British Pairs Skating has a long and exciting history and has seen Champions excel internationally since the early 1900’s. Phyllis and James Johnson were crowned World Pairs Champions twice during the early days of international style skating, followed by Madge and Edgar Syers who also attained international success. In the 1920’s this legacy was continued by Ethel Muckelt and John Ferguson Page. Other pairs to note included the brother and sister duo of Winnie and Dennis Silverthorne in the 1940’s and 50’s followed by Liverpudlians Joyce Coates and Tony Holles and additionally Jenny and John Nicks, with John later going on to achieve greatness as a coach to World Champion skaters.
The war years stopped many a skating career in its tracks. However, a couple who spanned the war years albeit with a six year break in their skating were Violet (Vita) and Leslie Cliff who emerged on the skating scene in the 1930’s.
Vita Supple was born in Bath on 2nd November 1916. Leslie Cliff on the other hand was born in June 1908, in The Curragh, Ireland, where his father was an army officer. By 1911 he was living with his parents, two brothers and five servants in Aldershot. Leslie was a natural sportsman and enjoyed both tennis and equestrian sports. He also spent some of the winter time in Switzerland with his family where he learned to ski and skate.
After joining the NSA in 1931 Leslie originally skated as an individual, but after meeting Vita in 1933 the two began their pairs skating career together. Their progress was swift and in their very first year together they entered the British Pairs Skating Championship, achieving third place. The following year, in Birmingham, in only their second attempt, they were Champions. On 9th April 1935 Leslie and Vita entered another partnership when they were married at Christchurch Priory.
The couple retained their title as British Champions and holders of the Johnson Trophy five more times. Internationally in 1936 they took the Bronze medal in the World Championships in Paris and the silver medal in the European Championships in Berlin. They also competed at the Winter Olympic games in Garmisch Partinkirchen coming a respectable 7th. International success continued in 1937 when they were again 3rd in the World Championships.
Capt. T D Richardson said of them, “The pairs skating of Mr and Mrs Cliff is distinguished by a splendid togetherness, one of the great essentials of good pair skating. Their programme is always a delight to watch as it is performed with excellent speed with impeccable accuracy and charm, while their timing is beyond reproach.”
With such devotion and dedication to skating it would seem the couple had no time for other activities, but this was not the case. In the 1930’s Leslie was living in Kent and had learned to fly at The Cinque Ports Flying Club. By 10th April 1930 had gained his Royal Aero Club aviation certificate. Such was his enthusiasm that he immediately took delivery of his own aircraft, a Gypsy Moth, G:AAVV. Leslie then passed his knowledge on to others as a flying Instructor in Lympne and later at Brooklands in Surrey.
For many years Leslie piloted his plane and eventually his wife Vita joined him as a passenger. They took on flying jobs and notably, in atrocious weather, on King George VI’s Coronation Day, they flew press photographs and cinema footage of the coronation to Yorkshire, to enable newspapers in the county to be first to publish the photographs in the north. In fact, cinemas in Hull were showing the film by 10pm that evening, all thanks to Leslie and Vita.
His prowess as a pilot was evident as Leslie not only enjoyed flying as a pastime but ever the competitor, entered air races. In 1938 he flew in the 1938 King’s Cup Air Race, coming in 3rd. 1939 signalled a new phase in Leslie’s career with the start of WWII. Skating on hold, it was inevitable that he would join the RAF. His war contribution was significant as illustrated by the facts that he finished the war with the rank of Squadron Leader and holder of the Air Force Cross.
Post-War Leslie and Vita continued skating, they competed in the British Championships as soon as Leslie was demobbed and came 2nd. As Leslie had not skated for six years this was very respectable considering that a much younger crop of skaters, too young for war service, were able to continue skating between air raids and were far more competition ready. Not surprisingly, Leslie and Vita made the decision to retire from competitive skating, however, they continued skating for pleasure whilst raising their family.
Leslie did not give up flying though and went on to be a commercial airline pilot. Nor did he give up competitive sport. By the 1950’s he was a member of the West Wilts Golf Club and competed in many golf tournaments. Leslie and Vita were not only talented skaters but all-round sports people who managed to fit so much into their lives. Truly inspirational.
Leslie died in Jersey on 2nd August 1969 age 61. Vita died in Winchester in July 2003 age 86.
Kindly provided by NISA Historian, Elaine Hooper