In 1900 women were allowed to compete in the modern summer Olympic Games for the very first time. The first woman to win an individual gold medal at the summer Olympic Games was British tennis player Charlotte Cooper Sterry, winner of five Wimbledon titles, on 11 July 1900 in Paris.
And so, in this special blog, we will take a look at the achievements of the likes of Charlotte Cooper Sterry, and the pioneering British women Olympians who followed in her path, using newspapers taken from the British Newspaper Archive.
Did you know? Britain did not compete at the 1904 Olympic Games, which were held in St. Louis, Missouri. Therefore, the next time British women competed at the Olympic Games was in London in 1908.
Charlotte Cooper Sterry – 1900 Gold Medal Winner – Tennis
Remarkably, especially to us as a modern audience, little was recorded in the press about the 1900 Olympics, which took place in Paris. Indeed, the inaugural modern Olympics garnered little press attention four years preceding.
That means, unfortunately, that Charlotte Cooper Sterry’s historic victory, making her the first individual woman Olympic champion, went largely unrecorded in the press of the day. However, we do know that the Wimbledon winner (who had taken the title in 1895, 1896, 1898 and 1901, and would again in 1908) was in good form, playing ‘brilliantly’ (as relates the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News) in the lead up to her Olympic victory.
In 1908 Cooper Sterry, aged 37, became the oldest Wimbledon ladies’ single champion, a record which stands to this day. Remarkably, Charlotte Cooper Sterry had been deaf since the age of 26, and she died in 1966, aged 96.
Queenie Newall – 1908 Gold Medal Winner – Archery
But when the Olympics came to London, Britain and its newspapers had by now caught Olympic fever. It was the first time, after all, that the city had hosted the modern Olympiad.
With the exception of a few bright intervals, rain fell persistently on Saturday in London, and the sixth day of the sports at the Stadium suffered accordingly. Nearly every event was contested under weather difficulties, but the fact that ten finals figured on the programme was sufficient to prove a big draw, and fully fifty thousand enthusiastic spectators faced the miserable conditions, and were rewarded by seeing an overwhelming series of successes on the part of the United Kingdom representatives, who practically swept the board.
One of these ten finals, contested in typically miserable British summer weather, was the women’s archery final. However, the Lakes Chronicle and Reporter appeared to be rather nonplussed by this event, describing how ‘little interest was devoted to archery and fencing only.’ However, ‘it may well be mentioned that the both the finals of the archery were won by Great Britain.’
The Ladies commenced at eleven, but had hardly begun to shoot before they had to fly for shelter, and this was the case during most of the 60 yard shooting (the last three arrows being shot when it was raining hard)…
And if the Lakes Chronicle and Reporter was nonplussed by Queenie Newall’s gold medal, her local newspaper, the Cheltenham Examiner, was effusive in its praise, labelling her on 23 July 1908 as an ‘Archery Championess:’
Miss Queenie Newall, a member of the Cheltenham Archery Club, is to be heartily congratulated in the Toxophilite competition at the Stadium on Saturday last. With the fine score of 688 points, she won the gold medal, beating the silver medallist by 46 points. Included in her 132 hits there were three golds in succession, and altogether Miss Newall established a record which future competitors will find it hard to beat.
Queenie continued to compete in archery competitions into the 1920s, last competing at the Cheltenham Archery Club in 1928, before she passed away aged 74 in 1929.
Lottie Dod – 1908 Silver Medal Winner – Archery
Coming second to Queenie Newall was the multitalented sportswoman Lottie Dod, who remains to this day the youngest Wimbledon ladies’ singles champion, having won the event in 1887 when she was just fifteen, and a further four times after that. A talented golfer, it was in archery that Dod competed in during the 1908 London Olympics.
Field describes Lottie Dod’s performance in the Games, as she and Queenie Newall battled it out for gold:
On the first two dozen at 60 yards Mrs T.N. Wilson scored 19, 105, Miss Dod, 20, 104, Mrs Hill-Lowe, 20, 93, and Mrs Appleyard 19, 95. On the next two dozen there was a considerable improvement, the best scores being Miss Dod 23, 115, Miss Q. Newall 22,114, Mrs Armitage 17, 107…
Dod, however, was unable to add the Olympic gold medal to her other trophies, but this did not stop the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News from offering its congratulations to her:
All golfers will join in congratulations to Miss Lottie Dod on her securing the silver medal for archery at the Olympic Games. Having already been lawn tennis champion many times, as well as golf champion, it only now remains for her to be the Champion Toxophilite.
You can read more about the remarkable sportswoman Lottie Dod here, who alongside tennis, archery and golf, participated in field hockey and figure skating. She worked for the Red Cross during the First World War, and continued to attend Wimbledon well into her eighties.
Madge Syers – 1908 Gold Medal Winner – Figure Skating
With the first Winter Olympics taking place in 1924, figure skating was part of the Summer Olympic programme. Indeed, it was first featured at the 1908 London Olympic Games, taking place in October, some months after the main events of the Games had been contested.
Field on 31 October 1908 describes the Olympic skating competition. In the women’s event, five competitors took part, three from Great Britain (Madge Syers, Dorothy Greenhough-Smith and Gwendolyn Lycett), one from Germany (Elsa Rendschmidt) and one from Sweden (Elna Montgomery).
Held at the Prince’s Skating Club, Madge Syers was perhaps the favourite for the title, having won ‘the ladies’ championship of the International Skating Union in 1906 and 1907, and the Swedish Cup Competition, now entitled the championship of Great Britain, in 1903 and 1904.’ The only time she had ever lost was to a male competitor in 1902, coming second in that instance.
Indeed, both Madge Syers and her teammate (or perhaps rival) Dorothy Greenhough-Smith had competed in mixed events, having ‘between them defeated the best skaters of the opposite sex in this country.’ Field regrets that the London Olympic Games of 1908 did not follow this mixed format, which was implemented by the International Skating Union.
But how would Madge Syers fair under the Olympic spotlight? Field had this to say about her compulsory figures section:
It was soon apparent that Mrs Syers, after a year’s retirement from competitions, is still in a class by herself. The wonderful accuracy of her figures, combined with perfect carriage and movement, was the chief feature of the morning’s skating.
This section, Field comments, was ‘probably more trying to the nerves than any other form of competition.’ Each figure took ‘about a minute and five seconds to complete,’ with the ‘physical and mental strain’ being ‘very severe.’ But Madge Syers was more than a match for these trials; in the brackets section she made ‘an almost perfect tracing,’ and in the change loops she was again ‘almost perfect.’
Then came the free skating section. Field relates how:
The free skating of Mrs Syers, who came next, was as far in advance of that of her opponents as her compulsory figures had been. She excelled in rhythm and time-keeping, and her dance steps, pirouettes, &c., were skated without a fault.
Mrs Syers gave a delightful display, in which time, poise, and grace came as near as possible to perfection. She adapted her movements well to music, and many of her figures were so perfectly executed and so circumscribed in extent that she seemed to be engaged in the performance of a most delightful and intricate dance.
Madge Syers was the clear Olympic champion; with Dorothy Greenhough-Smith coming in third to claim the bronze medal. And this was not Syers’s only medal of the competition. She and her husband Edgar Syers won bronze in the pair skating event, although they were not in their usual form, the couple only having had a ‘very limited amount of practice.’
Madge Syers retired after the Olympics, writing with her husband a book called The Art of Skating in 1913. She passed away in 1917, after suffering from declining health.
Top tip: sometimes newspapers of the day would not include a woman’s first name, making it harder to find women from history. Try searching with their title and initial, or if they were married, with either their or their husband’s initial.
Dorothy Greenhough-Smith – 1908 Bronze Medal Winner – Figure Skating
What did the newspapers have to say about bronze medal winner Dorothy Greenhough-Smith? Field relates how Greenhough-Smith was the holder of ‘the championship of Great Britain,’ and how she had won the ladies’ competition of the Figure Skating club the previous winter.
Field describes how Greenhough-Smith ‘did very well’ at the figures, and the newspaper describes her free skating section as follows:
Mrs Smith came second, and skated some pretty combinations of rockers and counters, introducing graceful dance steps and what is known as the Axel Paulsen jump.
Meanwhile the Westminster Gazette comments on Greenhough-Smith’s ‘clever, more reposeful exhibition, in which power and accuracy were the most conspicuous features.’ However, she lost out to fellow British competitor Madge Syers, and the German skater Elsa Rendschmidt. Greenhough-Smith would go on to win silver in the 1912 World Championships, and she also competed at Wimbledon in 1914, losing in the first round.
Gwendoline Eastlake-Smith – 1908 Gold Medal Winner – Tennis & Alice Greene – 1908 Silver Medal Winner – Tennis (Women’s Indoor Singles)
Another two British women Olympians competing against each other for gold at London in 1908 were Gwendoline Eastlake-Smith and Alice Greene. This time the discipline was tennis, the event the women’s indoor singles.
Gwendoline Eastlake-Smith had won the Monte Carlo tennis tournament three times in a row, from 1906 to 1908, whilst Alice Greene had won the London Covered Courts Championships at the Queen’s Club in 1907.
So what happened when the two met in the women’s indoor singles final at the London Olympics in May 1908? Field gives us the following report:
In the afternoon the early match was between Miss Eastlake-Smith and Miss Greene for the gold and silver medals, and the former lady, commencing in great form, only lost a couple of the games – the second and fourth – in the opening set; but the second was well contested throughout, and eventually won by Miss Greene after one, three, and four games had all been called.
So with the match evenly poised, who was going to snatch the Olympic crown? Luckily, Field continues with its match report:
Miss Smith, however, was in unbeatable form in the third set, and won it without losing a single game. Miss Eastlake Smith fully deserved her victory and gold medal, having played extremely well throughout the competition.
Gwendoline Eastlake-Smith was triumphant, and to celebrate, two days later she married physician Wharram Lamplough. Later, she competed under the name Gladys Lamplough, winning in 1913 the ‘Married Doubles’ with her husband, last competing at Wimbledon in 1921. Alice Greene, meanwhile, was also an international field hockey player, and she later moved to Jersey.
Dorothea Douglass – 1908 Gold Medal Winner – Tennis & Dora Boothby – 1908 Silver Medal Winner – Tennis
Another British pair competing for a tennis gold medal at London in 1908 were Dorothea Douglass (also known as Dorothea Lambert-Chambers, her married name) and Dora Boothby. Douglass, having made her Wimbledon debut in 1900, went on to win seven titles, whilst Boothby won one Wimbledon title.
And in the first set of the Olympic final, the London Evening Standard reports how Douglass was ‘in splendid form,’ winning it easily 6-1. Meanwhile, the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer relays how her opponent Dora Boothby displayed ‘indifferent’ form in her first set, before doing ‘exceedingly well in the second.’
So with Boothby fighting back, how would the multiple Wimbledon winner Douglass respond? With the game running to twelve games, and Boothby displaying ‘good service and real drop strokes,’ Douglass ended up being the stronger of the pair, taking the set 7-5 to become Olympic champion.
After the match, London Evening Standard somewhat scathingly remarked:
If Miss Boothby could always play as she did in this second set, she would go far, whereas inconsistency is a barrier to her progress.
But Dora Boothby did progress; she won the Wimbledon title in 1909, although she lost out two years in a row in 1910 and 1911 to her old foe Dorothea Douglass. Meanwhile, fellow British player Ruth Winch claimed the bronze medal.
Indeed, Britain swept the board at its home Olympics in 1908. It was the only time that the nation had come top of the medals table – before or indeed since.
Top tip: If you are researching a woman from history who married, try to find out when her marriage took place. That way, you can search for her by her maiden name up to a certain date, and then by her married name after that.
Edith Hannam – 1912 Gold Medal Winner – Tennis (Women’s Indoor Singles & Mixed Indoor Doubles)
The 1912 summer Olympics took place in Stockholm, and there was to be another victorious British woman in the women’s indoor singles event, the victor this time being Edith Hannam.
With fellow British player Mabel Parton already taking bronze, having defeated Swedish player Sigrid Fick in their playoff, the Star Green’un describing how Parton had ‘proved too strong for her opponent, who was weak at the net,’ the stage was set for Edith Hannam’s final on 11 May 1912.
She was facing Danish competitor Sofie Castenschiold, and the Star Green’un tells of how Hannam played ‘an aggressive game,’ with her ‘well sustained hand drives from the back of the net’ tiring out her opponent. In the end, Hannam beat Castenschiold 6-4, 6-3.
The lawn tennis world of the West of England heard with great pleasure on Saturday of the success of Mrs. Hannam at Stockholm, where she won the gold medal on behalf of Great Britain in the Olympic Games. Mrs. Hannam was perhaps better known as Miss Boucher, and a sister of the brothers Boucher, who have also made themselves famous at tennis.
Edith Hannam had now gained her own fame and made her own name for herself – winning the mixed indoor doubles’ event with W.P. Dixon to take home her second gold of the games. Meanwhile, fellow British pair Helen Aitchison and Herbert Barrett took silver in the same event, runners up to Hannam and Dixon.
Jennie Fletcher, Bella Moore, Annie Spears and Irene Steer – 1912 Gold Medal Winners – Swimming
At the Stockholm 1912 Olympics women were allowed to compete in swimming events for the very first time, and the British women’s swimming team saw particular success. On 19 July 1912 the Daily Mirror reports on ‘English Girl Swimmers’ Success at the Olympic Games,’ even featuring a photograph of the winning team, which comprised of Bella Moore, Jennie Fletcher, Annie Spears and Irene Steer.
Indeed, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph reports that ‘the team swimming race for ladies was won comfortably by 12 yards by the British team,’ the four British swimmers covering the 400m to beat Germany into second place, with Austria coming in third.
A particular star of the British women’s swimming team was Jennie Fletcher, the Daily Mirror reporting how ‘for three years running Miss Fletcher won the 100 yard swimming championship, and the last time she competed she reduced the record.’
Indeed, in 1907 The Bystander relates how in that year Jennie Fletcher had broken her own record seven times for the 100 yard distance. So for the 1912 Olympics Fletcher was a favourite; however, individually, she ended up coming in third, taking the bronze medal. The race was won by Australia’s Fanny Durak, as reports the Dundee Courier.
Jennie Fletcher went on to turn professional (disqualifying her from the Olympics), marrying and then moving to Canada, where she had six children. Bella Moore, who remains the youngest British woman to win an Olympic gold medal (she was 17 at the time) and the only Scottish woman to win an Olympic gold swimming medal, was mainly a long distance swimmer, and she later emigrated to Maryland with her husband.
Isabelle ‘Belle’ White – 1912 Bronze Medal Winner – Diving
And last but not least for our look at early British women Olympians comes diver Isabelle ‘Belle’ White. Isabelle White took home bronze medal in the ‘ladies’ plain diving competition,’ as reports the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, coming third to two Swedish competitors.
A fortnight later, the same newspaper reports how the diver was at the heart of an international incident in Finland:
An extraordinary incident occurred here yesterday during the festivities in connection with the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the local swimming club. The club had arranged some aquatic sports and had invited a number of foreign guests, in whose honour foreign flags were hoisted.
The police apparently took offence at this display, and confiscated a Union Jack, hoisted in honour of Miss Isabelle White, the English lady diver, and also the Swedish and American flags.
The competition was then held in private, with Isabelle White taking home the gold. Isabelle was only 17 when she competed, and she would later take home gold at the European Championships at Bologna in 1927.
We hoped you enjoyed our celebration of Britain’s early women Olympians, our look at their amazing achievements, and the records that they hold even to this day. You can discover so much about sporting history in our Archive – from results to match reports, from photographs to illustrations – especially using our specialist sporting titles, which you can find out more about here. Get started with your research today!