Diane Leather

First woman to run the mile in un­der five min­utes

The Scotsman - - Obituaries - JACK DAVID­SON

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.

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