Fiery, outspoken, gifted and accomplished, Denise Ramsden forged a path for women in the North of England in a sport dominated by men. An Olympian whose achievements have largely been forgotten, her talent was spotted early by Stanley St Peter’s Primary school in Wakefield. Little did she know when she was a child that part of her international legacy would be a bronze medal as part of the world’s first female mixed heritage 4 x 100m relay team. Sport was in her blood.
Unaware of just how gifted their daughter was, her family were surprised when the school sent a letter home to her parents asking if they realised how much potential she had.* As a result, Denise started training with Dorothy Hyman, European and Commonwealth gold medallist and British Olympian and trainer, in 1960 at the age of just nine.
Wakefield Olympian Denise Ramsden
Denise came from a close-knit sporting family and was inspired by her uncles Malcolm and David Sampson’s success as Wakefield Trinity players. She trained hard and travelled the length of the country with her dad to AAA competitions, where she quickly established herself as a potential elite athlete. Denise was to meet her future husband, Melvin Castle, also from Stanley, in her uncle David’s pub. By then she was competing at international level and Melvin would support her, along with the rest of her family, at training sessions.
By 1967 Denise was representing Yorkshire schools at national level and, at just 15, had run 100 yards in 10.9 seconds during her training sessions. This was the same time as Dorothy Hyman had run, setting the record, ten years before at the AAA London’s White City Athletics Championships. By the end of the year, however, Denise had taken two-tenths of a second off the 100 yards and crossed the finish line with a time of 10.7 seconds, competing against Canada and France in Toronto. It was because of this achievement that Britain won the Junior Athletics Championships that year.
It wasn’t easy however, as Denise was competing in the shadow of the sport’s most controversial issue of the time. Dorothy Hyman, her coach, had been made to forfeit her amateur status when she was paid £250 for writing her book, Sprint to Fame, in 1964. Immediately deemed a professional as a result, all opportunities to continue in amateur athletic competitions were removed from Britain’s greatest sprinter of the time. This only changed 1968 when her appeal against the ban was successful.
By 1968, after training alongside top female athletes, including Dorothy Hyman, Denise won the English Schools Athletic Championships for the 100 yard sprint in a record breaking 10.7 seconds. The local press at the time described her as Dorothy Hyman’s protégé. This accolade and prediction of future success was well deserved, as Denise went on to become the title holder of the English School’s Athletics championship for the 100m, with a time of just 12.2 seconds.
In 1968 disaster struck, but tenacity, strong will and determination kept Denise on track. At a time when she was recognised as one of the world’s highest-achieving athletes for her age (16), Denise fell backwards while training with weights and fractured her spine. Despite this severe injury Denise continue to train and began preparing, in all seriousness, for the up-and-coming Commonwealth Games.
Meanwhile, the arguments about the need for amateur athletes to be able to receive money without impacting their status raged on in the national press. It was a waste of talent to ban gifted athletes and women, especially, suffered. Peter Wilson, a journalist for The Mirror wrote on 24 July 1969:
“Only in sport has the term amateur remained a term of appropriation. If you say that to an actor, musician, doctor, politician or pilot gave an amateur performance, you would be highly unpopular with the individual and in certain circumstances might lay yourself open to be sued. Yet in sport there is still the tradition of the ‘Gentleman’s and Tradesman’s entrances’ to be used by professionals and amateurs. To all intents and purposes the practice is dead but the tradition won’t lie down.”
Amateur vs professional
Wilson is referring of course, to sponsorship deals, hospitality packages, product placement payments and loopholes across all sports which allow athletes to be ‘paid’ indirectly. Calling out this hypocrisy served to put a spotlight on the behaviour and financial situation of up-and-coming athletes like Denise.
There should be no distinction between the quality of the athlete but, once money is involved, the perceived status of the sportsperson becomes blurred. At that time, Denise was still competing under the shadow of Dorothy Hyman’s ban from being able to represent her country at international level, despite being reinstated as an ‘amateur’. This constant stark reminder that Densie must remain an unpaid amateur in her sport in order to represent her country, when other ‘professional’ sportspeople were paid, was yet another barrier to her success.
Pouring all her energy into recovering from her spinal injury, training and wining competitions at regional and national level throughout 1969, Denise was lucky that her family were able to support her financially, unlike many other women who found it extraordinarily difficult and whose careers were cut short as a result.
The world’s first mixed heritage sprint team
These included women such as Anita Neil, Britain’s first female black Olympian, with whom Denise, along with Shelia Cooper and Valerie Peat, won bronze at the Athens European Athletics Championship in 1969 for their 4 x 100m relay.
This sporting quartet of young women was the first mixed heritage running team in the world and Denise’s role in this cannot be underestimated. Their victory in Athens came just one year after the 1968 Olympics Black Power Salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos. This protest resulted in the two male athletes being socially ostracised and their careers cut short.
As a white woman at the beginning of her Olympian career, Denise chose to stand shoulder to shoulder with her black teammate in solidarity, sending a message about the racial and gender narrative her sport was subject to.
Overlooked for being from the North
The early 1970s saw Denise competing at local, national, and international level but she was passed over to represent Great Britian at the 1970 Commonwealth Games. Spurred on by this, she went on to win the 1974 title for 100m sprints in the Northern Women’s AAA championship breaking a five-year-old record despite this, once again Denise was not selected for the England Team for the international against Romania and West Germany.
According to Wilf Paish, British national coach who had trained Denise when she was 14 and 15 years old, writing in the Manchester Evening News 3rd June 1974:
“It’s harder to get in a team than get off. My opinion is that a little bit of geography is more important than achievement. British Rail might have moved Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds nearer London, but the sportsmen and women are still in the George Stephenson steam age when it comes to selection.”
These prejudices against Denise’s northern heritage prevented her, according to Paish, from competing at international level. It didn’t, however, prevent her from being picked for Britain to compete at the Edinburgh International the same year.
By 1976, having left her job in the NHS the same year to dedicate her entire time to train, Denise was representing Great Britain at the Montreal Olympics where she became the UK national record holder for the 4 x 100m sprint relay. Just one year later, in 1977, she broke all records in the Northern Women’s AAA and retained her title for the fastest time in the 100m sprint.
Planning on retirement in 1978, Denise’s career came to an end after a hamstring injury at the UK Championships at Cwmbran, South Wales where the conditions were atrocious. Denise was carried off the field by fellow athlete Mike Bull, and never competed again. Despite her achievements and the legacy of inspiration she left behind, Denise was never truly recognised for her contribution to the world of sport.
You cannot be what you cannot see
Denise Castle (née Ramsden) is the 31st woman in Wakefield to be named on a blue plaque for her achievements and the 26th in Dream Time Creative’s Forgotten Women of Wakefield campaign for #blueplaqueparity since International Women’s Day 2018.
Dream Time Creative recently won the ‘Gathering and Preserving Community Heritage Group’ category and was named as the overall winner of 2023 at the Community Archives and Heritage Annual Conference for its outstanding contributions to local, national and international community archives. The team is therefore proud to announce that Denise’s blue plaque, funded by Wakefield Metropolitan City Council, ensures that Wakefield is the first city in the UK to have as many blue plaques for women as there are for men.
This is a fitting end to a story about how women, through different generations, must work harder, run faster and sacrifice more to be visible and recognised for their achievements.
*Based conversations with Denise’s husband.
Additional research by Lorraine Simpson with contributions from Helga Fox