This week marks 100 years since the remarkable Mothers’ Marathon and I’d like to invite you to take a moment to reflect on the astounding achievement of five exceptional women: Lily Groom; Rose Firmager; Alice Sunderland; Ada May Edwards and Margaret Oliver.
I am grateful to a fellow women’s athletics history enthusiast who has brought this story back to life with contemporary reports, photos and the 1923 equivalent of TikTok, and asked me to share it on my blog to mark the centenary of the race.
The Mothers’ Marathon – more than a marathon
Imagine if someone challenged you to complete a marathon! Now imagine that it wasn’t over the recognised distance of 26 miles 365 yards but that it was in fact 52 miles – what we would now consider two marathons back to back. Now imagine if you had to complete it wearing a corset and heels. ……and you had to be a parent to three or more children whilst training for it…….and imagine pushing a pram throughout the challenge with your baby in it…….and let’s make that a 1920s pram! That’s the challenge these five amazing women completed on the 7th April 1923.
A challenge to mothers
In December 1922, a woman from Moss Side in Manchester, Ada May Edwards, issued a challenge in the press to all mothers of three or more children. They were invited to join her in a race from London to Brighton whilst pushing their youngest baby in a pram.
The challenge as seen in the Derby Daily Telegraph on 30th December 1922 reads:
Mrs Ada May Edwards of Moss Side, Manchester, who is 32 years of age and has six children, challenges any mother of three or more living children to a perambulator race from London to Brighton.
Each woman must push her youngest child, not more than six months old, in a perambulator. Mrs Edwards is the mother of the champion boy walker.
The overall winner would receive a prize of £6 value. There was considerable interest in the challenge in both the national and local newspapers. In the following months, some papers carried reports of the training that the women were doing in preparation for the race.
Despite protests by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and threats of legal action, in the early hours of the morning on 7th April 1923, five women assembled at Big Ben. The mothers were confident that their babies were safely wrapped up. In fine weather they set off from Big Ben at 5.20 am to walk the 52 miles to Brighton. Each woman was accompanied by one of the five judges – two women and three men – who rode bicycles.
Whilst there were some press reports to the contrary, there is clear evidence that all five determined women completed the distance. The first home was Lily Charlotte Groom from Eastbourne, a 40-year-old mother of five, who finished in 12 hours 20 minutes. (This is a equivalent to a pace of 14 minutes 14 seconds a mile.) She had pushed her 14-month-old baby in his pram. The press reported that they had been fuelled with a diet of chocolates, oranges and tea.
Results of the Mothers’ Marathon
The results were:
- Lily Charlotte Groom – 12 hours 20 minutes
- Rose Firmager – 12 hours 34 minutes
- Alice Sunderland – 12 hours 43 minutes
- Ada May Edwards – estimated time 14 hours 10 minutes
- Margaret Oliver – 15 hours 10 minutes
By all accounts, thousands of spectators lined the streets at the finish in Brighton to see the women arrive. Contemporary portrayals of the event varied wildly from “A triumph for the stamina of British mothers and babies” to “PRAM RACE FOLLY – Five Women Tramp 52 Miles with Their Babies”.
A Pathé news clip of the “Mothers’ Pram Marathon” has survived. It shows some of the mothers during the race and at the finish. Ada May Edwards (in a knitted hat and jumper) is shown stopping to feed her baby. Lily Charlotte Groom is shown finishing surrounded by crowds.
On the day of the Mothers’ Marathon the British Women’s Athletics Team were also breaking boundaries taking part in an international athletics competition in Monte Carlo. Whilst the Mothers’ Marathon was never repeated, the pioneering women of the track were only just getting started.
Please consider sharing the story of these outstanding women to give them visibility and to celebrate their legacy as pioneers in endurance. If you know more about this story, then please do get in touch. Perhaps you know through a family tie or have one of the elusive programmes which were known to be sold on the day of the Marathon. If so, we’d love to hear about it.