Track Stats - Malcolm Ash

Athletics on three continents: Malcolm Ash, one of the most versatile athletes of the 1950s, remembers Geoff Elliott, George Broad and others

by Michael Sheridan

We don't receive many telephone calls from Australia in this house. So when I picked up the receiver and an intelligent female voice announced that she was calling from Portarlington, Victoria, I thought it must be my birthday. Her name, she said, was Sylvia Ash and she wondered if her husband, a former athlete, was mentioned in my book on 1950s athletics. “Ash ?” The name seemed familiar. I ventured, “Is his name Malcolm and was he a pole vaulter ?”. As it happens I was right as far as that went, but his talents and history are much more interesting than that. Together with Malcolm and Sylvia, I have been able to put together his story in the sport.

Malcolm Ash was born in Karachi in 1931 where his father was working. The family lived in India until 1945 when his father's job ended. They went to live in Australia for a few months, but his father was then appointed to a position in New Delhi and so the family returned to India. Malcolm was educated at St Joseph’s College, North Point, Darjeeling. The first reference to Malcolm's athletics ability appears in an article in “The Sunday News of India” in June 1948, which reported:

It was one of those sultry mid-April afternoons when life seemed a bore and the thought of any thing athletic seemed to pall. In walked a youngster and asked if we could tell him anything about athletics. He had won the event at school, he said, and now wanted to improve with a view to taking part in the Olympic Games. He naively asked what his chances were. He was just sixteen and obviously as keen as mustard. During our chat he disclosed that he had never a single lesson in his life; he just jumped and hoped for the best. He assured me that if I could find someone to teach him he would faithfully carry out instructions. So he was directed to Ullal Rao, who had successfully emerged from his course at Loughborough Athletic College in England as a qualified coach, and Ullal took the boy in hand. The other day, just two months since his training began, I dropped round at the Victoria Gardens pit to see what progress the lad – Malcolm Ash – was making. Imagine my surprise when I saw him clearing 5 feet 6 inches effortlessly, fully 10 inches more than he had in school, phenomenal progress by any standards ! Here, I thought, was the best jumping prospect since Rao himself who, by the way, is today clearing 6 feet 3 inches and is back in his old form.

By the following year, 1949, Malcolm was in England where he joined the Royal Air Force. He was to undertake his service mainly in Australia and Singapore. It is in 1953 that we have the first evidence of Malcolm's splendid range of talents. The national YMCA of Australia Inter-Association Tournament was held at Easter that year at Newcastle, New South Wales. Malcolm's certificate of achievement from the Tournament shows him gaining 1st places in the 100 yards, relay, high jump and long jump. He was then 2nd in the Victorian Championships pole vault with 11ft 6in (3.50m). The previous month he had set his best performances to date over high jump and pole vault at 1.879/6-2 and 3.66/12-0. He went on to become a four-times Royal Australian Air Force champion at 120 yards hurdles, high jump, long jump and triple Jump. He also played hockey for RAF Selatar. Later the same year he ended his military service and returned to England.

He was now faced with the business of how to earn his living in civilian life. He joined S. H. Benson's Advertising Agency in London, wanting to be part of the art department to develop his artistic talents, but the company decided he was too old, approaching his 23rd birthday, and so instead he became an account executive. The office life frustrated him and so he decided on a complete change by joining the London Fire Brigade. Sylvia comments this was '”much to the shock of all the family because firemen did not seem to be held in great esteem at that time”.

Malcolm Ash high jump technique


Malcolm Ash high hurdles technique

The jumping and hurdling techniques of Malcolm Ash

In 1954 Malcolm joined Belgrave Harriers which was then, as now, one of the capital's leading athletics clubs. By now he was spending a great deal of time pole vaulting. He did not own a car and travelled to training and meetings by public transport, usually bus, which meant he had to obtain permission to push the pole down the centre of the bus!

By 1955 he was competing regularly for his club at a range of events. The athletes who were his rivals were many of those who were synonymous with that era in English athletics – over 120 yards and 220 yards hurdles were Polytechnic Harriers’ Peter Hildreth, London AC's Vic Matthews, South London Harrier Jack Parker and Achilles mainstay Paul Vine; at high jump Walton AC's Paul Stableforth and London AC's athlete from the Gold Coast, Charles Van Dyck; and at pole vault Herne Hill Harriers’ George Broad, multi-record setter Geoff Elliott from Woodford Green and Manchester AC's Raymond Petitjean. Malcolm recalls: “Everywhere I competed I seemed to come across George Broad and Geoff Elliott. I hope they remember me !” 1955 was also the year he competed on the European mainland with a group of London-based athletes in Stockholm.

In 1956 he was appointed field events captain of Belgrave Harriers and competed prodigiously throughout the season. He won the Sward Trophy pole vault with 12-0; he was 3rd in the 120 yards hurdles representing the AAA against Cambridge University at Cambridge; then he gained 2nd place in the Inter-Counties’ Championships high jump at the White City with 5-11 (to Van Dyck's 6-1) and 4th and 3rd in the Southern Championships 120 yards hurdles and pole vault. At the end of July he became the Surrey decathlon champion, scoring 4957pts with performances of 11.7 for 100 metres, 22-2 long jump, 30-5 shot, 6-1 high jump, 55.3 400 metres, 16.0 110 metres hurdles, 102-7 discus, 10-6 pole vault, 135-5 javelin and 5:32.4 for 1500 metres. However, for Malcolm, the athletics highlight of the season took place on 8 September at Alperton when he was crowned Southern decathlon champion, scoring 5178pts, with David Brown, of Thames Valley Harriers and the Royal Air Force, in 2nd place (4635 points) and Ron Thompson, of Ipswich Harriers, 3rd (4479 points).

The following weekend Malcolm won three events at the Vancouver Trophy meeting at Woodford Bridge – 110 metres hurdles (15.6), high jump (6-0) and pole vault (11-0) and was 3rd in the triple jump (43-8). His club magazine, “The Belgravian”, commented, “What an asset this boy is!”

At the end of 1956 the British all-time rankings for the pole vault showed Malcolm in 8th spot:

14-1¼   Geoff Elliott1954
13-6¼Norman Gregor1954
13-6Geoffrey Schmidt   1954
13-4Ian Ward1955
13-1½Dick Webster1936
13-1Tim Anderson1952
13-0½George Broad1956
12-9Malcolm Ash1956

All of the above (with the exception of Malcolm) were, or had been, British internationals – apart from Gregor, who certainly would have been had he not fallen foul of the amateur rules.

But, in the greater scheme of things, the big event of 1956 for Malcolm was meeting Sylvia who was to become his wife in 1958 and lifetime partner.

Solid seasons followed in 1957 and 1958. In 1957 he won the Sward Trophy high jump at Chiswick with 6-0 and the Brockman Trophy 120 yards hurdles at Croydon with 15.5. In another early season outing he was part of a winning AAA team with Peter Hildreth, Vic Matthews and Roy Sutton which competed in a 4 x 120 yards hurdles shuttle relay at a Cavalcade of Sport at the White City. He was unable to retain his Southern decathlon title that year, but his conqueror was Colin Andrews, three times AAA champion. In 1958 he was again Sward champion at high jump (6-0). Sylvia tells me that as late as 1961 he won at a London Fire Brigade meeting at Hurlingham, but by now the Ash's were parents of two young children and, as with so many other athletes in a largely amateur period, family responsibilities gradually and naturally came to dominate their lives.

In 1971 Malcolm damaged his spine and had three screws fitted. At that stage he turned once again to his art and became an illustrator, finally working for himself. Malcolm and Sylvia moved to Australia permanently in 1995 after their retirements from full-time work. They say: “Our son-in-law got a job with Ford of Australia in Geelong in 1990 and we used to come and stay with them for about 2/3 months at a time over the Christmas period. It was always a wrench to leave the beautiful blue skies and return in February to a grey and cold England. We applied to come out and, after a great deal of form-filling, waiting – not to mention the expense – we were finally given permission. We don't regret our move. Malcolm, of course, was too old to take up athletics again here in Australia, but he loves watching it on television and has threatened to take up pole vaulting again – much to the amusement of our friends !” Sylvia adds, Malcolm being too modest, “I feel sure that with some serious coaching he could have done even better than he did but he enjoyed his field events enormously”.