When I was running and racing in the 1960s and later, I had the impression that the SWAAA were better organised than the men’s side of the sport. I now realise that that was not the case. Especially when researching or trying to investigate the women’s side of the sport, there are no formal histories such as Keddie’s excellent centenary history of the SAAA or Shields’s cross-country masterpiece. Women’s athletics took off in the 1930’s and there is not even a complete record of team and individual winners available: Ron Morrison is slowly but surely completing such a record but none exists at present. I have a couple of studies of individual women athletes from the 30’s that I profiled for a Clydesdale Harriers book that I was writing and the profile here is of Jean Tait who won the women’s cross-country championship and was a member of the team that won the championship three times in a row before the War started in 1939. It is interesting from many points of view. Jean died on 17th December, 2013 at the age of 97.
When Graeme Reid won the Scottish Cross Country title in 2003 it was hailed as the first win in a National Cross Country Championship since Dunky Wright in 1923. The club had in fact had a National Cross Country more recently than that – Jean Tait won the Scottish Women’s Cross Country Championship in 1937. It all started for the most successful Harrier of the Inter War Years in 1930.
Clydesdale Harriers Committee Meeting, 22nd September 1930: extract from Minute:
“Ladies Section: Mr A McGregor inquired if there was any demand locally for this. Mr (Frank) Semple intimated that he had received about twenty names of ladies who were interested. Thereupon Mr A McGregor moved that the Secretary should convene a meeting for the purpose of founding a Ladies Section. This was seconded by Mr T McAulay. Mr McGregor also moved, seconded by W Wilkinson that the Y.M.C.A. Hall should be booked and that October 3rd be the probable date for the meeting. It was made clear that once started the Ladies Section should be entirely self governing and self supporting. The President, Secretary, Treasurer, Captain and Mr McGregor were appointed to attend this meeting as representing the Committee.”
At a time when the men’s section was thriving numerically and socially but in the doldrums competitively, few if any could have foreseen the standards that would be achieved by this new section. The top three or four were of a very high standard indeed and none higher than the club’s first women’s national cross country champion Jean Tait. When the section started the ladies were training on Mondays, Wednesdays and on Saturdays at the week end. The ‘Press’ report for 12th February 1932 said that the Ladies Championships would be held that weekend over a distance of not less than one mile and the winner would get the Cup donated to the club by Mrs Thursby. Nan Stopani won from Allison Ritchie and in the SWAAA Championships (only the second ever) Clydesdale were third behind Maryhill and Dundee Hawkhill. The counting runners were Nan Stopani (13th), Allison Ritchie (14), Nan Stephenson (17 and Mary Campbell (21). A year later and the ‘Press’ report read that the club was third again behind the same two teams but much closer and went on to say in an article headed Hail Jessie Tait:
“The bright feature as far as the locals are concerned was the brilliant running of Jessie Tait. Let me say here and now that every one of the local team acquitted themselves splendidly but Jessie went one better by taking actual third position. In other words here in Clydesdale we have the third best runner in Scotland. Only two hundred yards separated her from the winner and she was only beaten for second by forty yards …………” Jean was third, Allison Ritchie was fourth and Nan Stephenson and Annie Lindsay were the club’s counting runners. The following week was a sealed handicap race from Whitecrook Pavilion and Jean overhauled a 250 yards lead held by the club champion Allison Ritchie to win.
Jean is front row, extreme right
In April 1933 the General Committee granted Clydesdale Harriers Ladies Section permission to use the club design for a badge to be presented to Miss Jean Tait after she had finished second in the SWCCU Championships.
The summer of 1933 started with the St Peter’s Sports where she was third in the obstacle race but then came the Johnstone Castle Policies Sports. “In the half mile which was by general agreement the best race of the day, Jean Tait was beaten by inches for first place. Her clubmate Allison Ritchie followed her closely which gave Clydesdale Harriers second and third. Jean has now put away half a dozen tea knives in a certain chest and Allison is showing a neat manicure set.”
It was a good summer and at the Ladies General Meeting in September Jean was elected Assistant Secretary and Georgina Ballantine was Assistant Treasurer. However despite being elected Assistant Secretary the following notice appeared: “New members should get in touch with the Secretary, Miss Jean Tait, 12 Spencer Street, Clydebank.”
Whoever was Secretary there was a momentum building up in the Ladies Section. In January 1934 they arranged a muster run of all the clubs in the Glasgow District. Maryhill, Shettleston, Bellahouston and South Glasgow Ladies all came to Clydebank for the run. In March 1934 the team could ‘only’ finish fourth in the Scottish Championships but Jean was again third finisher. Tom Millar reported: “A mere one hundred and sixty yards separated the Clydesdale lady champion from the Dundee girl who triumphed. In between came a Maryhill girl. This is a remarkable performance, more especially since this is the second time that Jean has finished third. As a team the local ladies did not do so well as last year and dropped one place. Jean Tait is due every credit for her plucky displays in these races and on behalf of my colleagues in the men’s section I offer sincere congratulations.” As the report says, two weeks earlier Jean had won the club championship from Allison Ritchie who led until the last 200 metres when “superior finishing power enabled Jean to win by fifteen yards.”
Although the results of the Men’s Section were being eclipsed by those of the Ladies, the General Committee seemed determined that it would have the whip hand in the relationship with the Ladies Section. Several fairly senior members seemed to be actively opposed to what was termed ‘amalgamation’. But the Ladies wanted to be included. In March 1934 they wrote formally to the Committee asking for permission to present their prizes at the Men’s Presentation. This was unanimously agreed and the occasion was a great success. In September of the same year there was a letter from Mrs Thursby asking for a representative to be sent to the Ladies Section AGM. This was agreed and Fred Yorwarth was the representative. A month later (1st October) there were two letters from the Ladies. The first was asking for two ‘coaches’ from the men’s Section to run with them on Monday and Wednesday evenings and Saturday afternoons. This was agreed. The second contained the desire of their members to amalgamate with the Men’s Section. This was postponed to the end of the evening before being discussed. It was found impossible to amalgamate but the Committee agreed provisionally to send representatives to the Ladies’ Section meeting. They were to collect information and act as an advisory committee which had to be ‘ruled’ by the General Committee. The representatives were to be Fred Yorwarth, Dan McDonald, Tom Sinclair and Kenny Robb. In July 1934 at the Maryhill Meeting all three prizes in the Ladies half mile came to the club with Allison Ritchie winning from Jean with Isa Hunter third. Then at the Singer’s Sports in Clydebank, Jean won the half mile from Mary Martin and Georgie Ballantine. Other than that there was no reporting of the ladies summer’s racing in the local Press or club minutes which seemed to be fixated on the cross country season.
In the club championships in February 1935 there was a bit of an upset when Georgina Ballantine beat Jean for first place and Tom Millar reported “A sensation was caused in the club championships when the holder of the title, Jean Tait was forced to relinquish it to Georgina Ballantine.” In the Scottish Championships the team was second but Jean in sixth place was selected for the International Cross Country Championship in Blackpool. Georgina was one place behind – and first reserve for the team. Club positions in the race were Jean 6th, Georgina 7th, Betty Reid 11th and Allison Ritchie eighteenth. The report in the ‘Press’ went as follows: “I am forced to give top place to our wonderful ladies this week. They have done what we have not been able to do. In the Scottish Women’s Cross Country Championships at Springburn last Saturday they took second place to the holders and favourites, Dundee Hawkhill Ladies. Hold back those cheers for just a little longer. Jean Tait by finishing actual sixth in the race made sure of her place in the international team race at Morecambe on April 20th. Her team mate Georgie Ballantine finished close behind her and is first reserve. Thus the town which built the largest ship in the world is further honoured by having two of its young ladies selected for their country. Now for those cheers – hip, hip, hooray. But I am not unmindful of the rest of the team and Betty Reid and Allison Ritchie supported the stars well. The former was eleventh and the latter eighteenth. Clydesdale were the youngest team in the race.”
A year later Jean regained the club title in an excellent race. “The finest championship since the inception of the ladies club five years ago took place last Saturday over a two and a quarter mile trail. Nine eager competitors strove with each other for the honour of being known as club champion. For a mile they raced together and no one was outstanding. Gradually Jean Tait drew out followed by Mary Martin and Mary Orr. The last two named only joined up this season but they certainly made a brave show. Jean Tait, ex-club champion and Scottish internationalist had to go all out to break the tape five seconds ahead of Mary Martin who was ten seconds ahead of Mary Orr. The holder Georgie Ballantine did not compete. This result is highly satisfactory to the club when so many are close up to the champion and augurs well for their chance in the National race.”
Two weeks later and ‘Excelsior’ was ecstatic again: “Pride of place must be given to Clydesdale Harriers ladies this week. Last Saturday at Bishopbriggs they blasted the hopes of Dundee Ladies in the two mile Scottish Championship. The Dundee girls were expected to be easy winners of this race but this idea was not shared by the locals. For weeks they had prepared, training regularly and enthusiastically to lift that cup. To the surprise of everyone but themselves they succeeded. Therefore Clydebank at present harbours both the championship of the world and the lady champions of Scotland.
Nobly led by their champion, Jean Tait, the Clydesdale Ladies responded magnificently and counted four in the first seven placers. Mildred Storrar of Dundee, a big powerful girl and champion for the past two years, was first in evidence after the start but gradually Jean Tait took command and early on held a thirty yards lead. Eighty yards from home ‘our Jean’ still led and looked a certain winner. Here Mildred Storrar put forth her finishing effort and drew up to the Clydesdale girl. Thirty yards from the tape they were still level but excitement caused Jean to falter slightly and the holder retained her title by a few yards – her hardest won victory yet. The locals went wild when Mary Martin and Georgie Ballantine followed Jean Tait and then Betty Anderson made sure of their team victory by finishing in seventh place. The individual times and places were: 1. M Storrar 13:33; 2. J Tait 13:37; 3. M Martin 14:00; 4. G Ballantine 14:07. Mr G Ballantine the trainer is due the highest praise for the splendid condition of his girls.”
I have no detailed Press reports from then on and there is less in the club minutes than before about the Section but we know that in 1937 not only did the team win the title again, but Jean picked up the title and the Championship Shield and is pictured winning at the top of the first page. Jean was Scottish Champion at last. Clydesdale Ladies won yet again in 1938 to make it three consecutive years as Scottish champions in 1936, ’37 and ’38.
In March 1936 the men seemed to be getting the message. It was moved by Dan McDonald and seconded by Arthur Shields that the Ladies Section be invited to distribute their prizes at the Men’s Presentation. There was an amendment proposed that no such thing be done. The amendment lost and the Ladies were invited. I could find no reference to the SWAAA Championships or Relay Championships on the track in the club minutes for that year. I have copies of certificates which say that Jean was second in the half mile in 1936 and the Medley Relay Team (of Jean Tait, Isa Hunter, Georgie Ballantine and BG Anderson) won on the very same night in June. A year later the relay team (of Jean Tait, Georgie Ballantine, Allison Ritchie and Isa Hunter) was second in the Mile Medley Relay in July 1937. They continued winning races as teams and individuals – see Jean’s certificate below for being second in the SWAAA Half Mile Championships in 1936. If the Men’s Section had a grand winning run broken by the War in 1918, the Ladies had their winning streak terminated by the War in 1939! The women would come back quite quickly after the war with runners representing Scotland – and even winning British titles and medals in the 1950’s.
After the war the club started up quite quickly thanks to the efforts of the War Time Committee to keep things ticking over. Jean had married Andy McMillan in November 1937 and she was one of the main spirits in having the Ladies Section start up again after the War. The following note appeared in the ‘Clydebank Press’ in 1947: “Ladies Section: Will all members of the above section and any other ladies interested in running please get in touch with Mrs A McMillan, 23 Duntocher Road, Dalmuir with a view to getting the Section restarted.” A week later the following notice appeared: “A few young ladies showed their enthusiasm by turning out prepared to run at Mountblow on Tuesday night. Any other young ladies wishing to come along should do so on Tuesday or Thursday at Mountblow” For the next track season a proper Committee was set up with Cathie Hammond as Captain, Isa Irvine as Vice Captain, and a General Committee of Mrs McMillan, Mrs Shields, Misses E McCauley, M Cochrane and E Reid. Tom Sinclair’s remark about a Matrimonial Agency was not too wide of the mark – apart from Jean and Andy and Jim and Allison, Willie Wright married Anne Gilchrist, Frank Semple married Jessie Raitt and there were many more. The Ladies Section was back in action and Jean McMillan was playing her part.
In the early 2000’s and she came along to the club Presentation twice renewing her acquaintance with Georgie Ballantine, David Bowman, Pat Younger and James P Shields among others. More than that, she donated a trophy (illustrated below) for annual presentation to the club’s Junior Woman Cross Country Champion.
From the ‘Clydebank Post’