Track Stats - Bert Townsend

Bert Townsend, the least known of British steeplechase record-holders By A. Ballard Peck

British steeplechasing in the latter 1920s was of a respectable standard but rather tends to be forgotten, with the clearer memories being those of Percy Hodge winning the Olympic gold medal in 1920 and then Tom Evenson getting the silver medal and his Salford Harriers clubmate, George Bailey, being unjustly deprived of any sort of medal at the notorious over-distance 1932 Games event. The latter pair were certainly of a better quality than Hodge so far as times were concerned, even allowing for the possible variations in the number of barriers in use in those days, as Hodge ran 10:00.4 in Antwerp and Evenson ran 9:18.8 and Bailey an estimated 9:16.0 in successive heats in Los Angeles.

In between times Evelyn Montague, a future athletics correspondent of the “Manchester Guardian”, was a worthy 6th at the 1924 Games, and though all four Britons were eliminated in the heats in 1928 the times were gradually coming down significantly. Montague ran 9:58.0 and then Eddie Webster, of Birchfield Harriers, 9:57.6 in 1927, and the latter clocking was worth perhaps 20 seconds faster as it was achieved in a handicap event at the Rangers FC Sports in Glasgow and Webster covered an estimated 3120 metres in distance. At the AAA Championships the number of barriers for the two miles steeplechase was not regularised until 1932 and Evenson won the title in 10:13.8 that year, equivalent to around 9:35 for 3000 metres. All of these “records” would not be recognised until many years later, and only then by track “nuts” and not ruling bodies. There was not even an official World record for the steeplechase until 1954.

The times by Bailey at 3000 metres and Evenson at two miles would not be beaten until John Disley came along in the early 1950s, and the least familiar name to figure in the progressive record lists for the years between the wars is that of Herbert Townsend, who ran 9:40.2 in the match between Great Britain and France at Colombes on 28 July 1929. There is an interesting account of the race in “The Times”, but nowhere does the reporter mention the time which Townsend achieved, and the probable reason for that, of course, was that it was not officially announced:

“The French provided a rare little steeplechaser in H. Dartigues. For a while E.H. Oliver promised at least a duel at the finish, but evidently he was not at his best for he fell right back, and neither the heroic spirits of V.E. Morgan nor the nice style of H.W. Townsend could call back Dartigues and his gallant follower, M. Cuignet, in the closing stages”

The times were 9:27.0 for Dartigues and 9:35.4 for Cuignet, and by the standards of the day this was very good stuff indeed. Dartigues led the World rankings for the year from the Finn, Toivo Loukola (9:28.3), and Cuignet ranked 3rd and Townsend 7th. In 5th place, incidentally, was a future Olympic 1500 metres champion and World record-holder, Luigi Beccali, of Italy. Loukola had won the Olympic steeplechase in Amsterdam the previous year in a World record 9:21.8 ahead of Paavo Nurmi and Dartigues had placed 5th in 9:40.0. Dartigues had also finished 2nd in the International cross-country championships in March of 1929, leading France to team victory.

Townsend was thus an international-class steeplechaser, but the match against France was his one and only appearance for his country and even the year lists published 70 years later by the Association of Track & Field Statisticians gave him the wrong first name of “Harold”. Who, then, was H.W. Townsend?

Bert Townsend was a member of the Westbury Harriers club, and there is plenty of information to be found about him in the club history. Like so many of Britain’s steeplechasers from the very early years of the 20th Century onwards, he was primarily a cross-country runner who filled in his summers with occasional steeplechase events at various distances – some as short as threequarters-of-a-mile – to be found at local sports meetings or at the county championships. He was born on 26 June 1903 at St George, Bristol, and he joined the Westbury club at the end of the 1924-25 cross-country season. The club had been formed in 1924 in the village of Westbury-on-Trym, which is now part of Bristol but was in the 1920s isolated from the city.

During the winter of 1925-26 Townsend had some creditable and gradually improving results over the country for his club: 6th v Bristol University, 5th v Newport Harriers, 4th v St Gregory’s AC (Cheltenham), 2nd v Wesley St George Harriers, 2nd v Cheltenham & County Harriers. The Gloucestershire county title was won by a Westbury clubmate, Albert Clark, with Townsend 3rd. The next winter, stronger and more experienced, Townsend won the pre-Christmas club fixtures against Wesley St George, Spillers AC (Cardiff) and Cheltenham & County, and in the process beat Larry Cummins, an Irish member of Wesley St George who had already run for Ireland on three occasions in the International championship, placing 5th in 1920 and 7th in 1921. Cummins was also an Olympian, having run for Great Britain in the 1920 cross-country before the partition of Ireland took place.

Cummins was to become a persistent rival of Townsend’s over the next couple of years. The 1926-27 Gloucestershire cross-country championships were held at Westbury and Clark won again from Townsend and Cummins, and it was reported that there were so many spectators that the village was brought to a standstill. The first evidence of Townsend steeplechasing is in a two miles event that summer which he won at the Henbury Horticultural Show with Cummins 3rd.

The winter of 1927-28 brought another succession of wins in cross-country matches for Townsend and further success in the Midlands inter-club competition and then the county title ahead of Clark. For one fixture there was a “gruelling course of liquid mud alternating with frozen puddles, and falls were numerous”, but Townsend seemed to revel in such hardships and when the Midlands championship at a distance of 10 miles was held over a four-lap course at Cwmbran (actually in Wales!) “in terrible conditions” he won by almost half-a-minute from 152 others, including the established internationals, Joe Blewitt and Eddie Webster. Both of these men had a string of International appearances behind them and Blewitt had won the title in 1923 and Webster had done so two years later. So this was a win for Townsend of a very high order.

Webster had some revenge at the Inter-Counties’ championships in Windsor Great Park, winning the race with Townsend back in 6th place. Webster also won the National at Leamington Spa, with Townsend just out of the top 10 but selected as a travelling reserve for the International at Ayr Racecourse. There England had four in the first seven, but Webster was a non-scorer and France took the team title for the third successive year.

In the summer of 1928 Townsend won the Gloucestershire 880 yards and mile titles and produced a spectacular anchor stage to a medley relay at the Lovell’s sports ground in Newport, taking over 100 yards down on the Welsh 880 yards champion, Gwyn Lewis, and drawing level with 150 yards to go to win by a yard. His most notable cross-country result during 1928-29 was 4th in the Inter-Counties’ at Northolt, and on the track he won the Gloucestershire mile again before finishing 2nd to Edward Oliver, of Reading AC, in the AAA steeplechase. Webster, who had been the champion for the previous four years, had the grievous misfortune in this race to be disqualified for running round the water-jump on one lap, though he only did so to avoid landing on and injuring a runner who had fallen in front of him. Townsend continued competing through until 1937 and was Gloucestershire cross-country champion in 1935 and 1936 and 2nd in his retirement season to Frank Cummins, an Irishman (and presumably a brother of Larry Cummins) who was a fine six-miler on the track.

Bert Townsend was a typical example of a working man of the inter-war years who fitted in his running when he could. He and his wife had their own business of a greengrocery shop, and while his wife served behind the counter Townsend made the deliveries to local homes. He had suffered earlier tragedy when his first wife and her baby had died in childbirth. He died on 5 April 1966 at the age of 62.

Footnote: my thanks to Peter Griffin, president of Westbury Harriers, for help with this article. The 75th anniversary history of Westbury Harriers was published in 1999.