Diane Charles (Leather)

Diane Charles (Leather)

England Athletics is greatly saddened to hear of the passing of Diane Charles (Leather) who was a pioneer of distance running, including being the first woman to break 5min for the mile as well as breaking world records at 440 yards, 880 yards and 1500m. 

We would like to express our condolences to her family and friends at this time.

Diane was induced into the England Athletics Hall of Fame for her many accomplishments as an athlete and in breaking new ground for female athletes. The calibre of her performances as an athlete and contribution to the sport was truly exception. As Mel Watman noted at that time:

Among the guests of honour at the 50th anniversary celebrations in May 2004 of Roger Bannister’s pioneering four minute mile at Oxford was Diane Charles (née Leather). Much to her astonishment as well as delight, it seemed, her name when announced elicited warm applause from the crowd assembled at Iffley Road. Her miling exploits of half a century earlier had not been forgotten. Being the first woman to break five minutes was not comparable to becoming the first man to duck under four minutes, but during the infancy of the women’s event it was rated a highly significant landmark, coming as it did just 23 days after Bannister’s feat.

Diane Leather was 20 when in 1953 she first smashed the world best for the mile (it did not become an official IAAF approved world record event until 1967) with 5:02.6. A few weeks later Edith Treybal of Romania ran 5:00.3, a time that Diane reduced to an even more tantalising 5:00.2 early in the 1954 season.

Three days after that, in the Midland Championships at Birmingham’s Perry Barr Stadium, the 1.78m (5ft 10in) tall Birchfield Harrier edged through the barrier with 4:59.6.

It proved a memorable year, for in June she set a world 880 yards record of 2:09.0 and in August she finished second in the inaugural European 800m championship to the great Soviet runner, Nina Otkalenko. Diane also demonstrated impressive speed for a four-time English cross country champion by clocking 56.6 for 440 yards, which equalled the world best although admittedly considerably inferior to the existing 400m mark of 55.0.

In 1955 she made two substantial improvements to the mile record. In May she clocked 4:50.8, while in September she registered 4:45.0 with an unofficial world best en route of 4:22.2 at 1500m. That time would stand as a world best for seven years and a British best for 11 years. She also set three British 800m records with a best of 2:06.9 and closed her season with a British 400m record of 56.3. Clearly she would have been an Olympic medal contender in 1956 at either 800m or 1500m, but neither event was on the programme in Melbourne as the only women’s track events were 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and 4x100m relay!

A notable achievement in 1957 was winning the WAAA 880 yards and mile titles on the same afternoon, and in 1958 she again struck silver at the European Championships, with a UK record 2:06.6.

Married to Peter Charles in July 1959, Diane was past her best performances by 1960 and although she fulfilled an ambition by making the Olympic team she was eliminated in the 800m heats. A mother of four, she became a social worker first in London and then in Cornwall, retiring at the age of 70.

Born: 7.1.1933, Streetly (Staffordshire)

Club: Birchfield Harriers

Major medals: Silver – 1954 & 1958 European 800m

World records: 440 yards – 56.6 in 1954; 880 yards – 2:09.0 in 1954; 1500m – 4:30.0 and 4:29.7 in 1957; mile – 5:02.6 in 1953, 5:00.2 and 4:49.6 in 1954, 4:50.8 and 4:45.0 in 1955; 3x880 yards relay – 6:49.0 in 1953, 6:46.0 in 1954

Inducted into the England Athletics Hall of Fame: 2013

Pictured above at England Athletics Hall of Fame in 2013 and at the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the four minute mile in 2004 making a presentation to the medallists in the Junior Mile including 2011 World Championships silver medallist at 1500m, Hannah England.

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