WAAA Rose Gillis Trophy for Women’s Pole Vault

By Dr Jane Ainsworth

Story of the Event

Women’s pole vault is now firmly established as one of the most spectacular and popular events on the women’s programme, but the event had to wait 70 years for its inclusion in the championships. 
Pole Vault, or pole jumping as it was known in Britain until the inter-war years, was contested by male athletes in the Amateur Athletic Association Championships from very beginning. The fact that competitors now compete for height, rather than distance, is owed to the great Victorian codifier of sports, J.G. Chambers, donor of the trophy for the men’s 7 Mile Walk. In putting together the programme for the first Amateur Athletic Club Championship in 1866, Chambers introduced the pole vault for height, having had its inclusion in the Varsity competition between the universities of Cambridge and Oxford vetoed by the Oxford representatives.

Women’s Amateur Athletic Association Rose Gillis Trophy for pole vault
Photo credit: David Rowan

No concessions, however, were made to the comfort of the competitors; it was not until 1912 that they were permitted to land on any other surface than grass.

In 1923, its first full year, the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association Committee met to establish the programme for their first championships. Public opinion on the suitability of any athletics event for women was still mixed and the WAAA considered it very important that they protect the athletes in their care by testing the effects of different disciplines. Under the supervision of Sam Mussabini, the coach of, amongst others, Harold Abrahams made famous by the film Chariots of Fire, the effects of pole vault and triple jump on Sophie Eliott-Lynn were tested. Eliott-Lynn would become WAAA champion in javelin and high jump, an event in which she would also hold the world record; she had an academic background in postgraduate biological research. In 1925 she presented a paper to the International Olympic Committee’s Medical Commission on the suitability of athletics for women; it is evidence of contemporary attitudes that she had to assure the IOC that athletics would not harm a woman’s ‘sacred duty’ of childbirth. In the view of the WAAA Committee in 1923, both pole vault and triple jump were deemed ‘entirely unfit for women and should not be allowed’.

It took until 1993 for pole vault to be admitted to the WAAA championship, with Kate Staples becoming the first champion. She won three titles in all, and finished second to the American Melissa Price in 1994, although she may remain better known to some as Zodiac, from the popular 90’s television series Gladiators. Pole Vault eventually appeared on the women’s Olympic programme in 2000, a year after the first medals were awarded to female vaulters at the World Championships.

The Donor
Rose Gillis, born Rose Thompson, was a world record-breaking sprinter in the 1920s, whose commitment to athletics continued throughout her life. A member of Manor Park Ladies AC, the precursor to Essex Ladies, she served as an official of the WAAA after her retirement from competition. In 1938 she managed the English women’s team at the Empire, now Commonwealth, Games in Sydney, as well as the British team at the European Championships in Brussels in the same year. 

Thompson was a precocious talent; in 1923, at the age of 19, she finished second to the outstanding sprinter of the day, Mary Lines, in the WAAA 100 Yards Championships. Later that summer, in an international match against France, Thompson equalled the 100 yard world record in a victory described by the charismatic donor of the women’s discus trophy, Sophie Eliot-Lynn, as:

Thompson winning 100 yds heats, Gothenburg 1926

“a sight that was perhaps one of the most beautiful ever seen. Clean-limbed and supple, with fair hair and clean complexion, she ran past the winning-post with a laugh on her lips and her face full of the happiness of life.”

In the following years, Thompson consolidated her success by winning the 100 yards and sprint relay in the International Women’s Games (pictured above) and becoming WAAA champion in 1925

History of the trophy
This trophy, which Rose won during her track career, was previously awarded to the winners of the intermediate girls’ 200m competition from 1984-1993.  From 2010, the AAA trophies have been awarded to the winners of the England Senior Championships. It was decided that the trophy bearing the name of Rose Gillis should celebrate the ground-breaking achievements in women’s athletics, and therefore it was transferred to the champions of the women’s pole vault.

Previous Winners*

1984 S.R. Short1988 D. Fraser1991 S. Smith
1985 H. Clements1989 D. Fraser1992 D. Mant
1986 T. Goddard1990 Katharine Merry1993 K. Merry
1987 A. Soper  
2010 E. Lyons2013 S. Peake2016 J. Ive
2011 S. Smith2014 S. Peake2017 O. McTaggart
2012 A. Haywood2015 J. Ive2018 S. Cook
  2019 F. Miloro

*N.B. Names are as recorded on the trophy and are not always as recorded elsewhere.  As indicated earlier, the winners of the trophy 1984-1993 competed in the Intermediate Girls’ 200m.  From 2010 the trophy was awarded to the winners of the Senior Pole Vault.