Dorothy Nelson arrived in a chauffeur-driven car at Birchfield in 1929 to join the club as a runner. Her wealthy family may have disapproved of her athletic ambitions, but she was still a Birchfielder when she died in 1982. She was an athlete, official and a coach and played a major role in women’s athletics in the UK, as well as holding down PA jobs in major firms in Birmingham. The “Nelson” stand at the Alexander Stadium is named after her.
She was born in New York in 1908. Her parents, Jack and Edith spent only a few years there. Jack, from near Keswick, had emigrated first, and Edith Whittingham, from the family who ran “The Plough and Harrow” on Hagley Road, followed in 1907 to marry him.
They returned to the family business in 1910 when Edith’s father died. In 1917 Dorothy was sent to a co-educational school in Keswick, famous for its progressive nature, and said to have been based on an American model of education.
In 1922, when she left school, women’s sport was big news: in 1922 Birchfield founded a ladies’ section. By 1925 there were 500 or more women’s clubs with 25,000 members. The medical profession disapproved and Harold Abrahams wrote “I do not consider that women are built for really violent exercise..”, but the women were off and running.
Support grew; Captain Webster, a supporter, wrote of the1929 440 yds race at Stamford Bridge, “it was one long, breathless thrill”. That year, Dorothy Nelson arrived at Birchfield.
In 1930 the club hosted an international match. Gladys “Sally” Lunn ran 2:22.8 for the 800m. No wonder that Dorothy, an ambitious, young, female runner wanted to be part of this, and she rapidly was; in 1930, at Stamford Bridge, Dorothy led at 440yds, as Gladys set a new 880yd world record..
In 1940, the first year of WW2, Nelson wed Frank Neal, an 880 yds runner. The Ladies kept the donation list for their present open for an extra month “owing to members being bombed out and leaving to new homes”. Frank was deployed to the Far East, later escaping from Singapore. He returned in 1946, ill with TB, which led to his death in winter 1949, a few years before effective treatment was available.
During WW2, Nelson helped ensure that training and competition continued, so the squad was ready to develop. In 1946 she went to the European Championships in Norway, at which men and women competed alongside each other. Harold Abrahams wrote that the women’s team “were a splendid example of what the team spirit should be”; Winnie Jordan, from Birchfield, finished 2nd in both the 100 and 200 m. In 1948 Nelson was an official at the London Olympics; Winnie and Gladys Clarke, a Birchfield javelin thrower, competed
In spring 1950, Nelson threw herself into a WAAA initiative to provide adequate coaching facilities for women athletes throughout the country. Once qualified, she encouraged generations of Birchfield athletes and parents to train and coach and to become track and field officials.
In the 1950’s Nelson coached Diane Leather, who broke 5 minutes for the mile in 1954. Mel Watman called Diane “the first outstanding female athlete to be coached by a woman
In 1962, for the Birmingham Post, Nelson explained the popularity of athletics for local girls: “ They are ambitious. They like the idea of winning medals and becoming stars. They are impressed by the athletics on television. After every big event we get a run on recruits. Some people start very young. Carole Quinton, of Sutton Coldfield, joined at 13 and at 23 won an Olympic silver medal”.
Nelson was awarded the OBE in 1976 for her services to athletics. Her commitment to Birchfield and women’s sport continued up to her death in 1982.