Joan Sephton - Dedicated Pioneer Harrier (06/04/2021)

Jackie Cliff, of Wall Heath, contacted us recently about her Aunt who was a member of Tipton Harriers in the mid 1950’s. Her name was Joan Mary Sephton.

Tipton Harriers, like many clubs of that era, were predominantly made up of men and the sport was generally segregated both administratively and for competitions.

As far back as August 1937 the Midland Women’s Amateur Athletic Association, the area governing body founded in 1925, had written to the club about the possible formation of a ladies section. The Honorary Secretary was instructed at that time to “reply that we had no conveniences for a Ladies Section.”

It was to be another 14 years before there were again suggestions, this time from within the Club, that a ladies section should be formed in 1951 with Joe Gripton bringing the matter to the General Committee on many occasions. It kept being “put back” to the next meeting.

In December 1951 Tipton Harriers & Staffordshire County Coaching Secretary Mr H Hughes staged a talk (by Jack Holden) and some films were shown on sprinting and middle distance running. The preview in the Tipton Herald stated rather grandly that “The club extends a hearty welcome to everyone particularly ladies interested in athletics.”

Nothing seems to be formalised with matters continually minuted in 1952 as being “deferred”. At one point in August 1952 it was reported that there were 25 names down for a ladies section but by October it was frustratedly shelved again.

It came back to the table in April 1954 when at last a Sub Committee was established to progress matters.

By June things were clearly developing as on 10/06/1954 formal agreement that there would be five ladies representatives on General Committee. Those on the Ladies Sub Committee were named as: A Flavell; A J Brown; H Hughes and E Griffiths. A Flavell appears to be Secretary. We know H Hughes had a coaching interest.

It was from here we begin to pick up on more references to training, participation and performances. The Tipton Herald carried a small feature in June 1954 that mentioned the Ladies getting their “first practice runs”.

We know that the Ladies training was scheduled for Monday & Fridays at 7:30PM at the Club Headquarters on Sedgley Road East. The men had their sessions on Tuesdays; Thursdays & Sundays. In summer months training was commonly on the Vono Sports Ground.

By July Mr A Flavell reported to the General Committee that membership was around 20. Whilst training for the ladies was billed as separate from the men in reality both sexes were working out alongside each other.

1954 had seen the Empire Games and European Championships at which British women had met with some success and athletics. Through the likes of Roger Bannister breaking the 4 minute barrier in May, athletics was riding a wave of attention and success not seen for many years.

It also saw the publication of a book called Women’s Athletics by George Pallett that documented the development of the sport as well as giving guidance on training. This remains a classic.

Staffordshire born Diane Leather, the girl from Birchfield Harriers, had broken the 5 minute barrier for the mile 4m 59.6s at the Midland Women’s AAA’s Track & Field Championships staged at Alexander Stadium on 29/05/1954. Birchfield Harriers were at the forefront of developing women’s athletics forming a dedicated section in 1921.

Events available to female athletes at the time were drastically different to those we now take for granted. The longest track events allowed at championships would have been no more than 880 yards or sometimes a mile.

Perhaps inspired by feats of the likes of Diane Leather, Joan Sephton and more local Tipton women and girls were experimenting with, and enjoying, the sport of track & field athletics.

Joan Mary Sephton was born in 1937 the daughter of Percy & Evelyn from Walker Street, Tipton. She was one of two children. What started her off in athletics we will never know.

We know Joan enjoyed athletics at school as she is seen here winning a sprint event at her School Sports. She had also excelled in the High Jump & Sprint Hurdles.

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Jackie’s next treasure from her Aunt’s collection was this photograph from, we believe, around the mid 1950’s.

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This picture shows Joan Sephton along with other members of the Tipton Harriers Ladies Section. Joan is sitting proudly in the centre with a trophy in hand. The photograph was probably taken in the early months of 1955 putting Joan between 17 & 18 years of age.

Another member of the club at this time was Val Griffiths, the daughter of one of the administrators Eddie Griffiths.

We recently contacted Val (now Val Orton, of Harborne) and she was able to identify another two girls with Joan on the photograph. Val is seated to right of Joan on the middle row. On Joan’s left is Freda Brinsdon. Val’s father Eddie Griffiths is the second gentleman from the right standing at the back.

On sight of the group photograph Val recalls fondly that “we were such a happy band” and that her father “was so enthusiastic about the ladies section”.
We suspect that one of the other gentlemen will be A Flavell (possibly standing second in on the back row from the left) and Val also thinks the young lady second in from the right on the front row also had the surname Flavell.

Perhaps you can help? Can you name or recognise any of them? If so please let us know.

Joan was a keen athlete and was one of the successful pioneers of the women’s sport of athletics in Tipton and the wider Midlands area.

In October 1954 we find our first reference to club success with Val Griffiths (9th) and B Wall (4th) in the Bilston Road Walk. This we believe is their first official team competition.

Val recalls the fun and games getting to events often taking countless bus journeys across the region.
Joan’s first outing, that we can trace, for the Club was a cross country race on 18th December 1954. She placed 3rd in the prestigious Midland Counties Women’s Turley Shield race at Leicester. Joan would have been 17 at this stage in her career.

Another member of Tipton Harriers Ladies there was Freda Brinsdon in 5th spot. They finished 4th team and it was noted they were without B Wall & J Glasgow who were “indisposed”.

Boxing Day 1954 saw the Ladies take part for the first time in the traditional club handicaps held around the festive period. Joan won the Tipton Harriers event with Freda Brinsdon 2nd and A Dyke 3rd.

In January 1955 Joan was to achieve what was probably her biggest and highest athletics prize that of Midland Women’s Junior Cross Country Champion.

On a bitterly cold day Joan ventured to Coventry for the 19th Midland Women’s Amateur Athletic Associations Cross Country event. Held on a 2¼ mile course in Memorial Park. According to a report in Athletics Weekly over tough snow covered route she “stormed her way along from the start, and finally won very readily” from Pat Myatt of Smethwick Harriers. Joan won in 15m 28s with Myatt second some 10 seconds behind her in 15m 38s.

Here is a grainy image of Joan winning that race.

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The name Myatt also has long term strong connections with local athletics in the Smethwick, Oldbury & Warley areas.

Freda Brinsdon was another Tipton lass in that Coventry event and we know she placed 11th. There may have been others but we do not have an record of them. In all we know twenty nine runners set out at the start from seven clubs/teams. Two clubs scratched before the event took place.

After the event she received her trophy and plaudits from the Lord Mayor of Coventry and with the other members of the top three were allowed in the Mayoral car for a photocall. This may have been to warm up given the conditions!

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Clearly in warmer times here is a photograph of a proud Joan with one of her trophies. The image was probably taken in her back garden.

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One recurrent story we hear from this era is that the girls all had to make their kit as there was no standard issue available. Club badges were available and these were sown on vests made up for the purpose. No singlets or lycra to be seen.

Joan and the rest of the women’s squad were, in February 1955, entered in the Women’s National XC event staged on their doorstep in King George V Memorial Park, Wordsley.

The names for our team given in the official programme were: F Brinsdon; J Sephton; V Griffiths; B Wall; I Glasgow; D Oaks; D Williams & B Whitehouse. A Dyke was listed as an individual entrant. E Griffiths, Val’s father, was Disc Steward.

The club finished 6th with Joan placing 19th; Brinsdon 17th; Dyke 26th; Griffiths 43rd and Glasgow 44th.

Joan and her fellow Harriers then appear in many entry lists for local sports and athletic meetings through the summer of 1955. Club athletics often held inter club matches where members ran in a variety of events accruing points based on their finishing positions. Such events staged locally were the “Dudley B Joel Challenge Trophy”, the “Gordon Proctor Shield” and the “Harborne Friendship Cup”. Black Country clubs such as Smethwick Harriers; Oldbury Athletics & Cross Country Club; Dudley & Stourbridge Harriers were all involved at some point or other. The girls figured highly in these matches.

In December 1955 Joan and others took part in a National Junior Road Walk held at Perry Barr where she was 19th. A new name appeared alongside those already mentioned was that of P Horne.

In early 1956 Joan was 6th in the Women’s Junior National XC Championships staged at Newton-le Willows. Joan was proudly the first Midlander home. Curiously the Midland Championship was staged after the National event at Evesham where she finished 7th. By March Joan was running in the Women’s Senior XC Championship against a more experienced field at Sutton Coldfield ending up 26th. This was not the end of her season as she gained representative honours for the Midlands in a match vs the Southern Counties.

The summer of 1956 saw Joan and her fellow friends & clubmates racing in more events around the Midlands such as The John Thompson Sports at Ettingshall. She was competing at anything from 100 yards up to a mile. We have one championship outing for her at the 7th Midland Women’s Track & Field Championship event held at Leicester where she was 6th in the mile just outside 6 minutes.

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This photograph, this time from 1956, again probably taken in her garden, shows Joan wearing a jacket complete with a Midland Counties Women’s AAA representative badge proudly sewn on the front.

After one event Joan was taken ill at the end of the race having collapsed with breathing difficulties. This proved to be tuberculosis and she was admitted to Prestwood Hall Sanatorium near Stewpony, Kinver, for around a year. Prestwood continued as a recovery unit until the early 1980’s.

This probably restricted her sporting career as we currently have no trace of her in athletics after August 1956.

In September 1960 Joan married Dennis Griffiths and settled in Tipton. Early employment saw Joan working as an assembler at Palethorpe’s and then GKN Sankey at Bilston.

Later in life she again showed stamina and dedication aplenty when in January 2003 she notched up 30 years’ service as a School Crossing Patrol having started in 1973. She was recommended to the post by another patrol just up the road who had said to her “try it for a month”.

Joan lived in Gospel Oak Rd, Tipton and had a short commute to her place of work. Her patrol patch was Ocker Hill Junior School which she served for 30 years. In doing so she saw many generations of the same family grow and return with their own children. She went on to become one of Tipton’s great local characters known, with affection, by so many. She retired in 2004.

The following picture comes from The Birmingham Post & Mail (Photographer Trevor Roberts).

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Joan died in June 2016.

As we look back at this era from 2021 we can see the importance of Joan Sephton, Val Griffiths and the other pioneering girls and ladies in the development of the Tipton Harriers. If Joan were here today she would no doubt look back with modest pride. Thank you.

If you have any information on a family member who was once a member of Tipton Harriers like Joan and Val or those others listed within the article please get in touch via This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.