Obituary: Vera Searle

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AFTER A lifetime's involvement in athletics, initially as a world class sprinter but latterly, and more significantly, as an administrator and leading figure in the promotion of women's athletics in Great Britain from the 1920s onwards, Vera Searle has left behind her a legion of devoted followers and admirers.

Born Vera Palmer in Leytonstone, east London, in 1901, she grew up in a sporting environment thanks to her father's job as assistant secretary of Chelsea Football Club. All her life she was almost as passionate about cricket, rugby union and football as she was about her own sport and was a regular visitor to Twickenham in her later years. A witty after-dinner speaker until well into her eighties, never using notes, she was treated very much as an equal by men in an era when women's involvement in any sport other than croquet was still frowned upon.

Although it was not a championship distance, her first achievement of note as an athlete herself came in 1923 when she set a world 250-metres record of 35.4 seconds competing for England against France in Paris. In the following year, with women still excluded from the Olympic Games, she became a founder member of the Middlesex Ladies Athletics Club and broke the world 440 yards record, a feat she repeated a year later.

In 1926 she sailed to Sweden to compete in the Women's World Games in Gothenburg, after which she retired and married Wilfred Searle, a vice-president of Middlesex Ladies. But when, two years later, women were belatedly invited to attend the Amsterdam Olympics, Vera Searle was prominent in discussions which led to a women's boycott of the Games, protesting that the five events open to them were not enough.

The Amateur Athletic Association in England was no more broad-minded than their international counterparts at the time, and when Searle approached them to request that ladies be granted membership she was told to go away and form her own association. This she did, becoming the inaugural secretary of the WAAA, later helping to found Spartan Ladies which, along with the London Olympiades, was the leading women's club in England in the late 1940s. Nowadays, of course, almost all athletics clubs are mixed.

In 1950 she helped to found the National Women's Cross Country Association and more recently, in the early 1970s, she pioneered the Women's Veterans movement which eventually led to their full involvement in the World Veterans Championship. But in all of her work on behalf of women athletes, there was something of a paradox in that Searle was very much a traditionalist by nature who would have been horrified, for example, by the thought of women being allowed membership of the MCC. Her idea would have been to establish a women's MCC.

Very forthright in her views, she was a great believer in "one-nation" sport, attempting as she did to break down barriers that existed between the North, the Midlands and the South, having lived in Yorkshire during the Second World War. After her husband died in the mid-1950s, leaving Vera and their two daughters behind, she remained committed to the cause of women's athletics and held the chair of the WAAA from 1973 to 1981.

One of her chief regrets in later years was that she never found time to become a coach, but she worked tirelessly as a track official, setting an example for younger men and women to follow. On other occasions, at meetings at the old White City Stadium in London, she would take her place high up in the announcer's box and, accompanied by her newspaper, her cheroot cigars and the bottle of Guinness she drank virtually every day of her life, would remain there all day.

She lived the last years of her life in Brenchley, in Kent, and was a member of the Tonbridge Athletics Club. Mentally alert until the last, she remained physically fit and active until her nineties when eventually she was obliged to leave her own home. Even then, in her retirement home, she always made sure the television was tuned to Grandstand for the rugby on a Saturday afternoon and never failed to be amused at the "physical jerks" that she and the other residents were subjected to by the visiting physiotherapist. Vera Searle, inevitably, would show them how it should be done.

Vera Maud Palmer, athlete and athletics administrator: born London 25 August 1901; OBE 1979; married 1926 Wilfred Searle (died 1956; two daughters); died Tunbridge Wells, Kent 12 September 1998.

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