Track Stats - 1908 Olympic Marathon
The true value of the British runners in the 1908 Olympic marathon – selected on merit or influence?
Published in “Track Stats” August 2008
It ought really to have been a fairly simple process to nominate Britain’s marathon-runners for the 1908 Olympic Games, as the rules allowed as many as 12 to take part from each country. Yet the process by which the chosen dozen were selected remains something of a mystery, and even David Martin and Roger Gynn in their masterly work, “The Olympic Marathon”, confess that they cannot trace the means of qualifying for five of them.
The names of the 12 British runners were announced in “The Times” on 12 June of that year. They were Fred Appleby (Herne Hill Harriers), Ernest Barnes (Derby & County AC), Harry Barrett (Polytechnic Harriers), James Beale (Polytechnic Harriers), Billy Clarke (Sefton Harriers), Alex Duncan (Salford Harriers), Tom Jack (Edinburgh Southern Harriers), Fred Lord (Wisbey Park AC), Jack Price (Small Heath Harriers), Sam Stevenson (Clydesdale Harriers), Fred Thompson (Ranelagh Harriers) and Alf Wyatt (Radcliffe Harriers).
For all of them long-distance running on the road was a new venture in 1908, and they did not exactly cover themselves in glory in the Olympic marathon – only four finished, with Clarke the best of them in 12th place, Barnes 13th, Lord 15th and Beale 17th. There is some doubt as to whether Stevenson started the race, though he is certainly listed as having done so in the official Games report as his name is included in the somewhat superfluous draw for starting positions. It would seem that an excess of patriotic zeal caused most of the British contingent to go off too fast and thus pay for their impetuosity in the later stages of the race. As this was the first marathon to be run at what is now the universally accepted distance of 26 miles 385 yards, Clarke’s time of 3:16:09 4/5 was retrospectively installed as the inaugural British record.
Yet there was an English-born athlete who certainly ran up to expectations in that Olympic race and finished far ahead of all of the British representatives. He was Harry Lawson, who was 7th for Canada in 3:06:47 1/5 but had been living in his country of adoption for only four years, having emigrated after competing for England in the first International Championship cross-country race in 1903, in which he was also 7th, and then winning the Northern cross-country title in 1904 as a member of Leeds AC. He won the Canadian Olympic marathon trial in Toronto on 6 June 1908 in a time of 2:38:11 for 25 miles, and he is given a year of birth of 1888 in the results published in “The Olympic Marathon”, and in Ekkehard zur Megede’s comprehensive compilation, “The Modern Olympic Century”, but this is clearly in error as Lawson would thus have been only 15 years old in 1903!
Another of the Olympic marathon competitors with a strong British connection was Georg Lind, who finished 19th for Russia in 3:26:38 4/5 but lived in Britain for perhaps as much as 18 years. Andy Milroy, one of the foremost long-distance running historians, has discovered that Lind was resident in Hayward, in Lancashire, in 1901 and subsequently in Enfield, in Middlesex. During July or August of 1908 Lind was racing in Stockholm at 3000 and 10,000 metres, as was one of Britain’s Olympic marathoners, Fred Lord, and may also have competed in one of the marathon “trials” in England, though there is no evidence of him having done so. George Lind, as he was known in Britain, was born in about 1871 and is thought to be of Estonian origin.
David Martin and Roger Gynn state that there were four Olympic trial races for British aspirants held during April and May of 1908, and the results of these were as follows:
4 April, Blackheath: 24 miles 670 yards, won by E.R. Small in 2:51:02 1/5 from H.B. Knapp 2:52:24 4/5 and E.V. Norman 2:53:52. All three were members of Blackheath Harriers.
25 April, Windsor-to-Wembley Park: 22 miles 1,420 yards, won by Duncan in 2:15:45 from Beale 2:17:00, Lord 2:18.04, Jack 2:18:42, Barrett 2:18:46 and Thompson 2:20:05.
9 May, Coventry-to-West Bromwich: 25 miles, won by Price in 2:37:13 from Billy Day (Birchfield Harriers) 2:54:40, and Alf Edwards (Small Heath Harriers) 2:56:45.
23 May, Eton-to-Wembley: also 22 miles 1,420 yards, won by J.B. Powell (South London Harriers) in 2:28:23, from R.S. Bugg (Salford Harriers) 2:30:33, and A.E. Wooller (Brighton & County Harriers) 2:32:13.
The first six finishers in the race on 25 April, organised by Polytechnic Harriers, were selected for the Olympic marathon, as was the Coventry winner. Yet Small and Powell were not, and the reasons for their omission are still not entirely certain to this day. To complicate matters further, the five other chosen men clearly did not stake an obvious claim in any of the above races. Stevenson did not even take part, and in the Polytechnic event Clarke was 22nd and Appleby and Wyatt non-finishers, while Barnes, though 9th, was selected ahead of the 7th- and 8th-placed runners, J.J. Burgess (Shaftesbury Harriers) and C.S. Silsby (Hampstead Harriers), who thus both had some cause for grievance. Burgess recorded 2:21:34, Silsby 2:22:37 and Barnes a distant 2:26:15. Powell and Small were 16th and 36th respectively in this race, which obviously counted against them in the considerations.
The 66 competitors had been subject to the most appalling conditions as rain, sleet and snow fell at various times and the road surface was said to have been “already rendered terribly heavy underfoot”. Beale led at 10 miles in 55:19 from Lord and Duncan, with Appleby a dozen yards behind. Lord, Beale and Appleby were together at 15 miles in 1:24:55 before Beale established a 50-yard lead and was then caught and passed by Duncan a mile or so from the finish. Beale must have weakened dramatically because Duncan’s winning margin was some 400 yards.
Other races figure in the selectors’ deliberations
“The Times”, on the following Monday, published the results for the first 20 finishers and said that the event “was recognised by the AAA as the test on which to base the selection of the British representatives”. Assuming such wording accurately reflected the AAA stance, there was obviously some room left for manoeuvre when the choices came to be made, and what has become apparent from recent detailed research is that other evidence was taken into consideration. The “Manchester Guardian”, with a natural interest in the Northern-based marathon candidates, described the Polytechnic event as “the official trial race” and noted that of the 82 original entries 66 were from the South, nine from the North, five from the Midlands, and one each from Ireland and Scotland.
Eight of the men chosen for the Olympic marathon came from a doughty cross-country background and between them during their competitive careers took part on a total of 15 occasions in the annual International Championship contested between the home countries and France – Barnes had a best of 10th in 1909, Beale was a non-finisher in 1906, Clarke 5th in 1908, Jack 5th in 1907, Lord 7th in 1909, Price 6th in 1906, and Stevenson 6th in 1905. Wyatt’s credentials were rather less impressive but still of some note, as he had placed 2nd in the 1908 Northern “junior” cross-country – a race for clubs which had not previously won medals in the senior event, not for juniors by age – and was an England reserve for the 1910 International. Appleby, though also adept at cross-country, was primarily a long-distance track runner, having set a World record at 15 miles in 1902. Duncan was the winner of the 1908 AAA track 10 miles. The versatile Thompson had been AAA champion for the seven miles walk in 1907 but had decided to concentrate on running in Olympic year. Only Barrett seems to have emerged in 1908 as a specialist in the new-fangled “marathon”.
In addition to the four designated trials, it has become evident that other races had a varying degree of bearing on the selectors’ decisions – in particular, at 19 miles, organised by Salford Harriers on 21 March, and at 18 miles, organised by the Liverpool & District Cross Country Association on 4 April. There were also two other events in London and Derby of note, according to the researches into the Olympic selection process carried out by co-authors Ron Hill and Neil Shuttleworth for their excellent history, “Manchester Marathons 1908-2002”, published in 2003, although both of these promotions were restricted to members of the respective organising clubs.
The significance of these further “trials” is to be found in the deliberations of delegates at the Northern Counties’ Athletics Association meeting at the Albion Hotel, in Manchester, on 8 February 1908, where it was reported that in connection with the forthcoming Olympic Games the Association’s district committees had been invited “to recommend entrants for the trial races to be held on April 25 and May 30, these including running and field events”. Presumably, the same message had been relayed by the AAA to officials throughout the country.
So far as the nomination of athletes for the track and field events on the latter date was concerned, this task presumably presented the NCAA committee-men with no great difficulties, but they had no form to go on regarding the marathon trial, and so it would seem sensible that the Salford and Liverpool events should have been arranged.
Ron Hill and Neil Shuttleworth note in their book that Salford Harriers was already a thriving distance-running club in the early 20th century and the decision had been made by officials in 1907 to hold a race in preparation for the Olympic marathon. A 20-mile course was devised, starting and finishing at a public house in Heatley, Warburton, in Cheshire, and taking in a loop round Aston, Tabley, Knutsford, Mere and Hoo Green, though re-measurement afterwards showed that it was actually 19 miles in length.
Lord wins the Salford trial – and a future Olympic champion fails to finish
The Salford winner was the Yorkshireman, Fred Lord, whose club was based in the small village of Wibsey, south of Bradford, in 1:50:23 from the Lancastrian, Alf Wyatt (1:50:45), whose club was also situated in a village, midway between Bolton and Bury. H.S. Perkin, of Salford Harriers, was a long way behind in 3rd place (1:57:43). The Manchester-based “Sporting Chronicle” reported on the following Monday that in beautiful weather Lord and Wyatt had been dominant, “showing splendid form”, and Lord won by 150 yards after he and Wyatt had run together until the last mile, but the local favourite, Duncan, had surprisingly fallen behind at 14 miles.
Two other runners of exceptional merit were 4th and 5th – Billy Day, of Birchfield Harriers (1:59:49), who had taken part in the five previous International Championship cross-country races, with a highest placing of 7th in 1904 and 1907, and Alex Duncan, of the host club (2:01:05), who had been 2nd in the previous year’s AAA 10 miles track race.. Day was also 2nd in the Midlands event on 9 May, described as “a trial race in view of the Marathon race to be held in connection with the Olympic Games”, but finished more than 17 minutes behind the winner.
There had been 30 runners taking part and 15 of them finished, of whom eight were members of Salford Harriers. Among those who dropped out was Emil Voigt, of Manchester AC, who was to subsequently win the Olympic five miles track race. A notable non-starter had been Frank Melville, of the North-East club, Elswick Harriers, who had won the Morpeth-to-Newcastle 14 miles race that year and the Northern “junior” cross-country ahead of Wyatt and Lord. A week after the trial the “Sporting Chronicle” reported that a survey of the finishers had revealed that “they had done little, if any, special training, and never in their lives had they run 20 miles”.
The Liverpool race was also reported in detail by the “Liverpool Daily Post & Mercury” newspaper and was described as being held “to select the best men to represent the district as candidates”, which strongly suggests that this was a qualifying race for the trial on 25 April. The route was recounted in detail and is worth recording for those who know the area: starting at Warbreck Moor, Aintree, and passing through Netherton, Sefton, Maghull, Lydiate, Aughton, Ormskirk and Scarisbrick (the birthplace of the father of the subsequent Olympic bronze-medallist, Joe Forshaw, of the USA), and finishing in Zoo Park, Southport. The winner, Clarke, led from seven miles onwards in a cold wind, and it was reported that “dust from passing motor-cars occasioned a great deal of discomfort” to the 31 competitors. Clarke’s winning time was 1:46:08 and he had the best part of eight minutes to spare over H.H. Herbert, of Liverpool Boundary Harriers (1:53:44), with J. Edge, of Sefton Harriers, 3rd in 1:54:18.
Among the other starters were three runners of great renown. Jack Rimmer, of Southport Harriers, had won the longer of the two Olympic steeplechase events at the 1900 Games as a member of the Sefton club and had been AAA four miles track champion the same year. Charlie Straw, of Sutton Harriers, had won the 1906 International Championship cross-country. Sammy Welding, also of Sutton, had run in the International cross-country on four occasions, finishing 3rd in 1907. They were all in the leading group early on, but none of them figured in the first six and so presumably retired from the race at some stage.
Clarke comes to the marathon from a track and cross-country background
William Thomas Clarke came from the village of Harmston, some five miles south of Lincoln, and had started running in 1904 and joined Sefton the next year. His date of moving to Liverpool is given as 1906, and it may be that he was recruited by the club while still living in Lincolnshire. He was 6th in the Northern cross-country championships in 1907 and then 3rd in a closely-contested AAA track 10 miles in Manchester in April, which was won by Adam Underwood, of Birchfield Harriers (who had also won the International cross-country title three weeks before), from Alex Duncan, who was then a member of the Welcome Harriers club in his home town of Kendal, in Cumbria – times of 54:03.0, 54:06.0 and 54:06 4/5 respectively.
The 1908 Northern cross-country was held at Haydock Park on 15 February, and Clarke won by 300 yards, having taken the lead after the first mile. His achievement was described in the “Liverpool Daily Post & Mercury” as “the most comfortable victory of recent years”, but at the National championships at Newbury Racecourse on 7 March he sprained his ankle and was forced to retire. A fortnight later he was recovered sufficiently to win the Liverpool & District event, and presumably on the basis of his Northern win he was included in the England team for the following week’s International at Colombes, where he placed 5th – and 4th English scorer!
It would seem, though, that Clarke’s win in the Liverpool-to-Southport trial race did not automatically gain him his Olympic marathon place. The “Liverpool Daily Post & Mercury” interestingly reported when his selection was announced that he “only just scraped on to Great Britain’s team, chiefly through the perseverance of his club and Mr G. Duxfield, of the Liverpool & District Centre of the NCAA”. George Duxfield was clearly a man of some influence, and he was certainly an official of great experience. A member of Southport Harriers, which had been formed in 1902 from the Southport Athletic Society dating from the 1860s, he had been instrumental in putting forward the idea of a Northern athletics championships in 1879, and the NCAA had been formed two months later, with Duxfield as secretary, and the first championships held in Southport the following year. Duxfield was also one of the six Northern representatives at the formation of the AAA in 1880 and was NCAA president in 1897. Most significantly, regarding his championing of Clarke’s cause, Duxfield was one of the six judges appointed for the Olympic marathon.
The two other closed “trial” races identified by Ron Hill and Neil Shuttleworth can reasonably be said not to have affected the Olympic selections. The first of them, on 28 March, was organised by the Ranelagh Harriers club, whose headquarters were at Richmond Park, in London, and 15 of their members took part in the 20-mile event. It was won very easily in 2:08:30 1/5 by Fred Thompson, and as the course included three laps of 6½ miles in Putney Heath and some additional stretch of the Portsmouth road the distance may well have been in excess of 20 miles. In any case, Thompson was to clinch his Olympic place in the Poly event the following month. On 11 April Derby & County Harriers staged a race at 22 miles 1,380 yards, and it would be logical to presume that it was here that Ernest Barnes, one of their members, earned his selection – in fact, he was only 4th, 25 minutes behind the winner, R. Eglington (2:37:40), having apparently walked the last seven miles. Eglington also ran in the Poly trial and finished 24th.
Quite why the Coventry race, which was organised by Birchfield Harriers on behalf of the Midland Counties, seems to have been regarded as a formal trial, and the Salford and Liverpool races were not, remains unclear, but the historian, Alex Wilson, has made a close study of the circumstances and has come to a perfectly feasible conclusion: “The Poly trial was the key. With the Polytechnic Harriers having been chosen to design and marshal the Olympic marathon route, their race would have had a lot of sway, and it was designated as the ‘main trial’. Powell, the winner of the 23 May trial organised by his club, South London Harriers, did not get selected because the race he won was over a near identical distance to the Poly trial and he was almost 13 minutes slower than Duncan. Small, the Blackheath winner, was similarly much slower than Price was in the longer Coventry race”.
How did Appleby, the most durable of track record-holders, earn his place?
Regarding the other Olympic team members, it can be reasonably assumed that Wyatt owed his Olympic selection to having finished such a close 2nd at Salford to Lord, who was then 3rd in the Poly “main trial” a month later, and Appleby seems to have got in because he had still been in 4th place in the Poly trial with little more than a mile to go but had then collapsed in the foul weather conditions. Certainly, there is no denying that Appleby was one of the foremost British distance-runners of the early 20th century, though his best performances had been achieved some years before. He had beaten the great Alfred Shrubb twice in 15-mile track races during 1902 and on the latter occasion, at Stamford Bridge, established a permanent place in athletics history by setting a time of 1:20:04 3/5 which stood until 1937 and remains to this day the longest surviving World record for a track race. It also lasted as a British record until 1954, when John Stone ran 1:19:19.4. Appleby, who was born on 30 October 1879, lived just long enough to see his domestic record broken, dying in 1956 at the age of 76.
A dentist by profession Appleby had also regularly run in the AAA four miles and 10 miles track championships, with a best placing of 2nd to Shrubb at the former distance, again in 1902. He then restricted himself to cross-country – maybe because of the demands of his dental practice – and there seems no obvious reason other than past glories as to why his failure to finish the Poly trial still resulted in him being chosen for the Olympic marathon. The AAA suspended him from competition in 1909 and he had a brief but frenzied professional career, running three marathons and a 15-mile race within 24 days in the USA in May of that year, with an indoor marathon best of 2:56:17 in New York, before returning to dentistry.
That leaves Barnes and Stevenson as the “mystery men” among the Olympic dozen. Barnes later proved himself an able cross-country runner by finishing 10th in the 1909 International, but it is still inexplicable as to why he was preferred to two other men who beat him in the Poly race. So far as Stevenson is concerned, Alex Wilson has an interesting theory that his inclusion came about by personal influence in much the same way as Clarke’s:
“I can only surmise that Stevenson was a concessionary selection to appease the Scots, because this was, after all, a Great Britain team. The other Scotsman, Tom Jack, was selected on merit, and I think that the Scottish AAA made a successful case for selecting their next best man. It is worth noting that one of the timekeepers at the Olympic Games was Andrew Hannah, who also came from Stevenson’s club, Clydesdale Harriers, had been five times Scottish cross-country champion, and who was one of the leading officials in Scotland as honorary secretary of the Western District and a year later president of the Scottish AAA”. As it happens, Stevenson did not have any cross-country form of real note in 1908 and was not in the Scottish team for the International, though he had run in 1904-05-06.
How curious, though, that the selection process by the host country for what was to be the most renowned marathon race in Olympic history should continue to be a century later so much a matter of conjecture, rather than solid fact!
The sequel to the 1908 Olympic marathon