First woman to run the mile in under five minutes
Diane Leather, athlete. Born 7January. 1933 in Streetly, Staffordshire. Died: 5 September, 2018 aged 85
Diane Leather, who has died aged 85, was an outstanding British athlete of the 1950s who held world and British records over several distances but will be best remembered for her iconic feat of being the first woman to run the mile in under five minutes.
Away from the sporting arena she made a valuable and highly appreciated contribution in social work and child welfare.
Her record-breaking run occurred on 29 May 1954 at Birmingham’s Alexander Stadium while competing in the Midlands Championships, winning by over 100 yards in 4ms. 59.6 secs., a world ‘best’ time. Having previously skirted the fabled 5 minutes, when informed of her time, she commented, ”Oh good, at last!” Making it more impressive was the fact that only three quarters of an hour earlier she had won the 880 yards in a British record.
The impact of her run was somewhat eclipsed in terms of publicity by Roger Bannister’s having broken the 4 minute mile barrier only 23 days previously. However it can be argued hers was the more meritorious as she competed without the benefit of pacemakers in what was not a designated attempt on the record. She was never resentful of the acclaim he attracted, remarking that “it was normal for the time.”
At the time athletics authorities’ views on womens’ distance running were mixed as some thought it too strenuous. Although domestic championships included distance races, the furthest women could run at the Olympic Games was 200m until 1960 when the 800m was introduced, and the 1500m only in 1972. As a result, some distances merited official ‘world records’ while others only ‘world best’ times. The efforts of Ms Leather and others did much to advance the cause of womens’ distance running.
She enjoyed considerable success over a variety of distances in her career during which she represented Britain 16 times, often captaining the ladies’ team. In 1954 she equalled the world best time for 440 yards and set a world record at 800m while also a member of the British team that twice broke the world record at 3 x 880yds relay. She won the English National Cross Country Championship four years consecutively between 1953-56 and the International Cross Country title three times.
Numerous British records and titles were set and won at 880yds and mile, and in 1954 and ’58 she won silver medal sat 800 min the European championships in Berne and Stockholm respectively.
She improved her world best mile time on several occasions, lowering it to 4min 45 sec in 1955, which stood for over seven years till New Zealander Marise Chamberlain bettered it in December 1962 in Australia.
World best times were also set over 1500msand in 1960 she captained the British womens’ team at the Rome Olympics where she ran in the 800m but by then was past her best.
Essential to her development was joining the leading athletics club Birchfield Harriers in Birmingham in 1952 as a result of having been inspired by footage of the Helsinki Olympic Games. There she came under the influence of inspiring coach Dorette Nelson Neal, one of the first female coaches of note, who encouraged her to do interval training and run cross country. Once her competitive running was over she was an active official for years and remained interested in the sport.
Diane Leather was born in Streetly, Staffordshire, the only daughter of six children of James and Mabel nee Barringer. Her father was a surgeon and she attended Harrogate Ladies’ College, a boarding school where she showed promise at lacrosse and netball. She went on to study chemistry at Birmingham College of Technology, later Aston University, after which she worked as an analytical chemist. In 1959 in Radlett, Herts, she married Peter Charles, an engineer whom she had met at Aston. The couple werehappily married for almost 60 years, during which they had four children, Matthew, Hamish, Lindsey and Rufus.
After Hertforshire and London they acquired a farm at Zelah near Truro, Cornwall.
Diane switched professions, gaining a social work diploma while bringing up her children and fostering others, leading to her joining Herts Child Protection Team and being a long term volunteer for Samaritans in Harrow
After the move to Cornwall she became senior child care social worker and when she retired aged 70 she was manager of the Childrens and Family Court Service.
After retirement she remained active in various child welfare bodies including Cruse, the bereavement charity for which she was a trustee on the National Committee and Vice Chair of the Cornwall branch, Penhaligons a Cornwall charity for bereaved children, the Women’s refuge in Truro and the Mount Edgecumbe Hospice in St Austell.
Although retired, she continued being active on a daily basis with these charities until her death.
A very caring and much loved lady, she was modest about her sporting success and many who knew her for years were unaware of it.
She kept contact with some athletics contemporaries and was particularly pleased to be able to attend the London Olympics with former teammates Mary Rand and Jean Pickering.
She is survived by her children, brothers David, Michael and Jeremy and 13 grandchildren.