Drawing on the concept of the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, Westminster has marked the centenary of the 1921 successes of Polytechnic athletes at the Women’s Olympiad in France by recognising Mary Lines on a previously empty plinth in the Regent Street foyer on 21 March.

Lightbox featuring Mary Lines portrait on plinth in Regent Campus foyer

The revealing of the lightbox forms part of the ongoing Writing Between the Lines project, overseen by Professor Guy Osborn, Professor at Westminster Law School, Dr Hannah Copley, Lecturer in Creative Writing, and Anna McNally, Senior Archivist. The project aims to highlight untold stories, beginning with the ten female athletes from Westminster’s predecessor, the Regent Street Polytechnic, who competed at the 1921 Women’s Olympiad and formed half of the English team. 

The international event, organised by Alice Milliat and Camille Blanc, was set up in response to the International Olympic Committee’s refusal to include women’s athletic events at the 1924 Olympic Games. The games took place over six days, and the English team dominated the winners list, winning medals in every event except the 800 metres and the 75 metre hurdles. Polytechnic athlete Mary Lines won six gold medals at the 1921 Olympiad, earning her place as a star of post-World War One athletics.

Multiple world records were broken across the six day event, and the athletes were celebrated for their abilities and hard work. On arriving home in the UK, they went on to found the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association, supporting women’s participation in sport at a time when it was believed to be unfeminine and unhealthy. However, over time their remarkable achievements have been largely forgotten. 

To mark the achievements of the ten Polytechnic athletes who took part in the event, a lightbox of Mary Lines has been erected on the previously vacant plinth in the Regent Campus foyer. This was lit on 21 March to mark the centenary of the Polytechnic women’s departure from Victoria station to journey to France for the first Women’s Olympiad, and will remain lit for the period of the competition until the anniversary of their return.

As part of the project, ten student poets, one for each member of the 1921 Women’s Olympiad Polytechnic cohort, are being commissioned to produce their own pieces for the Writing Between the Lines project. The chosen students, Katie Biddle, Nicole Blythe, Alisha Taylor, Ina Blerina Gjeka, Daniela Elizarraras Acitores, Rebecca Harding, Jasmeet Dosanjh, Annabel Christian, James Hamblin and Troy Vonder, who have been drawn from all levels of study, will attend online workshops and will get the chance to perform their pieces and contribute towards a Writing Between the Lines anthology to shine a light on the women in our sporting history. 

Talking about the project, Professor Guy Osborn said: “The University has a fantastic history and heritage, and it is something that all of us who work here are very proud of. Working on this project has been a joy, and to acknowledge a part of our history that has been somewhat overlooked has been a privilege.”

Dr Hannah Copley added: “These athletes were trailblazers and record breakers, and it’s wonderful to be involved in a project that celebrates their achievements and legacy. I can’t wait to work with our incredibly talented group of student writers to explore and creatively respond to the stories contained within the Westminster archive, and to produce brand new work that can help to shed new light on these incredible women.”

Anna Mcnally said: “While the achievements of the Polytechnic’s male athletes such as John London, Arthur Wint and Herbert Gayler are well known, our female athletes have gone under-the-radar until now. Detailed cataloguing and digitisation of our archive is starting to open up new stories, and we encourage researchers to explore these untold histories.”

Learn more about the Writing Between the Lines project.

Find out more about our history in the Women’s Olympiad on Westminster’s Records and Archives website.

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