Track Stats - Peter Wells: My high-jumping career

Peter Wells was one of Britain’s finest postwar high jumpers, and together with Alan Paterson and Ron Pavitt he literally took the event to new heights. This is his own story of his experiences in the late 1940s and the 1950s which he composed originally for his family and which was published in “Track Stats” May 2007.

If there has to be a beginning, I suppose it was whilst I was at Byng Road Council School and participated in inter-schools’ sports at the Barnet Playing Fields at the bottom of Barnet Hill, in Hertfordshire. The only events were sprints, and I can remember quite clearly that Maurice Williams and I usually managed wins in our age groups. No track-suits or running-shoes in those days – we ran in plimsolls (sand-shoes), and I think we wore white vests and shorts. Also, if my memory serves me right, we ran downhill.

In September 1939 I went to Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School for boys, in Barnet, and presumably took part in the annual inter-house athletics, again initially, I think, in short sprints. The first evidence I have of high jumping and hurdling is at the County schools’ meeting in 1944. No cinder tracks or high-jump run-ups, and it was probably not until the Public Schools’ championships at the White City Stadium, in London, that I first competed on a cinder track. Queen Elizabeth’s had won the team event at those championships in 1939 and there was therefore quite a tradition of athletics at the school. This was probably due mainly to the enthusiasm and coaching of “Klue” (K.L. Woodland), the German language teacher.

In the school library there were two scrapbooks of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and I spent many hours poring over these and, in particular, the high jumping of the American, Harold Osborn, who was the “father” of the Western Roll technique. Then, and during my career, diving over the bar was not allowed, and one’s technique also had to handle the sand-pits we landed in. Using modern methods with our pits would have meant very short careers!

At some time I became aware that my father had high jumped at college, and I don’t know whether this had anything to do with my interest, but brother John had high jumped at QE for a while before concentrating on throwing the javelin, and so it’s more likely I was just following in John’s footsteps. Early on I was aware that I did possess considerable natural spring and was always being tempted to jump and touch over-hanging branches. I felt I could stay up there at the peak of the leap! Whilst I’ve often heard that cycling and athletics don’t mix, I assume it didn’t apply to me as I just about lived on my one-speed bike during the school holidays; sometimes cycling 40 to 50 miles in a day.

School had a very rough high-jump sand-pit, which was probably only dug over before athletics meetings. The practice high-jump bar was a piece of bamboo of probably four inches in circumference and one was very discouraged from hitting it. On competition days the groundsman produced a black-and-white triangular bar which was easily broken, and therefore unavailable for practice. I can recall spending many hours after school practising the scissors technique, or waiting for bigger boys to finish. It probably wasn’t until 1946 or 1947 that I tried my version of the Western Roll, which I later found out to be completely wrong! I also tried the Eastern Cut-Off favoured by the Japanese and requiring one to be a contortionist, although this was the style that Arthur Gold, my future coach, employed.

I had no idea I had any special ability as a jumper, apart from knowing I could beat boys of my age group, but in the early days the school record of 5ft 6in seemed an incredible height! Many sportsmen writing of their early days mention their ambition to become a champion, but I know that such a thought never entered my head. My jumping, like Topsy, just “growed”. After school and during the holidays the fields at the bottom of Wentworth Street were where us boys congregated for pick-up games of soccer or cricket, depending on the time of the year. Quite often, a few of us would play cricket in Maurice Williams’s small back-yard, and on several occasions the game ended with another broken window.

The first big meeting for me was the Public Schools’ championships of 1946 held at Motspur Park, in Surrey, where I came 3rd with 5ft 6in. However, in 1947 I nearly didn’t compete in that meeting because in an earlier inter-house game of rugby my knee collided with the head of the opposing captain, and though he got off comparatively lightly with concussion I was out of action for several weeks with water on the knee. The meeting was again at Motspur Park, and I don’t think I was particularly aware before the event that there was a possibility I might set a new record. Looking back, I’m sure it came as a real surprise when it happened. I was mainly delighted to win, and the record was a bonus. The next day a boy named Bruce (his surname) won the 120 yards 3ft 3in hurdles, which was the only time all year he beat me, and I had to settle for 3rd. At any rate, the school again won the challenge cup, and as athletics captain I had the responsibility of collecting it, plus the high-jump cup, in a ceremony at the conclusion of the two-day meeting.

A first venture to Paris, and braving the high seas to get there

One outcome of the Public Schools’ meeting was being selected to represent London Schools versus Paris Schools in Paris. This involved travelling by ferry from Folkestone to Boulogne and then by train to Paris. I can well remember the first part of the trip, as on boarding the ferry we were taken to the dining-room for lunch, and soon afterwards the ferry got under way. Initially, it was very smooth sailing, and then we left the harbour for the open seas – in fact, very rough open seas! I decided to forego the sweet on offer, and though feeling squeamish I found that standing on deck in the strong wind enabled me to avoid being seasick. Many of the team were suffering.

My main memories of being billeted in Paris were of carafes of wine with each meal, as the French claimed that their water was undrinkable; a dinner consisting of many courses as each vegetable or meat dish became a course in itself; and the French idea of a cup of tea for their English guest which produced an undrinkable concoction. We were taken to see all the sights, which tended to be a bit boring. At the athletics stadium I had my first experience of endeavouring to convert heights from metric to inches. However, I do recall winning. The only change on the return journey was using the Calais-to-Dover route, and whilst in later years I had several more athletics trips to Paris these were all by air travel, and we tended to arrive early evening, stay overnight at a hotel, compete the next day, and then fly home. Certainly, there was no time for sightseeing.

Having achieved this initial success in major competition, I was involved in many other events at the White City, Motspur Park and Chiswick Stadium, plus competing for the school in various events. There was another important title I won at the English junior championships in Manchester. In some ways 1947 was a frustrating year because I could just about guarantee clearing 6ft, but 6ft 1in continually eluded me. My so-called Western Roll was really a disaster, and it wasn’t until Arthur Gold started coaching me in 1948 or 1949 that big improvements came. When competing for the London Athletic Club at Newport I had a slight injury or soreness which was being aggravated by the Western Roll, and so rather than let the club down I used the old-fashioned scissors style and the result was a new Welsh record of 6ft 2½in. Soon afterwards, I started to gain the benefits of the Roll.

In 1947 I began my two-year compulsory conscription service, being called up in the army in September, and probably wondering what army boots and square-bashing would do for my athletics! After the eight weeks’ preliminary training at Bedford, 12 weeks of Corps training followed at Larkshill, on Salisbury Plain – surely one of the coldest places to spend the winter in the south of England – only a few miles from Stonehenge. Having progressed through various levels of army athletics, I eventually won the army championships and this led to a London posting which meant that I could more easily train.

I also had success at the inter-services’ meeting in Bordeaux, to which the RAF flew us in a Dakota, though it was a rather unpleasant three-hour trip “sitting” on webbing straps. We were billeted in a French Marine barracks, and for most of us it was the first introduction to garlic. The chefs would arrive in the dining-hall with delicious-looking food on platters which had so much garlic that most of us lived on bread rolls and cheesy French butter. One of our team-members had no problems because a war wound had removed his taste buds and he could shovel anything down his throat. I can also recall that it was my first contact with one of the greats of British athletics, Donald Finlay, though “contact” is hardly the right word as he was a Wing Commander and I was a lowly Lance Bombardier!

Bordeaux was an enjoyable experience, with bus rides on huge diesel vehicles which had difficulty handling the narrow streets. We also viewed the results of a disastrous forest fire whilst travelling to the resort of Arcachon. We then had a formal dinner at a French Air Force base, and my main memory was the constant standing up and sitting down after drinking numerous toasts. I also remember travelling to a vineyard, where we initially sampled the growing grapes and then went underground to sample the end result. Talking results, I was delighted to win this international event.

Close competition with Ron Pavitt produces long-awaited English records

I was number four in the high jump in Britain in 1948 and so missed selection for the Olympics held at Wembley Stadium, in London – not that I had ever believed I could be selected – but 1949 was a memorable year in that I broke the 28-year-old English record at the London-versus-Gothenburg meeting at the White City. Ron Pavitt and I represented London and the event started with a battle of wits. In a close competition the least number of jumps is one aspect of deciding a winner, and the programme indicated that our opponents would commence the competition. The bar was initially set at 5ft 8in, which was the height at which I normally started, but the Swedes kept passing each height and we really had no option but to follow suit. Eventually, they elected to start at 6ft, which was much to our relief, particularly as we did succeed at this height.

We were competing in rain, and the run-up was covered in water, but it was the cold that was the worst feature. I was first to clear 6ft 5in for the record, but five minutes later Ron set a new record of 6ft 6in. However, I recaptured the record a fortnight later at Birmingham off a grass take-off, adding a further quarter-of-an-inch. 1949 was a boom year for athletics; so much so that if people wanted to be sure of getting into the White City Stadium they had to be there well before the first event. Because Ron and I usually had a close contest, the public took a great interest. In those days we concentrated best when there were no distractions, and the only ones we couldn’t control ourselves were the public-address systems. Yet the audience soon realised what was going on, and by booing they soon let the announcers know their (and our) feelings. A real contrast to today, where jumpers invite audience participation.

I can particularly remember a trip to Paris to represent Great Britain against France. Air travel between London and Paris was very competitive between the British and French airlines and the planes were slowed down to enable dinner to be served on board. We flew with BEA and returned with Air France; the difference being that on one way dinner included a free liqueur, whilst the other way the liqueur cost two shillings and threepence. Not drinking alcohol at all during the athletics season, I took the two miniatures home.

I can recall two trips to Ireland, which were probably also in 1949. The one to Dublin was, I think, my first commercial flight, and it was on an Aer Lingus Dakota so smooth that we were stopping on the runway at Dublin before I realised we had arrived. Bearing in mind food rationing was still part of the English life, I think I had nine meals during our stay, and at least seven of these comprised ham or bacon with eggs and bread with real butter! Later I had a trip to Belfast with no fond memories of the city. We had travelled there by ferry (overnight trips, if I remember correctly). The English race was not liked by the Northern Irelanders, and this fact was not helped when one of the team failed to spot a newspaper vendor’s stack of coins on the pavement. The resulting crash nearly caused a riot.

I had completed my two years of compulsory military training in the October of 1949 and my father had arranged for me to become an articled clerk at an accountancy firm in the City of London. Apparently, because of Pop’s background my articles were free, whereas many had to pay for them, but my wage was so miserly that Pop paid for my season ticket on the underground as a subsidy, and I merely existed, rather than lived, off my earnings.

Then came the invitation to represent England at the 1950 Auckland Empire Games. This was more of a relief than a surprise, because there was very little between the performances of Ron Pavitt and myself, though I held the upper hand with my English record. The selectors solved the problem by naming us both. There weren’t the number of “freebies” there are today, and apart from the blazer, track-suit and competition vest we were provided with two pairs of jockey underwear by the manufacturers.

Fourteen weeks away to compete in those Empire Games of 1950

Training out of season, and in an English winter, was only partially solved by once-a-week indoor exercising at the St Paul’s School gym, accompanied by Ron Pavitt. The highlight was having mushrooms on toast afterwards. We travelled to New Zealand on the Shaw Savill and Albion Line’s “Tamaroa”, which was 12,000 tons and basically a freighter with passengers as a supplement. Those in the English team that couldn’t get the necessary 14 weeks’ leave flew, which was a trip of five days, including 10 hours on a flying-boat from Sydney to Auckland. I had no pay whilst I was away and no savings, but brother John gave me a five-pound note, which was very generous in those days before inflation. With food rationing still quite severe in England, the meals on the ship seemed quite outstanding.

Our first stop (to re-fuel) was at Curaçao, in the Caribbean sea, where we sailed up river to the city of Willemstad, and we had quite a few hours to wander round this Dutch colony, which was great after being confined to the limited space on the boat. Then it was on to the start of the Panama Canal at Cristobal, where we disembarked and went by bus to an American army base. Here we had a few hours out on the cinder track. We continued, seemingly through jungle, by bus until we arrived at the far end of the canal. The ship was not allowed to stop to pick us up, and so we were ferried out to re-board, which was no problem for the “young fry”, but how difficult it was for the wife of one of the officials.

Our next stop was off Pitcairn Island, where the locals came out in their long-boats to greet us and sell souvenirs and fresh fruit. We had experienced the fun of the crossing-the-line ceremony, with our 20-stone shot-putter (Harold Moody) making an appropriate King Neptune. We played various deck games and cards. One of the Scottish marathon competitors spent many hours running round the deck, and he didn’t just become brown – more like black. Speaking of marathon runners, I can remember the Welshman, Tom Richards, saying that he had a favourite training circuit at home with a pub at the halfway point, where he stopped for a pint.

We spent Christmas on board and we had a great dinner until the sweet course came. As it was a hot calm day the portholes in the dining-room were open, but for some unknown reason a rogue wave sent a flood of water in and that was the end of our Christmas dinner. Finally, we arrived in Auckland. In comparison to the Olympics the Empire & Commonwealth Games were very relaxed and enjoyable events for many reasons. Firstly, we all had a common language, and the Games were much smaller and we got to know all the competitors, irrespective of their sports. We could obtain entry virtually to all venues, and through car-pools we got to know the locals. The New Zealand food was a real eye-opener – plenty of meat, fabulous jugs of pure orange-juice and lovely ice cream – and made one realise how deprived us youngsters were during the war years.

One could say that I fell in love with NZ during the Games and while competing in various other NZ cities when we toured after the closing ceremony. The English team management supported my decision, and it was pleasing later to have Doc Moody, the shot-putter, and Duncan Clark, the hammer-thrower, return to live here within a year or two, while John Parlett, who won the 880 yards at those Empire Games, came for a while, and I believe that Les Lewis, the quarter-miler, did, too. I knew that as an articled clerk in England with three or four years of exams before qualifying it would be years before I could return, and in any case athletics had to be secondary to other aspects of living. My work in NZ started as a clerk and graduated into accounting and then into systems design, firstly on accounting machines and later computers. My final working life was in the areas of tax, trust accounting and farm accounting.

As to the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, we had about a 10-hour flight to get there in a chartered ex-wartime bomber, and the plane flew right over the area of a Finnish port which had been annexed by the Russians after their war with Finland and had become a “no go” area. We were “buzzed” by two MIG fighters and were probably lucky not to be fired on. These were the Games when the Russians refused to live in the official village and were located elsewhere. As to the Games themselves, the main memory must be of Zátopek with his 5000, 10,000 and marathon victories. Probably because of the costs involved, athletes were returned to the UK once they had competed, and so I didn’t witness all his events. So far as my participation was concerned, in those days we had qualifying pools followed by the final, and though qualifying I found my natural spring had suffered.

To Vancouver in 1954 and the discovery that England had “two” teams

The 1954 Empire & Commonwealth Games were memorable for a variety of reasons. By then I was living in and representing New Zealand and there were no direct plane flights in those days. So we went via Auckland, Fiji, Canton Island, Honolulu and San Francisco to Vancouver, and we landed to be met by fire-engines and ambulances. It seems that we’d “lost” an engine over the Rockies and there was a possibility of a crash-landing. We hadn’t been informed but later learned that NZ newspapers had a headline, “NZ team nearly crash on landing”. I couldn’t help but become aware of the major difference in representing NZ as opposed to England. The NZ team was a very happy one; England was virtually two teams – the Oxford/Cambridge element and then the rest.

I still disagree with the report of the Bannister-Landy race which said that when Landy looked over his shoulder in the home straight to see where Bannister was Bannister sprinted past. What was not mentioned was that Landy had an injury and was checking to see where the third person was. Landy was such a great sportsman that he never made his injury an excuse for being beaten. Jim Peters nearly died trying to finish the marathon, and whilst the English team members and management were yelling at him to get up and continue to the finish and win the masseur, Mick Mays, realised how serious matters were, and even knowing that Jim would be disqualified he ran on to the track to aid him.

In Britain in the late 1940s and the 1950s the majority of high-jump run-ups were grass, and in New Zealand they all were. Dry grass run-ups were superior to cinders. The pits were filled with sand, and quite often we competitors had to dig them before competing! This also meant that we had to consider our landing technique, and the only injuries I suffered were due to hard landings. In New Zealand the pits were more often made of sacks filled with rags, and so the run-ups could be sited at various parts of the athletics arena, bearing in mind that these were rugby fields in the winter. The early non-grass tracks and run-ups were more like bitumen, and these did nothing to assist natural spring.

Of my contemporaries Alan Paterson was a dour Scot who didn’t mix with his fellow-competitors, and I was still improving during his time and never beat him, but I was delighted when I later equalled his British record. Prince Majekodunmi, who came equal 2nd with Paterson at the 1950 Empire Games, was a delightful Nigerian with, if I remember correctly, an Eastern Cut-Off style, and we competed against each other quite frequently, though I don’t think he ever beat me. Ron Pavitt, who was 5th in the 1952 Olympics, and I got on well together and were both coached by Arthur Gold. Probably because we competed against each other most Saturdays, we lifted the level of English jumping until we achieved new English native records. My rather isolated residence in NZ later on meant that during the main part of my career I had no experience of European competition and the other international events, and I would pick out the 1948 Olympic and 1950 Empire champion, John Winter, as the best jumper I encountered over the years

Most athletes in my day competed for the pure enjoyment of it, whilst training after a full working day. In fact, our training had no resemblance to that of later times. I trained usually twice a week, consisting of a one-lap warm-up followed by some stretching exercises. I was a great believer in doing exercises to strengthen my stomach muscles. One of the great changes in high-jumping came about, I believe, at the 1956 Olympic Games. At that time we were mainly using our natural spring, plus techniques, for crossing the bar, but then came the burly Russian, Kashkarov, who virtually sprinted towards the bar and then had the strength to convert his forward momentum into upwards lift. His 3rd placing was his reward and a terrific improvement compared to the best 1952 Russian at 13th equal.

Whilst I did experiment with the Straddle for a short time I always felt more comfortable with the Western Roll. The big developments came about through the vastly improved landing-areas and the rule change which allowed people to dive (i.e. lead with the head and shoulders). Modern take-off areas have enabled much faster run-ups, and wet ones, though a nuisance, can be ignored. My preference was for a dry grass run-up, as some of the early cinder take-offs failed to give a firm footing.

Editor’s footnote: Peter Wells was born on 23 May 1929, and already at the age of 17 in 1946 he ranked 11th equal for the year in Great Britain. The Scotsman, Alan Paterson, who had placed 2nd in the European Championships that year, and was himself only 18 years old (born 11 June 1928), led the British rankings, taking the national record up to 6-6¾ (2.00), but there were only nine men who cleared 6ft (1.83) or better. The previous British record had been set at 6-5 by Benjamin Howard Baker in 1921! In 1947, when Paterson improved the record to 6-7½, Wells was listed 4th behind Paterson, Adedboyega Adedoyin and Ron Pavitt in the annual merit rankings compiled by the British team manager, Jack Crump, for the monthly magazine, “Athletics”, which was the predecessor to “Athletics Weekly”. In 1948 Crump placed Wells 5th behind Paterson, Adedoyin, Pavitt and Richard Fisher, of South London Harriers. Paterson was 7th= for Great Britain at the 1948 Olympics and the Nigerian-born Adedoyin was 12th.

As related by Wells, both he and Ron Pavitt improved on Howard Baker’s 28-year-old English native record during the London-v-Gothenburg meeting of August 1949. Wells easily cleared 6-5¼, and then Pavitt went over 6-6, at which height Wells failed. Jack Crump’s merit rankings for the year had Paterson 1st, Wells 2nd, Pavitt 3rd and Adedoyin 4th. Paterson was also the top-ranked high jumper in Europe that year, with Wells 3rd=, Pavitt 5th= and Adedoyin 7th=, and this represented a major step forward by British exponents of the event, and could be seen in hindsight as the most successful era for British high jumping until the advent of Dalton Grant and Steve Smith more than 40 years later.

After placing 5th at the 1950 Empire Games in Auckland, where the event was won by the Olympic champion, Jack Winter, of Australia, at 6-6, Wells decided to emigrate to New Zealand and was to dominate the event in that country until 1958, remaining unbeaten in the National championships from 1951 onwards. At the end of 1950 Wells’s best remained the 6-6 3/8 he had cleared in 1949, and this ranked him 6th in the British Empire all-time lists headed by the 6-7¾ clearance in September of that year by the South African, Christiaan de Jongh. The New Zealand record had also been set in 1950, at 6-5 by John Borland, though Graeme Jeffries, who was to win the Oxford-v-Cambridge high jump of 1953 and 1954, had cleared an ungratified 6-5 5/8.

Wells returned to England in 1952 for some months in 1952 and qualified for the Olympic Games, but as he relates above he was not at his best in the final and placed equal 11th, though his perennial English rival, Ron Pavitt, was an excellent 5th. Alan Paterson had by then emigrated to Canada and was also selected for the Olympics on the strength of a 6-5 clearance in Montreal that year, but he was 24th equal in Helsinki.

Wells continued to improve in New Zealand and in 1954 beat the national all-comers’ record which had been set by the Australian, John Winter, in winning the 1950 Empire title. At the 1954 Empire Games in Vancouver, there was a revelationary display of raw talent by he Africans, with the surprise winner at 6-8 (2.03) being the 5ft 7in tall 19-year-old Nigerian, Emmanuel Ifeajuna, ahead of Patrick Etolu, of Uganda, and another Nigerian, Nafio Belo Osagie, with Wells in 4th place at 6-5. Back in New Zealand at the end of the year Wells had a day of days at a meeting in Prince Edward Park, Papakura, clearing 6-6½ and 6-7½ at his first attempts and coming close at 6-8. This was a golden era for New Zealand high jumping which has never been subsequently matched because the same month Murray Jeffries, the younger brother of Graeme Jeffries, set a national junior record of 6-5½.

Wells’s performance equalled Alan Paterson’s best ever by a British athlete, and after a further performance of 6-7 in 1955 Wells’s former coach, Arthur Gold, was reported as saying of the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne that “a bronze medal is certainly quite feasible” and that his former protégé “might do a Jack Winter on some of the great American jumpers”. Wells remained eligible to compete for Great Britain at the Olympics.

In Melbourne 22 of the 26 competitors cleared what the McWhirter twins described in their monthly magazine, “Athletics World”, as the “ludicrous” qualifying height of 1.92 during a morning session which began at 10 a.m. The final started at 2.30 the same afternoon and did not end until 9.15 in the evening. Wells went over 1.96 at his first attempt but failed at 2.00 and so was placed 16th overall. Wells’s 1.96 was the best ever by a Briton at the Olympics, surpassing the 1.95 which had earned Ron Pavitt 5th place in Helsinki.