A Penistone Grammar School Archive
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Heather Armitage - Penistone Grammar School's Olympian

Whilst working on the photography for the virtual tour, Kevin Neil mentioned Heather Armitage, an ex-pupil and... an Olympic medallist at the age of 19. He managed to find her current whereabouts and invited her to the opening of the new building (see photo at the foot of the page).
I didn't get chance to talk to her as much as I'd've liked but a bit of research reveals that not only was Heather a medallist at two Olympics (Helsinki 1952 and Melbourne 1956) but she was also (to borrow a line from another site) "Britain's top female sprinter of the 1950s ...Her achievements raised the profile of British sportswomen."
With the Olympics currently underway, it's seems fitting to pay tribute to her achievments here.

Heather Armitage - House Champions

Winners of the House Championship
Shield at PGS

Heather Young (née Armitage) was Britain's top female sprinter of the 1950s, winning seven major international medals and claiming four Women’s AAA titles

She reached her peak in 1958, becoming the first British woman to win an individual track gold medal at the European Championships with victory in the 100 metres in Stockholm.

Her historic victory was an early success in a glorious era for British women's athletics.

She was born Heather Joy Armitage in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), on 17 March 1933. Both her English parents were from a sporting background: her mother an accomplished swimmer and her father, who worked as a colonial policeman, a champion boxer and tennis player.

The family returned to England in 1947 and settled in Penistone.

Aged 14, Heather entered Penistone Grammar School and soon displayed her sporting prowess, playing as a dashing left winger in

Heather Armitage - House Champions

First Past the line - Sports Day

the hockey team and regularly winning the 100 and 220 yards sprints at the annual sports day.

In 1951, aged 18 and representing Yorkshire, she won her first major title with victory in the All-England Schools’ senior 100 yards final, clocking 11.4 after a brilliant 11.0 in her heat, a time which would have equalled the British record had it not been wind-assisted.

After leaving school in 1951, Heather enrolled at a PE college near Barnsley but despite her academic commitments, her development as an athlete continued apace and in the summer of 1952 she made her first appearance at the White City, London.

Competing in the senior 100 yards at the WAAA championships, she made an eye-catching debut in more ways than one. She not only clocked 10.9 to win the final – but did so without wearing any shorts! Her school shorts were too long and thick, and also lacking a running vest she just ran in her knickers and an Aertex shirt!

The abolition of chantries

Heather Armitage - House Champions

Heather's homecoming

This victory ensured her selection for the Helsinki Olympics. Eliminated in the quarter-finals of the 100 metres after finishing 5th in 12.3, she gained ample compensation by anchoring the Great Britain squad to a bronze medal in the 4 x 100 metres relay, combining with Sylvia Cheeseman, June Foulds and Jean Desforges for a time of 46.2, a new British record. She had won her first Olympic medal at the age of 19 and later recalled “such a great feeling of achievement and pride in representing my country and being part of a team”.

Her return home was suitably triumphant: the local girl made

good, she toured the villages around Sheffield in an open-topped sports car.

Resuming college life, she missed nearly all the 1953 season after breaking her kneecap playing hockey.

However, despite having no coach and with little time to train due to her studies, she showed admirable resolution to return to peak condition, running a British record of 10.9 for 100 yards and winning a place in the GB team for the 1954 Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, Canada.

Here she reached both sprint finals (finishing 6th in the 100 yards and 5th in the 220 yards) and gained a silver medal as part of the England 4 x 110 yards relay quartet (46.9). Later that year, she competed in the European Championships in Berne, Switzerland, finishing 6th in the 100 metres final (12.1) and 4th in the 4 x 100 metres final as part of the Great Britain relay squad.


1955 - 1960: more medals...

Silver Medallists at Cardiff Commonwealth Games 1958

Silver medallists at the Cardiff
Commonwealth Games, 1958

Heather was again troubled by health problems in 1955, a slipped disc in her back bringing her season to a premature end. However, she made a full recovery and, in 1956, she came 3rd in the WAAA 100 yards final to secure a place in the Great Britain squad for the Melbourne Olympics.

Here she started the 100 metres competition in superb form, winning her heat in 11.5 (just 0.1 outside the new Olympic record, set by Betty Cuthbert in the previous heat) and, later the same day, finished 2nd in her semi-final (11.6).

However, she ran disappointingly in the final the following day and could only manage 6th place (12.0). The wait for the final had unsettled her and she was unable to give her best. She explained recently: “I was completely overwhelmed by my times and having made the final. The longer I waited for the final to come, the less confident I became”.

Nevertheless, the 4 x 100 metres relay would compensate for a below-par run in the individual 100 metres. In an epic final, Heather took the baton on the last leg a metre behind Australia's Betty Cuthbert, the newly crowned 100 and 200 metres Olympic champion, and chased her all the way to the line, finishing only half a metre down to take an excellent silver medal. Both teams smashed the previous world record of 44.9, Australia winning in 44.65 to Britain's 44.70.

In the 1957 season, Heather broke the British record for 220 yards with 24.2 and equalled the 100 yards mark of 10.8. at the WAAA championships, where she completed a notable sprint double by taking the 100 yards crown in 10.9.

She retained the furlong title in 1958 and finished runner-up in the 100 yards, earning selection in both these events, plus the 80 metres hurdles, for that summer's Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff.

In the 100 yards final there, she broke the European and British All-Comers’ records by clocking 10.6 but was edged out for the gold by Marlene Mathews-Willard (Aus), who recorded the same time, and then claimed bronze in the 220 yards in a personal best of 23.9.

After finishing 6th in her new event, the 80 metres hurdles, despite hitting a hurdle, she teamed up with Madeleine Weston, Dorothy Hyman and June Paul to win 4 x 110 yards gold in World-record time (45.3), Heather bringing the baton home for England ahead of Australia's Mathews-Willard.

Heather recently described winning gold and the defeat of the World record holders as “a dream come true” and breaking their World record as “the icing on the cake”.

With a full set of Commonwealth medals, Heather went into the European Championships in Stockholm three weeks later full of confidence. After winning her 100 metres heat and semi-final, Heather won the final and made history: the first British woman to win an individual track title at the European Championships.

In 1959, she changed jobs and moved from Lincolnshire to Manchester. The demands of teaching in a deprived area (Wythenshawe) left little time for training and she competed only once that season, finishing last in the 100 yards in a Great Britain v Poland match. She retired, aged 27, in April 1960. As she explained, “I wasn't getting any slower but the younger girls were getting faster”.

1961 - Current Day

Heather Armitage and Kevin Neill

Heather and Kevin Neill at the official
opening of the new building in 2011

Heather devoted the rest of her working life to teaching, spending over half a century in the profession, less a two-year break for the birth of her daughter, Alison.

She taught PE until her mid-40s and then qualified as a religious studies teacher, working at both a Church of England and a Catholic school.

She also taught reading and phonics to special needs pupils before a late career change led to her coaching young athletes at a private school, Ditcham Park, in Hampshire, where she guided her team to a district championship.

An extremely long and highly successful teaching career finally ended when she retired, aged 72, at Christmas 2005.

Now married to John McClelland, a former footballer with Manchester City and Queen's Park Rangers, she enjoys a busy retirement on Hayling Island, Hampshire.

A grandmother of three, she exercises daily by walking and doing aerobics and plays an active role in her local church.

As Heather Armitage/Young she was one of the early heroines in a golden age for British women's athletics, winning an historic European title at 100 metres and helping to set a 4 x 110 yards World record.

Her achievements raised the profile of British sportswomen and helped pave the way for the double Olympic glory of 1964 that ended Britain's 32-year wait for a track and field gold medal from its female athletes.

This text is adapted from the National Union of Track Statisticians website.