. Firstly, I was blown away by Danny Boyle’s vision for the opening. It was a wild ride and his version of this island’s history definitely resonated with my own experiences of being British. Boyle and I grew up in the same northern mill town. A town where England’s green and pleasant land gave way to dark satanic mills. And those chimneys! How did he do that? I was impressed.
The second event was a BBC report on women in the Olympics which suddenly conjured up the vague childhood memory of a neighbour who’d been in the Olympics. Radcliffe is a working class town and it’s had its fair share of sportsmen. My old man was an FA coach. It’s cricket Club featured West Indian legends Sir Frank Worrell and Garfield Sobers. Paul Gascoigne played for the local Borough football club. On the snooker table it gave us John Spencer. So who was this Olympian? As kids we knew her as Nellie. She was well respected but Nellie Halstead was a bit different. She was quite manly and I recall she was a welder. She had a rep as a famous runner and that was it. Basically, I knew nothing about Nellie so I googled her.
Turns out that in her day Nellie Halstead was known as “Britain’s greatest woman athlete”. Born in Radcliffe in 1910 , the teenage Nellie joined the Bury and Radcliffe Athletic Club. At the age of twenty, she competed at the English Championships and broke the world record for the 220 yards sprint. She then went on to break the world record for the 440 yards race in 56.08 seconds – a record which stood for 22 years.
True to the legend, in 1932, she joined Team GB and set off for Los Angeles to compete in the Olympic Games where she won a bronze medal in the 4×100 relay. In 1934, at the Empire Games, she represented England and won gold in the then 3×110/220 yards, silver in the 4×110/220yds and a bronze in the 220 yds. Nellie also raced in Berlin (Jesse Owens blitzed Hitler’s Arian race in Berlin 1936 – wonder if she was there? ) , Prague, and San Francisco.
In line with another highlight of the 2012 Olympics – the women’s football - it transpires that as Nellie’s running career came to an end an end, she signed up for for the Dick Kerr Ladies Football Team as their centre -forward. It was the popularity of this women’s football team that prompted the FA to ban them from playing on registered pitches! In later life she became an excellent golfer.
A working class woman, Nellie Halstead, did what most people only dreamed of. She began her working life as a weaver but when her running career took over she was given part time work in a local brewery. During the war years she became a highly skilled welder, a trade she maintained until retirement (which meant working on the egg stall at Radcliffe Market). Nellie came from an era of radio and newspapers – pre-Television - and not surprisingly vanished into obscurity and despite today’s huge media attention maybe that what happens to the majority of Olympians. They take home Gold, Silver and Bronze and slip quietly into history.
Uncovering Nellie Halstead’s pioneering role was touching. As kids one of our heroes was Alf Tupper, a tough working class runner who took on and beat the toffs, week in week out, in The Victor comic. Little did we know that the real life women’s version lived a couple of doors away. We’ve come a long way in terms of women’s participation in athletics and respect is most definitely due to women like her. I’d like to know more. However, right now as our Olympic heroine Nellie only merits a one line mention on Radcliffe’s pretty comprehensive Wikipedia page I need to see that’s boosted up!
Don’t you just love people’s history. It’s the best!