Prominent female skater and trend setter of the 1930's and 40's
Violet "Vi" Kirby was born on 7th September 1915. She started speed skating at the age of 21 shortly after joining the National Skating Association in 1937. For women roller speed skaters it was not an era that would have much recognition either domestically or internationally.
Kirby's inaugural British Championship was the ladies Half Mile in 1937 on the Forest Gate rink in London. Skating for what was then known as Herne Bay Roller Hockey Roller Skating Club, Kirby won ahead of Edie Hanson taking the George French Challenge Shield for the first time. Back then the Half Mile was the only ladies British Championship competed for whilst the men were competing over three distances, the Half Mile, One Mile and Five Mile. Being a single annual event it was all or nothing for women back then and Kirby put her own name into the record books.
The Half Mile Championship had first been competed for back in 1924 of which there had only been five previous winners before Kirby. 1937 also saw a World Championships for the very first time, on the road in Monza, Italy, although Great Britain did not send a representation. Kirby would have been ineligible anyway as there were no women's World Championships at that time. In fact not until 1953 in Venice-Lido, Italy, would women have their own World Championships.
At the 1938 World Championships at Wembley, London, whilst there were no championship events for women there were some races and Kirby featured prominently. Also in 1938 Kirby retained her British Half Mile title this time on the Cricklewood rink and again in 1939, this time on her home track of Herne Bay Pier Pavilion. In doing so Kirby became the first woman skater to win the title on three different tracks.
The outbreak of the Second World War stopped any thoughts of speed skating or indeed British Championships for all skaters of that era. Although the war ended in 1945 speed skaters would not take to the track to compete in British Championships again until 1946.
When racing resumed after the war the ladies Half Mile Championship was once more raced again on Herne Bay Pier and again it was Kirby who won the event. Her victory made her the only British skater to have won a British title either side of the war. This was a fantastic achievement considering there had been a seven year break between titles and that there was still only one title per year up for grabs for women.
In June 1945 Kirby married Douglas Bygrave and in March 1947 the couple had their first child, Barry. Being a new mother, Kirby did not enter the 1947 British Half Mile Championship and had to relinquish her title to June Gillard (Broadway Cricklewood). Despite this Kirby continued to train and just 12 months later was back on the track racing. Kirby entered the 1948 ladies British Half Mile Championship to try and regain her title, and did so successfully, becoming the first woman to win the title five times. In fact her victory also meant that she had won the event every time she had competed in it between 1937 and 1948.
Shortly afterwards Kirby decided to retire from racing and concentrate on her family life. She was undoubtedly the most successful British woman skater of a generation and the following year donated a trophy to the National Skating Association which would be competed for annually. The Vi Kirby Trophy was first held in 1949 as the British Open Handicap Championship over a half mile for women, with the first recipient being Yvonne Brod (Broadway Cricklewood) winning from scratch.
Kirby went on to become a prominent figure on the Roller Speed Committee and continued to support the sport she loved for the next 30 years. In 1958 she became the Assistant Honorary Secretary. In 1962 she was nominated by the Committee to the World Governing Body, the Federation International de Roller Skating (FIRS), as an international judge and in 1963 took on the role of Honorary Secretary of the Roller Speed Committee. In the same year her husband, Doug, was co-opted onto the Committee and within two years would become Vice-Chairman.
Kirby herself was never able to compete in a World Championships but this didn't stop her helping out on occasion acting in a management capacity, either as chaperone to the British ladies or as Team Manager herself. Her first such appointment as chaperone came in 1964 for the World Championships in Madrid, Spain and then again at the 1965 World Championships in Siracusa, Italy. In 1967 she would co-manage with Miriam Cooper the British women's team that took part in the ladies only World Championships in Barcelona, Spain. These Championships were as much a success for her as they were for Britain with Pat Barnett taking silver in the 500 metres and bronze in the 5000 metres, Pat Eason a bronze in the 500 metres and the duo taking gold in the relay.
Kirby continued as the Roller Speed Secretary up until 1971 when she relinquished these duties but still continued as a Committee member. Two years later saw her take on the role as Vice Chairman, a position she held up until 1975. Even after this she continued to be an active member of the Roller Speed Committee and also stand as an elected member of the NSA Council representing roller speed. In 1983, however, the structure of the Committee and the roller speed representation on the NSA Council was turned on it's head.
For many years members of the Roller Speed Committee had either re-elected themselves or co-opted people onto the Committee as they saw fit. It was a belief that no member of the Committee could be an active competitive skater, however, in 1982 this belief was challenged. Not being happy with what was thought to be "jobs for the boys" or "an old school tie brigade" and what some thought as an oppressive Committee that lacked vision, a group of skaters, primarily from the Mercia club that included the likes of John E. Fry and John Mullane, immersed themselves in the constitutional documents of the NSA to find out where this rule was actually stated. They found that it wasn't. Fry, Mullane and some of their other club members put their names forward to be elected not only onto the Roller Speed Committee but to the NSA Council. At the Annual General Meeting of the National Skating Association, Fry and an entourage of skaters went en masse and voted for themselves to become Committee members. It was a revolutionary turning point in the history of the sport in Britain as they got the exact result they had set out to achieve. Some members of the outgoing Committee struggled to accept that this had happened, but the simple truth was that their misguided belief that skaters could not be "elected" was borne simply from the fact that they did not know the rules and had taken for granted that their positions were secure and re-election was simply a formality. For Kirby it was the end of a lifelong association with the sport she loved and she walked away from the sport to pursue other interests. The manner in which her 'retirement' was executed may not have been as she may have foreseen, but her "exit" was taken more graciously than some of the other now ex-Committee members who found themselves ousted.
Violet Bygrave (nee Kirby) died in March 1987. Sadly her trophy, no longer competed for, was "lost" in the late 1980's - early 1990's. Unfortunately, although a list of all winners for the event is known to us from the first competition in 1949 to the last holding of this event, the British Federation was in a state of flux and suffering from much disorganisation at that time. No formal record was kept as to who was the last recipient of this most prestigious and coveted trophy and despite efforts to find and retrieve it, the person who currently has it has yet to come forward.
As for Violet, you would be hard pushed to find a British woman roller speed skater who dedicated so much of her life as a competitor, an officer of the Roller Speed Committee and NSA Council, an International Judge and above all someone who simply loved the sport. The fact that she was successful in all of these things means that she is much deserved to be recognised as one of our British skating legends.