Obituary: Violet Webb

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The Independent Culture
"YOU'D HAVE thought God was coming down from heaven," said Violet Webb, recalling the entrance of Adolf Hitler into the Olympic Stadium in Berlin in 1936.

For Webb the Games of that summer marked the end of her career as an international athlete, which had begun by helping Britain win its first Olympic medal in women's athletics. At the time of her death, she was the oldest surviving female international in Britain.

She was born, in 1915, and brought up in Willesden, in north-west London, the middle child of seven and the only non-musical one. Her father, Charles Webb, was himself an athlete and he took to travelling twice a week with his daughter, by then working as a shop assistant, on an open-top bus across London to the Paddington Athletics Ground, home of the Polytechnic Harriers.

It was not the wealthiest of clubs, and an absence of hurdles prompted Charles Webb to make a full flight of them himself, so that Violet could practise what was to become her specialist event. The hurdles were made of solid wood, and were not the kind to fall over when hit. One broken arm, as a direct consequence, was enough to persuade Violet it was worth making sure she cleared them.

She joined the Ladies Polytechnic Club in Regent Street, where she developed promisingly. In her first international, aged 16, against Germany in Hanover in 1931, she won the 80 metres hurdles, equalling the world record of 12.0sec, and was a member of the successful 4x100m relay team.

Nineteen thirty-two was Olympic year. Four years earlier in Amsterdam, although women had been allowed to take part in athletics for the first time, Britain's women had been among those who boycotted the Games owing to the limited number of events open to them. Not much had changed by the time the Games reached Los Angeles, but this time Britain did send a team and Simpson was one of only five women members. "People thought it was terrible that we should want to compete, but that was just stupid," she said. "Athletics was my life, so I just did it."

The journey to California was by ship, and among her fellow passengers was the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, and his cabinet, while the Olympic team was captained by Lord Burghley. When they arrived, they found women athletes had been given exclusive use of the spacious Chapman Park Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard, although film stars such as Jimmy Durante and Mary Pickford were still frequent visitors. "For a 17-year-old, it was marvellous!"

She reached the final of the 80 metres hurdles, where she finished fifth in 11.9sec - the winner was the American Mildred "Babe" Didrikson. Later on, after Ethel Johnson injured her leg in the heats of the 100 metres, Webb was called in to run the second leg of the sprint relay.

Running with Eileen Hiscock, Gwendoline Porter and Nellie Halstead, she helped put British women's athletics on the Olympic map by taking the bronze medal in a time of 47.6sec. "When you see people standing on the rostrum and you see their tears, I can understand that," she said later. "If you're proud of your country, you do feel that way."

Four years later she finished fourth in the semi-final of the 80 metres hurdles, and so missed out on another final, but soon afterwards, at a meeting in Wuppertal, Germany, she again equalled the world record, by then standing at 11.7sec.

She retired from competition after that and the following year married Harry Simpson with whom she had two daughters, Janet and Susan. The former followed in her mother's footsteps by competing in three Olympics from 1964 to 1972 as an 80m hurdler, and also winning a bronze medal in the short relay, in Tokyo in 1964.

After retiring, Violet Simpson remained involved with the women's amateur athletics association (AAA), officiating at home internationals, and after her husband died in 1979 she took up oil-painting and was a member of various theatre groups.

In February last year Vi Simpson met someone she described as her heroine - the former Olympic high hurdles champion Sally Gunnell. They compared Olympic notes and the conversation turned to running shoes. Gunnell's spikes, it seemed, usually lasted for three races. Violet said: "I wore the same spikes for two Olympic games and training in between - although sometimes I trained in my slippers."

Violet Blanche Webb, athlete: born London 3 February 1915; married 1937 Harry Simpson (died 1979; two daughters); died Northwood, Middlesex 27 May 1999.

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