Dorette Nelson Neale OBE 1908 – 1982

Athlete, Coach, Manager, Administrator, Mentor, Referee, WAAA Committee Member, WAAA Chairman

One of the true characters of Women’s athletics, and one of the most influential, ‘Nelson’ as she was invariably known, joined Birchfield Harriers in 1929 as a ‘half-miler’ and cross-country runner. From a wealthy family who did not necessarily approve of her athletic ambitions, Nelson is reported to have arrived at her first training session in a chauffeur driven car.

Nelson became Birchfield Ladies Hon. Secretary in the 1930s, going on to become Hon. Secretary of the Midlands Counties WAAA, a post she held for 51 years. She was a highly respected coach and team manager. Instrumental in attempting to maintain some level of training for female athletes throughout World War Two, the WAAA were able to get competitions up and running again by the summer of 1945, with an England squad competing at the European Championships in Norway in 1946 which Nelson attended.

Always impeccably turned out and rarely seen without a hat, Nelson was a force to be reckoned with. Seen here at Alexander Stadium, home of her club Birchfield Harriers, circa 1945.

Photo courtesy of Jordan family.

Nelson was tireless in her determination to provide adequate coaching for women throughout the country. Herself a successful coach she was able to see that the sport needed others to coach, train and officiate and she encouraged generations of athletes and parents at Birchfield to get involved with athletics beyond the track or field.

Judy Johnson joined Birchfield as a 14 year old, with Nelson as her first coach;
She was strict and took no prisoners. Our training group trained hard, but we always had fun. We had to compete to get into the team, which always kept you on your toes. 

Nelson was a referee at WAAA meetings from 1946 to 1975 as well as being a judge at the 1948 London Olympics.

Dorette Nelson Neale, centre left, with Winnie Jordan centre right and another Birchfield Athlete, and another club athlete. 1945.
Photo courtesy of Jordan family.

Alongside coaching and officiating Nelson was indomitable in the running and workings of the WAAA, Jan Febery recalls Nelson’s willingness to help in all things club related: ‘I took on the role of Secretary at Cheltenham and County Harrier’s shortly after I joined the club and simply did not know how a club operated. If I got 7.30am or 11pm phone calls it would always be “Nelson here” and she would be answering a question I had written or telephoned about.’

Nelson’s reach extended beyond her club. Lyn Orbell, Lozells Harriers athlete:

I had some problems at 18 with an injury and I became Ladies Secretary of Lozells Harriers. When Nelson knew that I was able to represent my club at meetings she mentored me. From there she nurtured me as a Midland Ladies committee member, Team Manager, WAAA committee, WAAA selector and I went regularly every Monday evening to her house and sorted her paperwork out and filed It in the files she could find without searching for it.

I owe Nelson so much because despite me not being a Birchfield Harrier she gave me every chance to get on in the sport as an administrator, Team Manager, England selector and many other opportunities.

Nelson fulfilled numerous roles in Women’s Athletics; she was the inaugural chair and then later president of the Women’s Cross-Country and Race-Walking Association from its inception in 1952, Vice-Chair of the WAAA from 1973 – 1980 and Chair until her death in 1982. Along with Vera Searle and Marea Hartman, Nelson was the hub of the WAAA for almost four decades between the 1950s and 1980s and her efforts to improve and drive forward Women’s Athletics were recognized in the 1976 Honours list with an OBE.

Nelson was Birchfield through and through, she had a hand in the design on Alexander Stadium.  When she died in 1982, a remembrance ceremony was held at Alexander Stadium. Jan Febery again: ‘the ceremony was attended by so many people, I recall standing between two of Birchfield’s massive throwers (I am 5ft 1in) tears running down our cheeks. She was admired by many.’

Nelson’s ashes were scattered on grass in the centre of the stadium. The Nelson stand is named in her honour.